Four thoughts in Seoul

Your humble blogger has spent the better part of his trip to Seoul at a conference co-sponsored by the Republic of Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the East Asia Institute. The topic was "New Strategic Thinking:  Planning for Korean Foreign Policy," and I got invited because I edited this a few years ago. I hope that the Korean Foreign Ministry benefitted from it. I certainly learned a few things: 

1) No one knows what the f**k the North Koreans are doing. There were representatives from the United States, United Kingdom, China, Japan and South Korea on the panels. I talked to a lot of them informally during breaks and meals as well. No one had any clue why Pyongyang had ratcheted up tensions to the extent that they did over the past two months. About the only thing approximating a consensus was the belief that the North Koreans were in fact bluffing about starting outright hostilities -- which makes their behavior all the more puzzling. In triggering the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Park, the North Koreans cost themselves about $90 million a year that they can't afford to lose.

2) Chinese academics are getting more interesting. As recently as five years ago, my eyes used to glaze over whenever a Chinese academic started speaking at a policy conference. The reason was that there was a 100 percent certainty that the academic would simply repeat standard PRC boilerplate that didn't deviate from official government positions. An academic agreeing with one's government is not a sin, but only parroting official discourse is pretty friggin' useless. 

Something has changed in recent years, however. Maybe I'm being invited to a better class of conferences, but I don't think that's it. Chinese academics are more willing to openly discuss ongoing debates within the Chinese foreign policy community about the wisdom of a certain course of action. At this conference, Qingguo Jia asserted that the Chinese really were rethinking their relationship with North Korea. Now one can debate whether the Standing Politburo is really entertaining such thoughts, but the fact that there's a public conversation about it is pretty interesting. 

3) The best-laid foreign policy plans get destroyed by real-world events. The conference was devoted to how the South Korean government could implement Park Geun-Hye's concept of Trustpolitik that she articulated during her campaign for the presidency. The general consensus was that, at this point, there are very limited ways of building trust with Pyongyang. Furthermore, the likelihood of any confidence-building measures getting scrubbed during the next crisis are very high. 

It is to Park's credit that she seems to recognize this and has yanked ROK workers from Kaesong as a signal of South Korea's resolve. Trustpolitik is a great phrase, but I'm dubious of whether it will accomplish anything. 

4) It's the little things that matter to build mutual goodwill. That's a fancy way of noting the following:  if you are a Caucasian academic in South Korea, can use chopsticks proficiently, and actually like kimchee, your South Korean counterparts will treat you like a god. 

Daniel W. Drezner

While I'm on the Seoul train....

Your humble blogger will be making his first visit to South Korea in less than twenty-four hours, and is very excited about that prospect.  Blogging will therefore be on the lighter side for the next few days. 

Talk amongst yourselv-- wait, then again, maybe you shouldn't do that. 

Before I explain what I mean, let's have some disclosure.  I blog at the foreign affairs portal in the United States.  I'm a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.  I've done the occasional consulting gig.  I'm on reasonably good terms with foreign policy wonks from across the spectrum.  Occasionally I get invited to swanky DC events and interview Tiger Moms.  The point is, relative to a lot of people reading this paragraph, I'm pretty damn insider-y. 

I bring all of this up because I probably have a higher tolerance for inside-the-Beltway bulls**t... and yet after reading this and this, I had to suppress my desire to vomit on my computer screen.  The first link merely confirms the epistemic closure that pervades much of the right wing in Washington, DC.  The latter is, on the other hand, the most incestuous thing ever written about anything, ever, in the history of mankind.  Really, compared to those stories, the George W. Bush library ceremony seems... tame. 

Combined, the two stories either function as a damning indictment on the state of DC insideriness... or I'm overreacting to the standard offal that comprises much of political journalism.  I'm honestly not sure.  Contrary to a lot of outside-the-beltway folk, I've come to see a utility for rent-seeking and back-scratching in politics.  It functions as a necessary lubricant to get useful legislation passed.  One could argue that part of the problem with Washington as it currently functions is that there's not enough earmarking, vote-buying, or other cross-cutting political exchanges. 

At the same time, the revulsion I felt after reading these essays was quite real.  I could barely finish Allen's Politico story, it was that insipid.  These are the kind of essays that cause even a jaded foreign policy hand like myself to mutter "you'll be the first ones up against the wall when the Revolution comes" after reading Politico.  Sure, much of this behavior is baked into the cake that is American political science... but I still ponder about the future of the Republic.  

So I'll leave this as something for readers to ponder while I'm in the ROK -- over the next week there's going to be some serious foreign policy questions being debated:  whether to react to Syria's chemical weapons use, or what to do about inter-Korean tensions, for example.  Will this conversation be taking place in a policy universe that is just too damn small? 

What do you think?