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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Another young prince . . .

Assuming today's expected missile launch does not escalate into anything more severe, I plan to spend Saturday evening at the opening of a tale of another young prince and his descent into madness . . . 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Media, memes and megalomania . . .

My neighbor up North is omnipresent on media these days - in news and analysis articles, cartoons, spoofs, jokes, Internet memes and chatter on social networks. Friends and family members express their concern  for those of us in South Korea, media outlets interview other media outlets and those of us who choose to stay try to explain to those elsewhere who worry.

So, partly in response to those concerns, I've decided to take the media interviewing media silliness to the next level (this being a blog, after all) and interview the nearest media figure I could find - myself . . .

Flight of the Kiwi: So, what do you do and what connection do you have with Korea?

Tracie: I'm a journalist and writer who has been living in Korea intermittently since late 2000. Even when not here, I follow the local geo-politics and have long been fascinated by the North. I'm lucky to have many friends and colleagues who know as much as most outsiders get to know about our unfriendly neighbors, from many different perspectives.

North Korea is big news these days - what is the feeling on the ground?

It's interesting to read posts on people's facebook pages and talk with Korean and U.S. military friends. Many expats have been posting articles to reassure those at home, explaining that this type of behavior from the North has been going on for years and assuring them there is nothing to worry about. That is true, as far as it goes. Kim Jong-un is following in his father's footsteps in making bellicose threats toward the South and also, now, the United States.

In the past, such bad behavior has brought rewards. (See here for my carrot, stick, temper tantrum, candy theory of play thus far.)

However, there are differences this time. The first, and most unpredictable, is Jong-un, the third Kim to control the socialist nation. His father, though just as much of a megalomaniac, was to some degree a known entity. Jong-un is not. Anyone who thinks they can anticipate what he will do is at best misguided. The U.S. does not know, China does not know, South Korea does not know, I'd be surprised if his generals or even Jong-un himself knows fully how far he will go.

He is young and newly in power, a power many suspect he is still trying to shore up. One analysis is that all his rhetoric is for internal consumption - bluster and threaten the South and the U.S. during their annual joint exercises that he presents as practice for invasion, then, when the invasion does not happen, claim victory.

Others expect a provocation following the exercise, similar to those we saw in 2010, when a ROK Navy ship was torpedoed and a border island shelled, both resulting in the loss of South Korean lives. The South did not retaliate at that time but has pledged to do so next time. The question is whether the North believes this, or views it as a harried parent stating, yet again, "this is the absolute last time I am warning you." Any response could easily escalate.

Other differences are that the other players - South Korea and the U.S. of course, but also China and Japan, are finding the North's continued belligerence tiresome, at least. (China, which has long tolerated and supported the Norks, is showing signs of also having had enough of the bad behavior, but there are serious questions of how much control China still holds over the North.)

So, some people are probably underplaying the possible risk and others simply choosing not to accept it. Others are more concerned, but unable to do anything more than wait and see what happens. Personally, I'm hoping the next provocation will only be a missile test launch and not an attack, and tensions will then cool somewhat.

Why don't you, and others, leave?

I'm sure some have, as I've seen happen in earlier years when similar threats were made. For many Koreans, that is not an option. For the expats who choose to remain, there are many reasons. Employment, income, commitments, optimism, their own perception of the degree of risk. Remember, most teachers of English here are young with the sense of invulnerability that comes with youth. The more mature expats usually hold jobs far better than they might be able to get at home in the current economic climate.

For myself, I have work commitments, housing commitments, friends and volunteer work. Plus I'm a writer, and Korea is never short of stories.

For those who can leave, especially Korean citizens, how long should one go for? The problem of the Norks does not seem about to disappear any time soon, unless they badly miscalculate and do reignite the war, in which case it becomes a whole other problem.

How much of the current situation is being inflamed by media reports?

You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. In some ways, this is Jong-un's moment in the sun. People are taking note. Attention is being paid. For a megalomaniac wanting to sit at the big people's table, this must be a heady time.

But, this is newsworthy and it would be remiss not to report it. We're not talking about giving a platform to a small anarchist group here. This is a nation that, however primitive its infrastructure compared to its Southern neighbor, managed a successful rocket launch before the South, and which has at least limited nuclear capability. I've compared the Kim dynasty to toddlers throwing tantrums before, but perhaps the younger Kim's behavior is more similar to that of a young girl newly discovering her sexuality - so much power with no experience of how to focus or use it and no idea just how dangerous it can be to experiment with.

We also have a serious response from the U.S. to the threats, with the deployment of some very bad-ass materiel to the region. Again, it would be remiss not to report that.

Do you have any predictions?

None, except that the problem isn't going away anytime soon. And a fervent hope I'll remain safe to chronicle what happens from my perspective.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Troublesome neighbors . . .

I have avoided writing about the current shenanigans from the Norks next door, a.k.a. Fat Boy's Fireworks Show, but, with military contractor friends urging me to get out of Dodge and other friends previously stationed here expressing concern, it may be time to do so.

I've been reading as much, if not more, as most of the saber-rattling/bluster from the Norks, monitoring the response from the South's new President Park Geun-hye, a woman who has never been accused of being a skilled communicator, and watching Washington's recent displays of military might. I've also read copious analyses and opinion pieces on what might/could/should/won't happen and am honest enough to admit what most pundits do not - we have very little idea what Fat Boy will do next, or how far he will go.

What we do know, perhaps, is how little we know. All agree that such blustering from the Norks, particularly during annual joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea are nothing new. Anyone who has been in the South for even a year or two and follows the news is aware of multiple threats to turn Seoul and its lapdog puppet-masters of the Great Satan (you know who you are) into a "sea of fire." Ho-hum, again?

Having said that, there are differences this time, on all sides. The North, in this round of threats, warned of pre-emptive strikes on the continental U.S. and its territories. It has also, in past weeks, disconnected the two hotlines between the rancorous neighbors, declared a unilateral end to the Armistice and declared it is at a "state of war" with the South (I'm not sure how that trumps ending the armistice but, hey, I work daily with Koreans and don't pretend to follow their unique chain of logic).

The South has also upped its rhetoric. After the Norks torpedoed a ROK Navy patrol vessel in 2010, resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors and one rescue diver, then shelled a border island that same year, killing two soldiers and two civilians, then President Lee Myung-bak ordered rapid retaliation from the ROK military to any similar "provocations." The current president has also told the military to react firmly against any similar moves from the north.

The U.S., for its part, has openly displayed some of the serious firepower available in any escalated conflict on the peninsula, including publicized flyovers by nuclear-capable B52 bombers and B2 Spirit stealth bombers and the deployment of a sea-based radar platform, (which looks uncannily like it came from a Star Wars movie) closer to the Korean coastline. That's some impressively scary stuff, especially aimed at a country that is thought to have problems buying fuel for its own aircrafts.

Let's not forget, however broke they may be, that the Norks have long had enough conventional artillery aimed straight at Seoul and other points of interest to level the city to a state and financial outlook reminiscent of the scorched earth outcome of the (until recently suspended) Korean War. It also has a new, young, untested and unknown leader who is thought to be fighting to consolidate his power. Fat Boy is also the son and grandson of two dictators who were never told by anyone, "That might not be a good idea," at least probably not by anyone who survived the advice. He grew up observing his father's brand of toddler tantrum politics that consisted of what I term the "carrot, stick, temper tantrum, candy" approach. The UN and other supposedly adult interested parties offer the Norks a choice of carrot or stick - economic and food aid versus sanctions - the Norks accept the carrot then misbehave anyway then expect to be lured back to the adult table with sweeteners of more aid and more respect. It's a pattern that has been repeated constantly and, as with any toddler, its hard to blame the child for reverting to what it has been rewarded for in the past. (Yes, I know most toddlers aren't playing with nukes, missiles or in a playpen with Iran.)

Oh, and let's not exclude the world's second-largest economy from this equation. China has been trying to socialize it's younger neighbor and encourage it to open to the outside world in a limited way, but the Norks are starting to exasperate their remaining ally and financial benefactor as well. China supported the latest UN sanction against the North in a fairly public hand-slap and rt - an online Russian news outlet - is reporting that China has mobilized its own military  near the border with North Korea. China, like the South, faces a lose-lose situation with the North. It does not want a failed state on its doorstep with hordes of refugees streaming across the border, neither does it want South Korea or the U.S. military on its threshold. It would like everyone to get along, without the escalating threats, and for some openness from the North to bring in outside funds and reduce its own outlays. Again, the toddler refuses to listen.

So, we wait and see. The main concern I see among military friends here is from those new to the Peninsula and its inhabitants' behavior, good and bad. Which doesn't mean others are complacent, as most are aware of how much we don't and can't know and how much any analysis of the North is primarily guesswork and conjecture, with a large dose of prayer and crossed fingers thrown in.

But, I and most I know will stay, while constantly testing the wind. And hope that the escalating game of military chicken doesn't end with someone failing to turn in time . . .