Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Deja Vu of the UN Option

Found this today;

UN Options

Calling a Security Council Meeting. This would gain maximum publicity but we could not obtain any action and we would force the Soviets to defend the North Koreans.

Present a letter to the Security Council. This gets our position on the record but with little publicity and appears perfunctory.

Nothing to do with the Cheonan sinking, instead it is the minutes of a National Security Council meeting on April 16th, 1969 following the downing, probably in international waters, of a U.S. Navy Lockheed EC-121 reconnaissance plane by North Korea.

Elsewhere in the documents, which have been declassified and placed on the internet by the people at the U.S. National Security Archive at George Washington University under the prescient title "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Korea?", it is revealed that the U.S. contemplated up to 47 nuclear strikes against the North, but ultimately rejected the use of any military force whatsoever because "air strikes against military targets in North Korea “will be a deliberate act of war” and, thereafter, “North Korea may respond by launching air strikes against US/ROK forces.”

Proof, then, if proof were needed, that the more things change the more they stay the same. Of course the Soviets are gone, and the Chinese are unlikely to start banging their shoes on the UN Security Council lectern, but cosmetic changes do not the substance change.

Which is not to say that the UN is an unhelpful or worthless institution, or anything else which Joshua Stanton might conclude, or indeed to say we should bomb North Korea back into the Stone Age, simply to ponder aloud whether the current situation is anything new, and that, from there, if one concludes that previous efforts didn't succeed, is it wise to do the same thing again?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Knowing When to Quit Is Important

It is hard to decide whether this is a symbol of a vibrant and blossoming democracy, or another example of how one side or the other in almost all arguments related to North Korea conducted in South Korean civil society and government circles tends to simply refuse to acquiesce to the majority viewpoint, willfully acting to the detriment of the image of the nation and its ability to persue its national interest.

It's a letter sent by a South Korean NGO, People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, or PSPD, to Mexico in its capacity as current chair of the UN Security Council. In the letter, PSPD, whose rather grandiose administrative HQ I can see from my office window, thus confirming their existence and suggesting rather wealthy backers to boot, casts doubt on the Cheonan incident investigation, raising eight points of contention.

It is not my intention to debate whether their points have any merit. Some criticisms of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation carry weight, and some questions remain about the event itself. That has been discussed at great length, though, and need not be revisited.

However, in the end I do think it reasonable to say that South Korea has a burgeoning civil society, and as a result PSPD has had more than its fair share of opportunities to put its viewpoint forward domestically since the Cheonan sank on March 26th, or since the investigation released its findings on May 20th, or at any time in between. Indeed, it did do that, as did almost every organization of note, including my employer.

But the act of sending a letter to the UN in an apparent attempt to deliberately undermine your own government's diplomatic efforts so late in the game? This is a very odd way to behave, and not in any way to be applauded. It is incumbent upon any moderately mature organization, which the offices of PSPD do imply that it purports to be, to recognize that in a functioning democracy which guarantees freedom of speech, it is important to know when one is on the wrong side, and from there to regroup and move on.

For all its good points and strengths, this is not something that South Korean civil society has yet learned.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Could You Not Even Try to Understand?

A few days ago, I started writing a piece about the serious surfeit of hyperbole in the British media about the likelihood of war on the Korean Peninsula but, mostly because I had no time for research, it never reached critical mass.

For the record, most of my ire was reserved for this nonsense by Rupert Cornwell in The Independent, a piece characterized by statements about North Korea like "in our world of instant experts and instant explanations, what a delight to discover something genuinely mystifying" and which could not help but conclude with an Inspector O quote, "Where I live, we don't solve cases, for what is a solution in a reality that never resolves itself into anything definable?"

Thereafter, as an aside, it didn't surprise me to learn via this USA Today pish that the American media is no less guilty of mindless hysteria and sensationalism. Indeed, this may be the worst piece of all, with the standout quote (by which I mean most divorced from reality) being;

The March 26 sinking of the South Korea warship Cheonan by a suspected North Korean torpedo, killing all 46 sailors aboard, has grown into a crisis in which the world's two largest militaries — those of the United States and China— are lined up on opposite sides behind the South and North, respectively.
There are more, and I would point you to this cutting criticism from Seoul resident Rob York if you want to follow it up.

But I also had some problems with this piece in the Telegraph. Let's be clear, I have a great deal of time for Aiden Foster-Carter; he is an expert of long standing, and a pithy writer whose style appeals to my British sensibilities. In short, I am not surprised that he is sought out to provide analysis for the British press.

The problem I have is that daily newspapers of substance are still printing this kind of "Who is the madman in Pyongyang?" piece every time something newsworthy happens on the Korean Peninsula. If the Telegraph had asked Aiden Foster-Carter to provide an analysis of the post-Cheonan political landscape, that is what they would have received. Let's reiterate; Aiden Foster-Carter is an expert, with expertise.

But it seems to me that what they wanted, and by God it is mostly what they got, was the standard rehash of the well worn stories we have all heard; stories that characterize Kim Jong Il as a cartoon dictator in the eyes of the reader. It is designed to entertain, not inform. It is eruditely written, but ultimately unhelpful.

Anyway, I was inspired to drag that formerly dead piece out of the recycling after reading here that the Telegraph has also been stealing the pro bono North Korea research of One Free Korea.

And what is my reaction? Well I instinctively recommend following this up and getting the apology deserved, but beyond that, I just shrug. Because this is symptomatic of the kind of slapdash North Korea journalism that just isn't very surprising anymore.

Is it that hard to actually try?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cheonan Theories Get a Torpedoing

Most people are in favor of putting as many points of view in the public sphere as possible, on pretty much all issues. Nobody should be forbidden from speaking their mind, it is generally believed. This is the way to create a creative, diverse, and harmonious society, after all.

Here is an example. It is a list of what some might call conspiracy theories, but I see as reasonable assertions of doubt about certain issues surrounding the Cheonan sinking. Much of it has long been disproved, but it is in the public domain and it asks some searching questions.

But there comes a time when exercising the right to free speech can turn into what General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett might call a "total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face."

There has been quite a bit of this in South Korea of late, but two events in the last two days should be enough to put paid to it as far as the Cheonan sinking is concerned.

Last Friday, North Korea's National Defense Commission (NDC) made its own presentation to a group of assorted persons both Korean and foreign, the latter presumed by most to be embassy officials. The details of it, and the associated refutations by the Ministry of National Defense, are here.

The NDC presentation, as this Chosun Ilbo articles points out, seemed for all the world to be an agglomeration of facts and conspiracy theories pulled from the internet, which, as the article points out, it may well have been.

Well, the internet bites both ways, it turns out. First, for North Korea to think it could claim that it "does not have Ghadir class, Sangeo class, or any other 130-ton submarines” in the era of Google Earth was outright foolhardy.

Second, it also thought that even though nigh on 20,000 North Korean defectors and former soldiers live in South Korea it would be possible to make claims like "It is impossible for a 130-ton submarine loaded with a 1.7 ton torpedo to attack in a ‘C’-formation." No, as has today been proven by this.

Pyongyang may think it unfortunate that the helmsman of a Sangeo class submarine which was beached at Gangneung in 1996 might break his 14-year silence to debunk the whole show, but that is not so. International Relations is changing, and changing too fast for North Korea to keep up.

Together, these two stories are likely to do more to convince skeptics of North Korea's guilt than all the evidence presented by the joint investigation team, and the two efforts together, added to the extraordinarily amateur effort of the NDC, really ought to bring this particular debate to a close, and allow the world to focus on what to actually do.