Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.


Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.


Playing to ‘lose’ with NK

Andrei Lankov has an op-ed in the IHT offering his take on what American negotiators can accomplish as they prepare to engage with Pyongyang fully aware that its leaders have no intention of abandoning their nuclear arsenal.

1) it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities.

2) North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures.

3) the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il’s health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

4) the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea’s exchanges with the outside world will become possible.

In conclusion, Lankov writes, the “pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected.”

He does not mention here how Beijing factors into Washington’s game plan, though he does say that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s much trumpeted “Grand Bargain” would be a grand waste. “Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: The lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate…

North Korean defector poetry


Frozen borders


When Will That Day Come?
By Hong Soo Young

Seasons never stop and just go by
This year again, fall is upon me
How come the wall of separation
Is not crumbling down yet

With fall, the foliage comes
The foliage gone, white frost is everywhere
Seasons go by in vain
How come the frost filling my soul
Will not thaw

When will the day come, the day of the rallying cry of unification
The day that will thaw
The frost filling my soul

That day is approaching, one day at a time
The day I will meet my beloved family
Is not too far away
Will that day only
Thaw the frost filling my soul

I wish for that day to come, I wish to greet the day
That will thaw the frost filling my soul
And replace it with warmth and coziness.

Taken from NK Economy Watch

Women in S. Korea’s rank and file


Female soldiers in S. Korea

A report from Yonhap suggests that S. Korea’s top brass may move to allow females to serve as rank and file soldiers in the country’s military. Currently women are allowed to serve as officers, though they are barred from the kind of activities that men perform as part of their mandatory two-year service.

Though a decision has yet to be made, the report notes that the idea came about due to an expected shortfall in military manpower. Interestingly, it also points out that the government is planning to reduce the number of its armed forces from 665,000 to 500,000 by 2020 to be compensated by enhanced weapons systems.

Korean naval clash rattles my nerves

I’ve been in Seoul long enough now that when a protest breaks out I don’t go running out with my camera to see the action. Massive oil spills or the destruction of a national treasure are so cliche as to barely be worth comment. Even a nuclear test in the North evokes little more than a yawn. But when I heard that a minute-long naval clash between a South Korean warship and a North Korean patrol boat had erupted, my first thought was that I really do live in a war zone. 

As per Yonhap:

Naval boats of the two Koreas opened fire on each other on Tuesday in their first armed clash off the west coast of the divided Korean Peninsula in seven years, officials said.

   No South Korean casualties were reported, but North Korea’s patrol boat retreated after apparently suffering “considerable” damage near Baekryeong island, a Navy official here said.

   “It wasn’t a close-range battle. We fired heavily on the North Korean vessel,” the official said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

   The battle erupted shortly after 11:30 a.m. when the North Korean boat ignored South Korean warning shots to return across the Northern Limit Line, where clashes turned bloody in 1999 and 2002.

 The North has long contended the NLL, drawn by US forces at the end of the Korean War. As far as the reasons behind today’s skirmish, speculation runs from Pyongyang attempting to ratchet up tensions ahead of an Obama visit here next month, to sending a message to Seoul that it should take its northern neighbor more seriously.

Earlier reports today said the North’s media rebuffed Seoul’s limited offer of food aid as “rubbish” while a recent post in NK Economy Watch noted the worsening food situation in the North. The line that jumped out most from that story was a quote from a North Korean defector, who said the number of people “sitting down and starving to death was exploding.”

When the North conducted its nuclear test in May, I happened to be out hiking that day and heard about the explosion from a friend who called to let me know. I stopped to pick up some snacks and asked the vendor whether she had heard of the test and what she thought. She sort of smiled and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say “why take it so seriously.” 

Maybe I haven’t in fact been here long enough.

Anger and sadness punctuate Roh’s funeral

Friday’s headline in Seoul’s Kyunghyang Newspaper quotes former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announcing that the nation’s democracy is regressing, as up to a million have gathered in the capital to mourn the death of his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Many blame the current leader.

The air is charged here as riot police have turned out in droves to contain the masses turning out for the late leader’s state funeral, the second highest ever to be given in South Korea. Enormous screens project the funeral proceedings for those unable to enter the grounds of the ancient Gyeongbok Palace, where the ceremony is being held.

A young man who like many gathered here wears a yellow ribbon around his neck in honor of Roh, points at the police phalanxes that line Jongno, a major boulevard leading past City Hall to the gates of the palace. “This is supposed to be a public funeral,” he says, “but obviously it isn’t.” Yellow was the color used during Roh’s 2002 presidential campaign.

An officer squatting in the shade of a nearby alley puts the number of police dispatched in the tens-of-thousands, his face a mixture of fatigue and anxiety at the hours ahead. Many say mourners have held back their anger out of respect for the ceremony but warn of clashes once it ends.

Banners flying above the crowds read “Rest in Peace” on one side, while on the other “Lee Myung-bak out!”

Inside the palace Prime Minster Han Seung-soo, who was turned back days earlier by crowds of Roh supporters while visiting the late leader’s rural residence, addresses a crowd of dignitaries and ordinary citizens. “We have gathered here today to bid goodbye to former President Roh Moo-hyun who spent his life fighting for human rights, democracy and the destruction of authoritarianism — a true ‘people’s president.’”

Meanwhile, an opposition lawmaker verbally assaulted President Lee as he approached to lay a flower upon Roh’s body. “You’re a political murderer,” shouted Baek Won-woo of the Democratic Party before being hauled out by security, according to Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

The succession of events that have transpired in recent days has been truly mind boggling, even for a nation long used to political and social crises. Minutes before the funeral commenced, reports emerged that Chinese fishing vessels off the peninsula’s west coast were fleeing the area in expectation of a possible military clash with North Korea

On the morning of Saturday, May 23, Roh, 62, who served as president from 2003 to 2008, leapt from a cliff above his rural home some 450 km southeast of Seoul. A number of questions surround the circumstances of his death, however, including conflicting statements by a security detail with Roh at the time of his death, suspicions that have only fueled a sense of insecurity and anger here.

As news of the tragedy spread, with citizens across the country turning out to express their grief and shock, North Korea conducted a nuclear test followed by several test-firings of short-range missiles. Then it announced it was scrapping an armistice agreement signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War after Seoul made public its decision to join a U.S. led anti-proliferation campaign largely known to target the North.

Yet despite the chill northerly winds, the gathering storm here seems focused more on Roh’s death and the responsibility born by the current Lee Myung-bak government. A wreath sent in Lee’s name to Bongha Village, where Roh had taken up farming after retiring from office, was destroyed by the late leader’s supporters.

Lee, who took office in February of 2008 from an embattled and at the time unpopular Roh, overturned many of his predecessor’s policies, including generous aid to the North. He has also presided over a string of controversies involving police crackdowns of public protests, starting with last summer’s anti-U.S. beef rallies and more recently the death of several squatters at the hands of a police swat team in January.

In the weeks leading to Roh’s death, state prosecutors had stepped up their investigation into allegations that Roh had received $6 million in bribes from a local businessman. The probe, which culminated in an unprecedented ten hour grilling of Roh, was widely perceived to be politically motivated by Lee’s government.

These and other incidents have fed into a growing sense of a more draconian style of leadership under Lee, who ironically fashioned himself after the country’s first military ruler Park Cheong-hee. Park helped transform South Korea from an East Asian backwater to a global economic powerhouse, though at the cost of political freedom.

Anti-N. Korea protesters


Burning NK

Burning NK

Anti-NK protester

Anti-NK protester

Protesters gathered in downtown Seoul yesterday to burn effigies of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and express outrage over his country’s rocket launch on Sunday. Most were older military retirees. The common sentiment was disgust over the fact that the North can’t feed a majority of its people but it has the gall to launch a multi-million dollar rocket.