Believe It or Not, North Korea is Aiming for Space

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

Isolated, impoverished and universally hated North Korea is going ahead with some sort of space launch. It can’t keep its cities lit or its roads full. It can’t even feed its people. But it can keep the entire region on alert as it ratchets up the kind of tension that has proven to be a major lifeline for the regime, leaving the rest of us to wonder if and when things will boil over.

Tension has mounted steadily in recent weeks after reports last month that Pyongyang is planning to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking parts of the U.S. West Coast. The North soon responded by admitting that preparations were indeed underway, but for a “peaceful” satellite launch. That was followed by a warning about the safety of South Korean passenger jets flying through the North’s airspace. Flights into Seoul had been diverted due to the threat.

Last Wednesday, U.N. agencies said they’d been notified by Pyongyang that the launch would occur between April 4-8. That’s when I began thinking about keeping a packed suitcase in the trunk. Just in case.

“In order to protect the supreme interests of the country and the nation from the war maniacs’ reckless moves for aggression against the DPRK,” read a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, “we will retaliate any act of intercepting our satellite for peaceful purposes with prompt counter strikes by the most powerful military means.” DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war.”

Initial reports dismissed North Korea’s claim that it was pursuing a “peaceful space program,” harking back to 2006 when Pyongyang issued a similar statement just before firing off a long-range Taepodong II missile. That rocket plopped into the sea minutes after take off, but the launch was soon followed by a nuclear test that led to U.N. Resolution 1718, banning the North from future missile tests, and sanctions that were nonetheless rendered ineffectual by China’s continued material support of the North.

Some analysts actually questioned whether the missile launch was in fact intended to fail, as a successful launch would have been too provocative and harmful to the North’s real intent. A “failed launch,” on the other hand, would cause just enough tension between players in the region to allow the North more room to maneuver. In the game of smoke-and-mirrors, North Korea is a pro.

Later, editorials emerged asking “what if?” What if the North is preparing for a satellite this time and not a missile launch? Would regional powers like Japan or the United States still be justified in shooting it down? For countries like China, Russia and Iran, all looking to pursue their own space ambitions, that’s a serious question. And even assuming that it is a satellite, the launch technology involved is essentially the same as a ballistic missile, so either way the North benefits.

For their part, Seoul and Washington insist that any launch would violate U.N. sanctions. Philip Zelikow, former head of the 9/11 commission, took it a step further in a February op-ed for Foreign Policy when he called for a strike on the rocket if the North attempts to send it up. That’s all well and good, but destroying the rocket would wipe out any chance of discerning whether it is in fact carrying a satellite or missile, allowing the North to insist on the former. And besides Zelikow doesn’t live in Seoul. 

While threats out of the North are nothing new, particularly these days with Seoul’s conservative Lee Myung-bak government on less-than-friendly terms with Pyongyang, the fact is that any confrontation has potentially catastrophic ramifications. North Korea is a cornered raccoon with a million claws bared and not a hell of a lot to lose. A friend suggested that the North had taken heart from events in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to a more positive assessment of its ability to handle U.S. forces.

A more likely scenario is that Pyongyang is betting that it can win concessions without sparking a full-blown conflict that would see their demise. It’s a risky bet, but one that’s worked for decades.

One South Korean analyst said recently that North Korea views the loss of lives in a military skirmish as beneficial as it stokes domestic support for the regime while keeping neighbor countries on the edge of their seats. A successful launch will have the same effect, strengthening internal cohesion while creating tension between regional players who are sure to clash over how to react. Japan is likely to push for an aggressive response, while China and Russia will opt for a less hostile approach, placing the United States–neck deep in a tanking economy and two wars – squarely in the middle.

A British colleague quipped the other day as he stepped out for lunch that he was off to see about getting a passport for his Korean wife: “You never know when North Korea is gonna go ballistic.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, and that’s the problem with Seoul’s intractable neighbor to the North.

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China edits Obama speech

An Associated Press story reports that while Obama’s speech was being aired live in China the broadcast suddenly went to anchors when the words “communism” and “dissent” popped up. In translations too certain incendiary sentences are deleted, which makes me wonder what kind of aspiring world power could be so terrified of a few harmless words.

The space between Obama’s words

Obama

Obama

Having slept through the inauguration I printed out a copy of Obama’s speech to read on the train home. Behind it I stapled a couple of commentaries, one by William Safire and the other by Bob Herbert, neither of which did much to shake the thought that the words before me seemed empty.

There’s a saying I once heard about classical Indian music. That the depth of the raga comes through the silence in between notes. That’s what makes the music profound. I kept thinking that while reading Obama’s message and for some reason my eyes kept drifting to the white spaces in between each word. Like there was nothing there connecting the loosely arranged blots of black ink on the page.

I spoke with my brother later that night, who ironically stayed up all night near his home in India to see the ceremony. He said he was moved by it. I told him my reaction and he said that maybe it was about time we had a president who “used words instead of action.” A president who actually knows what words mean. I agree. Words are powerful, but why did the president’s own words fail to move me?

Part of it was maybe just being here in Korea and so removed from the U.S. I’d spent the day reading about squatters killed in clashes with police, threats from North Korea and continuing economic woes.

Part of it was also the theatrics. It just didn’t seem sincere, even though I know it was for millions. To me it felt more like a sales pitch. I read his message to the Islamic world and I wondered how he would deal with U.S. relations with leaders in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, leaders protected by Washington and hated by their own people. What about Gaza. Could Obama’s words act as a salve to heal the wounds of a parent who has lost their child, or an orphaned child. I doubt it.

But the silence might. Because it’s in those empty spaces that potential exists, the potential for the change Obama has promised. Today the papers are full of reports on his first day in office. He’s getting down to work, beginning to undo 8 years of damage. Four years from now I’ll read that speech again and maybe then the words will carry weight, the spaces filled in with promises met.

USFK personel adopting Korean kids for cash

The Korea Times reports on USFK personel adopting Korean kids for payment so the kids will gain access to DOD funded schools on bases here.

The United States Forces Korea (USFK) has turned a blind eye to allegations that U.S. base personnel have adopted Korean children who wish to attend American schools in army bases in exchange for money and other irregularities.

According to some parents and school staff, there have been complaints related to their inability to get “legitimate” children into Department of Defense (DoD) Dependent Schools due to them being overcrowded with Korean students.

Not knowing the ins and outs of this particular issue, it is always a little jarring to learn about the extent to which parents here will go to get their kids a “proper” education.

Bush’s last laugh

And good riddance

And good riddance

Yesterday I looked at the date and realized with utter astonishment that Bush is going to be out of office in less than one week. With the world falling apart at the seams, that seminal event which I have not infrequently imagined/fantasized about is upon us and I hardly even noticed.

Who else but the always forward looking cowboy from Crawford could have planned such an ingenious departure from the world stage. To torture and torment with equal parts stupidity and arrogance — like a backyard bully — an increasingly fragile planet, all the while knowing that the long-awaited day of your departure would be drowned out in a sea of doom and destruction.

And just to underscore your achievement, you assured a numb and confused populace that indeed, you have no regrets. Well, maybe a few, but even those couldn’t erase the permanent smirk you wear.

Today’s headlines:

Bloggers underground in wake of Minerva arrest

Nepali journalist murdered

Chinese media strive for int’l spotlight

In down times, sell your wedding ring

Missiles, money and ribeye steak

Seoul Outback

Seoul Outback

New Year’s eve. As Israeli missiles begin to fall on Gaza, my family and I are at the Outback Steakhouse in southern Seoul waiting for a table.

It’s my first time here and the first steak I’ve eaten in about twenty years. Despite the recession, the place is packed and we stand alongside a number of others waiting for a table. I notice in the corner a young muslim family, the wife covered with only her eyes showing, the father smiling down at his young daughter playing under his feet.

We are foreigners, them and I. Even my wife, who is Korean, stands somewhat apart as she pushes my son to play with the young girl, named for a rare deer native to Saudi Arabia. Always the outgoing one, my wife begins to chat it up with the young girl. She’s five, speaks a smattering of Korean, Arabic and English she’s picked up from TV. We begin to talk, an unlikely conversation that leaves much unsaid.

“Where are you from,” I venture.

“Saudi Arabia, and you?”

“San Francisco… the U.S.”

OK. I can hear the synapses firing as all the stored up information gets pulled up. Politics, religion, identity.

“I’m sorry for all the shit my country has done to the Islamic world,” I want to say. “Terrible what’s happening in Gaza. My tax dollars at work.” I wonder what they’re thinking.

“How do you like Korea,” my wife asks, no hint of  internal dialogue behind her smile. She’s a traveler and loves meeting people.

“Korea is a good place. It is safe, people are friendly. Life here is good,” the father says. The wife is silent but her eyes speak volumes.

I’m always curious when I see another foreigner in Korea. Granted there are plenty of us, more and more all the time. But Korea is by no means LA when it comes to ethnic diversity and so I can’t help but wonder what brings people here.

I once asked the onwer of a local Indian restaurant that question. “The money,” he said matter of factly. So much for romanticism.

Our names are called and I shake hands with the young father before heading to our table. There’s more I want to ask and I contemplate fleetingly inviting them to share a table with us. The steak is mediocre, the pasta supersized and heavy.

On the way out the mother enters the elevator alone, thinking her husband and daughter had already gone ahead. My wife says they just passed her by in the hallway and she thanks her in flawless American English before hopping back out. My four-year-old son looks up at me with this quizzical expression and says, “Daddy, why was she wearing a mask?”

Don’t blame Korea for automaker woes

SEOUL, S. Korea – Barack Obama’s argument against signing a pending FTA with Korea doesn’t hold water, and neither does his bailout of America’s auto industry. And the two are related.

When he won the election, one of the first things pundits here began to talk about was his stand on the agreement that Seoul has been pushing hard for in recent weeks. While South Korean President Lee Myung-bak all but staked his political career on passage of the deal, Obama has often come out against it, citing an imbalance in auto-trade between the two nations.

Yes, there’s a trade imbalance. There are far more Hyundais on American roads than there are Chevy’s on Korean ones. An article in USA Today even took note that more American drivers are choosing Hyundais over Mercedes and Lexuses! But it isn’t because of trade barriers.

Everyone I’ve talked to here, whether they are for or against the FTA, says the main reason Koreans don’t drive American cars is because they’re big and use way too much gas. It’s worthwhile here to point out that Korean drivers pay and have been paying far more for fuel than their American counterparts.

In his meeting at the White House on Monday, Obama called on George Bush to divert a portion of bailout funding to aid America’s big-three automakers, Ford, Chrysler and GM. Bush apparently said he’d only agree to that if Obama agreed to sign the pending FTA deals.

Meanwhile, a report in the International Herald Tribune pointed out that if the auto firms go under it will cost the U.S. an estimated 3 million jobs. It also noted that Obama would tie any government aid they receive to requirements that American automakers step-up efforts to produce greener, more fuel-efficient cars.

That’s hopeful, but you still have to wonder. In the long term, is protecting America’s auto industry from competition really going to benefit either the companies themselves or the nation as a whole? Is government protection going to provide any kind of incentive for the manufacturers to improve their products? It didn’t work in the past with Chrysler. And no matter how many trade barriers South Korea lowers, as it stands now, Koreans are still not going to be buying made in America.

Just as an aside, the real losers from free trade agreement would be South Korea’s farmers. Unlike America’s auto industry, which could have long ago taken steps to keep up with changing demands, Korea’s farmers have little or no means of battling the flood of cheaper imports that are sure to enter the country once the FTA is signed. There’s little land here, and has been even less incentive from the government or society. No one – no one – wants to be a farmer in Korea.

There’s been some talk the government here would help offset the negative side effects of an FTA on Korea’s farmers with a set of financial aid measures. There are also recent reports that the government is seeking to boost the nation’s food industry in the coming years, perhaps even departing from traditional, family farms in favor of larger agro-businesses.

Which makes me wonder, if the government here can find a way to modernize its centuries-old agricultural sector, why is the government there essentially paying its automakers not too?