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.

Playing the long game

Tyler Cowen may have just answered the Big Question about North Korea, namely: What does Kim want?

If we think through the North Korea nuclear weapons dilemma using game theory, one aspect of the problem deserves more attention, namely the age of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un: 33. Because peaceful exile doesn’t appear to be an option — his escaping the country safely would be hard — Kim needs strategies for hanging on to power for 50 years or more. That’s a tall order, but it helps us understand that his apparently crazy tactics are probably driven by some very reasonable calculations, albeit selfish and evil ones. […]

So if you are a dictator planning for long-term survival under a wide range of possible outcomes, what might you do? You don’t know who your enemies and your friends will be over those 50 years, so you will choose a porcupine-like strategy and appear prickly to everyone. […]

One way to interpret Kim’s spat with U.S. President Donald Trump is that he is signaling to the Chinese that they shouldn’t try to take him down because he is willing to countenance “crazy” retaliation. In this view, Beijing is a more likely target for one of his nukes than is Seattle.

More radically, think of Kim as auditioning to the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India as a potential buffer against Chinese expansion. If he played his hand more passively and calmly, hardly anyone would think that such a small country had this capacity. By picking a fight with the U.S., he is showing the ability to deter just about anyone.

This explanation feels right to me. At least, I haven’t heard a better one. In which case, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the North Korean regime is neither irrational nor suicidal. Kim is not Jim (Jones), and a “nuclear Kool-Aid” scenario is most unlikely. North Korea will be a serious irritant, but not a genuine threat. Indeed, by spurring Japan and/or South Korea to get their own nukes, Kim could even (paradoxically) make the region safer – in theory.

The bad news? Under this interpretation, Kim is a skilled and strategic leader who is motivated to stay in power forever. His nukes shield him from external attack and, for all his bluster and provocations, he is cunning enough to stop just short of crossing any lines that would trigger a military response by an adversary. The rest of the world would simply have to learn to live with him, because there is no alternative. Meaning, we could be looking at another 50 years of Kim’s nonsense. Maybe a lot longer, if radical life extension technology allows for it.

“He brought reforms and unexpectedly high rates of growth to the North Korean economy, and he seems to have retained the loyalty of a significant fraction of the North Korean populace,” Cowen writes. North Korean GDP grew by an estimated 3.9% in 2016, the fastest pace since 1999. This raises the interesting possibility that Kim could reinvent himself as a Deng Xiaoping-type reformer who ushers in a new era of growth and rising living standards just by continuing to ease up on some of the totalitarian controls on the economy. If successful, that would boost his popularity, of course, which would further shore up his power.

I think Cowen’s guess is right, and Kim is in this for long haul. The very long haul.

Just 50 more years of this

Wild card

George Friedman of Stratfor singles out South Korea as the wild card in the dangerous North Korea game:

[The North Koreans] seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

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.

Comment on this from an author and military vet:

Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea. If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue. That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea’s aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Note that I said “sell” – in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control. China would instantly have kittens – a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn’t be far behind that. If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

It’s worth pointing out that a growing number of South Koreans want nukes of their own:

Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States had stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea. Then, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, and Moscow reciprocated.

The debate over redeploying those weapons is sharply dividing South Korean politics. […]

Still, 60 percent of South Koreans in theory support nuclear weapons for their country, according to Gallup Korea. A poll by YTN, a cable news channel, in August found that 68 percent of respondents supported redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

After South Korea’s defense minister said earlier this month that it was worth reviewing a redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, other administration officials have distanced the Blue House — South Korea’s executive mansion — from the proposal. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said this week that South Korea is not considering the option and has not discussed it with Washington, but she acknowledged that public opinion is shifting toward supporting the option. […]

“The mainstream view is now changing in South Korea,” Kim said. “Even within the governing party, we are now hearing some of these voices who are supporting redeployment or South Korea going nuclear by herself, particularly after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.”

Defense chiefs James Mattis and Song Young-Moo

As for Japan going nuclear:

Then there is the anomaly of Japan’s nuclear status. Defense analysis privately agree that Japan, like Israel, is an undeclared member of the nuclear weapons club. The point was made explicitly in an article by Nick Rufford in the London Sunday Times in 1994. The British Defense Ministry, Rufford reported, had informed Prime Minister John Major that “Japan has acquired all the parts necessary for a nuclear weapon and may even have built a bomb which required only enriched uranium for completion.” Moreover, Japan has long held enormous stockpiles of plutonium for its nuclear power program, and its H-2 rocket, which has launched two satellites into orbit, is regarded as capable of delivering a nuclear strike. Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Marc Dean Millot commented: “This is the stuff of virtual nuclear power. Only a political decision is needed to make it real.”

Blast from the past: Where’s the beef?

Unearthed below is a post I wrote in 2009, regarding a visit to Seoul during an interesting and puzzling episode of mass protest in the capital of South Korea:

The great beef protests of June 2008. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, candles in hand, to denounce President Lee Myung-bak, less than four months after he took office in a landslide win. The occasion for the protests was Lee’s lifting of a ban on imports of U.S. beef, which were widely believed to be infected with mad cow disease. I was shocked that such a silly issue could precipitate such a huge outpouring of rage and hysteria, though in fairness, the demonstrators had a laundry list of other complaints against the government. It seems that Lee had outraged many Koreans by running roughshod over public opinion and governing in a very arrogant, heavy-handed way. In any case, I witnessed some of the candlelight protesting in Seoul on the night of June 7. I had no idea that any demonstrations were going on until I saw bands of riot police gathering on the streets. The sight was a little ominous:

After nightfall, it was easy to find the huge crowd of candle-wielding protestors. The shrill amplified voice of a woman screaming something about the president in a chant of ever-increasing pitch added a tinge of menace to the scene. Otherwise, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed, at least in my corner of the crowd. Many people were sitting on the ground and seemed to be having a good time. Violent clashes between police and protestors broke out in the course of the June demonstrations, but fortunately (or unfortunately) I wasn’t around to see any of that:

As it turns out, I visited right around the peak of the protests, which reached 80,000 people on June 10 before tapering off.

Why were they protesting? According to Wiki:

The 2008 US beef protest in South Korea was a series of protest demonstrations between 24 May 2008 and about 18 July 2008 in Seoul, Korea. At its height, the protest involved tens of thousands of people. The protest began after the South Korean government reversed a ban on US beef imports. The ban had been in place since December 2003, when the prion responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or ‘mad cow disease’ was detected in US beef cattle.[1] The protests occurred on a background of talks concerning the US-Korea free trade agreement. Unrest was fanned by local media reports such as the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) PD Notebook program, “Is American Beef Really Safe from Mad Cow Disease?” televised on 27 April 2008.[2]

Mass protests over beef never really made much sense to me, so here’s an explanation that goes deeper into the socio-political context:

It is often said that history has a way of repeating itself. The massive candlelight vigils against the re-importation of U.S. beef reveal a social earthquake rumbling through Korea. […]

Thousands have reemerged with relit candles in central Seoul. The vigils today are symbolically encapsulated by the now ubiquitous image of “candlelight girl,” a cartoon drawing of a young girl holding aloft a lit candle. It is a powerful and poignant image, especially considering the fact that the original 2002 vigils were for the two young girls, Mi-seon and Hyo-soon.

Also poignant is that students roughly the same age as Mi-seon and Hyo-soon sparked the current uproar. Those students, rightly or wrongly, fear that mad-cow tainted beef is being forced down their throats by an uncaring government. Akin to 2002, the students’ outcries have snowballed into a nationwide phenomenon encompassing diverse groups banding together to collectively demand reparations for perceived injustices. The political establishment has again been shaken to its core. […]

Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow, depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.

An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say that everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.

However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent that the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.

At the outset of his term, his cabinet and secretarial appointments were a disaster. Now derisively nicknamed collectively after famous actresses “Kang Bu-ja” (pun using “Gangnam” and “bu-ja”, which means “wealthy” in Korean) or “Ko So-young” (pun referring to Lee cronies from Korea University, Somang Presbyterian Church or Yongnam Province), they presented an image of an elitist, “good old boy” network of people running the country.

The then-popular Lee vigorously set about with his agenda, pushing through policies that were not unanimously supported. Lee once told Bush that he was not the president, but the “CEO” of Korea. He was certain that disagreements over his plans could be overcome through his successful “bulldozing.” After all, he had done so at Hyundai Engineering and Construction and as Seoul mayor, specifically with the Cheonggyecheon project.

Therefore, the anger has more to do with Lee’s governing style than just simply the debate over whether American mad-cow was going to afflict the nation. The public resented the sense that Lee was the “CEO” and Koreans were merely employees expected to follow his orders. Somewhere along the way, his pledge to be a “servant to the people” got lost, and approval ratings below 20 percent reflect his extreme unpopularity. […]

President Lee has tried everything, to no avail. The en masse resignation of his secretariat and cabinet is unprecedented in Korean history, but it has been jeered by his opponents as a “political stunt.” Measures to ensure that 30-month-old U.S. beef will not enter the country are not placating the citizenry. Unpopular plans like the cross-country canal project and privatization of state firms have been shelved indefinitely, but, still, the people protest.

The fear is that the current vigils, which have so far taken on a somewhat festive atmosphere, may evolve into a socially precarious situation.

Seoul beef protests 2009

Seoul beef protests 2009

Seoul beef protests 2009