Saturday links: Nuclear Jonestown edition

Cults and their consequences

1) Some provocative tweets on how things could go very wrong in Northeast Asia:

2) Speaking of Korea, as I had hoped, Michael Breen has given his reaction to the jailing of South Korea’s ousted president – in the form of satire:

Political parties and commentators have welcomed the court decision last week to put former President Park Geun-hye behind bars, saying it represents a victory for public sentiment-based democracy.

Presidential hopefuls for the upcoming election took a break from their illegal pre-campaign speeches and tours through markets to humbly credit voters and not themselves for the ruling.

“It’s what the people wanted,” said Park Mi-bum (no relation) of the minority People’s Party.

In a statement, the Prosecutor’s Office which had requested Park’s detention said jailing people before their trial is a necessary step when they are unpopular. “The people would have been angry if we had not made this request,” the statement said.

In a statement of their own, the people agreed.

“Had Park not been jailed, we would have been angry,” the people said.

For context, see this Breen article on the mob-rule aspect of South Korean democracy:

The preamble to the Constitution notwithstanding, “We the People” don’t exactly rule in the United States. A legal document, the Constitution, looms godlike over the affairs of Americans. Some form of that goes for most democracies. The laws are in charge, not the public — at least not directly.

South Korea presents an unusual case — and last week’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye is a case in point — of a country where the rulers and the ruled not only believe that the people exist but in fact accept that the people, or some mystical conception of their collective will, are directly in charge.

This notion lies behind the country’s feisty politics and helps explain why it is, arguably, the most directly democratic country in Asia. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how much you trust the people’s spontaneous collective judgment.

See also here and here.

3) On the decline of book-reading in Iran and the government’s plan to open the world’s largest bookstore (it will cover 484,376 sq ft).

Failure to launch

Well done

Hey, North Korea, maybe you should just give up

A North Korean missile launch that failed shortly after it was fired may have been thwarted by cyber attacks from the US.

The medium-range missile exploded seconds after it was launched on Sunday from a site near the port city of Sinpo, as Mike Pence, the US vice president, arrived in Seoul for talks with the South Korean government over how to deal with Pyongyang’s belligerence.

“It could have failed because the system is not competent enough to make it work, but there is a very strong belief that the US – through cyber methods – has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail,” the former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the BBC on Sunday. […]

Experts have suggested that the United States may be carrying out “left-of-launch” attacks on the missiles using electromagnetic propagation or cyber attacks, including through infected electronics aboard the weapon that confuse its command and control or targeting systems.

Eamonn Fingleton suggests another possible culprit:

Rifkind could have added that Japan and South Korea, where many of the chips in the North Korean rocket were probably made, may also have played a part in the outcome.

Will Canada go east?

This essay by strategist Edward Luttwak (a.k.a. the Machiavelli of Maryland), on why Canada should turn its military attention to the Pacific, also serves as a mini recap of the theme of Luttwak’s book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy:

It would appear that China’s leaders badly misread the 2007-2008 financial crisis and greatly overestimated China’s gain in relative strategic power. This prompted them to abandon the very successful “peaceful rise” (中国和平崛起) or “peaceful development” (中国和平 发展) foreign policy officially presented in 2004, but long practised before then. This policy set aside all Chinese claims against regional parties in order to have everyone’s co-operation in China’s economic growth.

Once that policy was abandoned, there ensued the loud and practically simultaneous assertion of Chinese territorial claims against Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Sultanate of Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, and India, in a half-circle of expansionist pretensions. Newly aggressive forms of border and maritime patrolling, increasingly frequent territorial intrusions, and even outright occupations added greatly to the concerns provoked by China’s verbal demands.

Inevitably, the threatened countries started to strengthen themselves militarily and to coalesce diplomatically. They did this mostly in pairs that became increasingly interconnected, but also in threes, as in the case of the India-Japan-Vietnam trio that accelerated Vietnam’s deployment of Russian submarines. […]

Nobody can reasonably suggest that Canada should restructure its armed forces on a very large scale in order to become a major power in Northeast Asia. But given that Canadian political and economic leaders know very well that the centre of gravity in world politics has changed, it would behoove Canada to gradually acquire a significant stabilizing role, in the agreeable company of Australia.

The essay also contains this nugget of strategic wisdom:

All of this is in perfect accordance with the paradoxical logic of strategy which prohibits any form of linear progression in the realm of conflict. This logic ordains that great powers can defeat middle powers, but not small ones.

They are not amused

One of the noteworthy aspects of the viral outrage over the recent involuntary deplaning incident on the United Airlines flight (see here) is the Chinese reaction. From Jeffrey Towson, Professor at Peking University and author of the excellent The One Hour China Book:

  • The video was viewed online between 200-300M times in China.
  • It resulted in over a 100,000 comments, most all negative.
  • It became the top trending story on Weibo.
  • Petitions calling for a boycott of United Airlines went viral on Wechat.
  • Chinese media jumped in and it became a top news story everywhere in China. The People’s Daily ran photos of the man’s bloodied face and openly criticized the airline.
  • Prominent Chinese began lambasting the company. CEO Richard Liu said “…United is the worst airline, not one of the worst.”

[…] What we can conclude is that United Airlines was caught by surprise. Yet another multinational has suddenly realized that not only are Chinese consumers a big economic phenomenon, they are also a demographic that is paying close attention. This huge middle class is watching and listening all the time. They know what happens in the USA and can react within minutes. And this is not limited just to famous companies like United and KFC. If you have a bed and breakfast in Vermont, I guarantee you there are Chinese reviews and discussions about your hotel.

The combination of the growing economic power of Chinese middle-class consumers, and the instant worldwide spasms of attention (either positive or negative) that social media can generate, will prove rather disruptive to many businesses in the coming years.

Buckle up

To be taken with a truckload of salt:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered 25 percent of Pyongyang residents to leave the city immediately.

In accordance with the order, 600,000 people should be urgently evacuated. Experts note that the evacuation will most likely be conducted due to extremely strained tensions in relations with the United States of America.

Reportedly, Pyongyang’s bomb shelters will not be able to accommodate the entire population of the North Korean capital. Therefore, 600,000 people – mostly individuals with criminal records – will have to leave Pyongyang to let others use bomb shelters.

It was also said that one modified Ohio type rocket carrier carrying 154 Tomahawk type missiles on board joined the US Navy deployed near the coast of the Korean Peninsula. The missile carrier is expected to arrive at the port of registration on April 18.

Could this have anything to do with the “big and important event” coming up?

In a striking development involving the rapidly changing North Korean geopolitical situation, moments ago Voice of America reporter Steve Herman stated that according to US government and other sources, North Korea has “apparently placed a nuclear device in a tunnel and it could be detonated Saturday AM Korea time.”

South Korea said on Thursday it believed it would be consulted by the United States before any possible pre-emptive U.S. strike against Pyongyang, where foreign journalists gathered for “a big and important event”.

With a U.S. aircraft carrier group steaming to the area, tensions on the Korean peninsula grew this week amid concern that the reclusive North could soon conduct its sixth nuclear test or more missile launches in defiance of United Nations sanctions. […]


North Korea marks the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on Saturday. In 2012, it tried but failed to launch a long-range rocket carrying a satellite to mark the date and tested a newly developed intermediate-range missile last year.


The flagship of Russia’s Pacific Fleet Varyag arrived to the shores of Korea. The warship entered the port of Pusan earlier than the USS Carl Vinson, which the US turned to South Korea at the time when she was traveling to Australia. […]

Together with the Pechenga sea tanker, the Varyag entered the port so that the Russian seamen could meet with representatives of the South Korean Navy command, the mayor of Pusan and the Russian consul general. It is planned to show the Russian seamen around and play friendly matches with Korean sailors.


How it went so wrong


What we have here is an “involuntary de-boarding situation”

John Robb’s analysis of how mindless obedience to a rigid, algorithm-based system led to the, um, episode of lackluster customer service at United Airlines:

As you can see, United was designed to fail in a world connected by social networking and they are not alone.  Let’s recap.  United employees blindly followed the decision making of algorithms up to the point of telling seated passengers to deplane.  The authoritarian decision making that followed was just as rigid and unyielding.  Disobeying orders of the flight crew led to the police.  Disobeying the police led to forced removal.  Finally, the public failure of this process led United’s CEO to praise employees for their rigid adherence to algorithmic and authoritarian decision making.

United really screwed up here, but I find the massive outrage on Chinese social media rather misguided given that the involuntarily de-boarded passenger was, in fact, Vietnamese-American. Do we know the ethnicity of the other three passengers who were selected for de-boarding?

Anyway, the whole debacle is a good example of how over-reliance on automated systems and protocols without any role for individual human judgement is basically a disaster for society.


Well this could get interesting

From the Daily Mail:

The Chinese army has reportedly deployed 150,000 troops to the North Korean border to prepare for pre-emptive attacks after the United States dropped airstrikes on Syria.

President Donald Trump’s missile strike on Syria on Friday was widely interpreted as a warning to North Korea.

And now China, left shocked by the air strikes, has deployed medical and backup units from the People’s Liberation Army forces to the Yalu River, Korea’s reported.

The troops have been dispatched to handle North Korean refugees and ‘unforeseen circumstances’, such as the prospect of preemptive attacks on North Korea, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, the US Navy has moved the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group from Singapore to North Korea after the country conducted more missile testing.

Hmm. Are the US and China coordinating on security efforts? In any case, I find it hard to believe the Korean media report that China was “shocked” by the Syria strike.

Predictably, the North Korean reaction:

North Korea is vowing tough counteraction to any military moves that might follow the U.S. move to send the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its battle group to waters off the Korean Peninsula.

The statement from Pyongyang comes as tensions on the divided peninsula are high because of U.S.-South Korea wargames now underway and recent ballistic missile launches by the North. Pyongyang sees the annual maneuvers as a dress rehearsal for invasion, while the North’s missile launches violate U.N. resolutions.

Trains and planes: China in 1972

From Chinese Shadows, Simon Leys’ account of his six-month stay in China in 1972, during a lull in the Cultural Revolution:

Air travel in China is full of unexpected charms, but if one is in a hurry, better take the train. The charm of air travel – apart from the apple or the banana (sometimes both) that one gets during the flight – is that one never knows when one will depart or when one will arrive, or even where one will land. The element of surprise, nay adventure, gives back to air travel some of its former romance. On provincial lines, the aircraft are little twin-engine planes that fly slowly at four to six thousand feet, and in clear weather (the weather will always be clear: if it were not, the plane would not fly) one has the most gorgeous imaginable lessons in Chinese geography. Sometimes the planes have seats – taken, it would seem, from old buses – on one side only, and the other side is filled with crates, boxes, and parcels. These little planes are even more irregular than the big ones, and more fun.

The trains, prosaically, run on time. Sybaritic meals offered in the buffet car contrast with the austerity of the airline fare. (Have the railways fallen back, like other sectors, into the hands of the revisionists, while the airways are still the preserve of the extreme left?) The first-class sleeping car is always three-quarters empty, and the only travelers the foreigner will meet are highly military officers. Mealtimes are arranged so that he will never be in the buffet car with ordinary Chinese travelers. But to break the isolation, the foreign traveler can talk to train personnel – the porters, waiters, and cooks. These are mostly agreeable and sociable types, and thanks to the peculiar nature of their professional obligations, they lack the inhibitions that paralyze the rest of the population in dealing with foreigners. They can always find a good reason to come and have a chat with you in your compartment: travelers are few in first-class, and they have plenty of time. I never traveled without Hong Kong Chinese-language newspapers, of which the citizens of the People’s Republic, for obvious reasons, are extremely fond. I never figured out exactly what fascinated them most – heretical revelations about recent developments in the power struggle in Peking, or prurient details about the private lives of Hong Kong starlets; but in any case, on each trip the word would go around, and before long my compartment would be a reading room; the conductor, the guard, the policeman on duty, the porter, and the cook would each in turn knock on my door; after securing the lock to discourage any undesired visitor, they would sit down comfortably and become absorbed in back numbers of Ming Pao.


Spectacular idiocy

I like to think there is a special place in hell reserved for the people who created this regulation.

In a sane world, exchanging money for little discs of silicone hydrogel that you put on your eyeballs would be a thing you can do without government interference. But in America, people are apparently too stupid to be trusted to make their own decisions at the local LensCrafters. The law states that you need a prescription to buy contact lenses, every time.

In China, I would just walk into the nearest optical shop, tell the staff what strength I need, and buy a box of Accuvue Oasys lenses. It could not be simpler, or safer.


One of the downsides of living in a hyper-regulated society like America in the current year is that the simplest activities are often preposterously time-consuming and expensive.

An eye exam typically costs anywhere from $50 to $250. Vision insurance can defray this cost, but the insurance plan can set you back $150-$180/year (or maybe $50/year for an employer-provided plan). Contact lens prescriptions are only valid for 1-2 years in most US states.

The exams are also a headache to schedule if you have a full-time job and anything resembling a social life, since the doctors are never available on a walk-in basis, shops are closed on Sunday, etc.

Qui bono? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader. In any case, it’s definitely not me.