Commentary Magazine


Topic: Kim Jong Il

No Real Reform in North Korea

Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

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Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

You can read more about what life is like in North Korea in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fine new book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as Kim remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

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Obama Contracts Kim Jong Illness

According to North Korean propaganda, the late Kim Jong Il was present at the creation—of the hamburger. The story goes that Kim himself invented both the classic “double bread with meat” combination and the factory-style mass-production system that provided nutritious Kimburgers to university students across the (actually starving) country. But that’s nothing compared to what happened at Kim’s birth, when winter skipped immediately to spring and the sky burst open with both starlight and rainbows.

Americans find Kim mythology endlessly funny for two reasons: first, it’s outlandish; second, it’s desperate. In the United States, allegiance to elected leaders isn’t obtained with fairytales, historical embellishment, and mandatory celebration. It’s earned with responsiveness to popular sentiment, sound leadership, and policy results. Gimmick-laden personality cults are for self-appointed paranoiacs who can’t deliver the goods.

Which is probably what Americans are thinking about since Seth’s discovery yesterday that Barack Obama has inserted his name into White House presidential biographies starting with Calvin Coolidge’s.

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According to North Korean propaganda, the late Kim Jong Il was present at the creation—of the hamburger. The story goes that Kim himself invented both the classic “double bread with meat” combination and the factory-style mass-production system that provided nutritious Kimburgers to university students across the (actually starving) country. But that’s nothing compared to what happened at Kim’s birth, when winter skipped immediately to spring and the sky burst open with both starlight and rainbows.

Americans find Kim mythology endlessly funny for two reasons: first, it’s outlandish; second, it’s desperate. In the United States, allegiance to elected leaders isn’t obtained with fairytales, historical embellishment, and mandatory celebration. It’s earned with responsiveness to popular sentiment, sound leadership, and policy results. Gimmick-laden personality cults are for self-appointed paranoiacs who can’t deliver the goods.

Which is probably what Americans are thinking about since Seth’s discovery yesterday that Barack Obama has inserted his name into White House presidential biographies starting with Calvin Coolidge’s.

While this kind of thing is new for American heads of state, it’s old hat for this one. It started before he ran for office. Exhibit A in the myth-making project is Dreams from My Father, a 1995 text on the genesis of the character who became president. Now revealed as a patchwork of “composite” people and events, Dreams can be seen properly as a life in parables. There is the Parable of the American in the Developing World, the Parable of the Mixed Race Student Dating the White Student, and so on. It’s not what did or did not actually happen, it’s what we take away from these stories that counts. Dreams literalists are a dwindling lot.

Today, Obama mythology is piped into our lives through various mediums: pre-taped interviews, late-night talk-show skits, emails, video addresses, documentaries, and more—anything but the democratic give-and-take of a press conference, the modern White House staple that Obama has done away with.  Like someone passively-aggressively rebelling against his boss, the president kept showing up for these appearances later and later until they just ceased to occur. He was done answering to others.

Self-mythology requires one-way messaging. And the message is, creepily, everywhere. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the administration now requires health insurance companies to “tell customers who get a premium rebate this summer that the check is the result of the Obama administration’s health care law.” As James Taranto noted, “to use the federal regulatory apparatus to commandeer private companies for campaign ads is outrageous.” Well, there’s no chance of it coming up at a press conference, is there?

Kim made sure to be celebrated with his own holidays but Obama just co-opted ours. On Sunday, we got a double whammy. An Obama campaign webpage asked us to “Wish Michelle [Obama] a happy Mother’s Day” by “join[ing] Barack and sign[ing] her card.”  And If we choose not to treat the first lady as we do our mothers, an unsolicited White House email enabled us to send our own mothers a card—promoting ObamaCare. “Happy Mother’s Day From The Affordable Care Act,” it read, “Being a mom isn’t a pre-existing condition. It’s a joy!”

While that wasn’t intended as a joke, it’s hard not to laugh. Similarly, the presidential biography tampering became the immediate target of biting humor. A cascade of Twitter one-liners savaged the debacle throughout the day yesterday. Like the cult of Kim, to Americans these efforts are outlandish and desperate. We laugh at them the way we laugh when Sacha Baron Cohen lampoons self-aggrandizing autocracy. They represent a wholly foreign understanding of what it means to be a good elected official. But they also represent a dearth of genuine achievement and therefore a tragicomic desperation. If Obama really believes that seeding cards and biographies with his name is the best way to get Americans on board with his presidency he’s more of a historic first than any of us knew.

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Major Confusion in the Administration

There is some major confusion pervading the senior layers of the Obama administration when it comes to defining and understanding who our enemies are. At least that’s the only conclusion one can draw from a couple of recent quotes a friend pointed out to me.

Exhibit A: In this interview with my Council colleague Les Gelb, Vice President Biden had this to say: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” That’s quite a statement to make about a terrorist/guerrilla group U.S. forces have been fighting since the fall of 2001–a group that is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and other trans-national extremist groups and that is making a violent assault on every liberal, decent value that Americans hold dear.

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There is some major confusion pervading the senior layers of the Obama administration when it comes to defining and understanding who our enemies are. At least that’s the only conclusion one can draw from a couple of recent quotes a friend pointed out to me.

Exhibit A: In this interview with my Council colleague Les Gelb, Vice President Biden had this to say: “Look, the Taliban per se is not our enemy. That’s critical. There is not a single statement that the president has ever made in any of our policy assertions that the Taliban is our enemy because it threatens U.S. interests.” That’s quite a statement to make about a terrorist/guerrilla group U.S. forces have been fighting since the fall of 2001–a group that is closely aligned with al-Qaeda and other trans-national extremist groups and that is making a violent assault on every liberal, decent value that Americans hold dear.

Exhibit B: Wendy Sherman, the No. 3 official in the State Department, had this to say of the late Kim Jong Il: “He was smart and a quick problem-solver. He is also witty and humorous. Our overall impression was very different from the way he was known to the outside world.” That’s quite a statement to make about one of the most odious dictators to rule any country since World War II–a man who presided over the deaths of millions of his own people from an artificial famine and who developed nuclear weapons that could yet wreak devastation on American soil or the soil of one of our allies.

I would not want to read too much into two stray comments. And I would not want to suggest that Biden is a fan of the Taliban or that Sherman was an acolyte of Kim Jong Il. (Biden did cover himself somewhat, at the risk of intellectual incoherence, when he said in the very next sentence after the one I previously quoted: “If, in fact, the Taliban is able to collapse the existing government, which is cooperating with us in keeping the bad guys from being able to do damage to us, then that becomes a problem for us.”)  But at the very least, these statements reveal a troubling tendency to see the best in our foes–which prevents us from making an accurate assessment of the threats we actually face and mobilizing the appropriate resources and determination to confront those threats.

 

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Farewell to Two Men Who Shaped History–But in Different Directions

The nearly simultaneous deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il serve as a useful reminder that history is more than impersonal forces. It is also the accumulated actions of individuals–and “great men” (that anachronistic phrase) have an outsize role in shaping the direction history takes.

There were many reasons, of course, why Czechoslovakia had such a smooth transition from Communist role and then managed to break apart so peacefully into two new countries–the Czech Republic and Slovakia–while avoiding the bloodshed that characterized the breakup of Yugoslavia. But surely part of the explanation can be found in the moral authority and democratic vision of Vaclav Havel. He dedicated his life to fighting for liberal principles and then, once he had made the startling transition from prison to president, he showed himself to be an exemplar of those values by leaving office at the end of his term–an action we take for granted but is hardly guaranteed in any country undergoing a democratic transition. A playwright and intellectual, he was an exemplary man of letters who used his prestige to further the freedom of his people–rather than, as is the case with so many of his counterparts in the West, to champion despots and deluded fanatics.

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The nearly simultaneous deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il serve as a useful reminder that history is more than impersonal forces. It is also the accumulated actions of individuals–and “great men” (that anachronistic phrase) have an outsize role in shaping the direction history takes.

There were many reasons, of course, why Czechoslovakia had such a smooth transition from Communist role and then managed to break apart so peacefully into two new countries–the Czech Republic and Slovakia–while avoiding the bloodshed that characterized the breakup of Yugoslavia. But surely part of the explanation can be found in the moral authority and democratic vision of Vaclav Havel. He dedicated his life to fighting for liberal principles and then, once he had made the startling transition from prison to president, he showed himself to be an exemplar of those values by leaving office at the end of his term–an action we take for granted but is hardly guaranteed in any country undergoing a democratic transition. A playwright and intellectual, he was an exemplary man of letters who used his prestige to further the freedom of his people–rather than, as is the case with so many of his counterparts in the West, to champion despots and deluded fanatics.

Kim Jong Il was one of those despots and fanatics who are inexplicably attractive to a few Westerners. He came to power at nearly the same time, in 1994, but aside from the accident of timing, the differences between the two could not have been more pronounced. Kim had no record of independent achievement as Havel had; he had neither produced significant works of art, nor spent time in jail for his beliefs. He had done little other than toady up to his father, Kim Il-sung.

When the elder Kim died, his son could have overseen a transition to democratic or at least less autocratic rule. Far from it, the junior Kim maintained the Stalinist dictatorship intact. He presided over the deaths of millions of his own people in a needless famine, even while channeling the scarce resources of the state into procuring luxury goods for himself (French cognac, Japanese actresses) and nuclear weapons for his state.

Kim was a canny survivor who used North Korea’s only assets–its nukes–to outmaneuver the U.S. and to maintain his iron grip on power. But all that means is that in the long run he will be remembered as a junior varsity Stalin, Mao, or Hitler: someone who in his own way embodied evil. Havel, by contrast, was far from perfect–he would never have claimed otherwise. But he was as transparently idealistic and well-intentioned as a statesman can get–on a par with only a  few other dissidents-turned-leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa.

Both Havel and Kim left their marks on history. Havel’s may be found in a flourishing, peaceful, democratic state in central Europe. Kim’s may be found in a destitute prison-camp of a state in Northeast Asia.

 

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A More Appropriate North Korean Eulogy

Last night, the North Korean government announced that its Dear Leader of the last 17 years died of “mental and physical exhaustion” on Saturday morning local time. Instead of looking at the death as an opportunity to remember Kim Jong-Il’s excesses, or wondering what his son’s will be, a more fitting eulogy would be for the millions who never lived to see the death of the man who kept their nation in the dark for his 17-year reign.

Because the Kim family has kept North Korea more isolated than any other country in the world, it is impossible for the outside world to know just how many have been murdered. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a doctoral student who was using a collaborative online program and satellite photos to determine what was happening inside the reclusive Asian nation. He discovered what many North Korean refugees have spoken about at great length–mass graves belonging to North Koreans unlucky enough to be subjects of Kim Jong-Il during a period of famine between 1995 and 1998. Estimates of the death toll in just that three-year period are as high as two million souls.

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Last night, the North Korean government announced that its Dear Leader of the last 17 years died of “mental and physical exhaustion” on Saturday morning local time. Instead of looking at the death as an opportunity to remember Kim Jong-Il’s excesses, or wondering what his son’s will be, a more fitting eulogy would be for the millions who never lived to see the death of the man who kept their nation in the dark for his 17-year reign.

Because the Kim family has kept North Korea more isolated than any other country in the world, it is impossible for the outside world to know just how many have been murdered. Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal ran a story about a doctoral student who was using a collaborative online program and satellite photos to determine what was happening inside the reclusive Asian nation. He discovered what many North Korean refugees have spoken about at great length–mass graves belonging to North Koreans unlucky enough to be subjects of Kim Jong-Il during a period of famine between 1995 and 1998. Estimates of the death toll in just that three-year period are as high as two million souls.

While many find humor in the escapades of the North Korean’s former leader, known for his quirky love of film, cognac and “looking at things,” the depths of his evil cannot be overlooked or minimized. Neighboring countries are on alert, waiting to see what the succession will look like. President Obama has released a statement hoping for stability and a peaceful transition on the Korean peninsula. While the world may want the North Korean’s volatile deck of cards to stay intact, what about the North Korean people, trapped in dozens of gulags, some larger than Washington, D.C., others even found in Russian Siberia? (North Koreans actually count themselves lucky to be sent to labor camps in the middle of the Siberian wilderness.)

After every genocide, the world cries “Never Again.” We have watched as the leaders of Germany, Cambodia, Iraq and Rwanda (to name a few), murdered their citizens in cold blood. North Korean refugees have escaped and told their stories. One such gulag survivor, Kang Chol-Hwan, the author of a remarkable memoir, Aquariums of Pyongyang, reminds his readers:

As Hitler slaughtered millions of Jews, the world did not want to believe it was happening. No one wished to imagine that the smoke and ashes blown to the village by the wind, day in and day out, actually came from the burning of human bodies within the concentration camps. Only after the genocide of six million Jews came to its grisly end did mankind eventually confront this gruesome tragedy.

Now the term “concentration camp” has become inextricably linked to Hitler’s holocaust. But how on earth could I ever explain that the same – and in fact far worse – things are being repeated in this 21st century in North Korea, a relic of a failed experiment in human history called communism?

As Abe pointed out earlier, we are aware of the horrors perpetrated in the North Korea. This is an opportunity, never before seen, to free the most oppressed people in world history. Will President Obama watch this opportunity for North Korean’s freedom pass as he did in Iran and across the Middle East? Will South Koreans work to reunify their country and lead their countrymen out of misery? I often think of my grandparents’ generation, who watched the Holocaust unfold, silently. I think of my parents’ generation, who spent their time protesting the Vietnam War, but were silent as Pol Pot killed more than two million of his people. How will our children judge us if we allow this moment to pass, if we allow another Kim to keep North Koreans trapped in gulags and abject poverty?

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Kim Jong Il and the Horror That Survives

Kim Jong Il’s death is a kind of victory—for him. He died of natural causes, in power, with nuclear technology at his disposal, leaving weeping newscasters to sing his praises. He was never toppled, imprisoned or killed. Kim presided over a totalitarian universe so comprehensive it managed to claim a perverse integrity. Free people outside North Korea have excised the country and its suffering millions from their daily consciences, even as they rally in support of Arab freedom or give toward the relief of African starvation. North Korea is a hell on earth that the earth would just as soon ignore.

Kim consigned generations to life and death inside a network of barbarous prisons. An entire nation, tortured and malnourished, in an age that’s elsewhere seen the formation of an obese poor class, the supposed defeat of  20th-century evils, and the rise of one-worldist peace dreams. Millions will continue to starve inside these death camps long after Kim’s own peaceful passing. Rogue nuclear powers manage to survive. In the May issue of COMMENTARY, Linda Chavez wrote the short story, “Afterbirth,” which takes readers inside the North Korean monstrosity that will survive the North Korean monster. Here is “Afterbirth”:

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Kim Jong Il’s death is a kind of victory—for him. He died of natural causes, in power, with nuclear technology at his disposal, leaving weeping newscasters to sing his praises. He was never toppled, imprisoned or killed. Kim presided over a totalitarian universe so comprehensive it managed to claim a perverse integrity. Free people outside North Korea have excised the country and its suffering millions from their daily consciences, even as they rally in support of Arab freedom or give toward the relief of African starvation. North Korea is a hell on earth that the earth would just as soon ignore.

Kim consigned generations to life and death inside a network of barbarous prisons. An entire nation, tortured and malnourished, in an age that’s elsewhere seen the formation of an obese poor class, the supposed defeat of  20th-century evils, and the rise of one-worldist peace dreams. Millions will continue to starve inside these death camps long after Kim’s own peaceful passing. Rogue nuclear powers manage to survive. In the May issue of COMMENTARY, Linda Chavez wrote the short story, “Afterbirth,” which takes readers inside the North Korean monstrosity that will survive the North Korean monster. Here is “Afterbirth”:

She held the large plastic bucket in front of her as the midwife severed the umbilical cord with a blood-smeared butcher knife before tossing the squirming infant into the pail. “Well? What are you standing there for? Get rid of it,” the midwife barked. She stepped back, averting her eyes from the bucket. It was heavy, three kilos she guessed, and the infant’s thrashing made carrying it difficult. She had wanted to stay until the afterbirth had been delivered. It would make a nourishing meal if she could hide until the shift was over. The guards would not miss a placenta, though they counted the bodies in the pit before they poured on the lime.

Hyepin—that was her name—had heard stories of prisoners who tried to steal the babies. She preferred to believe they were rescuing the still living, like the one in her bucket, though she knew it was more likely they intended to make a meal of the dead. She spat at the thought of it. It was one thing to devour human offal, another to eat flesh.

Please do read it all.

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China and Those Tensions that Remain

Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has been accompanied by the usual swooning. The New York Times, for instance, finds “Subtle Signs of Progress in U.S.-China Relations.” Very subtle indeed:

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in American efforts to press Kim Jong-il to roll back his nuclear weapons program.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Hu said at a White House news conference that China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

But even Times reporter Michael Wines is forced to admit that “words, of course, are easier than deeds.” He went on to concede (a concession that undercuts the entire thrust of the article):

Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Mr. Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the American side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, leveling the playing field for American investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the nations’ militaries.

That tensions remain even after the two presidents broke bread together should hardly be a surprise. Keep in mind the larger picture. Numerous countries have ascended to great power status in the past 1,000 years, as China now aspires to do. Not a single one managed to make the transition peacefully. Not the Ottomans, not the Habsburgs, not the French, not the British, not the Germans, not the Russians. Not even the Americans. We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving nation, but that’s not how our neighbors see us — and with good cause. Remember, as soon as we were strong enough, we went to war with Mexico to wrestle away the Southwest, and then, for good measure, we went to war with Spain to wrestle away Cuba and the Philippines. These were the actions, recall, of a liberal democracy. Autocratic regimes like the one in Beijing tend to be much more belligerent.

And indeed, China has been acting aggressively recently in trying to establish its hegemony in the region. As part of this process, it has undertaken a rapid military buildup that, as Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza note in the Weekly Standard, includes acquiring the means to strike distant American bases.

Does this mean that war with China is inevitable? Of course not. But we should be wary of the happy talk that normally accompanies summits. China may indeed see a “peaceful rise,” the slogan it adopted a few years ago. But based on history, that’s not the way to bet.

Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington has been accompanied by the usual swooning. The New York Times, for instance, finds “Subtle Signs of Progress in U.S.-China Relations.” Very subtle indeed:

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the Chinese for the first time expressed public concern over North Korea’s recent disclosure of a modern uranium-enrichment plant, a small but ardently sought step in American efforts to press Kim Jong-il to roll back his nuclear weapons program.

More surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Hu said at a White House news conference that China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights,” a palpable shift for a government that has staged a two-year crackdown on internal dissent and imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

But even Times reporter Michael Wines is forced to admit that “words, of course, are easier than deeds.” He went on to concede (a concession that undercuts the entire thrust of the article):

Neither side made any significant progress, much less any breakthrough, on the larger problems that have bedeviled relations ever since Mr. Obama made his state visit to Beijing in November 2009. On the American side, that includes revaluing China’s currency, leveling the playing field for American investors in China and establishing a serious discourse between the nations’ militaries.

That tensions remain even after the two presidents broke bread together should hardly be a surprise. Keep in mind the larger picture. Numerous countries have ascended to great power status in the past 1,000 years, as China now aspires to do. Not a single one managed to make the transition peacefully. Not the Ottomans, not the Habsburgs, not the French, not the British, not the Germans, not the Russians. Not even the Americans. We like to think of ourselves as a peace-loving nation, but that’s not how our neighbors see us — and with good cause. Remember, as soon as we were strong enough, we went to war with Mexico to wrestle away the Southwest, and then, for good measure, we went to war with Spain to wrestle away Cuba and the Philippines. These were the actions, recall, of a liberal democracy. Autocratic regimes like the one in Beijing tend to be much more belligerent.

And indeed, China has been acting aggressively recently in trying to establish its hegemony in the region. As part of this process, it has undertaken a rapid military buildup that, as Dan Blumenthal and Mike Mazza note in the Weekly Standard, includes acquiring the means to strike distant American bases.

Does this mean that war with China is inevitable? Of course not. But we should be wary of the happy talk that normally accompanies summits. China may indeed see a “peaceful rise,” the slogan it adopted a few years ago. But based on history, that’s not the way to bet.

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WEB EXCLUSIVE: North Korea Points to the Way on Iran

“The U.S. has no good options.” How many times have we heard that refrain in the days since North Korea attacked the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong?

In fact, even calling our options “options” is optimistic. We have obligations. Foremost among these is our obligation to “act to meet the common danger” now manifest in North Korea, as stipulated by a mutual defense treaty signed in 1953. Even if the president wanted to stay clear of the action in the Koreas, he couldn’t do so without breaking America’s promise to a long-standing democratic ally.

After obligations, we have hopes. We hope China will rein in the aggressive regime in Pyongyang. We hope that that regime is being tactically provocative and not irrevocably bellicose. We hope Kim Jong-il wants aid or summitry or a smooth transition of leadership for his son, not the destruction of his neighbor to the South. But we can’t know. Decades of bad bipartisan policy have left us guessing at the deathbed motives of a nuclear-armed paranoiac.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

“The U.S. has no good options.” How many times have we heard that refrain in the days since North Korea attacked the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong?

In fact, even calling our options “options” is optimistic. We have obligations. Foremost among these is our obligation to “act to meet the common danger” now manifest in North Korea, as stipulated by a mutual defense treaty signed in 1953. Even if the president wanted to stay clear of the action in the Koreas, he couldn’t do so without breaking America’s promise to a long-standing democratic ally.

After obligations, we have hopes. We hope China will rein in the aggressive regime in Pyongyang. We hope that that regime is being tactically provocative and not irrevocably bellicose. We hope Kim Jong-il wants aid or summitry or a smooth transition of leadership for his son, not the destruction of his neighbor to the South. But we can’t know. Decades of bad bipartisan policy have left us guessing at the deathbed motives of a nuclear-armed paranoiac.

To read the rest of this COMMENTARY Web Exclusive, click here.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

This isn’t going to win over the critics who say she lacks political judgment. “Sarah Palin dismissed Barbara Bush’s recent criticism as a matter of class privilege. … ‘I don’t want to concede that we have to get used to this kind of thing, because i don’t think the majority of Americans want to put up with the blue-bloods — and i want to say it with all due respect because I love the Bushes — the blue bloods who want to pick and chose their winners instead of allowing competition’ … Palin also suggested that the Bushes upper-class status had contributed to ‘the economic policies that were in place that got us into these economic woeful times.’” Whatever you think of Bush 41, this isn’t what a presidential candidate should sound like.

This is going to give “strategic patience” (otherwise known as paralysis) a bad name. “North Korea’s latest round of saber rattling leaves a politically weakened President Obama with several unpalatable options for dealing with the unstable nuclear power. The North Korean shelling of a South Korean island follows the revelation of a new centrifuge plant that could eventually allow the North to add to its nuclear stockpile. Both developments suggest the Obama administration’s policy of’ ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea is having little impact on the regime, which is focused on the transition of power from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un.”

This isn’t going to help the White House scare the Senate into a ratification vote: Jamie Fly writes: “New START is a rather meaningless arms-control agreement notable more for what it fails to do than what it achieves. … There remains serious criticism of New START’s merits on the right, and it is troubling that the administration is attempting to argue that Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl are interested only in killing the treaty. Kyl and a majority of his colleagues are just asking for more time to explore their concerns about the treaty and continue discussions with administration officials about funding levels for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. From the rhetoric of the administration and its surrogates, one would believe that if New START is not ratified by the end of the year, nuclear weapons will suddenly fall into the hands of terrorists.”

This is a sign that no one is going to bat for Joe Miller. “Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman had some unsolicited advice for fellow Republican Joe Miller: It’s time to quit.”

This verdict isn’t going to provoke much sympathy from conservatives. Tom DeLay is the type of pol the Tea Party despises, and his politics is the sort Republican lawmakers need to repudiate.

This wasn’t going to happen with Obama’s “smart diplomacy”: “When North Korea tested a nuclear device last year, China issued bland criticism and urged Pyongyang to resume diplomacy. After a South Korean navy ship was sunk, most likely by a North Korean torpedo, Beijing sent its sympathies but called the evidence inconclusive. Now that North Korea has unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed four people — including two civilians — and raised tensions in the heavily armed region, Beijing again appears unwilling to rein in its neighbor.”

This lame duck session isn’t going to be what the Dems had hoped. “Not so long ago, the great fear was that the Democratic Party would return from its midterm drubbing to jam all manner of odious legislation through a lame duck session of Congress. We may need to put that in the ‘wasted worry’ category.”

This isn’t going to win over the critics who say she lacks political judgment. “Sarah Palin dismissed Barbara Bush’s recent criticism as a matter of class privilege. … ‘I don’t want to concede that we have to get used to this kind of thing, because i don’t think the majority of Americans want to put up with the blue-bloods — and i want to say it with all due respect because I love the Bushes — the blue bloods who want to pick and chose their winners instead of allowing competition’ … Palin also suggested that the Bushes upper-class status had contributed to ‘the economic policies that were in place that got us into these economic woeful times.’” Whatever you think of Bush 41, this isn’t what a presidential candidate should sound like.

This is going to give “strategic patience” (otherwise known as paralysis) a bad name. “North Korea’s latest round of saber rattling leaves a politically weakened President Obama with several unpalatable options for dealing with the unstable nuclear power. The North Korean shelling of a South Korean island follows the revelation of a new centrifuge plant that could eventually allow the North to add to its nuclear stockpile. Both developments suggest the Obama administration’s policy of’ ‘strategic patience’ with North Korea is having little impact on the regime, which is focused on the transition of power from Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un.”

This isn’t going to help the White House scare the Senate into a ratification vote: Jamie Fly writes: “New START is a rather meaningless arms-control agreement notable more for what it fails to do than what it achieves. … There remains serious criticism of New START’s merits on the right, and it is troubling that the administration is attempting to argue that Republicans such as Sen. Jon Kyl are interested only in killing the treaty. Kyl and a majority of his colleagues are just asking for more time to explore their concerns about the treaty and continue discussions with administration officials about funding levels for modernization of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. From the rhetoric of the administration and its surrogates, one would believe that if New START is not ratified by the end of the year, nuclear weapons will suddenly fall into the hands of terrorists.”

This is a sign that no one is going to bat for Joe Miller. “Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman had some unsolicited advice for fellow Republican Joe Miller: It’s time to quit.”

This verdict isn’t going to provoke much sympathy from conservatives. Tom DeLay is the type of pol the Tea Party despises, and his politics is the sort Republican lawmakers need to repudiate.

This wasn’t going to happen with Obama’s “smart diplomacy”: “When North Korea tested a nuclear device last year, China issued bland criticism and urged Pyongyang to resume diplomacy. After a South Korean navy ship was sunk, most likely by a North Korean torpedo, Beijing sent its sympathies but called the evidence inconclusive. Now that North Korea has unleashed an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed four people — including two civilians — and raised tensions in the heavily armed region, Beijing again appears unwilling to rein in its neighbor.”

This lame duck session isn’t going to be what the Dems had hoped. “Not so long ago, the great fear was that the Democratic Party would return from its midterm drubbing to jam all manner of odious legislation through a lame duck session of Congress. We may need to put that in the ‘wasted worry’ category.”

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Korea at Thanksgiving

Most veterans have spent a Thanksgiving on duty. Many have spent Thanksgiving overseas. Some — a growing number — have spent it on alert or in combat. Veterans the world over know what the troops in South Korea said to each other on Tuesday, when North Korea started shooting: “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

The timing is uncanny. On November 24, 1950, a month after the discovery of Chinese troops in the war, General Douglas MacArthur launched what became known as the “Home by Christmas” offensive with the U.S. Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps along the Ch’ongch’on River, deep in North Korea. In the previous months, U.S. forces had landed at Inchon and, with other coalition troops, recaptured Seoul. There had been some contact with the Chinese army in November, but the assessment was that the Chinese intended to demonstrate force and then withdraw across their border. MacArthur didn’t expect the fierce resistance his forces would encounter, nor was there any hint of it on the first day of the offensive. The Eighth Army troops had put together a Thanksgiving feast on November 23, and spirits were high.

Much of the battle lore of the Korean conflict comes from the bloody campaign that followed. It dragged into December and saw the fighting retreat of the Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps through North Korea, at the onset of the coldest winter in 100 years. U.S. troops were unprepared for the nights in which temperatures dropped to -30 degrees F. The carnage was punctuated by the slaughter of coalition troops in the “Gauntlet”: the valley through which ran the road to Sunchon. The Eighth Army lost more than 11,000 soldiers in the offensive, but an exact count could never be established. Records had been lost, and whole units destroyed, in the retreat.

On Thanksgiving Day 60 years later, I am thankful that America and South Korea came back from that retreat to fight again. There is a poignant oddity in a 57-year armistice; there are many things to say about failed policies, shaky political nerves, and wrong priorities. But as Kim Jong-il fires an artillery barrage at the South and issues hysterical threats, I am thankful that South Korea today is free, well-armed, and intensively drilled. I am thankful that we have 28,000 troops in South Korea, and plenty of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps forces in Japan. These factors alone are Kim’s biggest deterrent. He knows they will perform well even if there is ambiguity in the policy governing their operations.

It’s Thanksgiving in Korea again, and our forces there are on alert. They are a dedicated volunteer force; they believe in their mission and purpose. They will keep faith with those who fought before them — and with all those who have missed many a Thanksgiving standing watch over American security in the years since the “Home for Christmas” campaign of 1950.

Most veterans have spent a Thanksgiving on duty. Many have spent Thanksgiving overseas. Some — a growing number — have spent it on alert or in combat. Veterans the world over know what the troops in South Korea said to each other on Tuesday, when North Korea started shooting: “Well, there goes Thanksgiving.”

The timing is uncanny. On November 24, 1950, a month after the discovery of Chinese troops in the war, General Douglas MacArthur launched what became known as the “Home by Christmas” offensive with the U.S. Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps along the Ch’ongch’on River, deep in North Korea. In the previous months, U.S. forces had landed at Inchon and, with other coalition troops, recaptured Seoul. There had been some contact with the Chinese army in November, but the assessment was that the Chinese intended to demonstrate force and then withdraw across their border. MacArthur didn’t expect the fierce resistance his forces would encounter, nor was there any hint of it on the first day of the offensive. The Eighth Army troops had put together a Thanksgiving feast on November 23, and spirits were high.

Much of the battle lore of the Korean conflict comes from the bloody campaign that followed. It dragged into December and saw the fighting retreat of the Eighth Army and South Korean II Corps through North Korea, at the onset of the coldest winter in 100 years. U.S. troops were unprepared for the nights in which temperatures dropped to -30 degrees F. The carnage was punctuated by the slaughter of coalition troops in the “Gauntlet”: the valley through which ran the road to Sunchon. The Eighth Army lost more than 11,000 soldiers in the offensive, but an exact count could never be established. Records had been lost, and whole units destroyed, in the retreat.

On Thanksgiving Day 60 years later, I am thankful that America and South Korea came back from that retreat to fight again. There is a poignant oddity in a 57-year armistice; there are many things to say about failed policies, shaky political nerves, and wrong priorities. But as Kim Jong-il fires an artillery barrage at the South and issues hysterical threats, I am thankful that South Korea today is free, well-armed, and intensively drilled. I am thankful that we have 28,000 troops in South Korea, and plenty of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps forces in Japan. These factors alone are Kim’s biggest deterrent. He knows they will perform well even if there is ambiguity in the policy governing their operations.

It’s Thanksgiving in Korea again, and our forces there are on alert. They are a dedicated volunteer force; they believe in their mission and purpose. They will keep faith with those who fought before them — and with all those who have missed many a Thanksgiving standing watch over American security in the years since the “Home for Christmas” campaign of 1950.

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RE: North Korea–Obama Sends a Stern Letter to the Editor

John, you’re being too hard on the president. He’s only writing the letter to the editor because Kim Jong-il refused to have a beer summit with him. I’m quite sure that had President Obama fulfilled his debate promise to have a little chit-chat with Kim, Ahmadinejad, and the Castro brothers, the former two would have abandoned their nuclear-weapons programs and Cuba would be libre today.

John, you’re being too hard on the president. He’s only writing the letter to the editor because Kim Jong-il refused to have a beer summit with him. I’m quite sure that had President Obama fulfilled his debate promise to have a little chit-chat with Kim, Ahmadinejad, and the Castro brothers, the former two would have abandoned their nuclear-weapons programs and Cuba would be libre today.

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North Korea Playing the U.S. — Still

Try as he might, Obama can’t escape being a wartime president and foreign-policy-crisis manager. That’s the world in which we live, and it keeps intruding into his desired agenda:

North Korea’s deadly attack on a populated South Korean island dramatically escalated the conflict between the two countries, leaving Seoul and its allies hunting for a response that would stave off more attacks but stop short of sparking war.

Artillery fire from the North came out of clear skies Tuesday afternoon and pounded an island near a disputed maritime border for more than an hour. Yeonpyeong Island’s 1,200 civilians scattered as shells exploded and homes and buildings caught fire, witnesses said, with many residents hunkering down in bomb shelters or fleeing on boats.

This act of provocation was met with tough talk, but produced more questions than answers:

The United Nations, European Union, Japan and others condemned the attack, with Russia and China calling for a cooling of tensions on the peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday’s exchange “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”

President Barack Obama strongly affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Mr. Obama called Mr. Lee to say the U.S. stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the ally and would work with the international community to condemn the “outrageous” attack, the Associated Press reported.

But what do the flurry of words mean, and what is the value of a shoulder-to-shoulder commitment while South Korea’s ships are at risk and its territory is violated? One senses quite clearly that Obama is being tested. After all, what did he do when Syria violated the UN resolution? What has he done about the Russian occupation of Georgia? The proliferation of non-actions has emboldened the North Koreans, as it has all the rogue states. And now Obama has his hands full.

Before word of the attack, former ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John R. Bolton wrote in reference to the newly discovered nuclear facility in Yongbyon that we’ve been “played” by North Korea ever since the Clinton administration. He does not spare the Bush administration either:

Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability. …

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.

What is clear is that the North Koreans perceive no downside to acts of aggression against their neighbor. So long as Obama has only words in response, the barrages are not likely to end. And meanwhile, Iran and our other foes look on.

Try as he might, Obama can’t escape being a wartime president and foreign-policy-crisis manager. That’s the world in which we live, and it keeps intruding into his desired agenda:

North Korea’s deadly attack on a populated South Korean island dramatically escalated the conflict between the two countries, leaving Seoul and its allies hunting for a response that would stave off more attacks but stop short of sparking war.

Artillery fire from the North came out of clear skies Tuesday afternoon and pounded an island near a disputed maritime border for more than an hour. Yeonpyeong Island’s 1,200 civilians scattered as shells exploded and homes and buildings caught fire, witnesses said, with many residents hunkering down in bomb shelters or fleeing on boats.

This act of provocation was met with tough talk, but produced more questions than answers:

The United Nations, European Union, Japan and others condemned the attack, with Russia and China calling for a cooling of tensions on the peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday’s exchange “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”

President Barack Obama strongly affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Mr. Obama called Mr. Lee to say the U.S. stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the ally and would work with the international community to condemn the “outrageous” attack, the Associated Press reported.

But what do the flurry of words mean, and what is the value of a shoulder-to-shoulder commitment while South Korea’s ships are at risk and its territory is violated? One senses quite clearly that Obama is being tested. After all, what did he do when Syria violated the UN resolution? What has he done about the Russian occupation of Georgia? The proliferation of non-actions has emboldened the North Koreans, as it has all the rogue states. And now Obama has his hands full.

Before word of the attack, former ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John R. Bolton wrote in reference to the newly discovered nuclear facility in Yongbyon that we’ve been “played” by North Korea ever since the Clinton administration. He does not spare the Bush administration either:

Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability. …

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.

What is clear is that the North Koreans perceive no downside to acts of aggression against their neighbor. So long as Obama has only words in response, the barrages are not likely to end. And meanwhile, Iran and our other foes look on.

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North Korea & Iran: Containment vs. Regime Change

North Korea doesn’t have a whole lot going for it beyond a large army and a nuclear arsenal. So it should be no surprise that the regime resorts to saber-rattling to remind the world that it needs to be propitiated. Earlier this year, in March, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Today the North shelled a South Korean island, killing two more soldiers. This comes only days after a Stanford professor reported finding a vast new uranium-enrichment plant in North Korea, suggesting that the North is gearing up to produce a lot more atomic weapons.

North Korea watchers think that this provocative behavior is meant to ease the leadership transition to a third-generation of Marxist dictators. Kim Jong-il, the current ruler, has just elevated his son Kim Jung-un to four-star rank — widely seen as a perquisite for taking over from his old man. But whatever the explanation, attacks on another country are clearly unacceptable. Problem is, it is devilishly difficult to respond to because North Korea is, after all, a nuclear power.

After the Cheonan’s sinking, the U.S. pushed for a UN resolution condemning the attack, but it was so watered down by the time it passed that it did not even mention North Korea’s culpability. It would be nice if this time the UN were to show some fortitude in upbraiding a nation other than Israel. But no matter what resolution the UN passes, its significance will be purely symbolic.

South Korea has already cut most economic times with the North, so there is not much more that can be done on that front either.

The ultimate solution is plain: regime change. But how to achieve it is another matter. China is North Korea’s major remaining lifeline, but unfortunately it is hard to see how to persuade the Chinese to cut off their client state. They may not like Pyongyang’s powerplays, but they are even less wild about the notion of a unified Korea allied with the United States.

So we are where we have essentially been since the end of the Korean War: practicing containment and hoping for the day when North Korea will finally implode. For those who advocate containment as the solution to the Iranian nuclear threat, it is worth noting how destabilizing a nuclear-armed rogue state can be and how hard it is to contain. Even now, North Korea could be planning to export nuclear know-how or uranium to Iran. If so, what are we going to do about it? My guess: not much. That is an argument for stopping Iran by any means necessary before it crosses the nuclear threshold and becomes as dangerous as North Korea.

North Korea doesn’t have a whole lot going for it beyond a large army and a nuclear arsenal. So it should be no surprise that the regime resorts to saber-rattling to remind the world that it needs to be propitiated. Earlier this year, in March, a North Korean submarine torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Today the North shelled a South Korean island, killing two more soldiers. This comes only days after a Stanford professor reported finding a vast new uranium-enrichment plant in North Korea, suggesting that the North is gearing up to produce a lot more atomic weapons.

North Korea watchers think that this provocative behavior is meant to ease the leadership transition to a third-generation of Marxist dictators. Kim Jong-il, the current ruler, has just elevated his son Kim Jung-un to four-star rank — widely seen as a perquisite for taking over from his old man. But whatever the explanation, attacks on another country are clearly unacceptable. Problem is, it is devilishly difficult to respond to because North Korea is, after all, a nuclear power.

After the Cheonan’s sinking, the U.S. pushed for a UN resolution condemning the attack, but it was so watered down by the time it passed that it did not even mention North Korea’s culpability. It would be nice if this time the UN were to show some fortitude in upbraiding a nation other than Israel. But no matter what resolution the UN passes, its significance will be purely symbolic.

South Korea has already cut most economic times with the North, so there is not much more that can be done on that front either.

The ultimate solution is plain: regime change. But how to achieve it is another matter. China is North Korea’s major remaining lifeline, but unfortunately it is hard to see how to persuade the Chinese to cut off their client state. They may not like Pyongyang’s powerplays, but they are even less wild about the notion of a unified Korea allied with the United States.

So we are where we have essentially been since the end of the Korean War: practicing containment and hoping for the day when North Korea will finally implode. For those who advocate containment as the solution to the Iranian nuclear threat, it is worth noting how destabilizing a nuclear-armed rogue state can be and how hard it is to contain. Even now, North Korea could be planning to export nuclear know-how or uranium to Iran. If so, what are we going to do about it? My guess: not much. That is an argument for stopping Iran by any means necessary before it crosses the nuclear threshold and becomes as dangerous as North Korea.

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All the President’s Enemies

I had lunch yesterday with a long-time friend who is intelligent, well informed, and a life-long Democrat. In the course of our conversation I asked for his reaction to what the president said on Univision.

If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, “We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder.

Given how out of sync the president’s words have been, compared with his high-minded campaign rhetoric, I asked my friend, “Help me to decode Obama.” I wanted to hear his perspective as someone who had invested great hopes in the president.

His response was arresting: “He’s ruthless.” My friend proceeded to tell me that Obama should be understood in the context of the Chicago Way.

This exchange was revealing on several levels. First, my friend’s disenchantment with the president is nearly off the charts. He told me he was as disappointed in Obama as he has ever been in a politician, to the point that on Tuesday he’s going to vote for almost a straight Republican ticket. Many more voters will undergo this same reversal of preferences come Tuesday, which is one reason why it will be a brutal night for the Democrats.

Second, Obama’s rhetoric — using the word “enemy” to describe members of the opposition party — has become nearly unhinged. For Obama there are, it seems, no honest or honorable critics; they are all dishonest, dishonorable, operating in bad faith, and now, apparently, out-and-out enemies. Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is more scorching toward Republicans than it is toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-Il.

What Obama said on Univision is simply the latest in a massive and increasingly wearisome smear campaign aimed at Obama’s critics (the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News, conservative talk radio, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, the Tea Party movement, critics of ObamaCare, the Supreme Court, the state of Arizona, etc.). As Democrats reach the last stretch of this campaign, invective is almost all they have to offer. And as the magnitude of the impending defeat on Tuesday sinks in, Obama is becoming more brittle, more small-minded, and more mean-spirited.

What makes this stand out all the more, of course, is that Obama is the man whose campaign, at its very core, was the antithesis to these sorts of attacks. During his inaugural address, for example, Obama said this:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

These are moving words and, like so much of what Obama said during the campaign, they turned out to be empty ones.

The president is right; the Scriptures do say to put away childish things. They also say by your fruits ye will be known. That is precisely Barack Obama’s problem.

I had lunch yesterday with a long-time friend who is intelligent, well informed, and a life-long Democrat. In the course of our conversation I asked for his reaction to what the president said on Univision.

If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, “We’re going to punish our enemies and we’re going to reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,” if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s going to be harder.

Given how out of sync the president’s words have been, compared with his high-minded campaign rhetoric, I asked my friend, “Help me to decode Obama.” I wanted to hear his perspective as someone who had invested great hopes in the president.

His response was arresting: “He’s ruthless.” My friend proceeded to tell me that Obama should be understood in the context of the Chicago Way.

This exchange was revealing on several levels. First, my friend’s disenchantment with the president is nearly off the charts. He told me he was as disappointed in Obama as he has ever been in a politician, to the point that on Tuesday he’s going to vote for almost a straight Republican ticket. Many more voters will undergo this same reversal of preferences come Tuesday, which is one reason why it will be a brutal night for the Democrats.

Second, Obama’s rhetoric — using the word “enemy” to describe members of the opposition party — has become nearly unhinged. For Obama there are, it seems, no honest or honorable critics; they are all dishonest, dishonorable, operating in bad faith, and now, apparently, out-and-out enemies. Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is more scorching toward Republicans than it is toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-Il.

What Obama said on Univision is simply the latest in a massive and increasingly wearisome smear campaign aimed at Obama’s critics (the Chamber of Commerce, Fox News, conservative talk radio, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, the Tea Party movement, critics of ObamaCare, the Supreme Court, the state of Arizona, etc.). As Democrats reach the last stretch of this campaign, invective is almost all they have to offer. And as the magnitude of the impending defeat on Tuesday sinks in, Obama is becoming more brittle, more small-minded, and more mean-spirited.

What makes this stand out all the more, of course, is that Obama is the man whose campaign, at its very core, was the antithesis to these sorts of attacks. During his inaugural address, for example, Obama said this:

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.

These are moving words and, like so much of what Obama said during the campaign, they turned out to be empty ones.

The president is right; the Scriptures do say to put away childish things. They also say by your fruits ye will be known. That is precisely Barack Obama’s problem.

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Reading (and Misreading) Kim

Now and then a media theme comes along that can only be called fatuous. Next week, North Korea will hold its first ruling-party conference in 30 years. In advance of the conference, the Kim government has promoted to higher office three senior officials with career connections to the nuclear program. The three men in question were prominent in previous iterations of the multilateral negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Therefore, Western media are depicting these personnel moves as a sign that “the country’s leaders are seeking to stabilize foreign relations and encourage diplomacy.” Very few of the mainstream media outlets report, however, that Kang Sok Ju, who has been made the new vice premier, was the chief designer of the North Korean nuclear program. He was chosen in 1994 to negotiate the Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration because he was the North’s nuclear chief. From the perspective of the Kim regime — which intended all along to retain its program and achieve a weapons capability — the most senior proponent of the program was the appropriate emissary to the proceedings.

There are a number of indications that Kim Jong-Il is planning to introduce his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as his political successor next week. The current Kim was named successor at the last such conference in 1980. Close followers of Pyongyang’s ineffable party media note that in the last six months, Kim Jong-Il has been referred to as “Great Leader,” a title once reserved for his father Kim Il-Sung.  The post of “Dear Leader” is now unoccupied, just in time for the rare party conference. The three men in the new government positions are Kim Jong-Il loyalists: from any standpoint — tensions with the South, the terrible toll of typhoons and flooding this summer, the need to secure a succession — it makes sense for the current Kim to ensure loyalty in his senior ranks.

The logical interpretation of the personnel moves is that they are intended to secure the optimum conditions for Kim’s internal political plans. The men in question are trusted, long-time aides of the regime: that’s why they were associated with the nuclear program to begin with, it’s why they were dispatched for nuclear negotiations in the past, and it’s why they are being shuffled upward now.

It bears reiterating that their record in foreign negotiations was all to Pyongyang’s advantage. They never negotiated in good faith and North Korea never kept the commitments it made. At no time were they or their regime negotiating in order to cultivate good foreign relations — or, in fact, to seek any common objective with the other parties to the talks.

It hasn’t been that long since the Soviet Union collapsed. But today’s mainstream media seem to retain no corporate memory of the dynamics of secretive Communist regimes. Regime succession is a recurring national-security emergency for such governments. Many Western media outlets have picked up on the warning from a Russian diplomat this week that the Koreas are on the brink of conflict. But if the Russians are observing a bustling in North Korea’s national-defense apparatus, that would be perfectly in character for a Communist thugocracy before a landmark party conference. “The wicked flee when none pursueth,” say the Proverbs; it’s much more likely that the Kim regime is maneuvering, in the Communist manner, against anticipated threats to itself rather than taking a vow of “good diplomacy” to improve relations with the U.S.

Now and then a media theme comes along that can only be called fatuous. Next week, North Korea will hold its first ruling-party conference in 30 years. In advance of the conference, the Kim government has promoted to higher office three senior officials with career connections to the nuclear program. The three men in question were prominent in previous iterations of the multilateral negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Therefore, Western media are depicting these personnel moves as a sign that “the country’s leaders are seeking to stabilize foreign relations and encourage diplomacy.” Very few of the mainstream media outlets report, however, that Kang Sok Ju, who has been made the new vice premier, was the chief designer of the North Korean nuclear program. He was chosen in 1994 to negotiate the Agreed Framework with the Clinton administration because he was the North’s nuclear chief. From the perspective of the Kim regime — which intended all along to retain its program and achieve a weapons capability — the most senior proponent of the program was the appropriate emissary to the proceedings.

There are a number of indications that Kim Jong-Il is planning to introduce his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as his political successor next week. The current Kim was named successor at the last such conference in 1980. Close followers of Pyongyang’s ineffable party media note that in the last six months, Kim Jong-Il has been referred to as “Great Leader,” a title once reserved for his father Kim Il-Sung.  The post of “Dear Leader” is now unoccupied, just in time for the rare party conference. The three men in the new government positions are Kim Jong-Il loyalists: from any standpoint — tensions with the South, the terrible toll of typhoons and flooding this summer, the need to secure a succession — it makes sense for the current Kim to ensure loyalty in his senior ranks.

The logical interpretation of the personnel moves is that they are intended to secure the optimum conditions for Kim’s internal political plans. The men in question are trusted, long-time aides of the regime: that’s why they were associated with the nuclear program to begin with, it’s why they were dispatched for nuclear negotiations in the past, and it’s why they are being shuffled upward now.

It bears reiterating that their record in foreign negotiations was all to Pyongyang’s advantage. They never negotiated in good faith and North Korea never kept the commitments it made. At no time were they or their regime negotiating in order to cultivate good foreign relations — or, in fact, to seek any common objective with the other parties to the talks.

It hasn’t been that long since the Soviet Union collapsed. But today’s mainstream media seem to retain no corporate memory of the dynamics of secretive Communist regimes. Regime succession is a recurring national-security emergency for such governments. Many Western media outlets have picked up on the warning from a Russian diplomat this week that the Koreas are on the brink of conflict. But if the Russians are observing a bustling in North Korea’s national-defense apparatus, that would be perfectly in character for a Communist thugocracy before a landmark party conference. “The wicked flee when none pursueth,” say the Proverbs; it’s much more likely that the Kim regime is maneuvering, in the Communist manner, against anticipated threats to itself rather than taking a vow of “good diplomacy” to improve relations with the U.S.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Gen. Stanley McChrystal took the blame. But he isn’t the problem, says Jackson Diehl: “If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”

It took Rolling Stone to make clear “just how badly Barack Obama’s ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is going.”

Obama took office in January 2009, yet voters think Hillary Clinton is more qualified to be president: “A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% of voters feel Clinton is qualified to be president, but 34% disagree and say she is not. As for President Obama, 51% say he is fit for the job. However, 44% say he is not qualified to be president, even though he has now served 17 months in the job.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell took a few hits early in his term but his approval stands at 63%, according to an internal poll.

The North Korean soccer team took a beating. (“After an embarrassing 7-0 drubbing by Portugal yesterday, will the North Korean soccer team have to face the wrath of Kim Jong Il?”) Maybe they should have hired Chinese players instead of Chinese fans.

Obama took it on the chin in court yesterday: “A federal judge in New Orleans halted President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium on Tuesday, saying the government never justified the ban and appeared to mislead the public in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued an injunction, saying that the moratorium will hurt drilling-rig operators and suppliers and that the government has not proved an outright ban is needed, rather than a more limited moratorium. He also said the Interior Department also misstated the opinion of the experts it consulted. Those experts from the National Academy of Engineering have said they don’t support the blanket ban.”

It took the NRA to put a bullet through the heart of campaign finance “reform”: “Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of just two Republican sponsors of a sweeping campaign finance bill, is so upset about late changes to the measure he is considering withdrawing his support and voting against it. ‘He’s absolutely opposed to the [NRA] exemption,’ Castle spokeswoman Kate Dickens told The Hill. ‘The exemptions are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think they are even done yet.’”

It took Obama to put Russ Feingold’s seat at risk. “Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold is still in a virtual dead heat with endorsed Republican challenger Ron Johnson in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal took the blame. But he isn’t the problem, says Jackson Diehl: “If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”

It took Rolling Stone to make clear “just how badly Barack Obama’s ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is going.”

Obama took office in January 2009, yet voters think Hillary Clinton is more qualified to be president: “A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% of voters feel Clinton is qualified to be president, but 34% disagree and say she is not. As for President Obama, 51% say he is fit for the job. However, 44% say he is not qualified to be president, even though he has now served 17 months in the job.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell took a few hits early in his term but his approval stands at 63%, according to an internal poll.

The North Korean soccer team took a beating. (“After an embarrassing 7-0 drubbing by Portugal yesterday, will the North Korean soccer team have to face the wrath of Kim Jong Il?”) Maybe they should have hired Chinese players instead of Chinese fans.

Obama took it on the chin in court yesterday: “A federal judge in New Orleans halted President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium on Tuesday, saying the government never justified the ban and appeared to mislead the public in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued an injunction, saying that the moratorium will hurt drilling-rig operators and suppliers and that the government has not proved an outright ban is needed, rather than a more limited moratorium. He also said the Interior Department also misstated the opinion of the experts it consulted. Those experts from the National Academy of Engineering have said they don’t support the blanket ban.”

It took the NRA to put a bullet through the heart of campaign finance “reform”: “Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of just two Republican sponsors of a sweeping campaign finance bill, is so upset about late changes to the measure he is considering withdrawing his support and voting against it. ‘He’s absolutely opposed to the [NRA] exemption,’ Castle spokeswoman Kate Dickens told The Hill. ‘The exemptions are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think they are even done yet.’”

It took Obama to put Russ Feingold’s seat at risk. “Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold is still in a virtual dead heat with endorsed Republican challenger Ron Johnson in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.”

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Realists Become Neocons

Richard Haass, the self-described “realist” who has come around to favor regime change in Iran and warned Obama to get over his obsession with the Middle East “peace process,” reviews the list of belligerent moves by North Korea and then offers up some advice to the Obama administration masterminds:

The next real opportunity to change things for the better is likely to come when North Korea’s mercurial tyrant Kim Jong Il departs the scene once and for all time. But positive change will only happen if China acts. If in real estate all that matters is location, location and location, it is only a slight exaggeration to contend that what matters most when it comes to North Korea is China, China and China. …

American and South Korean officials need to do more than just point out the risk to their Chinese counterparts of China’s current course. They also need to discuss the character of a unified Korea and how one would get there, addressing legitimate Chinese strategic concerns including the questions of non-Korean troop presence and the full denuclearization of the peninsula. …

South Korea’s president may have signaled an interest in just this on Monday, saying “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” President Obama should follow suit. There would be no better way to mark this June’s 60th anniversary of the Korean war.

Regime change to deal with despots? Dispense with self-defeating peace processing in the Middle East? Not remarkable views at all for CONTENTIONS or for COMMENTARY magazine, but startling indeed for a middle-of-the-road establishment figure like Haass. It seems that for those willing to absorb reality and not simply adopt the slogan of “realists,” the evidence is mounting that Obama’s absorption with engagement and disinclination to confront despots is useless and indeed counterproductive. These realists understand that the thugocracies are becoming more aggressive and the U.S. less credible and that some serious course correction is needed.

Political moderates and even liberals have grown disgusted with Obama’s abysmal record on human rights and religious freedom and nervous about his reluctance to project American power. The silver lining in Obama’s inept foreign policy is that a potentially broad-based alliance of critics is forming to suggest policies more in sync with neocon thinkers than with the starry-eyed multilateralist president. If not for the dangers to the U.S. and its allies, which Obama is doing little to abate (and much to increase), it would be a very positive development. Provided we and our allies can weather the Obama storm, his successor may have the benefit of a new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus, which has eluded us for some time.

Richard Haass, the self-described “realist” who has come around to favor regime change in Iran and warned Obama to get over his obsession with the Middle East “peace process,” reviews the list of belligerent moves by North Korea and then offers up some advice to the Obama administration masterminds:

The next real opportunity to change things for the better is likely to come when North Korea’s mercurial tyrant Kim Jong Il departs the scene once and for all time. But positive change will only happen if China acts. If in real estate all that matters is location, location and location, it is only a slight exaggeration to contend that what matters most when it comes to North Korea is China, China and China. …

American and South Korean officials need to do more than just point out the risk to their Chinese counterparts of China’s current course. They also need to discuss the character of a unified Korea and how one would get there, addressing legitimate Chinese strategic concerns including the questions of non-Korean troop presence and the full denuclearization of the peninsula. …

South Korea’s president may have signaled an interest in just this on Monday, saying “It is now time for the North Korean regime to change.” President Obama should follow suit. There would be no better way to mark this June’s 60th anniversary of the Korean war.

Regime change to deal with despots? Dispense with self-defeating peace processing in the Middle East? Not remarkable views at all for CONTENTIONS or for COMMENTARY magazine, but startling indeed for a middle-of-the-road establishment figure like Haass. It seems that for those willing to absorb reality and not simply adopt the slogan of “realists,” the evidence is mounting that Obama’s absorption with engagement and disinclination to confront despots is useless and indeed counterproductive. These realists understand that the thugocracies are becoming more aggressive and the U.S. less credible and that some serious course correction is needed.

Political moderates and even liberals have grown disgusted with Obama’s abysmal record on human rights and religious freedom and nervous about his reluctance to project American power. The silver lining in Obama’s inept foreign policy is that a potentially broad-based alliance of critics is forming to suggest policies more in sync with neocon thinkers than with the starry-eyed multilateralist president. If not for the dangers to the U.S. and its allies, which Obama is doing little to abate (and much to increase), it would be a very positive development. Provided we and our allies can weather the Obama storm, his successor may have the benefit of a new bipartisan foreign-policy consensus, which has eluded us for some time.

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What Real Threats Look Like

There is a set of realities identified by the American left as threats to national, if not global, security. These include things like the U.S.’s own nuclear arsenal, the stationing abroad of some 370,000 American troops, Israel’s capable defenses, and warm weather. To call these phenomena threats is no mere act of speculation. It is a bold inversion of the truth.

Few policies boast a perfect record of 50-plus years, but U.S. nuclear deterrence has the right to do so. The American arsenal kept Russia from invading Western Europe throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Similarly, U.S. military bases, whether established in postwar Germany and Japan or set up 50 years later in the Balkans, have underwritten long-term stability in every hemisphere.

The left has ignored entirely the debt owed to Israel’s military. In 1981, the Israeli Airforce’s Operation Babylon took out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, robbing the world’s most dangerous leader of his own deterrence capabilities. This is to say nothing of Israel’s attack on other dangerous weapons programs and of the Jewish state’s perpetual battle to defeat Islamist terrorism the world over.

As for the deadly threat of high temperatures, a 2007 study reported: “From 1979 to 1997, extreme cold killed roughly twice as many Americans as heat waves, according to Indur Goklany of the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

It is remarkable how fast these boutique “threats” fall by the wayside when the genuine article appears. Today, the AP reports, “The Dow Jones industrials plunged below 10,000 Tuesday after traders dumped stocks on worries about the global economy and tensions between North and South Korea.” Funny, you never read about a stock-market nosedive in response to a balmy June, the ongoing maintenance of American nuclear weapons, an Israeli response to Hamas, or the construction of a distant American military base.

The world sets itself on edge like this only when an unmistakable, demonstrable threat to peace emerges. We now see one in the increasing bellicosity of Kim Jong-il’s regime.

And speaking of those dangerous American military bases abroad, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak doesn’t seem to be too offended by President Obama’s declaration that “the Republic of Korea can continue to count on the full support of the United States.” When Seoul turns down that support, we can start worrying about the left’s critical-threat list. Until then, the world has some actual problems to deal with, thanks very much.

There is a set of realities identified by the American left as threats to national, if not global, security. These include things like the U.S.’s own nuclear arsenal, the stationing abroad of some 370,000 American troops, Israel’s capable defenses, and warm weather. To call these phenomena threats is no mere act of speculation. It is a bold inversion of the truth.

Few policies boast a perfect record of 50-plus years, but U.S. nuclear deterrence has the right to do so. The American arsenal kept Russia from invading Western Europe throughout the entirety of the Cold War. Similarly, U.S. military bases, whether established in postwar Germany and Japan or set up 50 years later in the Balkans, have underwritten long-term stability in every hemisphere.

The left has ignored entirely the debt owed to Israel’s military. In 1981, the Israeli Airforce’s Operation Babylon took out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, robbing the world’s most dangerous leader of his own deterrence capabilities. This is to say nothing of Israel’s attack on other dangerous weapons programs and of the Jewish state’s perpetual battle to defeat Islamist terrorism the world over.

As for the deadly threat of high temperatures, a 2007 study reported: “From 1979 to 1997, extreme cold killed roughly twice as many Americans as heat waves, according to Indur Goklany of the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

It is remarkable how fast these boutique “threats” fall by the wayside when the genuine article appears. Today, the AP reports, “The Dow Jones industrials plunged below 10,000 Tuesday after traders dumped stocks on worries about the global economy and tensions between North and South Korea.” Funny, you never read about a stock-market nosedive in response to a balmy June, the ongoing maintenance of American nuclear weapons, an Israeli response to Hamas, or the construction of a distant American military base.

The world sets itself on edge like this only when an unmistakable, demonstrable threat to peace emerges. We now see one in the increasing bellicosity of Kim Jong-il’s regime.

And speaking of those dangerous American military bases abroad, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak doesn’t seem to be too offended by President Obama’s declaration that “the Republic of Korea can continue to count on the full support of the United States.” When Seoul turns down that support, we can start worrying about the left’s critical-threat list. Until then, the world has some actual problems to deal with, thanks very much.

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Obama Needs a Korea Strategy Focused on Liberation, Not Engagement

It’s fascinating to see the ideological blinders slipping a bit in the Obama administration. First the president had to acknowledge that his efforts to reach out to Iran were going nowhere; now a similar outreach effort to North Korea mounted over many years by South Korea has been officially declared DOA. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, is suspending a large measure of the South’s trade with the North, barring Northern ships from entering Southern waters, ramping up propaganda aimed at the North, and taking other steps to signal displeasure with the North’s sinking of a Southern frigate, which resulted in the loss of 46 sailors. The Obama administration, to its credit, is offering “unequivocal” support for the South’s get-tough policy, including agreeing to hold joint military maneuvers.

Such measures are necessary but insufficient. No one imagines they will seriously change the behavior of Kim Jong-il’s rogue regime. That kind of change is probably beyond our power to impose; only China has the leverage needed to really punish the North, and it won’t exercise that leverage for fear of accelerating the North’s collapse. Nevertheless, it would make sense to set a long-term goal for U.S. and South Korea policy — to bring about the peaceful collapse of North Korea.

That is something that South Korea has long been ambivalent about; the South Koreans are keenly aware of how much German unification cost, and they know that North Korea will be even tougher to integrate than East Germany was. But the Cheonan‘s sinking shows that the status quo has significant costs too.

Likewise, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration needs to stop pretending that a fourth watered-down UN sanctions resolution is going to achieve anything. Here, too, the administration needs to set peaceful regime change as the goal for American policy. In neither case is regime change a panacea; the rulers in both Tehran and Pyongyang are firmly entrenched in power and will not easily be dislodged despite their lack of popular support. It will be a long, difficult process to help the peoples of North Korea and Iran to liberate themselves. All the more reason, then, to make this a priority for American policy now rather than succumbing to more wishful thinking about the possibilities of “engagement” with these criminal regimes.

It’s fascinating to see the ideological blinders slipping a bit in the Obama administration. First the president had to acknowledge that his efforts to reach out to Iran were going nowhere; now a similar outreach effort to North Korea mounted over many years by South Korea has been officially declared DOA. South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, is suspending a large measure of the South’s trade with the North, barring Northern ships from entering Southern waters, ramping up propaganda aimed at the North, and taking other steps to signal displeasure with the North’s sinking of a Southern frigate, which resulted in the loss of 46 sailors. The Obama administration, to its credit, is offering “unequivocal” support for the South’s get-tough policy, including agreeing to hold joint military maneuvers.

Such measures are necessary but insufficient. No one imagines they will seriously change the behavior of Kim Jong-il’s rogue regime. That kind of change is probably beyond our power to impose; only China has the leverage needed to really punish the North, and it won’t exercise that leverage for fear of accelerating the North’s collapse. Nevertheless, it would make sense to set a long-term goal for U.S. and South Korea policy — to bring about the peaceful collapse of North Korea.

That is something that South Korea has long been ambivalent about; the South Koreans are keenly aware of how much German unification cost, and they know that North Korea will be even tougher to integrate than East Germany was. But the Cheonan‘s sinking shows that the status quo has significant costs too.

Likewise, when it comes to Iran, the Obama administration needs to stop pretending that a fourth watered-down UN sanctions resolution is going to achieve anything. Here, too, the administration needs to set peaceful regime change as the goal for American policy. In neither case is regime change a panacea; the rulers in both Tehran and Pyongyang are firmly entrenched in power and will not easily be dislodged despite their lack of popular support. It will be a long, difficult process to help the peoples of North Korea and Iran to liberate themselves. All the more reason, then, to make this a priority for American policy now rather than succumbing to more wishful thinking about the possibilities of “engagement” with these criminal regimes.

Read Less

The Koreas: Sanctions Effectiveness Watch

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

The most informative development in the Korean ship-sinking case this week is the silence of China on the matter, something South Korea’s press has addressed in pointed fashion. The Chinese announced on the 19th, moreover, that their ambassador would send a deputy to Thursday’s high-level diplomatic briefing from the South Korean government rather than attending it himself. Editorial staffs in Seoul interpret this as de facto support for North Korea’s position in the confrontation. They have reason to.

In the month before the sinking of South Korean navy corvette Cheonan (on March 26), North Korea extended to 2028 China’s lease on the eastern port of Rajin, which sits on the Sea of Japan. China is modernizing the port extensively for commercial use; Japan and South Korea have the obvious concern that China might begin sending warships there as well. In the month after Cheonans sinking, North Korea switched partners in its flagship tourism venture from South Korea to China. China’s tourists lost no time in taking advantage of that opportunity: the first tourist train from China entered North Korea on April 24. Tourism is a latecomer to the burgeoning trade between China and North Korea, which reportedly hit an all-time high in the first two months of 2010.

China’s proprietary relations with North Korea face an aggressive rival in Russia, which obtained a new 50-year lease on the Rajin port in March and plans to connect the port to its eastern railway system. Maintaining China’s position as Pyongyang’s principal patron is high on Beijing’s priority list, which explains why the Chinese welcomed a rare visit from Kim Jong-Il in early May and allowed North Korea to capitalize on that trip with its first-ever national display at the World Expo in Shanghai. (The chirpy cluelessness of MSNBC’s coverage here is priceless.) Neither the Cheonan incident nor reports in April that Pyongyang is planning a third nuclear test threw a damper on the fraternal amity blossoming in Northeast Asia.

The sense among China’s leaders that they have the latitude to display their true intentions in Korea has grown markedly in the last year. It was never accurate to perceive China as a like-minded ally of the U.S. in the Six-Party talks but, as late as April 2009, Beijing was still making a show of acting from common interests. That it no longer does can be attributed largely to the passivity and incoherence of the Obama administration. The administration’s only serious diplomatic response during the tense period after Cheonan’s sinking was to offer food aid to North Korea if it would rejoin the Six-Party talks.

But China has other examples to draw from as well, such as Obama’s unrealistic handling of Iran. The parallels between the Iran and Korea situations include, of course, multiple rounds of toothless international sanctions and U.S. bluster unsupported by any effective action. In the case of the Cheonan sinking, they also include a very specific analogue: the North Korean naval weapons involved. The analytical team’s finding is that North Korea used a Yono-class “midget” submarine to launch a former-Soviet-style 21-inch torpedo — the world’s most common type — at the South Korean corvette. Iran has produced seven Yono-design hulls as its Ghadir class since 2007, has fitted them to launch 21-inch torpedoes, and began adding them to the fleet in 2009. Iran, like North Korea, has been under UN sanctions throughout that period.

Read Less




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