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…

From Af-Pak to Nork Nukes, Asia a minefield for Obama

Excellent piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh on securing (or not) Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the face of increasing attacks by the Taliban and radicalization of the nation’s military.

A senior Pakistani official who has close ties to Zardari exploded with anger during an interview when the subject turned to the American demands for more information about the arsenal… Today, he said, “you’d like control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d’état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India’s nuclear weapons?” the official asked. “Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will fuck us in every way.”

Speaking of which, this gives a sense of the larger AF-Pak nightmare that Seoul recently agreed to become a part of and that will certainly be among the topics discussed when Obama visits Seoul next week. Others include a visit to Pyongyang by Washington’s point man on North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth. Of that visit, Victor Cha offers an interesting take.

As per the Asia Times:

The point of the Bosworth mission, he indicated, without actually saying so, would be to fail. Or, as Cha put it, “Bosworth could go there and come back and say the North Koreans are not serious.” So take that, China. No longer could the Chinese be telling the Americans to at least talk to these people, and no longer could anyone anywhere accuse the US of not wanting to deal.

Seoul’s concern, of course, is being sidelined by any possible deal struck between the U.S. and North Korea, intrinsic to Kim Jong-il’s attempt to portray himself as “ruler of all Koreans before whom all others bow, as did the previous South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun…”

And speaking of bowing before a higher power, with the first stop of Obama’s Asia tour in Japan a lot of attention has been paid to Tokyo’s desire for a more “equal” partnership with the U.S.

The second page of the Financial Times is dominated by a story on plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinanwa, where “10 percent of the land is under U.S. control.” While Tokyo’s previous government under the LDP made the agreement, the country’s new leaderhsip under the DPJ is looking to either alter or scrap the plan alltogether.

Accompanying the piece is another on Tokyo’s announcement that it will provide some US$5 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, a move many say is aimed at quelling fears in Washington over Japan’s decision to end naval refueling in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. The Afghan aid could also be meant as leverage in discussions over the base relocation.

(It’s ironic that Japan’s new leaders are looking more like the past liberal administrations in Seoul while Lee Myung-bak would fit right in with the old LDP.)

In an interview on the BBC yesterday, a Japanese official seemed hard pressed to explain how the country would ensure that the money did not disappear into the pockets of Kabul’s corrupt leaders. But anyway…

Peter Brown back over at the Asia Times does a much better job of summarizing what exactly Tokyo means when it says it wants a more “equal” partnership with the U.S. “without actually doing any damage to the security relationship that guarantees Japan’s survival in a dangerous neighborhood.” How dangerous?

“North Korean missile tests and China’s impressive missile modernization program showcased during the National Day celebrations on October 1 underscore the missile danger to Japan and the US.”

(…) In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has recently accused the US government of being too easily influenced by China as he declared that the US is stalling with respect to the planned sale to Taiwan of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft….

Certainly, North Korea does not appreciate the timing of new revelations in the Japanese media these past few days concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans and the allegation that Kim Jong-il exercised command authority over North Korean abduction operations starting in the 1970s. When Kim met with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, he denied any role in these operations.

This almost guarantees that Pyongyang’s volatility and confrontational stance will be ramping up over the coming days, especially when Obama’s trip to the region already lent itself to exploitation by the North Koreans. (This written before Tuesday’s naval clash.)

According to Brown, all of this noise adds some serious weight to the long standing alliance with ballistic missile defense at the core of the issue. While the U.S. needs its bases in Japan for deployment of its Aegis destroyers and for missile detection, Tokyo needs the missile umbrella provided by the U.S. The relationship could call for “unprecedented integration and information sharing,” which some could interpret as proof of Japan’s elevated status.

Harold Koh on Sharia law

An article disputes attacks on Obama’s legal appointee Harold Koh over his comments regarding Sharia law and the U.S. legal system.

I was in the room with my husband and several fellow alumni, and we are all adamant that Koh never said or suggested that sharia law could be used to govern cases in US courts. The subject of his talk was Globalization and Yale Law School, so, of course, other forms of law were mentioned. But never did Koh state or suggest that other forms of law should govern or dictate the American legal system […]

Koh’s commitment to the rule of law is what really offends the hard right. His belief in the supremacy of US law has put him in direct conflict with some of the conspiracists’ favorite folks. Dean Koh testified before Congress against the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General because of Gonzales’ support for torture. He also challenged the right of George H.W. Bush to house innocent Haitian refugees at a prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. Koh’s opponent — then-Solicitor General Ken Starr — argued that US law did not apply at Guantanamo, and thus the Haitians had no rights. Koh argued that both U.S. law and U.S. morality certainly applied there.

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.

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



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.