Interview: David Kang Helps Us Understand Asia
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November 8, 2018 – Foreign Policy

Interview: David Kang Helps Us Understand Asia

Ignorance of the region is a national security threat, says USC's professor David Kang.


David Kang, Maria Crutcher Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California and Director of the school’s Korean Studies Institute, began traveling to Asia every summer at a young age. The son of a Korean father and an American mother, he has viewed change in the region up close and very personally. Kang still sets out for Asia three or four times a year, trips that have inspired a number of books including “East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute”;  “China Rising: Peace, Power, and Order in East Asia”; and (co-author) “Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies.” We asked him to supply some background to recent protean events in the Pacific realm. You can follow Professor Kang on TWITTER @daveckang.

What’s your family background and how did it inform your work today?

Korea was always part of my life. My father is from the northern part of the country. His family were some of the original refugees who fled penniless after the division in 1945 to start over in the south. Then he started over again when he came, still penniless, to the United States.

Let’s start with a few of your views on East Asia in general: You’ve written that United States’ ignorance of Asia is a national security threat. What do you mean?

We in the West expect that everything in Asia is going to work the way we intuitively expect it will. Sometimes that’s true. After all, people everywhere care about power and wealth. But the way Asian governments come up with their priorities may not be the way American policy makers assume they should. For example, China and South Korea have better relations than anyone in the United States believes they should. South Korea is less afraid of China than we think they should be. And they’re more afraid of Japan than we think they should be. It makes intuitive sense to us that China’s the threat and Japan’s the good guy. It’s not that South Korea loves China, but they share many more of the same views about the 20th century.

Are there other assumptions the United States makes that may weaken our position in Asia?

Our view of China’s rise is based on what happened historically in Europe when large countries grew. We just take for granted that the bigger China gets, the more threatening it is territorially. It is big. And it’s pushy and rude and it’s a dictatorship, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to start invading everybody else, or that we should get into a war with them. That’s a huge leap. This isn’t Germany under Bismarck. For countries in the region, the fact that China is big isn’t news. It’s only news to us because we didn’t know what China was 500 years ago. They’ve grown up with Chinese culture, Chinese dominance. They may not like it, but they know how to deal with it and we don’t. We think: Oh no, it’s just like Germany 1914!

You wrote a nice line in one of your pieces: “Scholars who worry about power transitions are influential because threat inflation about US-China relations is an easy sell. But pessimists are never accused of being naive, no matter how wrong they are.”

I was aiming at some of my colleagues who have been talking throughout my entire professional career about the dangers of the rise of China. A lot of criticism that followed the Singapore Summit came not only from the anti-Trumpers but from those who perceive that everything is always terrible when it comes to China. A year ago they were terrified of conflict: There’s going to be a war! Then the minute we announced diplomacy we heard them say, “You can’t talk to those people. Negotiations are going to fail.” And I thought: So you don’t want war and you won’t do diplomacy. I mean, come on.

If you search back through the centuries isn’t it true Asians have had far fewer wars than the Europeans have?

When changes in power have occurred in Vietnam, Japan, China, Korea it’s almost always come from an internal conflict. It’s come about from some rebellion, not from outside invasion. Almost all the Chinese dynasties throughout the centuries have changed from the inside, not from war with the outside. Asian countries have all had longstanding relations with one another. So the dangers were almost always internal, not external. Even today, China spends more on internal security than it does on external defense, which is an indicator what they’re really worried about.

In other words, countries in the region like Cambodia, Vietnam, South Korea, aren’t nearly as worried about China as we are.

It doesn’t mean they love China. When I was in Vietnam a couple of years ago, someone said to me that every Vietnamese leader has to know how to get along with China and how to push back against China. And if he can’t do both at the same time he doesn’t deserve to be leader of Vietnam. The solution to Asian stability is not going to be a military balance of power. No county in the region is preparing for that. Using diplomacy, multi-lateral, economic strategy is what they’re doing. So for us to focus on containing China is missing what’s going on in the region.

You’ve written that China’s ambitions are threatened by political, economic and social problems at home.

Yeah. That’s the interesting thing. For a long time we all thought that China was getting more liberal, more open, more globalized. And it is. Compared to 30 years ago, every Chinese citizen has more freedom, more access to the world. And yet political control has gotten tighter and tighter under Xi. It may hurt them in the long run because I’m not sure you can really control a country that way.

Let’s discuss North Korea specifically. The Supreme Leader cancelled this year’s annual anti-American imperialist “Victory of the Fatherland Liberation War” rally. Since the Singapore Summit he seems to be showing hints of sincerity. Or is he feigning sincerity? Satellite reconnaissance show he’s still building weapons program. What are the odds Kim will keep his word and cooperate going forward?

Here’s what I think is going on: Kim is willing, under certain conditions, to negotiate away his nuclear deterrent. But he’s not going to do it for free. We’re not going to back a ship up into Wonsan Harbor, load all the nukes and sail away.

In his New Year’s Day speech on January 1, 2017, Kim said, “This is the year that we will complete our long-desired goal of the ICBM.” Then they tested all year, more than they’d ever tested before. Like 50 tests. Long range, short range etc. They tested into wintertime when they’d never tested in winter before.

And what did we do? We in the United States went nuts. Sanctions! More sanctions! Fire and fury! We made informal offers to talk in August and September last year, and North Korea ignored it all. Then, in his New Year’s Day speech in  2018, Kim announced, “We have achieved our national goal.” And then indicated that he was ready to talk.

They went to the Olympics. They agreed to a nuke test moratorium. The point is that they had clearly been strategizing this move since 2016, maybe even 2015.

For 25 years prior, North Korea had a slow-motion nuclear program. They’d do one test, then stop. They would hint about others, then nothing would happen. It was a decades-long strategy of Stop me before I do it. So somewhere in 2016 they said, Okay, that didn’t earn us a more stable relationship with the United States, so let’s go for it. Then we’ll negotiate it away. If the United States meets us we may give up some level of nukes. If they don’t, well, we’ve got the nukes.

Now they wait. If there are no more missile tests or nuclear tests, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. So now the ball is in our court.

If Kim should suddenly decide to “tear down that wall,” does the US/South Korea— China for that matter— have a plan for what life would be like in a north- south reunification? It could be an economic, cultural nightmare.  

Reunification will not be that easy. It’s tempting to think, well, they’re all Koreans, right? How hard could it be? But the northern population has been isolated for decades and they’re psychologically traumatized. They view themselves differently than they do in the south. The limited experience we have with those North Korean refugees who’ve come down is that they have a very difficult time integrating into South Korea. They speak differently; they’ve got a different accent. They’re resentful because people treat them like they’re barbarians.

Unification on the German model, where the East Government just disappeared, is not going to happen. Kim is probably going to be around for awhile. The more realistic interim step— which could take 100 years— would be the sort of China/Taiwan model where you have a lot of interaction and a real reduction in tensions, but two separate governments. That would be an optimistic outcome. I could imagine the lifting of some travel restrictions. Then my father could go home.

Is your father still living?

Yes. He’s 82 now and he longs to see his country again. He said to me the other day, “I don’t really even care about the politics anymore. Kim can stay as long as he wants. I’d just like to go home and see the place where I was born.”—Patrick Cooke