China has successfully delayed, but will still have to face the 2008 financial crisis; a dangerous axis between Iran and North Korea has been widely ignored; and Washington is offering North Korea a last chance to denuclearize before reverting to a very hard line.
These were some of the themes touched upon by Gordon Chang, a high-profile American pundit and author, in a briefing for Seoul-based foreign reporters on Thursday. Chang was visiting Korea at the invitation of conservative organizations, to whom he was distributing his latest work Losing South Korea.
Chang, a leading voice on Asian affairs in the United States and a darling of the American right wing, has never shied away from controversies, predictions or controversial predictions, and at Thursday’s press briefing at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club, he did not disappoint.
His most sensational allegations, detailed at greater length in Losing South Korea, were reserved for leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Chang’s contentions will likely guarantee that he receives no invitation to the presidential Blue House during the term of the administration.
Wait for it, wait for it…
With reference to his most famous work, 2001’s The Coming Collapse of China, Chang said one reason his prediction has thus far proven off the mark were the circumstances the followed China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. “I did not think China would be able to withstand rules-based trade,” he said. “I did not anticipate companies and countries would not insist on China fulfilling its WTO obligation.”
Only with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has that situation altered. “Lo and behold, we now have a US president who is insistent that China live up to its obligations,” Chang said. “There is some evidence to suggest that tariffs are starting to have a visible effect on Chinese economy.”
A further variable that impacted Chang’s analysis was the 2008 financial crisis, which he did not predict. “I think that gave the [Communist Party of China] a new lease on life,” he said. The crisis offered the government the excuse to launch massive stimuli, at a time when the credibility of Western governance and the management of Western economies was being widely questioned. This allowed China to forestall the 2008 crisis – but systemic issues were left unaddressed or exacerbated. “By postponing that crisis, it has made the ultimate resolution much more difficult for the CPC,” he said.
Another issue facing Beijing policymakers is its acquisition of debt. Questioning the accuracy of Chinese growth figures, Chang calculated that the country is incurring debt at a rate that is five and a half times faster than its nominal GDP growth.
So: Where does this leave his prediction of Chinese collapse? “I may not be wrong,” he asserted – before conceding, “but I am late.”
At a time when war clouds appear to be forming over Iran, Chang claimed that many people in Washington have long ignored connections between Iran and North Korea.
“They have had joint weapons programs for more than two decades,” he said. “Scratch the paint off most Iranian missiles, and you will find they are North Korean,” adding that Iranian technicians were also present at North Korea’s first four nuclear tests.
He also noted that some reports claim that Iran is a financial spigot for North Korea, paying some $2-3 billion per year for weapons and weapons technologies. Given this, “One could argue that if you solve one problem, you are on the road to solving the other,” he said of the two states.
Yet, the challenges Iran and North Korea represent for the US may be unprecedented in recent times. “The tasks the administration has taken on require a determination we have never seen from a US administration when it comes to proliferation,” he said.
Hammer ahead for Pyongyang
Assessing US policy toward North Korea, Chang opined that Washington will soon pivot from its currently non-confrontational approach toward Pyongyang and resume a much harder line. Referring to Trump’s statement of last year, in which he said he was offering Kim Jong Un a “one-time shot” to disarm, Chang predicted that Washington’s North Korean policy trajectory would mirror that of its China policy.
“What Kim is seeing is what Trump offered Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first year,” he said. “Fourteen months ago, we saw the administration pivot and bring down the hammer on China.” He suggested that Washington was now making a final attempt to clinch a deal with Pyongyang, and when that that fails, the administration “is going to bring the hammer down on Kim.”
Adding to the likeliness of this scenario is the fact that Democratic presidential candidates are criticizing Trump’s North Korean outreach, which is likely to pressure Trump into “a more resolute policy,” Chang said.
Like many professional Korea watchers, Chang was skeptical about North Korea denuclearizing. “That regime is not in a position to deal with Trump, or anyone else, in good faith,” Chang said. Even if Kim had made a decision to abandon nuclear arms, “I think there are elements inside the regime that would make it hard…even in a one-man regime, there are so many different elements,” he said.
Seoul’s wishful thinkers
Regarding the Moon administration’s oft-repeated claims that Kim is sincere about denuclearization, Chang suggested that these statements were most likely designed to create momentum in the engagement process rather than accurately reflecting reality. “We have seen no change in North Korean behavior that would justify these statements,” he said.
Chang opened rapid fire on South Korea’s left wing. “[Moon] comes from a line of thinking in South Korea that they could work with North Korea and change its behavior without changing the nature of the regime,” he said, adding, “Despite the policies of Moon Jae-in, we have never seen Kim Jong Un reciprocate.”
Referring to inter-Korean military tension-reduction arrangements agreed upon by Kim and Moon during their September 2018 summit as moves that “help the attacker more than the defender,” he also cited Moon’s moves to reduce the size of South Korea’s conscript military. “Moon Jae-in is degrading the ability of South Korea to defend itself,” he said. “People in South Korea should be asking themselves why.”
With South Korea currently mulling humanitarian aid, Chang cast doubt on reported food shortages in North Korea. He questioned the veracity of recent UN reports on the matter, stating that surveyors’ access to many parts of the country is limited. He also noted that North Korea is not using rice stored in military warehouses, and that rice prices in North Korea have been falling in recent weeks.
Shooting at the Moon
But the author reserved his most acidic comments for Moon, with allegations that may be applauded by South Korea’s hard right, but may raise eyebrows elsewhere.
He claimed that Moon seeks Korean reunification, but that, due to the difficulty of merging a totalitarian state with a democratic one, is undermining democratic institutions on the basis that, “If South Korea becomes more authoritarian, reunification becomes feasible.”
To support his contention, he noted that pro-North Korean activists have freely put up wanted posters of high-profile North Korean defectors in South Korea, and have raided the offices of a prominent anti-North Korea news outlet.
He also cited a (failed) bid by the Moon administration to alter the South Korean constitution, and its oversight of (but no actual legal action taken) against conservative YouTube commentators. Moreover, he complained that the government is exerting control over broadcasters (which is, in fact, a habit of most Seoul administrations, be they left or right wing; South Korea has risen in global press freedom rankings under Moon’s term).
After ending his list, Chang concluded, “To me, that is undermining democracy.”