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…

China absorbing North Korea

On a recent trip to North Korea, John Linton remarked after viewing that country’s athletic blitzkrieg known as the Arirang Games, which closed on Oct. 20, that a third of the performance was in praise of China.

All for one

The son of missionary parents raised in rural South Jeolla Province and current head of Yonsei’s College of Medicine, Linotn’s remarks, according to this editorial in the Hankyoreh, are further proof of North Korea’s steady absorption by China and the misguided policies of Seoul’s current 2MB administration.

China is filling the void of inter-Korean cooperation spawned by deteriorating inter-Korean relations, and is establishing development projects on its own in the regions around the North Korea-China border.

“To put it simply,” it declares,  “this region is becoming a fourth province of northeastern China.”

It’s food for thought, but I think the author makes the mistake of assuming that Pyongyang will simply roll over and allow Beijing to swallow it whole. If nothing else, North Korea’s leaders are masters at playing powers off of one another while milking them for all their worth. And despite its show of affection, my sense is that the North remains just as wary of China as it does all others beyond its borders.

For a less emotional analyses of what exactly might lie behind Beijing’s North Korea policy, Foreign Policy offers its take on why China continues to shirk its duties to international peace and security “commensurate” with its global status (terminology employed by the U.S. when it pressed Seoul and Tokyo to support efforts in Afghanistan.)

Beijing now deliberately separates its bilateral relationship with North Korea from the nuclear issue, placing the responsibility for nuclear questions on the United States. In Beijing’s eyes, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang was evidence of the success of this dual-track approach. The China-North Korea bilateral relationship was strengthened significantly, with the announcement of Chinese aid and economic cooperation packages worth more than $200 million. Far from fearing being marginalized in nuclear talks, China is pushing for a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. Should the United States not pursue this option, it will be harder to convince Beijing to take a tough line with Pyongyang in the future.

Not to be outfoxed, Washington will be sending Stephen Bosworth to Beijing in the not-too-distant future, with the express purpose of “failing” to sway Pyongyang and thereby throwing the ball back into Beijing’s court. A game of nuclear hot potato as it were.

A few more stats on China’s “bonds with North Korea

A report published by the Korean Industrial and Financial Research Institute reveals that China has a near monopoly over North Korea’s mineral resources, both through direct purchases and by obtaining development rights. All major contracts were signed around 2005, including 50-year rights to develop Musan Iron Ore, the largest iron ore mine in East Asia, and 25-year rights to exploit the Hyesan copper mine.

The above article concludes that “Just as international sanctions against Sudan gave China almost exclusive access to that country’s resources, the same thing is happening in North Korea.”

It leaves out any reference to the North’s gold reserves, however, which according to this 2007 Christian Science Monitor piece are impressive. Beijing has been buying gold on the (Chinese) domestic market, which is sometimes referred to as the “People’s Central Bank,” in order to safeguard against USD risk and to bolster the future expansion of its own currency.

In addition, a report in the Telegraph notes that the global gold supply is running out. If that’s the case than Beijing, as the dominant player in North Korea, could stand to make a killing.

Murder, democracy and the U.S.-ROK alliance

Honor killing

My boss used on occasion to ask me why Americans preferred football to soccer. I’d reply tongue-in-cheek that Americans were just a more violent breed and preferred a bit more bone-crunching when it came to their sports interests. But according to Randolph Roth’s “American Homicide” it’s true. The violence part at least.

By looking at murder rates from the 17th century onwards, Roth argues that the frequency of murders in the U.S. is inversely proportional to the level of trust in government.

A New Yorker review of Roth’s work takes the author to task for ascribing quantitaive methods to what are essentially unquantifiable acts of human emotion. “Roth has wandered into a no man’s land between the social sciences and the humanities… in a bar graph, atrocity yields to banality.”

Still, the New Yorker piece is a good read, touching on capital punishment and the U.S.’s disproportionately high prison population to the relationship between democracy and a propensity for taking lives.

It’s that latter one that caught my eye. Europeans have for long ascribed America’s blood lust as it were to the fact that early Americans had not undergone the “civilizing process” that allowed Europeans to accept the state as the final arbiter of authority. Democracy had, in short, come too soon to the U.S. As a result,

Colonial Americans went murderously adrift… (they) preserved for themselves not only the right to bear arms—rather than yielding that right to a strong central government—but also medieval manners: impulsiveness, crudeness, and fidelity to a culture of honor (as opposed to integrity).

Sure it’s not surprising coming from Europeans, but it did prompt thoughts of that other backwater of democracy gone awry — Afghanistan. The piece goes on to list four factors that went into Roth’s study of what contributes to a nation’s having a low murder rate.

faith that government is stable and capable of enforcing just laws; trust in the integrity of legitimately elected officials; solidarity among social groups based on race, religion, or political affiliation; and confidence that the social hierarchy allows for respect to be earned without recourse to violence.

I think just about anyone would be hard pressed to say that Afghanistan meets even one of these. And as far as murder, or the potential to commit murder, goes, reports that a South Korean contractor was attacked are just the latest sign of just how sticky Seoul’s decision to send a Provincial Reconstruction Team to the country is. The latest attack came on Oct. 8,

when a group of six armed gunmen assaulted the Korean firm’s road construction site in Faryab Province in northern Afghanistan, according to officials.

On Nov. 5, a number of armed gunmen attacked the Korean firm’s construction materials warehouse in Balkh, but retreated after exchanging gunfire with Afghan police troops for about 10 minutes, they added.

At present, the construction company has 80 South Korean workers stationed in Afghanistan and is engaged in six road construction projects.

Company executives attributed the attacks to a dispute between local contractors, ruling out Taliban involvement. Whatever the case may be, the incident demonstrates the risks that South Koreans will face if and when they are sent to the country, no matter what part of it they ultimately end up in, working to establish the foundation for a functioning democracy. If it isn’t already too soon.

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.

NK used dummy satellite

An article in the Christian Science Monitor reports that some scientists in South Korea are saying the North tipped its rocket with a dummy satellite in order to justify a test of its missile technology.

They cannot have been shooting a real satellite,” says Myung Noh-hoon, director of the Space Research Center at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country’s leading base for science and engineering. “They did not build a satellite.”

[He] says, in the two days since the missile was launched, we have been “trying to catch the signal from the satellite.” That was not possible, he says, “because it was a dummy, not a real one.”