Friday, December 9, 2016

President Park Geun-hye has been Impeached!

200 votes were needed to impeach President Park Geun-hye. 234 members of the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye.

For the second time in South Korea’s short history, the National Assembly has moved to impeach a sitting president. Until the Constitutional Court gives its voice on whether or not to approve the motion, the Prime Minister will serve as acting president.

If the Constitutional Court approves the motion, it would be the beginning of a new day in South Korea’s democracy. It would be the first time that a sitting president has been lawfully and democratically removed from office - the first peaceful and legal revocation of power. Considering the mounting evidence that are being stacked against President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, and corporate leaders, there is a very good chance that the Constitutional Court will agree that impeachment is warranted.

However, this was never just about Park Geun-hye or Choi Soon-sil. This scandal, this impeachment - everything that we have seen for the past month and a half has been far more than just the removal of a president and shadow president. It has been about government power and the corruption that surrounds it. It has been a popular movement to bring about accountability. This is a new day for South Korea
’s democracy.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that rhetoric about justice is where this story will end. Politics will rear its ugly head before too long. In fact, I’ll give it less than a day before it does.

The people’s mood has soured against anyone who has ever been associated with the Saenuri Party. It wouldn’t matter if there was anyone competent or intelligent or who possessed integrity from that party. For now, no one from that party is going to fare well with the people. As a result, the party will be dissolved and be replaced with something else. For now, it’s the Minjoo Party’s time to shine.

When they take over the reins of government, the Park administration’s decision to deploy THAAD missile batteries might be overturned. Relations with Japan may worsen by revisiting the comfort women agreement and canceling the military intelligence-sharing deal. Decisions may be made to once again pour aid toward North Korea. No effort must be spared to fight the next government’s foolish decisions.

But politics can resume tomorrow. For now, we can all catch a breath and celebrate democracy.

대한민국 만세!

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Movie Review: La La Land

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen La La Land and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

In fact, dont read any other review either. Go to the theater and watch it now. I cannot possibly emphasize more how much I would like people to go watch this movie. Don’t stream it from a shady website. Don’t torrent it. Don’t wait for it to come out on Netflix. Go to the theater and watch it now. You won’t regret it.

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Some of the earliest movies I remember having watched as a child were musicals and from a young age, I knew that musicals were different from other types of movies. They were different because every topic they dealt with - love, longing, hope, family - were made bigger and purer through their dancing and singing. Sure, Harry had no problems telling Sally that he wanted the rest of his life to start with hers as soon as possible, but Gene Kelly had You Were Meant For Me. Gene Kelly wins hands down.

Musicals ensured that I grew up a romantic. Reality beat it out of me. Love fades, the burden of responsibility grows heavier, wrinkles deepen, hairlines recede, waists expand, recessions bring despair, and youthful idealism is beaten and calloused until all that remains is wary cynicism. However, musicals, especially those made famous by Broadway and Disney can and do still serve as a refuge from harsh realities. Unfortunately, musicals have been few and far between. Good ones even more so.

So I went to watch La La Land with the minimal of expectations. All I knew about the movie was the title, the two lead actors, and the fact that it was a musical. Nothing else. By the time the movie ended about two hours later, I could only think of one word to describe what I had seen, heard, and felt. Magical.

For one thing, it won’t be hard for many people to find the lead characters relatable. Mia (Emma Stone) dropped out of college to move to Los Angeles where she works as a barista and she goes to one audition after another only to have the door slammed on her face by rude and uncaring agents, directors, and producers. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who wants to open his own jazz bar so that he can play music as it was meant to be played but in reality is a starving artist who plays Christmas jingles for measly tip money at a family restaurant. That restaurant’s owner, by the way, is portrayed by J.K. Simmons who seems to be paying a gentle homage to a much more aggressive character he portrayed in Whiplash (both La La Land and Whiplash were directed by Damien Chazelle).

The two meet repeatedly through sheer chance that is so ridiculous that it can only be found in movies. They fall in love, move in with each other, they both push each other to find the successes they dream of, they argue when they think the other isn’t living up to their potential, and in the meantime, there are plenty of singing and dancing.

As for the music, what’s odd about the movie is that there isn’t a single song that I would consider an instant classic. There was no single Defying Gravity moment where a single song’s climactic high notes can can leave the audience breathless. I am sure that at least a couple of the movie’s songs - City of Stars, a jazzy tune with a haunting refrain, and Audition (The Fools Who Dream), the movie’s ultimate anthem - will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But it doesn’t seem likely that the songs will have as much longevity or recognition as musical classics go. Also, the two lead actors aren’t the best singers in the world. Had any singer auditioned in front of Simon Cowell singing like that...

Despite that, however, the movie works. The songs might not become instant classics, but instead of relying just on the songs (the lyrics) to move the plot forward, the movie also focused on dance choreography and the music itself. There is a scene where the two actors literally dance among the stars and not a word is said between them. What words can one use to adequately describe a feeling like that? And toward the end of the movie, the two opening notes of City of Stars better convey the characters’ emotions than most songs ever could.

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The movie could have had a mawkish happy ending. But it veered away from that. Depending on one’s fortitude, the ending can be described as being anything from bittersweet to downright heartbreaking. The movie takes its own advice and instead of going for the likable, it goes for the truth and by doing so, the movie goes from being good to great.

And what is the truth? The truth is that everyone has a dream, but most dreams end up broken and scattered on the ground, which is all the more reason so many people do whatever they can to not end up on that boulevard of broken dreams. But there are costs to pursuing one’s dreams and oftentimes one of those things that people have to give up is “the fairy tale ending.”

As the final credits roll, one realizes that the movie was not so much a story about two star-crossed lovers, but rather an ode to everyone with “a dream as foolish as they may seem.”

2016 was a disappointing year for movies. La La Land pushed hard against that and buckled the trend. It was beautiful, well-crafted, romantic, bittersweet, heartbreaking, and honest. It is the best movie that I have seen all year. Perhaps even the best movie that I have seen in a good long while. Here
’s to hoping for more movies like this!

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Populism and Nostalgia: Now it's the Progressives' Turn

Considering President Park Geun-hye’s dismal approval ratings, her electoral win for the presidency back in 2012 seems like more than a distant memory. However, in order to understand how her successor is going to become the next president, it is important to understand how she won in the first place.

We cannot discount the facts. There were many things that favored her victory in 2012. The two biggest factors that favored her were that South Korea is a conservative country and also an aging one. The latter is easy to explain. Older voters tend to prefer conservative leaders. The former can be gleaned from the fact that since 1987, four out of the six presidents were conservatives.

However, those factors alone may not have been enough to have guaranteed Park’s victory. In fact, Park, who for all intents and purposes led a less than remarkable life during her years in “exile” since her father’s assassination, may never have even been able to return to politics in 1998 had she not ridden a wave of nostalgia from older voters. Her repeated invocations of “the second Miracle of the Han River” and “the new Saemaul Movement” during the campaign were deliberate attempts to stoke this sense of nostalgia for a time when rapid economic growth and dizzying changes were the norm - never mind the dictatorship!


As for the claims that she would be a dictator (laughable as they are now seeing how she turned out to be grossly incompetent rather than anything so respectable as a dictator) she was able to brush it off with two simple words - economic democratization. Her presidency was supposed to be the start of a new type of conservatism - one that continued to focus on economic growth as set forth by President Lee Myung-bak while at the same time hijacking the progressives’ most important rallying call of social and economic justice. Compassionate conservatism, if you will. Whether or not her campaign promises were at all realistic is another matter entirely.

In short, populism and nostalgia for a whitewashed past are what helped to propel Park Geun-hye into the Blue House.

“Dictatorship? What dictatorship? Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative!
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With Park’s recent statements about her willingness to resign if the National Assembly “minimizes the confusion and vacuum in state affairs and ensure a stable transfer of power,” it seems all but certain that one way or another, she will not be able to complete her single five-year term as originally scheduled. Due to the unprecedented levels of disapproval that she is currently facing from the general public, despite the fact that South Korea is a conservative and aging society, it seems that there is a very good chance that the progressives can retake the Blue House in the next presidential election.

However, the progressives cannot take anything for granted. Should Ban Ki-moon return from the United Nations next year and run for president (possibly after establishing a new party seeing how tainted the Saenuri brand is), they may fail to capture the Blue House yet again. For that very reason, just like Park Geun-hye won the election four years ago by riding on a dual wave of populism and nostalgia, the progressives are going to try to do the same but with their own twist.

But just as nostalgia that propelled Park Geun-hye into the Blue House was based on whitewashed history, the nostalgia that the progressives will ride will be based on whitewashed history, too, as it will carefully steer away from remembering the incompetence of Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. However, there is no better time to cherry-pick memories of President Roh. That is because as ineffective as Roh Moo-hyun was as president, he was an entirely different beast as a campaigner and much of the rhetoric that he employed back then would be more than welcomed by many voters today.

For instance, not long after getting elected president, Roh Moo-hyun said:


“My fellow citizens, it is said that if everyone shares the same dream, that dream becomes a reality. A society that is run on common sense and where everyone plays by the same rules. A society where each person’s station in life will be determined by the sweat of his own brow. That is the new Republic of Korea that we all dream of. Let us work together to make that dream a reality.”

Whereas Roh gave the people a sense of hope for a society where everyone plays by the same rules, Chung Yoo-ra, Choi Soon-sil’s daughter, became modern-day Korea’s Marie Antoinette when she said something quite different. She said to her peers:


“If you are dissatisfied with your station in life, try blaming your parents instead of demanding that those with rich parents give you whatever you want. Having money is a skill, too. If you don’t like where you are in life, change it. But seeing how you’re so busy trying to tear down others, how do you expect to succeed in anything you do?”

Never mind Ms. Chung was able to live a life of luxury thanks to her mother’s money. There is nothing wrong with inheriting anything. However, the fact remains that the money that allowed her to live the way she pleased was not earned honestly, but was looted by her mother who used her political connections to become a racketeer of near-legendary proportions. In an age of unbridled and unapologetic cronyism and nepotism, nothing sounds so sweet as Roh Moo-hyun’s call for justice and equality.

The man who could do no wrong...
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A skilled orator who never shied away from addressing the public directly, Roh was the very opposite of an aloof and authoritarian leader - what Park Geun-hye is often (and justifiably) accused of being. So much so that during the height of his unpopularity, he proposed to hold a national referendum - a vote of no confidence - on himself to see just how much the public trusted him! What political leader holds votes of no confidence against himself?

Not to mention that he was an outright populist who imposed a “tax bomb” on homeowners. Although his tax policies, which were later declared to have been unconstitutional, did no favors whatsoever to help to grow the economy, in today’s political climate where many Koreans speak of noblesse oblige like as though it were some kind of religious dogma, any contemporary politician who promises to go after “the rich” will likely be cheered as a hero.

At a time when many are openly calling Saenuri lawmakers accomplices in the Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil scandal and are demanding they resign en masse along with President Park, Roh Moo-hyun
’s rhetoric would once again be welcomed with open arms. During his time in office, he refused to compromise with the Saenuri Party (or the Grand National Party as it was called back then). He was also a gifted orator who never hesitated to abandon protocol to speak directly to the people and a firebrand who promised to work toward building a more just society.

However, it has to be remembered that he was an ineffective leader and many have called his presidency a failure.

At a time when the public’s anti-American sentiments were threatening to tear up the US-ROK alliance, instead of trying to calm things down, Roh once famously asked a rhetorical question - “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”


Furthermore, he went on to say that the United States, South Korea’s most important ally, was the biggest threat to peace in Northeast Asia.

When he wasn’t abusing this most vital of alliances like an unwanted child, he was making a fool of himself by proposing to the Japanese government that the Sea of Japan be renamed the Sea of Peace. Or he was telling Kim Jong Il that he would be willing to redraw South Korea’s western maritime border aka the Northern Limit Line according to North Korea’s wishes in order to “draw a peace and economics map to replace the security and military one,” which would have been capitulation in all but name.

Finally, the greatest flaw of his presidency was the fact that this supposedly moral and upright man eventually felt compelled to kill himself when his family was investigated by state prosecutors on corruption charges.

...turned out to have done a lot of wrong.
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However, none of these facts are important. At least not for those who seek to exploit his memory for their own political purposes. Yes, Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency was a failure in so many ways, but it is easy to paper over his flaws. For one thing, the amount of money that Roh was investigated for, about US$5 million, is a paltry sum of money compared to the amounts of money that were pilfered by other former presidents/shadow president. Yes, he deliberately jeopardized the alliance with the United States at every opportunity he got but he was the one who initiated talks with Washington to create the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which turned out to be America’s second largest FTA deal. And the Hankyoreh has already been pathetically defending Roh’s attempt to surrender the NLL for years.

But it might not even be necessary to defend Roh’s record seeing how extremely unpopular Park Geun-hye has become. All that the progressives may need to do is to echo his words and rhetorical flair, his style, sing that old song about a just society, and most importantly, repeat ad nauseum that they are not Park Geun-hye. Never mind that Roh was unable to deliver on many of his promises and much of it was due to his own incompetence.

The next South Korean president is going to be a progressive. Even if Ban Ki-moon runs for president and wins, he is not exactly known for being a conservative. And especially considering how the conservatives were willing to take a left turn on economic policy back in 2012 (not to mention Trump’s populism that helped him to win the US presidential election), it’s clear that conservative economic principles as they were set forth by Reagan and Thatcher are no longer sacrosanct for conservative politicians. So there is more than a plausible chance that there will be a marked increase in populist rhetoric and campaign pledges regardless of the political party that the candidates will hail from.

As for nostalgia, the conservatives do not have any left to exploit. Park Geun-hye squandered what little good will that people had for her father, Lee Myung-bak remains a polarizing figure, Kim Young-sam left office with higher approval ratings than Park Geun-hye currently enjoys but that’s not saying much, and the rest were thieving autocrats. But the progressives can and they will.

Moon Jae-in is already doing whatever he can to get ahead of the pack. So is Ahn Cheol-soo. Others will soon follow suit. As the race gets more heated, one should not be surprised to see the ghost of Roh Moo-hyun hovering around wherever they go.

Monday, November 14, 2016

South Korea's Progressives Need to Grow Up in the Age of Trump

On November 10, a South Korean lawmaker from the main opposition Minjoo Party, Rep. Yun Ho-jung, said he would seek a dismissal motion against Defense Minister Han Min-koo if South Korea continues to move forward to sign the Security of Military Information Agreement - an agreement with Tokyo to share military intelligence on North Korea.

This came on the heels of the country’s three opposition parties having released a joint statement a day earlier where they expressed their opposition to the agreement claiming that it would escalate geopolitical tension in and around the Korean Peninsula. Today, they reaffirmed that threat.


When one considers the progressives’ position for even a moment, one realizes that the claim makes no sense whatsoever. The need to share intelligence with Tokyo would never have been made an issue if North Korea didn’t pose an existential threat in the first place.

Time and again, whether it is the THAAD deployment or joint US-South Korean military drills or intelligence-sharing with Japan, South Korea’s progressives have consistently voiced their opposition claiming that they would make matters worse while only perfunctorily stating that North Korea should not escalate tensions.

But this should come as no surprise considering the kinds of rhetoric that have come from South Korea’s progressives in the past. Only a month ago when President Park gave a speech calling on North Koreans to abandon their country and defect (a speech that was far less controversial or memorable than Reagan’s “tear-down-this-wall” speech), Rep. Park Jie-won, the floor leader of the People’s Party, accused President Park of making “a declaration of war.” Not to be outdone, Ki Dong-min, a party spokesperson for the Minjoo Party said President Park seemed to have been “on the warpath.”

With rhetoric like this coming from South Korean progressives, who needs the KCNA?

Giving this woman a real run for her money
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The Left often bristles anytime conservatives refer to them as jongbuk - pro-North Korean sympathizers. However, as much eye-rolling as the conservatives have induced due to their overuse of red-baiting, which has pushed many to compare conservatives to the boy who cried wolf, the accusation is not entirely without merit.

The Choi Soon-sil scandal has rocked the Park Geun-hye administration and with every new reveal, this onion of a scandal is a gift that keeps on giving. The opposition is right to demand that President Park withdraw herself from the day-to-day operations of the government and the protesters are more right still to demand her immediate resignation. However, opposing the Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) has exposed the opposition for what they always have been - craven reactionaries who seek nothing but their own political goals.

The opposition party has been enjoying growing support in the polls recently as a direct result of the Choi Soon-sil scandal but in their hubris, they seem to think that they can just about do anything. They ought to remember that though ousting the president may be justified, working against the country’s interests is unforgivable.

The progressives will be the new stewards of the country and they had better grow up and do it quickly because the world is changing as we speak.

It is likely that the next South Korean president is going to come from the Minjoo Party and as long as they can maintain their alliance with the other minor parties, it will become the next ruling and majority party. But it is important to bear in mind that the Minjoo Party has long committed itself to opposing the deployment of THAAD missile batteries and that it has a long and sordid history of anti-Americanism. So it’s more than plausible that South Korea’s policy toward North Korea might take a sharp left turn.

That sharp left-turn could mean that the future South Korean government might become more anti-Japanese (not that the conservatives were any help whatsoever in trying to improve ties with Tokyo), less pro-American, and more sympathetic to Pyongyang. After all, although it is unclear if Mayor Park Won-soon might become the next president, his incredibly naive positions such as revamping the Sunshine Policy and building “economic and cultural cooperation with the North” (I wonder what the mayor of Dandong might have to say about that!) are shared widely on the Left.

Good luck with that
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Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. But that’s in the realm of physics. In the realm of politics, however, the reaction is not always equal. And it is quite hard to come up with a better example of that than Donald Trump’s electoral win. The incoming Trump administration could bring immense changes and it is now time for South Korea’s progressives to quickly learn to assess the new political reality.

That is because should South Korean progressives be tempted to return to their old ways and exploit anti-American sentiments again for any reason whatsoever, Trump’s likely braggadocious response would be less genteel than President George W. Bush’s response was while he was in the White House. Overt acts of anti-Americanism aside, one of the things that Trump ran on was for American allies to become more active in their own self-defense and to increase their share of joint-military budgets with the United States. It’s obvious how further South Korean attempts to maintain the status quo or push away Japan, which weakens the trilateral alliance (and we know what Trump thinks about perceptions of weakness), would be perceived in Washington.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Trump has shown little love for South Korea during the campaign trail. He suggested that South Korea ought to pay 100 percent of the cost of stationing American troops and military hardware in the country. He has also called the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement a “job-killing deal” that has resulted in trade deficits for the US and his campaign went on record saying that he wants to go back to “ground zero” with regard to the trade deal.

It is true that Trump has repeatedly shown himself to be greatly ignorant of international politics when he expressed a blasé attitude about the possibility of a North Korean attack against South Korea or Japan, America’s staunchest allies in Asia, saying “it would be a terrible thing but if they do, they do.”


However, it would be a mistake to assume that Trump’s ignorance automatically means that the incoming administration will be incompetent. Trump already said months ago that should he win the election, he would consider appointing John Bolton, who should not need any introduction (or his views for that matter) in South Korea, as his Secretary of State. If South Korea’s progressives are not feeling even a little wary about the possible return of this real-life version of Yosemite Sam, then they’re going to be in for a rude awakening.

He’s baaaaack!
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In order to thrive in the Age of Trump, South Korea is going to have to rethink the way it conducts its foreign policy. It’s going to have to bury hatchets and cooperate closely with Japan, which is also likely to be as nervous about Trump. Consequently, South Korea’s progressives are also going to have to stop and think for a moment about the possible risks and benefits of reestablishing engagement with North Korea. And they are also going to have to act more cautiously in their approach to the US as America’s support can no longer be taken for granted - no matter how much people may want to pretend otherwise. The calculus has fundamentally shifted.

In short, if (more likely when) South Korea’s progressives take over from the conservatives in the next election (or after President Park resigns amid the scandals that are engulfing her administration), they are going to have to grow up and do so quickly. The country’s survival may depend on it.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Trump's Economic Proposals and How They Might Backfire

When presidential candidates are campaigning for office, they will promise everything from free healthcare to free lawn care if that is what is needed to get the votes they need to win. So when they do get elected, many of them renege on a great number of their campaign pledges. Sometimes, it’s because they never had any serious intention to go through with their pledges. And sometimes, it’s because they just didn’t have enough political capital to do everything they wanted to do.
However, for reasons that experts will be studying for years to come, Donald Trump is not like most politicians. During the 18 months that he campaigned for the presidency, Trump said a great number of things, ridiculous things, that would have permanently tanked any other politician’s career. Who else remembers that back in 2004, Howard Dean’s aspirations for the presidency was destroyed all because of a scream? Simpler times, indeed.

One of his more ridiculous pledges was to enforce a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. That pledge has been quietly withdrawn. A year ago, he also said that he would “absolutely” require Muslims to register in a federal database. When he was asked how that would be different from the way Jews had to register with the government in Nazi Germany, he repeatedly answered by saying “You tell me.” Thankfully, that, too, has been withdrawn.

If it quacks like a Nazi...
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Now it appears that Trump will have to backtrack from his most famous pledge - his pledge to build a “big, beautiful, powerful wall” on the US-Mexico border. Even Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and ardent Trump supporter, admitted that Trump’s promise to get Mexico to to pay for the wall may have just been “a campaign device.”

It has only been a few days since Trump won the presidential election and he is already going back on some of his biggest promises such as punishing corrupt special interests or locking up Hillary Clinton. Many of his supporters are not likely to be happy about Trump’s flip-flopping. This will mean that even before he begins his presidency, he will likely lose a lot of good will from the many people who voted for him.

However, this is not a moment for anyone who opposed Trump to be allowing themselves to enjoy feelings of schadenfreude. That is because Trump will most likely resort to other methods to placate his supporters and the fact of the matter is that Trump is a deal-maker and he will make the kinds of deals that are profitable to him, but not necessarily anyone else.

So among the first things that Trump will do as president is to fulfill his pledge to rip up trade deals. The TPP will be the first casualty. It’s unclear if Trump would actually be able to abolish NAFTA as he said he would. After all, NAFTA has been in place for a long time and there will be many vested interests who would be severely opposed to such a move. On the other hand, the TPP, which is still in its embryonic stage, would be much easier to terminate. The rationale behind it would be to prevent a “job-killing” deal that might cause a trade deficit for the US.

To complement that decision, Trump will likely push to keep another promise, which he also knows will face little to no opposition from the newly elected Republican Congress - his promise to levy a one-time 10 percent tax on all repatriated corporate profits that are currently being held offshore. Added together with the Federal Reserve’s independent plan to gradually raise short-term interest rates in the near term future, there is a good chance that at least within the first few months of Trump’s presidency, the US might see a spike in capital inflows, which could have a large stimulative effect on the US economy.

I'm rich, bitch!
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Trump is hoping that the repatriated capital would be able to be used to generate US$1 trillion in private sector infrastructure investment over a decade to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. That way, he hopes to create thousands of jobs which would have a cumulative effect on the economy. However, repatriation of corporate profits is a temporary fix. Realistically, to raise the kind of capital needed to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure over the long term, Congress would also need to raise taxes such as the the federal gas tax and tying future increases to inflation. Needless to say, however, raising taxes is not popular and probably won’t be considered.

Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there. The repatriation of corporate profits will come at the expense of other countries around the world and this could particularly hurt Europe. After all, as a result of a US$14 billion penalty from the US Justice department stemming back to the subprime mortgage crisis, Deutsche Bank, one of the largest banks in the world, almost faced a Lehman Brothers-like collapse a few short months ago. Deutsche Bank barely survived but the Eurozone debt crisis and negative interest rates continue to haunt it and other major European banks. A sudden loss of significant US Dollar reserves, which would likely follow such a generous corporate tax and a Federal Reserve interest rate hike, could very well hurl the entire European continent into yet another banking crisis.

Trump might receive less support (in fact, he might face fierce resistance) but another thing that he might attempt to do is fulfill his pledge to impose a 35 percent tariff on all imports coming from Mexico. What is much less certain, however, is his pledge to impose a 45 percent tariff on all imports coming from China. In fact, as unlikely as the former may be, the latter is even more unlikely. An imposition of even minor tariffs can and do lead to economic retaliations, which if left unchecked, could spiral into a vicious trade war. And a trade war could be devastating. It is likely that those sums that Trump suggested were yet another example of “campaign devices.”

So far, that would mean that Trump would have killed a trade deal that was never born in the first place and force corporations to repatriate their profits back to American banks. The first suffers from a bad case of “the seen and the unseen” and the second would be easy for the Democrats and other progressives to ridicule as yet another example of trickle-down economics. In other words, they’re both weak sauce. Trump would need to deliver something much bigger to appease the voters and Congress.

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So if Trump can’t punish China and Mexico, there are other countries that Trump can punish to show his loyalists that he is “doing something” for them without having to face too severe a backlash. The easiest target will likely be South Korea.

Politically, South Korea would be easy to throw under the bus. Unlike China, it doesn’t have a billion-strong population and it is not the second largest economy in the world. And unlike Mexico, South Korea doesn’t share a long border with the United States that has allowed for centuries of trade, easy immigration (legal and illegal), and cultural exchanges. Furthermore, South Korea is an American ally in an unfriendly far-away neighborhood, which means that South Korea has little choice but to be more cautious (read, timid) in its dealings with the US.

For a deal maker like Trump, South Korea is the perfect negotiation partner - one that he can kick around and squeeze for as much concessions as possible. Trump will twist arms and deploy brinkmanship-esque negotiation tactics with regards to military cost-sharing plans and renegotiating the ROK-US Free Trade Agreement.

Threatening South Korea by stating that he would be willing to walk away from the alliance would certainly be an effective strategy. It would certainly cause initial resentment among South Koreans, but it probably will not change the fundamentals of the partnership. As a result, unless South Korea balks (which is highly unlikely) the alliance will not break.

Whether or not the free trade deal gets renegotiated to Trump’s satisfaction, the renegotiation alone would take years. In the meantime, Trump would be able to tell the voters that he is looking out for their best interests by squeezing more money out from “ungrateful and free-riding allies.”

Trump's preferred means of negotiations
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However, Trump might not have much room to put too many other Asian countries in a vice grip. That is because now that the TPP is dead, China is wasting no time to push ahead with their version of the TPP - the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Just as the TPP excluded China and Russia (something Trump didn’t know about until it was pointed out to him by Rand Paul) as a way for Washington to set trade rules for the fast-growing Pacific-rim region before Beijing does, the RCEP will exclude the US for the very same reason.

So although Trump might still do away with the TPP, he cannot completely abandon trade deals with Asia.

For its part, as a result of the previously mentioned closer relationship between the US and Russia and a continued (if somewhat sputtering) Asia Pivot, China might think it necessary to continue to accelerate its military modernization program, which would further cause nervousness among China’s smaller neighbors or even compel them to shift allegiance to Beijing.

So if Trump cannot afford to squeeze East Asia too hard, there are two other related areas that he could exploit. The first is to rescind Obama’s policy and allow TransCanada Corp. to re-submit its application for the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline in return for a larger percentage of profits generated. Furthermore, he could put the Environmental Protection Agency on a much shorter leash (as it had been under the George W. Bush administration) in order to encourage more U.S. energy exports.

Naturally, however, this would lead to a larger glut of supplies, which in turn would lower oil prices and help the US grow its oil market share. Although some individual oil companies will certainly suffer as a result of sustained low prices, in the larger scheme of things, this could nominally help the US. However, not everyone would be celebrating this turn of events. OPEC members and other natural-resources based economies in Africa and Southeast Asia would not be happy.

Even wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia are struggling as a result of low oil prices and facing ever dwindling foreign-exchange reserves. Things have become more desperate among poorer OPEC member states such as Russia and Venezuela (and other smaller Gulf kingdoms, albeit to a lesser extent). Combined with an ongoing Sunni-Shiite proxy war and continued conflict in Syria, it is highly unlikely that anyone in the Middle East is celebrating Trump’s victory.

Speaking of Syria, one thing that Trump would certainly do to great fanfare is to withdraw US forces from that country. Trump is a deal maker and truth be told, for the US, the Syrian conflict is a moral one. And for a deal maker like Trump, intangibles such as morals or loyalty don’t carry any weight. Regardless of how that conflict turns out, the US would not see direct profits from it. However, due to the aforementioned Sunni-Shiite proxy war, that does not mean that a US withdrawal would help to usher in peace in the Middle East.

It should be noted, however, that withdrawal from Syria would not mean that Trump would push for a general withdrawal from the Middle East region altogether. Trump has always projected himself as a strong leader to the point of thuggery. A single terrorist attack would likely compel Trump to retaliate disproportionately, which could very well keep the vicious cycle of US involvement in the Middle East ongoing.

There is, however, one bright side - if it can be called that. An unintended consequence of growing unease in the Middle East as a result of continued drop in oil prices would likely be that Middle Eastern governments are going to seek assurances that they will not be toppled by their own people. The Arab Spring still remains fresh in Middle Easterners’ collective memory as many are still living through its consequences. In order to ensure regime survival from their own people and each other, Middle Eastern governments could very well increase their arms procurement, thus helping America’s arms industry to make even more money than before.

(Although the TPP may be dead, Trump’s policy advisers have said that the military aspect of the Asia Pivot will still continue and that Trump would do so by enlarging the US Navy. This will also help to raise jobs and help the arms industry be more profitable. In the long-term, however, increased defense spending is unlikely to help the US economy.)

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Thankfully, however, as a result of Trump’s narrow focus on only making deals that are profitable, there is little chance that there will be a war between the US and North Korea. There is no reason to attack North Korea because there is no way that doing so would profit Trump or the US. In fact, it is entirely possible that Trump might wish to pursue engagement with North Korea because he might want to exploit North Korean natural resources. Whether such an endeavor would be fruitful, however, is another matter entirely.

Besides, another reason why there most likely will not be a war with North Korea is that to date, no nation state armed with nuclear weapons has ever been attacked.

The future does not look too bright for Donald Trump. If he pushes through the aforementioned pledges, they will certainly benefit the US. At least in the short run as the country will be awash in capital that will provide an economic stimulus but without the Broken Window effect. However, the negative effects that they would have on developing economies in Asia, Africa, and even in Europe could lead to a prolonged worldwide economic recession. This would have a domino effect and the US would not be spared.

Unless Trump pursues better policies that would help to promote free trade and cooperative partnerships with other countries around the world, there is a very good chance that Trump would end up being a one-term president.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump Did Not Reverse Himself on Korea

It is being widely reported in news outlets around the world that President-Elect Trump seems to have reversed himself on various topics.

One of the things that Trump seems to be backing away from is his pledge to go through with “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The Independent reported that the pledge was quietly removed from Trump’s campaign website.

Another pledge that Trump is being reported to backtrack from is the campaign rhetoric he employed against South Korea. When President Park Geun-hye called Trump to congratulate him on his electoral victory, Trump reportedly assured Park of his commitment to the alliance - promising to maintain the existing security alliance and stating that the US would work with South Korea “until the end.”

The end, indeed.
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However, it would be a mistake for South Korean leaders to take this to mean that Trump is comfortable with maintaining the status quo.

For one thing, Trump is infamous for flip-flopping far more often than, well, flip flops. He has often denied that he had even said anything contrary to what he is saying now even if he had said it only moments ago and that it had all been caught on tape. He may be feeling magnanimous now. After all, he’s just been elected to the most powerful office in the world. The man is allowed to feel elated. But who is to say how he may feel in the next few days or weeks? For good or for ill, euphoria is ephemeral.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has acted like a 70-year-old man-child and there is little to no evidence that he will ever change regardless of his claim that he’s “gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored.”

More importantly, however, Trump never once said that he was going to abandon the ROK-US alliance. That was not what he said. What he said was that he was “absolutely prepared” to tell every American ally, South Korea included, that they would be defending themselves unless they agreed to shoulder more of the cost of an American troop presence in their countries. After all, he thinks that the approximately US$900 million that South Korea pays for the stationing of American troops on Korean soil is “peanuts.”

Although he assured Park that he is committed to the alliance, at no point in that phone conversation did anyone mention the words military bases, cost sharing, renegotiation, or troop withdrawal. In other words, there is plenty of room for the Trump administration to seek to renegotiate (via severe arm twisting) to push through with his campaign pledge.

And there is a good chance that this is one of those pledges that he will see through. He may have flip-flopped on many things, but “free-riding allies” is a concept that he had been repeating for years.

The Farkus School of Diplomacy
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As for the comment that Trump made about South Korea possibly acquiring nuclear weapons, there are two things to consider. The first is what he said.

“At some point we have to say, you know what, we're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We're better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself. It (nuclear armament among US allies) is going to happen anyway. It's going to happen anyway. It's only a question of time. They're going to start having them or we have to get rid of them entirely.”

The important words here are “at some point,” “if,” and “we (the US) have to get rid of them (nuclear weapons) entirely.”

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

The second thing to consider is the last thing he said - that the US would have to get rid of nuclear weapons entirely. Simply put, that is wishful fantasy. Any South Korean who is jumping for joy at the prospect of South Korea being given the green light to acquire nuclear weapons might want to hold off the celebrations because, frankly, it is not going to happen. At least not anytime soon.

There are many possible reasons why Trump didn’t get into any of those details. The most obvious reasons are that the phone call was just one of many similar phone calls that he was having with leaders from all around the world who are all congratulating him on his electoral victory. There probably was not much time to get into details. Also, it was the first call that he was having with the other world leaders as the President Elect. Maybe it’s possible that there is a part of him that thinks that being tactful and diplomatic is important.

Or maybe it is because he is feeling magnanimous and saying nice things because other world leaders are saying nice things to him and that was all that he ever wanted. Or maybe he is just letting other world leaders let their guard down before he yanks everything from underneath them. Who knows?

Things can change dramatically in the coming days and weeks. This is a unique time when the sitting president and the incoming president have an opportunity to play good-cop-bad-cop with other world leaders (or their own wayward people) to get as much concessions as possible. And seeing how Obama has been the “good cop” (highly debatable) to America's allies during his tenure, Trump can be the “bad cop” and play the role with relish.

It is true that Trump is not the president until the moment he is sworn into office on January 20th. Until the moment he assumes office, he has no official political power. But he does have the ability to bluff, suggest, cajole, and threaten other world leaders. After all, Obama is on the way out and as the Obama administration is relegated to the history books, the rest of the world is going to have to learn to live with the Trump administration.

It is important for South Korean leaders to keep their guard up. Imagining that the Trump administration will keep the alliance and trade partnership unchanged would be a grave mistake.

Everything is supposedly deadly calm in the eye of the storm...
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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

A Trump Presidency and What It Might Mean for Korea

“May you live in interesting times.”

And what an interesting year 2016 has been. A number of beloved celebrities have died, Brangelina has split up, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and Donald J. Trump, the tweeting orange who’d date his own daughter if she weren’t his daughter, seems set to be the next president of the United States.

Many journalists, pundits, writers, bloggers, thinkers, philosophers, and anyone with an opinion is going to talk about this election for years. What everyone did wrong, where they went right, what caused what, how things will turn out, etc.

Old political alliances that died eight years ago are going to reemerge. Progressives who argued that President Obama needed more power to do the things he wanted to do and who lauded his use of executive orders are now going to side with libertarians in arguing for a weaker executive.

(Welcome back, progressives. How’ve you been?)


But not all old alliances will be rediscovered. Conservatives and Neo-conservatives might not rekindle their old relationship. But then again, knowing how many times Trump has changed his positions on any given topic within a matter of minutes, I suppose it would be foolish to write off anything.

But what does a Trump presidency mean for inter-Korean relations? What would it mean for the ROK-US alliance? What about the KOR-US Free Trade Agreement?

In short, all bets are off.

Trump has long said that he would put all options on the table in regards to negotiating with “free-riding” allies. Never mind that Korea is not a free-riding ally. But inherent in that position is the willingness to withdraw American troops from the Korean Peninsula unless South Korea pays more for the alliance’s costs.

(I do believe he once asked why South Korea wasn’t paying 100 percent of the costs during one of his stump speeches.)

Let’s assume that, unlike Jimmy Carter, he will refuse to bend to foreign policy and military experts and simply do as he wishes. If that happens, it is likely that the US might seek to quickly transfer wartime control of the South Korean military to Seoul as soon as possible. As worrisome as that might be considering the fact that South Korea might have been controlled by a shadowy cult over the past few years, what’s even more worrisome is that this may give the pro-nuclear armament voices in South Korea the boost that they have been seeking, which could lead to all sorts of gargantuan problems.

Would an American withdrawal from Korea, and possibly Japan, mean that Seoul and Tokyo might have the incentive to finally push aside old fights and seek a closer partnership with one another to seek a common defense against North Korea? Or would it remove the one common denominator that had nominally united Seoul and Tokyo in a fractured trilateral alliance?

Park Geun-hye is now a lame duck president and it appears that the next South Korean president might come from the Minjoo Party, which has a history of strong anti-American elements. Combine that with a Trump presidency that eschews foreign policy and what would that do to inter-Korean relations?

Trump has gone on record and said that China ought to do more to contain the North Korean threat. But China has never cared to put North Korea in its place. And assuming that Trump withdraws American troops from Korea and/or transfers wartime control to Seoul, how would China’s perception of the Korean Peninsula change?

Furthermore, Trump has also suggested that China ought to invade North Korea. As unlikely as it is for China to take up on that offer, regardless of which political party governs South Korea now and in the future, that is yet something else that will likely fray the ROK-US alliance.

Would an emboldened North Korea continue to pursue further nuclear armament? Will sanctions continue to be enforced against North Korea or will they be put in the backseat, thus destroying any progress (limited as they have been) that have been made over the past eight to ten years?

As mentioned earlier, the next South Korean president might come from the Minjoo Party. Would the Minjoo Party reintroduce the Sunshine Policy, thus killing sanctions programs before they have a real chance to succeed? What about the deployment of THAAD missile batteries? Will that be canceled?

How would the free trade agreement that was signed between Korea and the US change? Trump has been vague about this. Will it be scrapped? If so, how would that affect the Korean economy? The Korean economy has been experiencing slumping exports and rising household debt. A looming interest rate hike by the US Federal Reserve has been seriously threatening Korea’s economic growth. Any possible renegotiation or hint of scrapping the free trade deal could send the Korean economy plummeting.

I have to point out that the election is not yet over. Nothing is ever over until the fat lady sings. But pundits are saying the word 
“unlikely” with growing frequency in regards to a Clinton victory.

We have to remember that politicians have a tendency to renege on many of their campaign pledges once having won an election. So whether or not Trump follows through with his pledges is up in the air. Maybe he will. Or maybe he’ll plate the White House in gold and play golf in Scotland with Duterte and Putin while Mike Pence and Paul Ryan do the real work of governing the US.

Regardless of how things turn out, the next four years are going to be incredibly interesting.

For now, however, the whole world might have to get used to saying “President Donald J. Trump.”

God help us all.

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