A step forward

Always impossible to know what’s going on behind the scenes, and results matter more than gestures, but this seems like a good thing. As the saying goes, jaw, jaw is better than war, war. And it’s not all theatrics; grand symbolic gestures can create political space for outcomes that would otherwise be hard to imagine.

I also view it as a positive sign that Mr. “Troika of Tyranny” was off in Mongolia during this event.

Depends on your definition of “lie”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

How do you do, fellow underachievers?

Dunno, I think this qualifies:

Hwang Kyo-ahn, chairman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, on Monday argued that he had not lied about his son’s qualifications after his remarks on the matter during a lecture sparked controversy.

“If I had said a score that was higher than the actual score — that would have been a lie. But I am not sure if the other way round is (a lie),” Hwang told reporters after a meeting at the National Assembly.

Last week, Hwang spoke about his son, who landed a job at a conglomerate despite having a GPA of below 3.0 and a TOEIC score of about 800. He said that “conglomerates focus on specialized qualifications rather than spec.” […]

His comments drew flak, as college graduates often have difficulty finding employment upon graduation. […]

To ease backlash, Hwang issued a statement on social media saying, “My son’s GPA was 3.29, TOEIC 925 points.”

However, the post sparked further controversy that Hwang had lied about his son’s qualifications.

One nation under Kim

Kim Jong-un smoking

The US and South Korea have confirmed reports that they plan to end large-scale war games to ease tensions with North Korea, which views these exercises as preparations for an invasion. I commented yesterday:

This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

My comment may not have been far off the mark. From a blog post by Dongseo University’s Professor BR Myers, dated March 2018:

Hence also the confident hope of many that under the right sort of pressure, Washington will reduce USFK [Ed: United States Forces Korea] from bodyguard to chaperone: a force just high-tech and well-armed enough to reassure foreign investors, reward the US military-industrial complex, and discourage the North from doing anything crazy, but too small and averse to military exercises to frighten the neighbors. (Which may well be what is foreseen for the very first stage of a confederation, as a transition to US troop pullout.)

The rest of the post is interesting for its analysis of the astonishingly anti-American, pro-North-Korean orientation of South Korea’s current government, led by president Moon Jae-in:

It is therefore misleading of the New York Times to say that the Moon Jae-in administration is “hungry for a diplomatic rapprochement” with Pyongyang. There is no bad blood or grudge between the two parties that must now be laboriously reconciled. Besides, they have the exact same short term goal of bringing off a North-South summit that is PR-effective enough to get a) the international community to relax sanctions, and b) the South Korean public to sign off on confederation. Their longer term goals are different. The North wants unification under its own flag, while South Korean progressives want the two states to coalesce over decades of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.

Here’s more on that topic by North Korea expert Joshua Stanton (dated April 2018):

LAST DECEMBER, I PUBLISHED A SURPRISINGLY CONTROVERSIAL HYPOTHESIS that Korean War II would not be a conventional war, but is a hybrid war to alternately cajole and coerce South Korea into gradual submission to the North’s hegemony, aggressive implementation of a series of joint statements, and eventual digestion into a one-country, two-systems confederation. I argued that this plan would only work if a sufficiently submissive government in Seoul yielded to Pyongyang while going only so far and so fast as possible to avoid a domestic backlash among a population that was, at least until recently, deeply distrustful of Pyongyang. Rather than involving anything as implausible and dramatic as a North Korean occupation, this hegemony would be enforced by South Korean institutions, such as state media, the National Intelligence Service, and the riot police—with occasional assistance from the muscle of hard-left street thugs, like those who are blocking the THAAD sites now and preventing them from becoming fully operational. I argued that the historical conduct of both Pyongyang and Korea’s left also suggested that this plan was not only plausible, but no great secret. This is why I find the controversy to be surprising. […]

Again, I’m not oblivious to how conspiratorial it all must seem. But then, on what evidence do skeptics of this view believe that those who staff the top ranks of the Moon administration — men who are veterans of groups like Minbyun, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, and Chondaehyop, with deep ideological and financial links to Pyongyang and a lengthy pedigree of violent anti-Americanism — have moderated their views? At some point, status quo bias must yield to what’s right before our eyes.

To reiterate what I said before, the US needs to reassess its relationship with South Korea in the cold light of these facts. If the Moon administration wants to pursue a phased unification with North Korea, then, well, that is the sovereign decision of South Korea. But in that case, the US should not have any part in defending South Korea from its friendly nuclear-armed neighbor to the north.

Korean unification

Unified Korea

NBC is reporting that the US is preparing to end the annual large-scale joint military exercises held with South Korea, as part of a bid to placate North Korea. This could also be seen as a step in the direction of reducing the US troop commitment in South Korea, which currently numbers 28,500 soldiers, and perhaps eventually a total withdrawal.

North Korea, of course, would love to see the US depart the peninsula, and according to BR Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan, that is in fact the goal of its nuclear program:

More concretely, North Korea wants to force Washington into a grand bargain linking denuclearization to the withdrawal of US troops. South Korea would then be pressured into a North-South confederation, which is a concept the South Korean left has flirted with for years, and which the North has always seen as a transition to unification under its own control.

The concept of unification under North Korea’s control is not as crazy as it sounds. In a fascinating speech from December 2017, Professor Myers explains South Korea’s vulnerability to a Northern-led unification drive:

The Moon administration cannot be called pro-North yet. […]

His government nonetheless appears more hostile to anti-North, pro-American elements than any other administration has been. The intelligence service is already a shadow of its former self, and the ostensible anti-corruption campaign turns out in practice to be a seemingly endless purge of veterans of conservative administrations. The word chŏkpye or “accumulated evil” is being used freely to mean any conservative, i.e. anti-North, pro-American, security-minded element. [Note: There is broader agreement between left and right on economic issues in South Korea than in the US, for which reason conservatism is considered largely a matter of animosity to the North Korean regime and strong support for the alliance with America.]

Most interestingly, Moon Jae-in’s right hand man, the number two in the Blue House, is none other than Im Jong-seok, a former protest leader who was in contact with the Kim Il Sung regime in 1989, and who spent much of his time in the National Assembly pushing causes of which the North approves. It’s due to Im, for example, that royalties must now be paid to North Korea for South Korean media use of its propaganda films and images.

Moon is pushing the idea of a “low-level confederation” between the South and the North, which Kim understands to be a path toward unification of the peninsula – under Pyongyang’s auspices:

Kim Il Sung told his Bulgarian counterpart Zhivkov that if the South agreed to confederation, “it’s done for.” That was 1973. He went on to try killing two presidents in succession, so obviously the South’s economic boom did not lessen his determination to unify the peninsula. You may say, “Yes, but in those days the South Koreans didn’t have a liberal democracy worth defending.” But from Kim Young-hwan, who traveled to Pyongyang in 1991, we know that the Great Leader was upbeat about the prospect of a takeover by the end of the century.

His grandson can hardly be less ambitious now that he has nuclear weapons, his ally has become a superpower, Washington is in chaos, and South Korea has its most pacifist administration ever. The young man also knows that people here do not identify strongly with their state. No public holiday celebrates it, neither the flag nor the coat of arms nor the anthem conveys republican or non-ethnic values, no statues of presidents stand in major cities. Few people can even tell you the year in which the state was founded. When the average man sees the flag, he feels fraternity with Koreans around the world.

North Koreans have been positive characters in South Korean films for about 20 years now. Popular this year have been buddy thrillers [Ed: like Steel Rain] that show North and South Koreans teaming up against a common enemy. Although all actors are of course South Koreans, the A-list heart-throbs play the North Koreans, which tells you a lot about how this republic sees itself in relation to the other one.

Even more extraordinary: North Korean defectors are increasingly common as villains. A new film has North and South Koreans cooperating to catch a serial killer who has fled to the South.

While nationalism is not strong enough to make people welcome a North Korean takeover, all Kim needs is for it to weaken their resistance to one. He can’t have failed to notice the general indifference to the Cheonan sinking and the attack on Yeonpyeong, both of which acts of [Ed: North Korean] aggression the local left blamed on Lee Myung Bak [Ed: the South Korean president at the time]. The only people who got really angry at the North then were already too old to fight.

Apparently, I spoke too soon when I speculated that Kim Jong-un may try to reinvent himself as an economic reformer in the mold of Deng Xiaoping:

Pyongyang watching has become quite an industry, and American presidents have kicked the can down the road for a quarter century in no small part because of expert assessments that proved to be very wrong. The North just wants an aid package, the Sunshine Policy will calm it down; black markets will weaken it; Kim Jong Un will be a reformer; ideology no longer matters there; and on and on. This may be the most protracted and catastrophic failure of intelligence in American history.

How hard would it be for the North to pacify the South in a unification scenario? Perhaps not very, according to Myers:

I read, for example, that Kim Jong Un must know he couldn’t hold on to power here, because South Koreans are such fearless protesters. Despite the ease with which the hated Japanese took the entire peninsula, and the unique longevity and stability of the North itself, some Americans seem to think Koreans are freedom fighters by nature. I shouldn’t have to point out that since 1945 the protests here have all been either anti-conservative, anti-Japanese, anti-American, pacifist or explicitly pro-North. In 1961, students marched through Hyehwadong in Seoul shouting “Long live Kim Il Sung.” All demonstrations here were cheered on by the Rodong Sinmun. Granted, there have been anti-Pyongyang rallies, but until 1988 they were organized by the government, and since then they have been the province of the geriatric right. Why should the North feel intimidated by this history?

Much is also made of how wired South Koreans are. Well, so what? The part of East Germany that caused Honecker the most problems was the one where TV bunny ears could not pick up West German broadcasts, where people read books and had a sense of community. Adorno said modern man is drugged with light and sound, and that’s much truer today; just look at the gormless faces on the subway. The narcotic and socially atomizing power of the internet is far greater than television’s ever was. As if that weren’t enough, it has the benefit of helping to spy on people — indeed, it gets them to spy on themselves. […]

Entire generations of South Koreans have grown up hearing good things about Kim Il Sung. To hear him glorified would not be as big or sudden a change as it would be to hear Syngman Rhee glorified. If you think I’m exaggerating, read some South Korean school textbooks.

In summary:

Pyongyang’s unification drive is not a will to wage war with the US. The nuclear program was conceived to compel the peaceful withdrawal of American troops. Encouraged by the long decline of conservatism and of hostility to the North, by public indifference to the twin attacks of 2010, and by Moon Jae-in’s pledges to realize a confederation, Pyongyang believes that a break-up of the alliance would resign the South to its ethnic destiny. It follows that America’s most urgent task is to call publicly on Seoul to disabuse the North of its hopes. This would have to entail formal renunciation of the concept of confederation, the South’s support for which now conveys to Pyongyang a prioritization of nationalism over constitutional, liberal democratic principles. As a sovereign state, the South has every right not to accede to any such requests from its ally. But in such an event, the US government owes it to the American people to take the next logical step — and I don’t mean a strike on North Korea.

Myers doesn’t spell it out, but the next logical step would, of course, be for the US to cut South Korea loose and let it face the North on its own. The piece should be read in full by anyone remotely interested in Korean politics, but Myers provides the TLDR version in an interview with Slate.

And here’s a great article, dated last October, in the South China Morning Post detailing the growing willingness of many in South Korea to countenance the idea of some sort of unification with the North:

Since April [2018], when Moon and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their first inter Korean summit, the Herculean challenge of North Korean denuclearisation has dominated the world’s attention. But on the Korean peninsula, the spotlight has shone with equal intensity on the steps being taken to complete a potentially even more monumental task: reunifying North and South.

In a Gallup Korea opinion poll last month, 84 per cent of South Koreans said they supported unification, the highest proportion since 2004, with most favouring a gradual process over the next 10 years.

“We expect debate about plans for unification to kick off in earnest in the second half of next year,” said Han Sung, a spokesman for the left-leaning civic group People’s Congress for Peace Federation. […]

With inter-Korean relations at their warmest in years, a growing chorus within South Korean politics, academia and civil society has steered discussion towards various models of political integration with the North – ranging from a federation to a union of states – that would mark the first practical steps toward unification.

A North Korean defector warns that a federation would be a Trojan horse for a Northern takeover of the South:

It is no secret that North Korea, which claims sovereignty over the whole peninsula, originally conceived of a federation as a way to subjugate the South without the bloodshed of war. Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean official to ever defect to the South, detailed in his 2001 book Sunshine Siding with Darkness Cannot Beat Darkness how Kim Il-sung believed federation would allow the North, united under “one ideology”, to dominate and propagandise the politically divided South.

The US, as well as South Korea, will certainly have some hard choices to make about their alliance in the years ahead. A US withdrawal would be extremely dangerous, as it would invite North Korean aggression. On the other hand, for the US to maintain a massive military commitment to a country that is increasingly aligned with our nuclear-armed adversary, is pretty insane. Something has to give, sooner rather than later.

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: Movies, Mars, and ancient nematodes

Steel Rain movie

Steel Rain

A large underground lake of liquid water is discovered on Mars.

Two Russian nematodes are brought back to life after being frozen for nearly 42,000 years, making them the oldest living animals currently on earth.

European astronomers track a star travelling through the gravitational field of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and it exhibits gravitational redshift, confirming Einstein’s predictions.

Massive, brutal vivisection of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, via a series of YouTube videos deconstructing the film’s appalling writing. It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. The franchise will never recover from this.

Review of the South Korean spy thriller Steel Rain. I watched this on a flight from Seoul to New York. It’s good.

David Goldman challenges American complacency about China’s rise.

Russia liquidates more than 84% of its US Treasury holdings in the two months through May 31, leaving experts puzzled.

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?