This morning I will pull on my funeral suit and walk over to St. Matthew’s Cathedral for Joe Robert’s memorial service. Most of the people reading this probably have never heard of Joe, but let me assure you, he was a very special man. He died last week of brain cancer, aged 59. He will be sadly missed.
A native Washingtonian, Joe went from a rough and tumble youth, scrapes with various authorities, and a brief period of homelessness, to become one of the Washington area’s biggest property developers, at one point with an estimated worth of $1 billion. I got to know him through his participation in the Peterson Institute board and executive committee.
As the saying goes, Joe never forgot his roots: despite his wealth and accomplishments, he was a remarkably approachable and down-to-earth guy; what made him so beloved around town was not the money he made, but the scale on which he gave it away. While Joe was extraordinarily generous with the Institute, it is fair to say that his first love was children’s charities, and over the years he personally donated or raised millions and millions of dollars for local children’s charities, including his initiative to fund scholarships for low-income children and the National Children’s Hospital Center. When Joe was diagnosed with brain cancer, Arab business partners asked how they could honor him; he persuaded them to donate $150 million to NCHC.
Joe had been an amateur boxer in his youth, and probably his best known charitable initiative was the annual “Fight Night” that he would sponsor at the Washington Hilton. He would rent the ballroom—“the biggest on the East Coast” he once proudly boasted to me—and put on an event with appearances by old boxers like Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Jerry Cooney, and then four-rounders with up-and-coming fighters, earning millions for his “Fight for Children” educational charity. You can donate here.
I don’t think that Joe had any particular interest in North Korea, but nevertheless, in honor of his love of boxing, I thought that we would stage our own metaphorical match. 12 rounds, judge’s decision final, winner gets a copy of Witness to Transformation.
Round 1: The bout started innocently enough, with an op-ed in the LA Times by Bob Carlin and John Lewis. The pair argued that “The legacy of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung’s decision in the early 1990s to pursue a strategic partnership with the United States has run its course. In its place, the focus of Pyongyang’s policies has decisively shifted to Beijing. However wary the North Koreans may be of their neighbor, the fact is that from Pyongyang’s viewpoint, the Chinese have delivered and the United States did not….There was considerable momentum behind the North’s strategy for engaging the U.S. in past negotiations. That is no longer the case, with consequences we have only started to feel.” Jeremy Laurence, the Thomson Reuters man in Seoul then forwarded it to a gaggle of Korea watchers and the fight was on.
Round 2: First up was Aidan Foster-Carter. The Brit, who was a middleweight in his youth, has steadily moved up weight classes, and definitely qualifies as a heavyweight today, responded with a flurry that manage to connect with multiple targets: “Hot news, eh? I have been saying this for well over a year. See the links below. Pyongyang’s strategic tilt to China has been obvious for ages. Why has this fact taken so long to sink in, in some quarters? The problem is those in both Washington and Seoul who still assume that everything has to revolve around them. No longer. Wake up and smell the green tea, guys. You missed the boat; Kim Jong-il took a different train. Enough mixed metaphors.) Case in point: That utterly misleading, nay frankly mendacious, Wikileak-based Guardian front page lead story just over a year ago. China happy with an ROK-led unified Korea? Sheer wishful thinking on the part of Chun Yung-woo, who is smart enough to know better. Jeremy, you saw the Chinese busy developing Rason (finally) earlier this summer. They mean business. This is the NK future.”
Round 3: Steph Haggard, a counter-puncher with a deadly long reach, responded by kindly flogging past research of yours truly: “The attached slide pretty much says everything: trade with China explodes right after the nuclear crisis breaks. Also, on evidence, Marc did a little econometric exercise for our East-West Center monograph on sanctions that shows pretty clearly that the 1719 and 1874 had no discernible effect on China’s commercial trade with the DPRK. Indeed, the coefficients were positive (ie., the post-sanctions periods were associated with an increase in trade, holding a few other things constant). Find it here.
Round 4: Next to enter the fray was John Delury, fighting out of Seoul. Originally a welterweight, John’s wife has pointed to an apparent rise in weight division. Less ice cream, more roadwork recommended. “My question is how sustainable do we think this close & comprehensive lips & teeth relationship is. As we all know, there are deep reservoirs of distrust & discomfort between China & NK. So that’s always a limiting factor. Secondly, PY has to be careful to avoid dependency, of putting all their eggs (trade, investment, diplomatic cover, political legitimacy, intelligence) in the Chinese basket; they are in a better position, and have decades practicing, a kind of foreign policy that plays various parties off one another without getting in bed permanently with one. So I think there is still room for the US & ROK to play on that tendency– if they want to. I’m not convinced that the final decision on the strategic shift Carlin/Lewis describe has been made for good, or that PY will not seek opportunities to reverse course in the future. And my sense from conversations with Chinese counterparts is they are aware of this. Certainly they don’t boast about the BJ-PY ties the way some here & in the US speak of the current state of US-ROK relations. Just last for example week Yang Xiyu was in town, & gave an interesting talk about Beijing’s sustained effort to normalizes both China-ROK and China-DPRK relations; he acknowledged the former is going better than the later, but asserted that normalization (implicitly a downgrade from ally to good neighbor) remains the strategic goal for Beijing in its relations with PY, but they have to move slowly & delicately in that direction. Lastly, it has to be kept in mind that a major factor in the rising dominance of China economically & politically vis-a-vis NK is the sharp reversal in inter-Korean relations & MB’s roll-back of the sunshine policy. If after next years elections Seoul shifts back to a proactive & engaged approach, that will change the equation. But the point of Carlin/Lewis’ op-ed is that if & when Seoul does get back in the game, it will be a very different world than 2000 due to the presence of the Chinese. That point is one to which many South Koreans–liberal and conservative– give considerable thought. “
Round 5: B.R. (“Bazooka Right?”) Myers may be slender but he packs a punch, unleashing this savage combination of haymakers: “Sorry, but I find this notion of a North Korea willing to work so closely with its main adversary as to make it a counterweight to its main ally impossible to take seriously. To accept it requires dismissing North Korea’s seventy-year old ideology and official culture as completely beside the point; it requires thinking that what North Koreans say to carefully-selected Americans on dog-and-pony shows far outweighs the importance of what the regime has said on a daily basis to its own people for 65 years. The idea of a shift from Kim Il Sung’s supposed America-orientation (!) to Kim Jong Il’s reluctant China-orientation is particularly naive. Kim Jong Il had taken charge of foreign and military affairs at least 3 or 4 years before an understandably good-humored Kim Il Sung took his intellectual inferior for that riverboat ride. (This is not just said by defectors like Hwang but also openly admitted by the propaganda.) And it was about six weeks after the Agreed Framework that Kim Jong Il began making Military-first Policy noises in the press. So much for the nonsense about how we betrayed his bold trust. In North Korea today, in any case, the Eternal President continues to serve as a powerful symbol of anti-Americanism, of all the reasons why, in his son’s words, “Korea and America can never share the same sky.”
Even foreigners who lack the language skills to access the country’s culture – and who are too American ever to believe that anti-Americanism can be as sincere and implacable a thing as anti-Semitism — even these people should draw the obvious conclusions from the political reality: North Korea cannot work with Washington to any degree that would be apparent to its own people without forfeiting the state’s last remaining reason to exist alongside the rich America-partner to the South. If we did indeed miss an opportunity to be played off against the Chinese for Pyongyang’s economic (and therefore military-nuclear) benefit, we should be thanking our lucky stars, not wondering if we might still get another try.”
Round 6: Haggard (I told you he was a counterpuncher) responded with “I agree completely; nicely done. Just one further historical note. I managed to do some interviews with defectors around the 2002 reforms. Marc and I were always skeptical about them because they contained elements that looked very much like the subsequent currency conversion; we can provide details if interested. But these interviews suggested that after opening up a very wide-ranging discussion about reform, Kim Jong Il personally shut the entire discussion down by arguing 1. reform would undermine the regime; and 2. that no effort would be made to rationalize the planning process by controlling the growth of military enterprises. In short, that whole little episode of “opening” is not what it looks like.”
Round 7: Ruediger Frank and Andrei Lankov are unlikely to make anyone forget Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, but are formidable punchers nonetheless. First up, Ruediger, originally from East Germany (hold the steroid jokes) now fighting out of Vienna: “I am not nearly as impressed as many others seem to be. That’s a marriage of convencience at best, full of mutual distrust and more or less open accusations. No paradigm shift, just the only option available for PY – at the moment. I bet the NKs want us to believe exactly what most of us seem to do – that we have been so very stupid, that China is gaining influence beyond what is acceptable, that we now must try even harder to make up for our past mistakes and provide a counterweight by being more cooperative towards NK. Fighting poison with poison, the small man’s strategy. If it works, they win again; same silly old game. Sigh.”
Round 8: Next up, Andrei: Somewhat belatedly, and in addition to what I said few days ago. As it is often happens to me, I second Ruediger’s comments. For NK leaders, China is a threat, period. They do not like it any more than they like US. They are happy to play the Chinese card for the time being, but they also find their growing dependency on China troublesome. Therefore, Pyongayng elite badly want US and SK (and Russia if possible) back to the game, so Pyongyang will again find itself in its usual position: a number of rival sponsors whom it can manipulate without making too many concessions. But the next year will be relatively tranquil, as NK decision makers will hope for an electoral success of the South Korean Left (and resumption of payments).
Round 9: After the bell, Haggard (I told you to watch this guy) slipped in this jab. Penalized one point. “The thing that strikes me most about these guys is the confusion between information and disinformation. I’m sounding like a neo-con but these guys are just getting completely rolled. This is where the data speaks loudly: all you have to do is look at bilateral trade and investment. Case closed.”
Use the comment button to get your own licks in. Winner announced 23 December.