Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dang it!

With all this North Korean intrigue going on, I forgot all about National Watermelon Day!

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And now we know what Kim Jong-un looks like

We are finally getting an official glimpse of what possible future DPRK leader General Kim Jong-un looks like (and, boy, was I off).

From the BBC:
North Korean state media has released a photograph which appears to show the country's heir apparent Kim Jong-un.

It is the world's first up-to-date glimpse of the young man who appears set to succeed his father, Kim Jong-il, in a gradual transfer of power.

He is shown sitting on the front row of a group of senior North Korean leaders.

The photograph's release follows a rare meeting of the ruling Workers' Party, at which Kim Jong-un was promoted to top political and military positions.
The KCNA story is here. The Los Angeles Times is using the photo to jump into a discussion about his photo is being received.

And by the way, where's his general hat?

Anyway, I am resisting the urge to title this post "Fat Boy Kim," but man does the Kim family seem to get their share of carbs. I'm not even sure this guy will fit on a pin.

The Brilliant Comrade is only twenty-seven years old, so it may be a bit unfair to point this out, but that chubby baby face really does not inspire leadership and loyalty. And that makes me even more convinced that there will be quiet but determined political opposition to his eventual ascension, resulting in him not becoming leader, or perhaps becoming a mere figurehead.

I just hope he doesn't go all Napoleonic on us and feel the need to prove he's a tough guy. Be nice. Be like the Russian guy with the forehead birthmark, or the Chinese guy who looked like a turtle.

It's hard to tell from these photographs where people pose with stern looks on their face, but I'm getting a vibe that L'il L'il Kim really doesn't want to be there. I mean, seriously, look at the stress on that face. He is not ready for prime time and he knows it.

In fact, I can imagine the delay of the Workers' Party of Korea conference, over which much ink was spilled, was because Jong-un was telling Dad, "But I don't want to be a despotic dictator! Make Jong-nam do it!"

This jpg from the Chosun Ilbo shows an old picture of Kim Jong-un juxtaposed with a screen grab from the conference. Looks like he got a fresh haircut for the proceedings.

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Next of Kim

It seems PBS Newshour has stolen my next great pun on the North Korean leadership question. But they make up for it with a two-minute news clip with some pretty cool news footage of the KNCA television reports on the Workers' Party of Korea conference, which includes a lot of apparatchiki and nomenklatura arriving, standing, voting, and clapping, some close-ups of major players, and a very enthusiastic Grandma Anchor (I think there was a Marmot's Hole post on her but I can't find it now) telling us the name of the new four-star general.

Still no recent picture of him, though.



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Barbara Demick on PBS Newshour talking about guess what

I like Barbara Demick. I've met her on several occasions before, and I'd say she's a person who knows she doesn't know everything, doesn't have the arrogance to think she ever will, but then goes and tries to do whatever she can to know everything anyway. She is an asset to our understanding of North Korea and of China.

So I was happy to see on my iPhone that she was a guest on PBS's Newshour (they just created a nifty little app that allows you to watch various segments which I currently just listen to on my iPod while I jog run). Here's the video:



Her fellow guest, Kongdan "Katy" Oh of the Institute for Defense Analyses was also good, and she expressed the same line that much of the media has been presenting us, that "appointing [Kim Jong-un] as general at the same time the vice chairman of the party central committee, basically, it's crystal clear that Kim Jong-il has anointed him to be his successor."

Not so fast, says Barbara Demick, echoing the "not so fast" sentiments of Kushibo. Nothing is a done deal and we shouldn't treat it as such:
And something that I have been hearing in China -- I'm based in Beijing -- is that, even in North Korea, there are some rules for legitimacy. Within the party, one needs to establish credibility and presence. So, I wouldn't say he's the successor. I would say he's daddy's favorite.
And she's not afraid to proclaim her ignorance:
MARGARET WARNER: Barbara, is there no rival power center? In other words, the fact that this son was given military appointments, does that mean the military is behind this and the elites are behind this?

BARBARA DEMICK: Boy, I hate to say this on television, but I don't know. And I don't...

MARGARET WARNER: That's actually a very refreshing answer.
Indeed it is. The fact is, nobody really knows what's going on up there. Hell, even Kim Jong-il, his sister, his son, and his daughter don't really know how this is all going to turn out.

Yet we have a bunch of journalists and analysts who are talking as if this is all a done deal not because they've analyzed everything and exhaustively come to the conclusion that Kim Jong-un will be the unrivaled future head-of-state at some day in the near future when Kim Jong-il kicks the bucket, but because, when confronted with a deadline or a microphone, everyone else is saying that and that makes it a safe bet.

If it turns out you're wrong about that, then you can claim, "Well, it's really hard to read the tea leaves for North Korea," and appeal by reminding viewers, readers, or listeners that, "Everyone else got that ascension thing wrong, too."

Well, everyone except me and Barb.

But if I had to guess right now, I'd guess that (a) Chinese-style reforms are on the way regardless who is in power, and (b) Kim Jong-un will never see the power his father has; he will either never rise up much further than he is now because of internal opposition, or he will be placed up there as a mere figurehead, à la a constitutional monarch. Alternatively, it's possible one of his siblings (my vote is on the highly capable Kim Sŏlsong) will be elevated in his stead as a compromise with those who feel Kim Jong-un is too young, too inexperienced, and too unpredictable.

Caveat to all this: I don't know either.

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And once again The Marmot rubs it in our faces that he gets paid to go to neat places

This time it was Hyangdan. I've been there, it's nice. Even better if you're with the right company. 'Nuff said.

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Picture of the Day

North Korean soldiers in Pyongyang break the Guinness World Record for largest human foosball match attend event to congratulate Dear Leader Kim Jong-il on re-election as Secretary-General. [source]

Still no sign of Kim Jong-un, either in the portraits or the banners. Or anywhere, so far.

As I've said before, the assumed coronation of the Brilliant Comrade, even if it is the intent of Kim Jong-il and he gets his way in the on-going Workers Party of Korea conference, is far from a done deal. I wouldn't want to be KJU's official food taster after KJI dies.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

[UPDATED] KCNA coverage of the historic Workers' Party of Korea conference in Pyongyang

If you were expecting a Florida-style nail-biter, too bad. Kim Jong-il has been re-elected General-Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea unanimously. The rest of the Secretariat of the WPK Central Committee is here.

[UPDATEThis story, which was apparently missing when I first looked at the list of news articles, gives a litany of the Central Military Commission of the WPK. While Kim Jong-il is still the Chairman, the position from which he gets his authority and power, you'll notice that the second name listed is Kim Jong-un, who has been promoted to Vice Chairman of the Commission, along with Ri Yongho. As AsiaOneNews notes, "Jong-Un's postion as vice-chairman of the military commission places him right below his father and above everybody else in the military." Well, everyone except Ri Yongho, who "has close ties with Kim Jong-il and Jang Songtaek," according to North Korea Leadership Watch.]

Other notable articles:
  • This story gives an actual item-by-item accounting of how the conference went.
  • This is the Big List of members and alternate members (in case the members get shot, I guess) of the WPK Central Committee. I can't believe Ri Kŏnu* didn't make it. 
  • Members and alternate members of the elite WPK Central Committee's Political Bureau are listed here. Kim Jong-il and his sister, the newly minted four-star general Kim Kyŏnghŭi, are listed as members. Jang Songtaek, General Kim's husband and the presumed regent of Kim Jong-un should he be chosen to lead the country after his father's demise, was chosen as an alternate. KJU is not on the list. The Presidium of the Political Bureau, headed by the Dear Leader (is there nothing he can't do?), is listed here
  • The play-by-play of the above-mentioned Central Committee's plebum can be found here. It has all the excitements of the minutes of a local elementary school PTA information, but with less useful information.
  • This story talks about revisions of rules for the WPK, but without saying what those rules changes were. But it has something to do with strengthening the party.
* I made that guy up. Don't bother Googling.

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What is Governor Richardson's aide doing in North Korea?

I'm curious about this trip by Dr Tony Namgoong Namkung, a close aide to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and a Kushibo favorite for president. I wonder if it has anything to do with all the goings-on in Pyongyang or if it's just a big coincidence (I suspect the latter; not everything flows from the machinations of the Pyongyang ruling apparatus).

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The son and the stars:
KCNA on Kim Jong-un's promotion to general

Young people celebrate the military promotions of the Kims, 
according to the KCNA. Seriously. [source]

For those of you who like to get your North Korea news straight from the horse's mouthpiece itself, here is the KCNA announcement of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong-un's (김정은) promotion to four-star general, along with that of Kim Jong-il's sister, Kim Kyŏnghŭi (김경희), and KJI's BFF, Chae Ryonghae (최룡해, choé ryonghae):
Kim Jong Il Issues Order on Promoting Military Ranks

Pyongyang, September 27 (KCNA) -- General Secretary Kim Jong Il on Monday issued Order No. 0051 on promoting the military ranks of commanding officers of the KPA.

He said in his order that all the servicepersons of the People's Army and people are now significantly celebrating the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of Korea with unbounded reverence for President Kim Il Sung who made a new history of building a revolutionary party in the era of independence and strengthened and developed the WPK into vanguard ranks of revolution with high prestige and invincible might.

He stressed that the WPK born from the deep and strong roots struck in the anti-Japanese revolution has honorably discharged its mission and duty as a political staff of the Korean revolution since the very day of its founding and performed immortal exploits to shine long in the history of the country.

The KPA is demonstrating its might before the world as a powerful revolutionary army of Mt. Paektu after growing to be a strong army of the leader and the party, devotedly defending the headquarters of the revolution with arms and performing heroic feats to shine long in history in the defence of the country and building of a thriving socialist nation, he noted.

Expressing the firm belief that the commanding officers of the KPA who have grown up under the care of the party and the leader would creditably discharge their honorable missions and duties as the mainstay and main force of the revolution in accomplishing with arms the revolutionary cause of Juche which started in Mt. Paektu, remaining true to the Party's leadership in the future, too, he issued an order on promoting the military ranks of KPA commanding officers on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the glorious Workers' Party of Korea.

General Kim Kyŏnghŭi.
Not Kim Jong-il in drag.
No such jokes, please.
Thank you.
[
source]
It is noted in the order that the military ranks of Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Un and Choe Ryong Hae and three others are promoted to general, the military rank of Ryu Kyong to colonel general, the military ranks of Ro Hung Se and Ri Tu Song and four others to lieutenant general and those of Jo Kyong Jun, Jang To Yong and Mun Jong Chol and 24 others to major general.
And here it is in Chosŏnŏ.

In case you missed it, the succinct little announcement about KJU is buried there in the bottom paragraph. It occurred to me that the KCNA spills so little ink about such things, compared to the Western media, because they sorta do know what's going on up in Pyongyang and that means they don't have to fill column-inch after column-inch with speculation to obscure the fact that they don't really have any clue about anything until after it's announced and in the meantime they're all just parroting each other's approved and parroting-reinforced speculations. (Yeah, like I'm not guilty as well, except for the parroting part.)

(Also, the KCNA also doesn't need to print things like this, a Wall Street Journal guide to the Kim family tree, because to do so could be life-threatening.)

But then where would we be if the DPRK just laid everything out in front of us? Pyongyang kremlinology and North Korea watching would be far less interesting.

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KRW at four-month high

That's good news for those of us who get paid in Korean won, which still includes me. And the trend may continue, but it depends on factors like (I think) the appreciate of the yuan:
Measures will be taken to stabilize the exchange rate when “exceptional” moves occur, Kim Yi Tae, director of foreign exchange at the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, said the same day.

“The government is allowing the won to gain somewhat as it is wary that U.S. pressure on China to appreciate its currency will spill over to Korea,” said Seo Jeong Hun, chief economist at Korea Exchange Bank in Seoul. “Economic fundamentals and strong exports give the won more room to strengthen in the long- term.”
At 1150 won per dollar, it's much closer to what it should be than, say, back in 2008 when it shot up to 1600 won or so for no good reason. Still, I always thought 1000 won or so would be a more natural rate (though wouldn't it be wonderful if it came down to 800 won per dollar again?).

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

General Jong-un

Delegates to the Workers Party conference arrive in Pyongyang.

Well, make that Kim Chŏng-ŭn Taejang [김정은 대장]. The historic meeting of the Korea Workers Paarty has begun (in Chosŏnŏ), and the BBC reports that North Korean media introduced Kim Jong-il's youngest son one day before by reporting that he has been promoted to the rank of general.

The Telegraph says this means the DPRK military establishment has "given its tacit backing to the dynastic succession plans of Kim Jong-il," even while the Christian Science Monitor hints that the son might not even show up.

Meanwhile, ABC News says that Kim Jong-il also had his own sister Kim Kyŏng•hŭi promoted to general, as mentioned here. She is said to be an ardent supporter of Kim Jong-un, and her husband Jang Songthaek [장성택, chang sŏng•t'aek] is expected to play the role of regent if the Brilliant Comrade's succession goes through.

Not so fast, says Kushibo. If the speculation that the conference was delayed over infighting about the succession, then what we're seeing here may actually be a face-saving political compromise, one that pits hardliners against reformists. Frankly, I'm not so sure which side Kim Jong-un supporters are on — maybe both sides are trying to co-opt the Brilliant Comrade — but for now I'm guessing the stay-the-course, no-reform crowd is headed by Brother-in-law Jang, so by extension Kim Jong-un and his aunt are both in the hardline camp.

But if a group of generals and/or bureaucrats (let's call them the soft-liners) have been able to muster together enough of a coalition that they could actually hold up the conference, then that is clearly a sign that even the Dear Leader and his entourage do not wield absolute power. And that would also mean that (a) that the soft-liners have the power to force change and (b) they do not wish to see another powerful figurehead who is not readily accountable to anyone else. They would do what they could to see power placed in the hands of a larger group who share it in an orderly and predictable pattern, perhaps like the Chinese model.

But Kim Jong-il still has considerable power, despite his stroke, his age, and his (supposedly) teetering health. Going against him is very risky (apparatchiki can get executed just for suggesting a wrong policy!), so the solution would be to find a way to give Kim Jong-il what he wants while nudging the country toward a Chinese-style reform. The soft-liners seem to have the backing of Beijing (or someone has their backing... it could even be the hardliners), which would explain the KCNA news releases about how wonderfully reform worked in northeast China, on the border with North Korea.

So what, then, does Kim Jong-il want? At the very least, he wants his family to have comfort and power, but he may see the writing on the wall and realize that (a) China may undermine or outright oppose another dynastic succession, (b) none of his sons is really capable of taking over the country and holding onto power for very long (and his brilliant daughter probably couldn't take power because of her gender), and/or (c) North Korea needs to go in a new direction in order to feed all its worthy people while still keeping political power in the hands of the elite. And any or all of those reasons might be enough for him to accept a loyal opposition plan for his family members to being given positions that make them mere figureheads relative to the power that he himself has wielded.

In other words, a grand, face-saving compromise that ensures his family's comfort and position, as well as his own place in the country's history. The post-stroke Kim Jong-il, his mind altered by that drastic medical event and his conscience troubled by his proximity to the great beyond, has even shown glimpses of such a change of heart.

Of course, things may in fact be less settled than that. Perhaps the soft-liners have chosen to simply kick the can down the road while pushing for economic reforms among the new leadership. Let Kim Jong-un be promoted to general while simultaneously shoring up their own power so that he won't be in a position to take over a position like his father's when Kim Jong-il actually dies. A wait-and-see approach of biding their time while determining which would be better: blocking the Brilliant Comrade's actual succession, or installing him in a position that has nominal authority over a country that is actually run by the political apparatus (à la a constitutional monarchy).

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Blockbuster goes bust

The Economist has a piece on the demise of Blockbuster Video, the click-and-mortar store (as opposed to brick-and-mortar shoppes) that found itself sandwiched between online upstart Netflix and even upstartier in-store kiosk rental system Redbox:
IN THE early days of the commercial internet, it was often predicted that pure e-commerce sites would begin to struggle as bricks-and-mortar stores moved online. “Clicks-and-mortar” stores, which could reach consumers both on the internet and on the high street, were thought to be inherently superior. Surely Blockbuster would be able to crush Netflix, an online service that rents DVDs through the post? Surely Barnes & Noble, a bookseller, would easily see off Amazon?

As it turned out, they could not. Shares in Barnes & Noble have slumped over the past few years as those of Amazon have soared. The British arm of Borders, another media retailer, went into administration last year. And on September 23rd Blockbuster filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in New York. The firm, once owned by Viacom, a giant media conglomerate, aims to reduce its debts by about $900m. It is likely to close some of its 3,000 American stores. (The company’s non-American operations and franchised outlets are not affected by the bankruptcy filing.)

The growth of Netflix, a technologically savvy company with a vastly superior website and an attractive subscription model, was hard on Blockbuster. But the firm was caught in a pincer movement. On one side was Netflix. On the other was the decidedly low-tech Redbox, owned by Coinstar. Redbox rents films for one dollar a night through kiosks in drug and grocery stores—a 1950s technology applied successfully to a new medium.
I'd written occasionally about my Blockbuster membership (herehere, and here), and briefly mentioned the Netflix membership I currently have, but never went into detail about why I switched. As briefly as I can explain, Blockbuster ended their unlimited in-store exchange policy, making their $12/month membership far less worth my while (I would take my by-mail DVDs and exchange them at the store for another title, which I'd watch while I waited the couple days for the next by-mail DVD).

I even wrote to them asking that I be grandfathered in with the old policy, but it was clear that no thinking human being had actually read my letter: the response was a form letter saying sorry that you won't be with us anymore. I still get form-letter emails asking me to return and telling me what I'm missing.

Meanwhile, I got myself a Netflix membership. For $9/month, I get unlimited DVDs by mail (only one at a time), but I can also watch their entire online library for free. Granted, the online library is only about one-fourth of their entire library (something that poses a serious problem for Netflix), but I still have close to five hundred titles I've yet to watch. I have given the by-mail DVD subscription to my mother as a perpetual birthday present, while I use the same membership to watch movies online.

I'm not so sure if Blockbuster couldn't compete, or they just gave up trying. I could tell from the employees at the Kapiolani Boulevard Blockbuster that there was an atmosphere of defeat. And that's too bad; I enjoyed chatting with the staff (some of whom I developed a good rapport with) and asking them about this movie or that, a service that Netflix doesn't really offer.

Back in Seoul, I hadn't had a video membership since I moved out of my old neighborhood, when I would by VHS tapes and later DVDs (the latter of which usually had English-language subtitles, which helped with the ten percent or so of the movie I didn't understand). There was no real demand for video store chains, and with cable TV and online sources (which would preclude the need for a Netflix-like service), those mom-and-pop brick-and-mortar video shops are an endangered species as well. The one in my old neighborhood has morphed into a convenience store with the DVDs on the side. Progress?

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Pyongyang intrigue

With the DPRK's grand party congress convening tomorrow, there have been a lot of articles talking about what is expected to happen (i.e., the coronation of Kim Jong-un), why the congress was delayed (e.g., opposition to the coronation of yet another Kim), and what it all means (i.e., we have no frickin' idea, but we must pretend otherwise). So in that spirit, here are some articles and their highlights (i.e., what I consider the take-home message).
  • Here's a Reuters factbox on Kim Jong-un, talking about all the stuff we only guess is true.
  • Here's Yonhap's take, which includes speculation that it won't be Kim Jong-il's son who is anointed leader, but rather Kim Jong-il's sister, Kim Kyŏnghŭi, who is the wife of Jang Songthaek (chang sŏngt'aek), who many assume will be Kim Jong-un's regent.
  • In this Korea Times piece, it's suggested that if Kim Jong-un has a low profile at the congress, it's "a bad sign," as it means that there was sufficient opposition to his rise to power, which is a sure sign of instability up north.
  • AFP goes on about Kim Jong-nam's (Kim Jong-il's oldest son) "pampered life" in Macau.
  • My favorite among these articles is this one from the Telegraph, talking about the power struggle up north, saying straight out that factional infighting has occurred up north, with the hardline group headed by the aforementioned Jang going head to head with reformers who would like to see the economy head down the Chinese path. This would explain what I have predicted, based on KCNA reports, that North Korea is getting ready to announce Chinese-style reforms. By the way, here's a 2009 Newsweek piece talking about how to topple KJI, which declares that the Dear Leader will never allow Chinese-style reforms because it would mean the end of Pyongyang's control.
I'm still holding out the possibility that Kim Sŏlsong, Kim Jong-il's daughter, may be the chosen one.

UPDATE:
Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-il's sister have both been named generals

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Hyundai Sonata recall over steering issues

After the very high-profile debacle in which it became clear that Toyota had been maintaining its image of high quality by, well, not announcing major defects that should be handled through recalls, I wonder if the public sees it as a good thing or a bad thing to announce such things.

That is, is a recall proactive and preventative, or is it a sign of far worse problems in the future? Hopefully for Hyundai it will be the former:
Hyundai Motor Co. said it is voluntarily recalling 139,500 Sonata sedans in the U.S. because of a manufacturing defect that could cause drivers to lose steering control.

The recall affects 2011 models built between Dec. 11, 2009 and Sept. 10, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration noted on its website Sunday. Some of the cars have steering column shafts with connections that may not have been tightened enough or were improperly assembled. As a result, the steering wheel could become separated from the column or a driver could lose the ability to properly steer the car.

The U.S. government had opened an investigation into possible steering problems in the vehicle in August. Hyundai, South Korea's top automaker, has said there have been no related injuries or crashes reported. [AP via WaPo]
News on the NHTSA investigation can be found in this post from earlier this month.

Hyundai is by no means the only automaker announcing recalls, but Hyundai and Kia are arguably more affected than other car companies by such bad news, as quality problems recall the days of shoddily manufactured Excels back in the 1980s and early 1990s. While the 10-year/100K-mile warranties on Kias and Hyundais goes a long way toward mitigating any such worries, Hyundai/Kia needs to revamp its quality control efforts so that these recalls aren't necessary at all. Making 'em right is better than making 'em quick in order to keep up with demand.

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The British aren't coming

There is a certain tightness to the great anglophone alliance — the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, and Ireland have for at least a century (usually) been as close as lips and teeth. Great Britain in particular could be counted on for support in military operations in places like Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But there are new concerns that with a planned ten-percent slash in its military budget, the UK may no longer be America's go-to gopher in the future.

From the New York Times:
Plans by the British government to make significant cuts in defense spending have spurred concerns among American military experts about Britain’s ability to carry out its role as the United States’ most dependable ally.

A wrenching government spending review has pitted Britain’s army against its navy, spawned a series of leaks to the British media and raised the question of whether the military that emerges from the budget cuts — expected to be 10 percent to 20 percent of current outlays — will be a strategically agile force that can join the United States on major combat operations.

American and British officials said that they did not expect any cutbacks to curtail Britain’s capabilities to fight in Afghanistan over the next five years. But some American military experts question whether the British military will be capable of undertaking future ground operations that are as demanding as those in Afghanistan or to carry out simultaneous operations, including risky humanitarian missions, effectively.
[source]

Frankly, I see this as an excellent opportunity for South Korea to step in and take over some of the role that the British have played. Like the US, South Korea is a country that depends on trade, and it would behoove the ROK government to play a more prominent role in, say, making sure sea lanes from the Arabian Peninsula through the Strait of Malacca and on to the East Sea (aka Sea of Japan), supporting political stability in Afghanistan, providing humanitarian aid in Haiti, etc.

My position has always been that the Pax Americana is now and for the foreseeable future necessary for peace and stability in Northeast Asia, but that does not mean that the ROK-US alliance should flow one way. While the USFK presence on the Peninsula is a near guarantee of South Korea's territorial integrity, one that would be prohibitively cost-prohibitive for South Korea to supply on its own (as it would cost far more than the added cost to the US of stationing USFK in Korea), it frees up the South Korean military to provide support services outside the Peninsula that would go a long way toward playing a more equal role in the partnership.

Of course, we've been here before. South Korea was far and away the US's biggest ally during the Vietnam War (after South Vietnam, I guess), and the sequestered contingent of ROK soldiers in Iraq made it the third largest force outside of the US and the UK. That would certainly suggest South Korea should make sure it carefully picks and chooses which future battles to fight, and it makes the regular patrolling of sea lanes and being a go-to source for humanitarian missions all the more appealing as a military supporting role.

[source]

I dare say that Japan, too, should work with Seoul and Washington to find ways for the three to strengthen their military relationship (preferably while resolving their outstanding territorial disputes). Japan is effectively required to stay under the US security umbrella, and any moves toward expanding its military role might make the neighbors very nervous, but partnered activities with South Korea's military could go a long way toward relieving such anxieties while also providing useful service that Japan itself benefits from. Were Taiwan to do this, though, it could trigger a backlash from China that would cause far more problems than its worth.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that the UK is out of the picture. But it would behoove allies like South Korea to fill whatever vacuum the British military cuts create, to show how much they value the alliance and the stability it brings.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

A oégugin Chusok

If you have no family in Korea to whose home you must travel, I guess this is as good a way to spend your Chusok holiday as any:



I actually quite enjoyed that, but I happen to have a blonde-girl-dancing-in-pink-unicorn-costume fetish.

My all-time favorite this-major-holiday-isn't-for-us video, however, is "Christmastime for the Jews" from Saturday Night Live:



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Saturday, September 25, 2010

demonstrations de rigueur

In France, much of the populace is up in arms — and in the streets — over the prospect of measures of austerity, called rigueur in French. But it was the following quote in this NPR News piece that reminded me of la Corée de Sud:
Any government in France thinks it has a kind of special responsibility towards people who protest, which has no political logic, no political legitimacy. You should not care whatever people say or do on the streets in a free country with regular elections. But that's how it is.
In the past I've made the case that Koreans are the Irish of Asia, the Jews of Asia, and the Italians of Asia, but given the way the French and SoKo demonstrators tend to bend elected (and unelected) governments to their will by taking to the streets, I have to add the possibility that Koreans are also the French of Asia.

Feel free to leave snide remarks about cheese-eating surrender monkeys or Vichyssoise collaborators in the comments section.

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Waterworld

The ugly dispute between Tokyo and Beijing over the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, precipitated by an incident in which the captain of a fifteen-person Chinese fishing vessel was held in Okinawa after apparently deliberately ramming a Japanese Coast Guard vessel that was pursuing him, is now over.

From the Los Angeles Times:
Japan will release the Chinese fishing captain [Zhan Qixiong] whose detention after straying into disputed waters had enraged Beijing and spiraled into the worst diplomatic crisis to rile the long-contentious neighbors in years, prosecutors in southern Japan said Friday.

The abrupt announcement from Japan came as mounting pressure and threats from Beijing stirred fears of serious economic repercussions for the island nation.

"Considering the future of Japan-China relations and the possible consequences for the Japanese public, we decided that keeping the suspect in custody and continuing the investigation was not appropriate," Toru Suzuki, an official from the prosecutors' office in Naha, Okinawa, told NHK TV in Japan.
Even the Japan Times hints that Japan may have been caving in:
Toshikazu Inoue, a professor at Gakushuin University, said the release of the captain came at the worst possible time for Tokyo diplomatically, given that Japan was forced to yield to China.

"(The captain) should have been deported immediately after the incident occurred," Inoue said. "Or if not, he should have been thoroughly subjected to Japanese law and been indicted and put on trial — releasing him at this time was the worst possible thing to do."

Inoue said now that Japan has buckled, China might ease off. On the other hand, Inoue warned that China might continue to take the initiative on the territorial issue by using its increasing clout to exploit recent turbulence in Japanese-U.S. ties.
The Economist minced no words about how and why Japan gave in:
Japan’s prosecutors chose not to indict Mr Zhan on the grounds that his act was not premeditated, according to Kyodo, the Japanese news agency. But the real reason was the vehemence of China's reaction. Since the fishing crew and its captain were arrested, China has continually ratcheted up the pressure to have them returned. It cut diplomatic communications and even arrested four Japanese nationals, allegedly for filming in a restricted military area. China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports. And this may be true: there probably isn't a formal directive. But in a country where informal rules abound, exporters know that it can pay to withhold shipments—in solidarity with a government that is angry at its neighbour.
That's some serious crap right there, although I think threatening to withhold rare earth metals will eventually backfire in a big way, since it will simply lead other countries to step up their own mining efforts. My understanding is that China dominates these markets not because it is the only country that has these rare earth metals, but because it's the only country that had a viable mining business for them going on when their demand started to go into high gear. If they really keep threatening to manipulate the market in such a fashion, whether out of political spite or economic gain, how long before that all starts to change?

Anyway, news of the resolution brings to mind several points, many with repercussions for South Korea. For starters, this entire incident has actually made the Tokto-related vocal outbursts mixed with passive-aggressive posturing seem positively mature and diplomatic.

The diplomatic row between Tokyo and Beijing points to a very serious problem of which people with an interest in peace and stability in the region should take heed. Japan has several lingering and protracted territorial disputes with its neighbors (not just the Koreas but also Russia, China, and Taiwan) stemming from its imperial expansionism in the three-quarters of a century before the end of World War II. Make no mistake: these disputes are a perennial source of headaches for Japan, politically and, increasingly, economically. And as China becomes richer and richer, it has tried to assert its own version of regional hegemony, which is basically that they are the Middle Kingdom and rightful lords over the region and anyone in their sphere should prostrate themselves as they face the almighty Beijing. The corollary of that is that you will be slapped down for insolence if you dare question their legitimacy and/or dominance.

And those two problems, kiddies, are a dangerous combination. The waters around China are peppered with powder kegs, one of which could easily explode with grave consequences were the Pax Americana not in place. Clearly one of the things that needs to happen — and must happen before Pax American were ever to end — is for Japan to start settling these disputes in a peaceful manner. And to be honest, that is probably going to mean either expensive horse-trading or recognizing that the other side of the dispute should probably pretty much get what they're demanding (consider it the cost of waging a massive war in which most of the rest of the world doesn't see your side as the victims). [The Tokto dispute might be the easy one: Japan gives up claims to the islets it calls Takeshima in exchange for a treaty whereby South Korea recognizes an EEZ determined by Ullŭngdo, not Tokto, and a tacit approval of Japan's EEZ around the Okinotorishima Atoll out in the Pacific.]

China's shamefully shameless behavior during this recent dispute has also provided further evidence that China's neighbors should be wary of China's swagger. While the long-time hegemon in the region has been the United States, protector of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, it has been a relatively benign hegemon more interested in these allies getting rich and expanding trade with the US and each other than with any territorial designs.

China, on the other hand, is demonstrating more and more that it's primarily interested in turning the fence used to hem itself in into a chain of satellite tributaries bowing to the Chinese suzerain's every whim. It has resorted to kidnapping and hostage-taking of Japanese in this case, straight-out destruction of a US embassy in the past [left], and currently the deliberate and systemic demonization of Korea among the netizenry. It can't be said too often: China is China's biggest problem, and the sooner everyone — including China — realizes that, the better. Toward that end, I wonder if Japan and South Korea (and Taiwan) shouldn't start trying to diversify the destination of their investments, goods, and services. India's nice, I hear.

At the very least, I hope Seoul is paying attention to the ham-handedly unsubtle way China bullied Japan into kowtowing. I don't know if anyone at the Blue House or Yŏŭido is gloating, but they sure as hell shouldn't be. Hopefully they remember how Chinese fishermen have acted toward ROK maritime police when they were caught illegally trawling in South Korea's EEZ.

[UPDATE: I forgot about a 2008 incident, mentioned at ROK Drop, in which Chinese fishermen murdered a ROK Coast Guardsman.]

Of course, the incident with South Korea is different from that with Japan in one key way: the South Korean EEZ in question (to my knowledge) is not disputed waters, whereas those off Senkaku/Diaoyu certainly are. One could argue that the Chinese — who do not recognize Japanese claims to the islands — had no legal right to pursue Mr Zhan's ship in the first place, though that doesn't justify ramming the Japanese coast guard vessel, for which they may have been in their rights to detain him. At any rate, this is all the more reason to address my earlier point: this kind of incident is inevitable, and absent a regional hegemon acting as a ground plug, it could easily spark a much wider and deadlier incident.

And finally the incident spawned this Marmot's Hole commentary tidbit about China and South Korea:
As for Korea, that ship has sailed. It’s now only a matter of time before the peninsula effectively falls into China’s sphere of influence, even as it remains rich and free.
I find it rather telling that many of the Korea bashers who hammer away at the ROK-US relationship (e.g., fighting the FTA, advocating an end to the military alliance or USFK presence, decrying South Korea as free riders, etc.) and wish to dismantle the Pax Americana that has ensured stability in Northeast Asia for the past fifty-seven years, are the same ones who gleefully report that Korea has already fallen prey to Big Brother China (or should in the future).

Someone in Korea must have really done a number on some of these folks for them to be wishing something as nasty as Chinese domination on a whole country (or two).

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

ROK-US trade by the numbers

I felt compelled to respond to this comment at The Marmot's Hole because it seems to encapsulate so neatly the angst and hair-pulling of the Korea-bashing anti-FTA crowd, those that call Korea a free-rider and insist that an FTA would make things even worse.

Indeed, Weikuboy seems to have fallen for "the big lie."
Lawyer the truth all you want, calling Daewoo cars built in Korea in the past couple of years “American” and Hyundai cars built in the U.S. in the past couple of years “American”.
No, it's a matter of fairness and accurate comparisons. The Korea-bashing crowd has been having their cake and eating it, too, by perpetuating a distorted picture of outlandishly lopsided automobile trade deficits that count US-made Hyundais and Kias as "Korean" while also counting Korea-made General Motors vehicles as "Korean." (Perhaps if GM really does rebrand Daewoo as Chevrolet, then this anti-FTA sleight of hand will be more glaring.)

Moreover, though this is not a point made by Weikuboy himself but another knee-jerk serial Korea basher, the Korean car market is only one-sixth that of the US, so even if there were true parity among consumers' car-buying decisions, US automakers would sell to Korean consumers only one-sixth the number of cars that Korean automakers sell to American consumers.

And then there's this:
... Americans have a growing sense of being deeply wronged by Korea and its neighbors. And as long as the U.S. continues to run an obscene trade deficit with that part of the world...
Korea and its neighbors? That part of the world? I think WeikuBoy is conflating some very different countries, so let's look at real data from 2009:
And again, if the free trade numbers are so bad because of barriers, shouldn't the goal be to enact an FTA to take down those barriers as much as possible and make the numbers better? Surely the KORUS FTA is not perfect, but it seems a far sight better than nothing, and it would be easier to fine-tune an agreement that has already been signed and has mechanisms for being tweaked than to go back to the drawing board and start over completely.

But I doubt there will be any convincing of Weikuboy:
The closed markets of China, Japan, and Korea, especially, have been taken unfair advantage of the U.S. year after year, decade after decade.
Decade after decade? Especially Korea? Well, not quite:
Although bilateral trade between Korea and the United States grew tremendously in size, until 1981 the bilateral trade balance was persistently—with the exception of 1978—in favor of the United States. It shifted into Korea’s favor beginning in 1982 and has since grown significantly, reaching a peak at $8.96 billion in 2002. Korea showed a trade deficit with the United States in 1991 and 1992 and also from 1994 until 1997, but has maintained a surplus since the economic crisis of 1997.
But of course, you knew that, even though you continue to rant about "one-way trade."

You can see more data at this Census Bureau site (which disagrees with the above quote a bit by showing a slight surplus for Korea in 1991 and 1994). The upshot, though, is that Korea has not been a free rider and its surpluses in trade, particularly lately, are not astronomical. Unlike its neighbors, particularly China.

It's unwise to mix up China and Korea, or even Japan and Korea in this regard, especially if it is going to lead you to shoot yourself in the foot by not supporting a barrier-reducing, trade-enhancing, jobs-creating FTA.

Oh, and let's step up US trade with Taiwan, please. It's only one-seventh what it is with South Korea (Taiwan's population is half that of South Korea), and that's not right.

Note: This post is a work in progress that I may amend as time goes on.

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Ain't nobody here but us chickens


Sadly, a jaunt down to the Safeway on Kapahulu can seem like a journey back to Soviet Russia.

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Insert Chusok post here

Chusok traffic in 2007. Some of these people still haven't made it home.
About the only thing going on here that's going on back in Korea is the full moon. No foliage turning colors, no massive traffic jams, no taking off from school. Still, to keep things in a Chusoky mood, here are some Chusok-themed posts from the past:
Girls' Generation wishes you a  happy Chusok.

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Paris in Tokyo: No entry to Japan based on drug use in America

I guess the Japanese authorities don't really give a rat's arse that Paris Hilton is a celebrity. They see that giraffe-necked debutante walking through Narita International Airport immigration and just one thing comes to mind: confessed cokehead (plus maybe amateur porn). And Japan does not tolerate drug users even when they're famous for being famous:
Paris Hilton canceled her Asia tour and returned home when she was denied entry at Tokyo's airport Wednesday following a drug violation in the U.S. — running afoul of strict Japanese laws that have tripped up celebrities from Paul McCartney to Diego Maradona.

''I'm going back home, and I look forward to coming back to Japan in the future,'' a smiling Hilton told reporters before departing on her private jet.

The 29-year-old celebrity socialite had arrived at Narita International Airport, outside the Japanese capital, two days after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge in Las Vegas. Japan has strict immigration laws that bar entry to those convicted of drug offenses, although exceptions are occasionally granted.
When the whole world's on Twitter and TMZ, I guess what happens in Vegas doesn't exactly stay in Vegas. Too bad, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. (I wonder if Ms Hilton is still minus a clue or two and actually took coke and pot with her on this trip; the consequences in Malaysia and Indonesia could be far more severe than just being turned around at Narita.)

Funny that the New York Times article at top fails to mention that the drug in question was cocaine, a bit more serious than your run-of-the-mill pot, but I guess some would be concerned about governmental overreach when a country on one side of the globe can do something so serious as deny you entry — and interfere with your business obligations — because of a misdemeanor (yep, in Clark County, coke possession is apparently a misdemeanor) a quarter of a world away.

TMZ is reporting that Paris has been allowed to stay in an airport hotel (the simple life, indeed) while this gets resolved. Her appeal to enter the country may include pointing out that she loves Japan so much that she calls two of her dogs Tokio Blue and Harajuku Bitch (no, I'm not making that up), apparently named after, respectively, some pills she got hold of in Shibuya one time and a particularly rude shop clerk (okay, I'm making this part up).

She's not sure if she's going to stick around or not, but if all goes well with her appeal, NRT could become her new BFF.

And if you still haven't had your daily fill of Paris Hilton...

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

LiNK launching new documentary on North Korean refugees brought to safety

Esther Lee, the communications manager at LiNK (Liberty in North Korea), a highly worthy organization aimed at assisting North Korean refugees hiding in China that you may remember from Pepsi's "Refresh Everything" campaign, passed along some information for me to share with my readers.

From their website's announcement:
This year, we've rescued 20 North Korean refugees from hiding in China, thanks to the help of our incredibly generous supporters.

"Hiding" will follow the story of five individuals whose recues you have helped to fund. The documentary will highlight what life in hiding is really like and the risks that must be taken to escape.

LiNK's Nomads will be taking the film on the road this fall so if you are interested in seeing it, please book a screening to secure a date on our tour. We’ll be traveling to colleges, high schools and churches.
Here is a link (ha ha!) to the teaser. They've also got a list of planned screenings, and a way for folks to host their own screening. Their "tour" doesn't seem to include Hawaii, so if anyone out there would like to join me in co-hosting a screening here in Honolulu, shoot me an email.

Esther also informs that LiNK is doing an eight-week webisode series, with considerable cooperation from the Ford Motor Company, to follow a North Korean defector whom LiNK helped rescue:
We were ecstatic to learn today that we were selected by Ford in a project called The People's Fleet, a two-month program in Los Angeles that will help five influential and socially-conscious organizations drive their unique missions forward with a Ford Fiesta, Flip HD video camera, and a professional cinematographer. Ford will highlight LiNK's work by following us with a film crew for the next eight weeks and promoting our work to Ford's network. This will all be done behind the wheel of the brand new Ford Fiesta!

The Fleet will follow North Korean defector Danny, rescued by LiNK in 2006, as he lives his resettled life in Los Angeles, as well as capture LiNK's headquarters operations.
Some of the webisodes for that can be found here, along with those of several other of Ford's worthy projects (including Habitat for Humanity in Orange County).

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Michelle Wie mature?

On the occasion of Korean-American golfing prodigy Michelle Wie making an announcement about next year's Kia Classic LPGA event, one Los Angeles Times sports writer commented on her apparent maturing:
She was tall and talented and as pretty as her golf swing. She could hit it a mile and look good doing so. It was a new American dream — fame and fortune before algebra.

The reality was that she couldn't play, at least not on the level of the seasoned female pros and certainly not to where she would storm the tour as soon as she was eligible and become the distaff Tiger Woods. After those booming drives, there was the need for second shots and clutch putts. Those came harder. ...

Now, time has passed. A story that could have ended badly looks as if it won't. Psychologists may have to revisit previous theories. Perhaps a lost childhood can be overcome. ...

Wie didn't make a speech. She answered several scripted questions. But she also sat down for about five minutes with members of the press and new maturity was apparent. The Valley girl is still there — "like, you know, I mean, like" — but the previous distant, bored looks were replaced by eye contact, depth and even humor.

Life is good. She has won twice on the LPGA Tour and was on her way back to Stanford, where she matriculates for about half a year in the two quarters that the tour is most quiet.

"It's nice to win tournaments," she said. "I was sitting there when they were introducing me and they said, 'Two-time winner,' and I was looking around, wondering who that was. Then, I thought, oh, that's me."

College has suited her well. Her major is communications, but not the kind her occasional tormentors — the people sitting around her during the interview —- took in school.

"I'm focused more on the new digital media," she said. "I like the psychology part of that."

She said she likes that many Stanford students seem to have no idea who she is.
That last sentence: whiskey tango foxtrot?!

Anyway, I remember back in the day Jodi of the now defunct and disappeared Asia Pages would rail against Michelle Wie's popularity despite no real record. Though it did sound a tad borne of jealousy, she did have a point. I, for one, am glad to see her doing well.

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Ignorant OCers offended by swastikas

From the Los Angeles Times:
Controversy flared up at Pretend City, a children's museum in Irvine, when a few visitors recently complained about a Hindu swastika woven on a tapestry in one of the museum's exhibits.

The offended visitors apparently were unaware that the swastika is an old religious symbol in Hinduism and that members of many other cultures around the globe revere it, among them some Native Americans. The swastika, however, was co-opted by Nazi Germany as the centerpiece of the Third Reich's flag.

The tapestry is part of the museum's "Home" exhibit, which is displaying a Hindu family's belongings. The exhibit rotates every six months and takes cultural objects from local family homes and displays them to the public, allowing Orange County visitors to see how different families live.
And they live like frickin' Nazis!

Sadly, no, I'm not making this story up (I'd come up with a hella more creative name than "Pretend City"). They actually removed the offending swastika for a couple weeks while they figured out how to de-ignorantify the general public.

And I guess since we can't have Muslims setting up prayer centers in Lower Manhattan because it offends other people, I guess the Hindus are going to have to put away the swastikas that were co-opted by the Nazis. The Buddhists in America have already done so.

Hmm... maybe OC folks were offended by the hidden message that Republicans are a bunch of Nazis.

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Pyongyang leadership transfer to occur September 28?

Instead of relying on the Western media to tell us when North Korea's Workers Party will meet, followed by what it all means when they didn't meet when they were supposed to meet, maybe we should pay attention to what the KCNA is finally saying:
The Preparatory Committee for the Conference of the Workers' Party of Korea made public as follows as regards the party conference:

The meetings of delegates of the party committees of the Korean People's Army and provincial (political bureau), city (district) and county party committees took place to elect delegates to the conference of the WPK against the background of a high-pitched drive for effecting a new great revolutionary surge now under way on all fronts for building a thriving nation with the historic conference of the WPK and its 65th birthday approaching.

Blah blah blah something about unanimous will of the people...

More blah blah blah about patriotic devotion effecting a fresh revolutionary surge...

Blah blah blah everyone single-mindedly united around Kim Jong-il something something...

The conference of the WPK for electing its supreme leadership body will take place in Pyongyang on Sept. 28.
Note: Paragraphs 3, 4, and 5 have been edited for length.

So the plan is to meet on Tuesday of next week. Got it? Maybe by then we'll know who has been picked to run the country. The betting window is still open. Most of the money is on Kim Jong-un, but I'm going on a limb here and picking the highly competent Kim Sŏlsong as a dark horse.

The Washington Post notes that despite all the spilled ink, there could have been legitimate, non-intrigue-related reasons for postponing this meeting:
South Korea's government attributed the delay to "internal reasons." Perhaps North Korea didn't want to hold its conference amid widespread problems caused by the typhoon. Perhaps, other experts guessed, Kim Jong Il - just back from an Aug. 26-30 trip to China - was dealing with health problems. Or maybe North Korea needed extra time to debate policy changes.
And the WaPo admits that all these stories about North Korea are constructed around a few pieces of data that are often a bit flimsy or suspect:
Even the notion that Kim Jong Eun will succeed his father relies mostly on opaque clues. One Seoul-based media group with contacts in the North, Open Radio for North Korea, believes that 10 million portraits of the son have already been printed, ready for distribution. Children in Korea have reportedly been signing a song, "Footsteps," that honors Kim Jong Eun. During a speech in China, Kim Jong Il made reference to the "rising generation."
Though many folks think the Kim Jong-un ascension is a done deal, I think we may be in for a few surprises. And whether he is picked, his uncle is made regent, a different sibling is chosen, or the Workers Party finally turns the Kims into figureheads and starts running the country PRC-style, I think we'll see Chinese-style reforms in North Korea's future.

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"World's longest seabed tunnel" completed off Pusan

The Epoch Times has an interesting piece on the 3.7-kilometer seabed tunnel that is to connect Kŏjedo Island and Kadŏkto Island with Pusan and the rest of the Mainland. There isn't an official name yet, apparently, though it is being called the Kŏga Tunnel (가거침매터널, after the first syllables of Kŏjedo and Kadŏkto).

The Korean-language Joongang Ilbo (from which I snagged the above image) has a neat graphic on how it was put together. I wonder if this technology could be used for a future tunnel connecting Japan's Kyushu Island and Korea's Kyŏngsang region beneath the Korea Strait, one that is getting a second look.

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KAL 858 and the smell test

Over at One Free Korea, a discussion of acceptance of the official findings of the Ch'ŏnan sinking led me to offer up the November 29, 1987, downing of KAL 858 as a far more glaring example of a somewhat flimsy case of North Korean malfeasance presented by South Korean authorities.

I had always thought the case of terrorist "Mayumi" (Kim Hyŏnhŭi; 김현희) and her older male accomplice having blown up the plane at the behest of then leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-il's was a little too quickly and too perfectly presented for my taste, and I had always suspected there were others who thought the same as I do. Certainly my reservations seemed to parallel those today who might believe that North Korea was probably responsible for the sinking of the Ch'ŏnan but that the ROK government's body of evidence was less than a slam dunk.

I was asked at OFK to lay out the case, but I've always been reluctant to get into it too much for a variety of reasons. Primary among them, my skepticism is purely speculative and to lay out the case would involve me playing devil's advocate at the risk of seeming to endorse that case. Second, were I to make a really convincing devil's advocate argument despite my own agnosticism on the matter (something I am scarily good at), then I may end up serving the interests of people trying to undermine the ROK itself (chinboistas and the like).

[But of course, if the KAL 858 incident really were engineered or staged, then the individuals and/or administration responsible (not the current ROK government) should be held accountable. It should be noted that the downing of KAL 858 is the primary incident that got North Korea put on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and it is widely considered an act where Kim Jong-il proved his worth to eventually take over DPRK leadership from his aging father, Kim Ilsung, something that many have suggested presumed heir Kim Jong-un has had to do with the Ch'ŏnan sinking. If (and I stress the hypothetical nature of that conditional) KJI had nothing to do with KAL 858, then we may have constructed a narrative of the Pyongyang regime that is based on a major falsehood. That wouldn't negate the horrors that we know the DPRK machine has inflicted on its people, but it would paint a picture of the Dear Leader that is quite different from that of a maniacal killer who takes down planes full of innocent people.]

But I am willing to at least list some of the things that don't pass the smell test. For starters, a mass murderer was let off. First her death sentence was commuted to life in prison, which was not much of a surprise. But then they actually let Kim Hyonhui go — and did so very publicly — on the basis of her contrition and a newfound epiphany about the superiority of the South Korean system as it headed into free elections. I wrote about that in this post:
Her case underscores one of the failings of the South Korean judicial system, whereby the flimsiest of mitigating circumstances is used as a pretext for letting someone off easy or off the hook altogether. In this case, instead of the all-too-familiar "I was drunk" excuse, hers was "I was beautiful."
If you were in South Korea at the time (Kushibo was a teenager in Seoul in 1987), there was no escaping this obvious conclusion: The press and public, at a time when the former was much more tightly under government control, had rallied around this highly telegenic personality, who had been dubbed the Virgin Bomber. The thought of killing the beautiful instigator (despite her having apparently murdered 115 people) was anathema because she was a mi•in.

As I wrote here, there are enough other oddities to write a book. From what I'd read at the time, there were no nationalities besides ROK citizens who lost their lives (which would make it easy for a right-wing ROK government to fabricate a passenger list or silence calls for further investigation after the matter was officially settled).

Furthermore, I recall that no wreckage or debris was found except a lifeboat-type thing from the wing. By contrast, after the Soviets shot down KAL 007 a few years earlier, there was a considerable amount of debris found across the East Sea/Sea of Japan, including human body parts and lots of shoes identified by family members as those of their loved ones.

A third curiosity was that although all the people on board the plane were ROK nationals, the two (ostensibly) Japanese passengers who ended up blowing up the plane didn't somehow stand out on the first two legs of the flight, not enough for it to raise a red flag that they had somehow not gotten back on board in Abu Dhabi.

But the real cause for skepticism comes when one considers the timing of the incident. KAL 858 was blown up just weeks before South Korea's first direct presidential election in decades, which was a forced concession by the former general who was running the country and his hand-picked successor (who eventually won). It was glaringly obvious that the ruling party wanted to scare the public into supporting a continuation of their hardline stance on North Korea, something which might be undermined if the rabble-rouser Kim Youngsam or the "closet communist" Kim Daejung (the two opposition candidates whose inability to form a unified front assured Roh Taewoo's win) were to take control of the Blue House.

To drive home the communist threat from up north, one of the networks on the night before the election made sure to screen The Killing Fields, a 1984 film based on true events that chronicled one man's escape from Cambodia after the murderous (and communist) Khmer Rouge had taken over.

Though disruption of the December 1987 presidential election was speculated as one reason for the bombing, President Chun Doohwan declared that the primary reason for the bombing was to scare people off from the following year's Olympic Games — ten months later.

I could go on. Korean media that night showed wailing relatives at Kimpo Airport almost immediately after the plane lost contact with Bangkok air traffic controllers, before its fate was even known. And though the terror act itself occurred in the United Arab Emirates and the two apparent terrorists were traveling on fake Japanese passports, "Mayumi" was handed over to South Korean authorities with great speed. Those things, of course, mean nothing by themselves, but as part of the whole big picture, it just adds to that unlikely perfectness with which this entire incident was presented as a slam dunk.

What do I think really happened? If pressed to decide one way or another, I think North Korea probably really did blow up this plane. Probably. The alternatives would have to be either South Korea killing its own citizens for propaganda purposes, or for the entire flight to have been fabricated (an actual plane going dark and landing in Korea with over a hundred accomplices to the fabrication, or an actual aircraft, perhaps one near retirement, being ditched after the accomplice passengers were safely deplaned; production of the Boeing 707 involved was from 1958 to 1979).

Frankly, I would love to have any or all of these points skewered and dismissed in an accurate and informative way (and I would especially love to see a believable slam-dunk case laid out that this was as we were told it was). In particular, if there were non-ROK citizen passengers who were killed, I'd like to know. If the plane was new or newish, that would also be of interest to me. And in particular, if there was considerably more wreckage and debris than the lifeboat, that could make a difference in the case. Much of this is reliance on memory of news reports back in the late 1980s, which is hard to bolster and refute for an incident that happened so long before the Internet took over our lives.

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