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.


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.

Kim jong-il better skater than Kim Yu-na

Well, maybe not. But it does sound like somthing they’d say, and the personality cult that’s built around the two is eerily similar. They’re both lionized as “national treasures,” held up as icons of Korean honor and nobility.

Sure, I’m taking the comparison a little far. I mean, you’re not gonna be sent to the gulag for criticizing Kim – the skater I mean, not the short guy with the trademark pot belly. But it does remind me of just how much the two Korea’s share in common, despite the vast gulf that separates them.

Been reading a novel that came out a few years back – A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church (pseudonym), a fomer intelligence agent with years of experience in North Korea. His descriptions of journeys outside of Pyongyang remind me a little of my own trips outside Seoul. On both sides of the divide, there’s the capital and then there’s the rest of the country. Two completely different worlds.

It’s as if the two countries were mirror opposites of the other, or like two halves of the umyang that decorates the SK flag. One’s capitalist with a streak of Confucianism while the other’s Confucian with a nasty streak of communism. In one, children grow obese on fried chicken and Pizza Hut while in the other childrens’ growth is stunted by lack of food. One is supported by Washington, the other by Beijing. Neither is thrilled about the arrangement.

Whether because of these commonalities or in spite of them the two remain divided I’ve yet to figure out. Maybe they should just have it out on the rink and settle things once and for all.

Glimpse of SK military ahead of launch

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting piece by Donald Kirk on South Korea’s air force as it remains on high alert ahead of North Korea’s launch. I have to say it’s nerve racking reading about all of the North’s short-range missiles and living a stone’s throw from the Blue House, the resident of which is enemy number one on Pyongyang’ list. 

Interesting to hear SK pilots talk about their training – and the fact that NK pilots train a fraction of the time.

South Korean pilots, averaging six or seven hours a week in the air, say their North Korean counterparts, flying older model MiGs, are lucky to fly once or twice a month.

“I scramble a lot,” says Cpt. Yang Jung Hwan, showing off his F16, perched in front of one of more than 100 revetements for aircraft here. “The North Koreans don’t fly a lot, but if they come close, we have to scramble.”

As for Lee’s more hardline stance on the North compared to his liberal predecessors:

“You know the policy,” says Yoon Dae Jyu, vice president of Kyungnam University. “This is quite consistent with every branch of this government. They want to show the difference” between Mr. Lee’s hard-line stance and the conciliatory position of the previous two presidents.

At the naval base, Lt. Cmdr. Kim Tae-ho says “the rules of engagement” have changed since North Koreans attacked South Korean vessels in the West, or Yellow, Sea in June 1999 and again in June 2002.

“We could not fire first at that time,” says Commander Kim. “Now we can fire a warning shot.”

VOA finds voice with 2MB

An Associated Press story notes that Voice of America has been granted permission by the Lee Myung-bak administration to broadcast into North Korea from transmitters in the South for the first time in three decades.

That makes the signal much clearer than VOA’s long-running shortwave broadcasts from far-flung stations in the Philippines, Thailand and the South Pacific island of Saipan. Moreover, it’s an AM signal, so listening in doesn’t require a shortwave radio.

“Radio can play a big role in changing people,” said Kim Dae-sung, who fled the North in 2000 and is now a reporter at Free North Korea Radio, a shortwave radio broadcaster in Seoul. “Even if it’s simply news, it’s something that North Koreans have never heard of.”

Analysts say the North will see this as further proof the Lee is in bed with foreign powers and bent on its destruction. I’ve also heard a lot of criticism of VOA – very right of center – and I’m not keen on the whole religious aspect what with them sharing an agreement with a Christian organization to transmit the signal. I’ve always been skeptical of pushing religion on North Koreans as it seems the last thing they need is more dogma. I know church groups have done a lot of good, and I’m not ragging on that. But if you want to help these folks – ie defectors and those still in the North – then help then find their own way without cramming another belief system down their throat. Lord knows they’ve had enough of that.

Other choice tidbits from the article:

The broadcast is mainly news, with a focus on North Korea, such as its ongoing nuclear standoff with the United States and other nations.

South Korea prohibited VOA from broadcasting from its soil for carrying a 1973 report on the kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung, then a leading South Korean dissident. The authoritarian Seoul government at the time is widely believed to have been behind the abduction.

Read the rest here.


The big question seems to be whether Washington or Tokyo will move to take out a North Korean rocket.  Here’s an interesting inside look at what went on in 2006, the last time North Korea tested a missile.

In late 2006, Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge, then-deputy commander of U.S. Northern Command, confirmed that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system on full alert; interceptor crews at Fort Greely, Alaska, were in place to react to a possible launch; and Rumsfeld personally took part in training exercises meant to test the rules of engagement. When the launch was detected, conference calls with command authorities quickly got underway. But the “threat track” for the missile, however, disappeared before any decision to engage.

That test failed shortly after launch, hence there was no time (or need as it turns out) to make a decision. The finger was on the trigger though, and it’s likely there again now.

Possible post-launch scenarios include a naval skirmish, or more likely short-range missiles fired into waters off its coast. Hostilities along the border, though this seems unlikely due to the treat of a wider conflict breaking out. Another nuclear test would deplete what plutonium the North has left as well as strain ties with Beijing.

The Reuters article suggests another ballistic missile test would undermine the North’s claim of peaceful space development, but intercepting its launch would pretty much do away with that whole premise so I wouldn’t be as quick to dismiss the possibility.

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.