When the world is a prison

Prison Inside Me South Korea

only the prisoners are free:

For most people, prison is a place to escape from. For South Koreans in need of a break from the demands of everyday life, a day in a faux jail is the escape.

“This prison gives me a sense of freedom,” said Park Hye-ri, a 28-year-old office worker who paid $90 to spend 24 hours locked up in a mock prison.

Since 2013, the “Prison Inside Me” facility in northeast Hongcheon has hosted more than 2,000 inmates, many of them stressed office workers and students seeking relief from South Korea’s demanding work and academic culture.

This is no resort, either:

Prison rules are strict. No talking with other inmates. No mobile phones or clocks.

Clients get a blue prison uniform, a yoga mat, tea set, a pen and notebook. They sleep on the floor. There is a small toilet inside the room, but no mirror. […]

Noh said some customers are wary of spending 24 or 48 hours in a prison cell, until they try it.

“After a stay in the prison, people say, ‘This is not a prison, the real prison is where we return to,’” she said.

Koreans take things to the extreme; this may be their defining national characteristic. And the pressures of modern life are so extreme in Korea that sometimes you just need to spend a day in prison to escape from it all.

The New York Times lies about North Korea

South Korea Unification Bridge

South Korean soldiers walking on Unification Bridge

The Nation magazine discusses a breathless article by The New York Times that argues that North Korea is pulling a fast one on the US:

Now, [David] Sanger, who over the years has been the recipient of dozens of leaks from US intelligence on North Korea’s weapons program and the US attempts to stop it, has come out with his own doozy of a story that raises serious questions about his style of deep-state journalism.

The article may not involve the employment of sleazy sources with an ax to grind, but it does stretch the findings of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank that is deeply integrated with the military-industrial complex and plays an instrumental role in US media coverage on Korea.

“Controversy is raging,” South Korea’s progressive Hankyoreh newspaper declared on Wednesday about the Times report, which it called “riddled with holes and errors.”

Sanger’s story, which appeared on Monday underneath the ominous headline “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception,” focused on a new study from CSIS’s “Beyond Parallel” project about the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, one of 13 North Korean missile sites, out of a total of 20, that it has identified and analyzed from overhead imagery provided by Digital Globe, a private satellite contractor.

The NYTimes story draws on the CSIS study to argue that North Korea is performing a “grand deception” by continuing work on its ballistic missile program at 16 secret bases, despite very publicly offering to dismantle a large missile launching site as a sop to the US. The article also points out that Kim is continuing to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. In other words, Trump got played.

The problem is that the CSIS study in question is based on commercial satellite imagery dated March 29 – almost three months BEFORE Trump and Kim shook hands in Singapore! Moreover, the US and North Korea have not yet reached an agreement on the ballistic missile program, so Kim cannot possibly be cheating by continuing work on said program – if he even is, which is unclear.

Contrary to the impression one would get from a superficial reading of the Times story, the situation seems to be well under control, or at least, moving in the right direction:

South Korean officials are confident the US–North Korea talks will resume, and point to the steps Pyongyang has taken since the Singapore summit. They include North Korea’s decommissioning of a major satellite launch facility; its destruction of the tunnels where its nuclear weapons were tested; its return of American dead from the Korean War; and its unprecedented cooperation with South Korea and the US-controlled UN Command to remove guard posts and firearms in the DMZ.

The only deception here is coming from a certain newspaper. But why? The Nation has a theory:

Here’s where the contractor money that pours into CSIS comes in: Providing the justification for a tougher policy of sanctions and military threats would be very much in tune with the defense and intelligence companies that support the think tank.

Reality is complicated. Until recently, I had always thought of the New York Times as a left-wing, antiwar newspaper. Yet, the left-wing Nation magazine is here criticizing the New York Times for pushing a bogus narrative designed to thwart US diplomacy and justify a more bellicose policy towards North Korea. According to one expert quoted by the magazine, the Times is in effect acting as a mouthpiece for “the most reactionary elements of the US national security and foreign policy establishment.”

It may be that the categories of left-wing and right-wing just aren’t very useful for understanding the world anymore.

Daily links: Geopolitics and Tom Cruise

US teams up with Japan and Australia to invest in Asian infrastructure projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has competition.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announces $113 million in new technology, energy and infrastructure projects in emerging Asia as part of Trump’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Generals from the rival Koreas meet at the border to ease military tensions.

But there’s still a long and difficult road ahead with North Korea. “Washington and Pyongyang, however, are not the only players. Racing against a clock of its own, Seoul will aim to drive Trump and Kim toward an early trilateral summit to declare an end to the Korean War as a first step toward peace, fueled by President Moon Jae-in’s determination to go down in history as the peacemaker.”

Professor Stephen Cohen points out that in early 1986, President Ronald Reagan met alone with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for about two and a half hours, during which they discussed abolishing nuclear weapons, paving the way for the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which was signed a year later.

Behind-the-scenes on Tom Cruise’s HALO jump from a C-17 military aircraft at 25,000 feet for the latest Mission: Impossible movie. HALO means high altitude, low open (i.e. the parachute is deployed at below 2,000 feet).

Reminds me of this incredible scene from Moonraker.

Tom Cruise is “our last remaining movie star.”

Daily links: Musk, Mission Impossible, US military

An amusing takedown of Elon Musk. For some reason, Musk is a deeply polarizing figure, viewed as either a visionary genius or a total charlatan. His increasingly bizarre and out-of-control behavior of late certainly raises doubts about his qualities as a business leader. The outlook for Tesla does not look good either.

New Yorker review of Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Very entertaining movie, although the crazily violent fight scenes and endless car/bike chases through Paris get numbing after a while.

All your base are belong to us: More than 300,000 American military personnel are deployed or forward stationed in 177 countries.

More US embassy weirdness: Bomb detonated near the embassy in Beijing.

Some salient questions about the US-EU announcement on trade relations.

North Korea returns remains of (allegedly) US soldiers in goodwill gesture.

What happens when a total stranger decides to destroy your life by posting false information about you on a sleazy grudge-settling website?

A shift in rhetoric

North Korea propaganda poster

Source: libertyherald.co.kr

Another sign that the move toward a US-North Korea rapprochement may be more than just “a triumph of showbiz over substance,” as some would have it:

Nix the nuclear warheads, cue the doves.

The North Korean government is erasing much of its anti-U.S. propaganda following dictator Kim Jong-un’s forays onto the world stage.

Gone are the posters depicting the U.S. as a “rotten, diseased, pirate nation” and promising “merciless revenge” on American forces for an imagined attack on the totalitarian country.

In their place are cheery messages touting praising the prospects for Korean reunification and the declaration Kim signed in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in promising “lasting peace,” according to reports.

Too early to tell where this may lead, of course, but it’s certainly a welcome development.

US revolutionizes North Korea policy; haters hate

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

An insightful article in the left-wing Jacobin magazine analyzing the Western media’s bizarre reaction to last week’s US-North Korea summit:

On Tuesday, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands for their much-anticipated summit in Singapore, one Korean reporter observed a curious episode. Koreans watching the scene unfold on a TV screen at a railway station in Seoul began applauding. Meanwhile, some nearby Western tourists, perturbed by this development, scratched their heads in confusion.

“I am actually baffled to see them clapping here,” said one British tourist.

There’s perhaps no better symbol of the gulf in worldwide reactions to the summit than this episode. While South Koreans cautiously celebrated a historic step in the thawing of hostilities that have hung over them for almost seventy years, the Western media seemed to look on with alarm — even anger.

What could be more infuriating than a historic meeting that might — might — lead to peace on the Korean peninsula after 68 years?

Hostility to the summit, much of it from Democrats and liberals, had been a staple of press coverage in the months leading up to it, often from commentators who just a few months earlier had been panicking about exactly the opposite outcome. But it reached a fever pitch over the last few days.

There was, for example, the collective hyperventilation over a symbolic arrangement of North Korean and US flags. There was MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, who warned that the whole summit was actually a “Trumpian head fake,” a mere artifact of Trump’s “midterm strategy” and his “get out of sitting with Bob Mueller strategy.” Sue Mi Terry of the defense contractor–funded Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned that “a peace treaty is not okay” and should “come at the end of the process” because it “undermines the justification of our troops staying in South Korea.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that the CSIS publicly said that.

You wouldn’t know it from the vast majority of Western news coverage (with some notable exceptions), but South Koreans greeted news of the agreement’s signing with optimism — often cautious optimism, to be sure, but optimism nonetheless. Which isn’t surprising — 81 percent of South Koreans wanted Trump to meet with Kim, though that was not much higher than the 70 percent of Americans who felt the same.

Based on this coverage, you probably wouldn’t have learned that the agreement was backed by the UN secretary general, who urged the international community to support its objectives. You wouldn’t have heard, for example, from the residents of a Chinese city on the North Korean border who expressed quiet hope about the negotiations to come. And you certainly wouldn’t have heard that the summit was considered a great success by South Korea’s extremely popular president, Moon Jae-in. […]

Reading non-Western media reports on the summit, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had dropped into another reality. […]

More here. Particularly amusing in this context are the claims that Trump is “normalizing” North Korea and the Kim regime. One wonders if these critics are aware that the Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea since Trump was two years old. Or that North Korea has been a UN member state since 1991 and has had nukes for over a decade. It’s simply not up to Trump — or anyone else for that matter — to “normalize” the North Korean state. It exists, and it’s not going away anytime soon, barring a US-led invasion of North Korea. Would the critics like that? Or are they just dumb? I’m seriously asking.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. -Philip K Dick

* * *

Here’s an intriguing behind-the-scenes story from Nikkei, though I would take the information with a grain of salt:

The battle between Washington and Beijing over influence on North Korea has already moved into its second round. And it was Trump’s own words of on Friday that startled the Chinese leadership.

“How are you going to celebrate Father’s Day?” the president was asked in an impromptu appearance on Fox News, broadcasting live from the White House lawn.

“Work. I’m going to work,” Trump told the conservative channel. “I’m going to actually be calling North Korea.”

After the Fox appearance, the president stayed on the lawn to take questions from other reporters. “I can now call him,” he said of Kim. “I can now say, ‘Well, we have a problem.’ … I gave him a very direct number. He can now call me if he has any difficulty.”

The establishment of a “hotline” between the two leaders, however spontaneous the exchange was, will be an extremely powerful tool for Trump. It is a luxury that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met with Kim only twice, does not yet have. […]

A hotline between Washington and Pyongyang inevitably alters the balance of power between the U.S. and China. Trump may feel that China is no longer indispensable in negotiations with North Korea. He can talk directly. This was not on Xi’s radar.

And here’s an opinion from the indispensable Korea observer Michael Breen, published back in March:

The previous inter-Korean summits were requested by the South. (Indeed, the first one, it later transpired, was bought — for around half a billion dollars — and the second was treated by them as unimportant.)

But this time, it is the North that wants to talk. Why? Love him or not, Trump has done what no predecessor has done since the North’s nuclear weapons program became an issue 25 years ago and that is to issue a credible threat of military action. This was language the North Koreans understand. Until then, when they heard a White House condemnation of their nuclear weapons program, they thought, “Yeah, that’s what you said to the Chinese and the others, and, you know what, we do that too — dust off old statements. It saves time.”

But Trump came at them like a punch in the face.

Not only did he scare the North Koreans, but he convinced the Chinese and the Russians that he was serious and they came on board for the first time with effective sanctions that are now hurting.

He has also, it must be said, scared the South Koreans, who knew that North Korea’s threats to strike American soil were empty and that if its nuclear weapons were going to land anywhere it would be on South Korean cities. […]

And last and perhaps most important, the big difference is that Washington is prepared to talk. In the light of the standard attitude of previous U.S. leaders to North Korea, Trump’s agreement to the summit with Kim is nothing short of revolutionary. […]

In that regard, his historic willingness to both bomb and talk may achieve a resolution that could open up a way to bring North Korea in out of the cold. At least that is what we in South Korea now hope.

And on the topic of bringing North Korea in out of the cold, here’s an excellent commentary on the summit by Tyler Cowen. Of note:

4. As I tweeted: “Isn’t the whole point of the “deal” just to make them go visit Singapore? The real spectacle is not always where you are looking. And I hope someone brought them to the right chili crab place.”

The goal is to show the North Korean leadership there is a better way than playing the Nuclear Hermit Kingdom game. We won’t know for some time whether this has succeeded. Here is good FT coverage on this point. There are in fact numerous signs that the North Koreans are considering serious reforms. Of course those could be a feint, but the probabilities are rising in a favorable direction. Economic cooperation with South Korea is increasing at an astonishing pace.

It’s possible that Kim wants to be a Deng Xiaoping-type figure who reforms the economy while opening North Korea to the outside world. It’s even possible that he agrees in principle with the clever video that his American counterpart played for him during the talks:

Of course, these are all possibilities — not certainties. I agree with Cowen that we should be agnostic about what happened last week. But I think we’re also entitled to a bit of cautious optimism.

North Korean restaurant waitresses tricked into defecting?

Astonishing if true:

The 12 North Korean waitresses who defected from China two years ago were tricked into doing so in an operation by the South’s intelligence services, their manager told South Korean television in a bombshell revelation.

The high-profile case has long been controversial, with Pyongyang insisting the women had been kidnapped and saying there would be no more reunions of families divided by the Korean war unless they were returned.

But Heo Gang-il, the manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo where they worked, said he had lied about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South.

Heo told JTBC television he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.

Fearing exposure in 2016, he asked his NIS handler to arrange his defection. At the last minute the minder told him to bring his staff too.

“The 12 waitresses did not know where they were going,” Heo told JTBC’s Spotlight, one of the South’s top investigative current affairs programmes. “I told them we were relocating.”

The women only realised their final destination when they arrived outside the South Korean embassy in Malaysia.

When they hesitated to enter the building, one of them told the show, “manager Heo threatened us, saying he will tell security authorities that we watched South Korean TV dramas and we would be executed, or exiled into provinces and our families would also be affected”.

The silver lining here is that North Korea appears to believe these waitresses were kidnapped (as opposed to being defectors), so there’s a chance their families back at home haven’t all been put in gulags.

North Korean restaurant in Bangkok

Word War III

Entertaining, is it not?

Credit where credit is due – this is a pretty decent verbal hand grenade lobbed by the Supreme Leader, although it lacks the potency of the linguistic MOAB that is “mentally deranged dotard,” not to mention the city-flattening power of the semantic ICBM that is “Little Rocket Man”:

North Korea’s state-run media has described US President Donald Trump’s tweet about having a bigger nuclear button than leader Kim Jong-un’s is the “spasm of a lunatic”.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, lashed out at Trump in a commentary on Tuesday that took issue with the US commander in chief’s January 3 tweet that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

A summary of the commentary by North Korea’s official news agency described the tweet as “the spasm of a lunatic.”

“The spasm of Trump in the new year reflects the desperate mental state of a loser who failed to check the vigorous advance of the army and people of the DPRK,” the Rodong Sinmun commentary said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “He is making (a) bluff only to be diagnosed as a psychopath.”

I must say, I find this verbal pissing contest… strangely entertaining. And it’s hard not to imagine the Great Successor and the Sun of the 21st Century suppressing a smirk as he launches his latest verbal fusillade. Hopefully his next insult doesn’t involve an actual nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Bomb North Korea, says Luttwak

Busan, South Korea (Oct 2017)

A good rule of thumb is that when Edward Luttwak has something to say… you should listen. I wish he commented on current events more, because unlike most pundits, the strategist known as the “Machiavelli of Maryland” always seems to have a surprising, original and deeply informed perspective on everything he writes about. Like bombing North Korea:

One mistaken reason to avoid attacking North Korea is the fear of direct retaliation. The U.S. intelligence community has reportedly claimed that North Korea already has ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach as far as the United States. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration, or rather an anticipation of a future that could still be averted by prompt action. […]

It’s true that North Korea could retaliate for any attack by using its conventional rocket artillery against the South Korean capital of Seoul and its surroundings, where almost 20 million inhabitants live within 35 miles of the armistice line. U.S. military officers have cited the fear of a “sea of fire” to justify inaction. But this vulnerability should not paralyze U.S. policy for one simple reason: It is very largely self-inflicted. […]

When then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to withdraw all U.S. Army troops from South Korea 40 years ago (ultimately a division was left behind), the defense advisors brought in to help — including myself — urged the Korean government to move its ministries and bureaucrats well away from the country’s northern border and to give strong relocation incentives to private companies. South Korea was also told to mandate proper shelters, as in Zurich for example, where every new building must have its own (under bombardment, casualties increase dramatically if people leave their homes to seek shelter). In recent years, moreover, South Korea has had the option of importing, at moderate cost, Iron Dome batteries, which are produced by both Israel and the United States, that would be capable of intercepting 95 percent of North Korean rockets headed to inhabited structures.

But over these past four decades, South Korean governments have done practically nothing along these lines. The 3,257 officially listed “shelters” in the Seoul area are nothing more than underground shopping malls, subway stations, and hotel parking lots without any stocks of food or water, medical kits or gas masks. As for importing Iron Dome batteries, the South Koreans have preferred to spend their money on developing a bomber aimed at Japan.

[Shaking my damn head]

Even now, casualties could still be drastically reduced by a crash resilience program. This should involve clearing out and hardening with jacks, props, and steel beams the basements of buildings of all sizes; promptly stocking necessities in the 3,257 official shelters and sign-posting them more visibly; and, of course, evacuating as many as possible beforehand (most of the 20 million or so at risk would be quite safe even just 20 miles further to the south). The United States, for its part, should consider adding vigorous counterbattery attacks to any airstrike on North Korea.

Fair enough, and a case could be made that, assuming a mass evacuation of the city, the destruction of a large portion of Seoul is a price worth paying to prevent Kim Jung Un from joining the nuclear ICBM club. However, I imagine most South Koreans would argue that such a price is definitely not worth paying. Unfortunately, they are not the only people with skin in this particular game, as it is also Japan’s cities, and, potentially, America’s too that hang in the balance.

Complicating matters, South Korean resistance would make an American attack on the North much harder, as George Friedman argued last September:

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

A dangerous game that only seems to get more dangerous, at least until this week’s encouraging news of the first intra-Korean talks in over two years.