Commentary Magazine


Topic: Korean Peninsula

Obama Rebounds in December After Devastating November

President Obama has had a heckuva December, especially considering how dismal his November was. Just a month after suffering a midterm-election drubbing, he has bounced back with a renewal of the Bush tax cuts, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now ratification of New START. Oh, and he also issued his AfPak review, which endorsed the counterinsurgency plan being implemented by General Petraeus.

It is hard to imagine a more skillful triangulation, offering something to both the right (tax cuts, toughness on the war effort) and the left (letting gays serve openly, passing an arms-control treaty). Actually, I’m not sure how left-wing even his liberal achievements are, since a number of conservatives (myself included) endorsed DADT repeal and New START passage. Considering that he is probably the most liberal occupant of the Oval Office, he has done a surprisingly good job of moving to the center, as witnessed by the Republican votes he has managed to garner on DADT and New START — votes that were notably absent when he rammed his health-care bill through Congress.

The biggest challenge for the president in the 684 days remaining until the 2012 election is to address the two biggest threats to our long-term well-being: the ballooning national debt and the anemic pace of economic growth. He needs to work with the GOP Congress to cut spending, which will alienate his Democratic base; the economy will, I assume, rebound more or less on its own barring any more onerous regulatory or tax bills from Washington.

As for foreign policy, his biggest challenges are to make sure that the military campaign in Afghanistan progresses and that Iraq does not regress. He has caught an extraordinarily lucky break thanks to the Stuxnet virus, probably engineered by the Israelis, which seems to have set the Iranian program back another year or two. That means it’s very unlikely that Iran will go nuclear before the 2012 election — a calamity for which Obama would shoulder the blame. The biggest threat he faces is an unexpected crisis: e.g., war on the Korean peninsula or between India and Pakistan or a devastating terrorist strike on the American homeland as a result of a security breakdown. Barring such a calamity, and notwithstanding his weak poll numbers, I’d say he is looking like a prohibitively strong candidate for re-election — especially because there is not an obvious candidate of stature in the Republican ranks.

But of course, it’s still early. It is salutary to recall that in December 1990, George H.W. Bush had considerably higher poll numbers than Obama has today — 61 percent for Bush vs. 46 percent for Obama.

President Obama has had a heckuva December, especially considering how dismal his November was. Just a month after suffering a midterm-election drubbing, he has bounced back with a renewal of the Bush tax cuts, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and now ratification of New START. Oh, and he also issued his AfPak review, which endorsed the counterinsurgency plan being implemented by General Petraeus.

It is hard to imagine a more skillful triangulation, offering something to both the right (tax cuts, toughness on the war effort) and the left (letting gays serve openly, passing an arms-control treaty). Actually, I’m not sure how left-wing even his liberal achievements are, since a number of conservatives (myself included) endorsed DADT repeal and New START passage. Considering that he is probably the most liberal occupant of the Oval Office, he has done a surprisingly good job of moving to the center, as witnessed by the Republican votes he has managed to garner on DADT and New START — votes that were notably absent when he rammed his health-care bill through Congress.

The biggest challenge for the president in the 684 days remaining until the 2012 election is to address the two biggest threats to our long-term well-being: the ballooning national debt and the anemic pace of economic growth. He needs to work with the GOP Congress to cut spending, which will alienate his Democratic base; the economy will, I assume, rebound more or less on its own barring any more onerous regulatory or tax bills from Washington.

As for foreign policy, his biggest challenges are to make sure that the military campaign in Afghanistan progresses and that Iraq does not regress. He has caught an extraordinarily lucky break thanks to the Stuxnet virus, probably engineered by the Israelis, which seems to have set the Iranian program back another year or two. That means it’s very unlikely that Iran will go nuclear before the 2012 election — a calamity for which Obama would shoulder the blame. The biggest threat he faces is an unexpected crisis: e.g., war on the Korean peninsula or between India and Pakistan or a devastating terrorist strike on the American homeland as a result of a security breakdown. Barring such a calamity, and notwithstanding his weak poll numbers, I’d say he is looking like a prohibitively strong candidate for re-election — especially because there is not an obvious candidate of stature in the Republican ranks.

But of course, it’s still early. It is salutary to recall that in December 1990, George H.W. Bush had considerably higher poll numbers than Obama has today — 61 percent for Bush vs. 46 percent for Obama.

Read Less

NOW, We’re (Not) Talking

Perhaps the Obama administration has finally lost its infatuation with engagement. This marks a step in the right direction and a departure from the Bush administration and the first two years of this one:

The United States, South Korea and Japan are all balking at China’s request for emergency talks with North Korea over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as high-profile military exercises between South Korea and the United States in the Yellow Sea continued on Monday in a show of force.

Obama administration officials said that a return to the table with North Korea, as China sought this weekend, would be rewarding the North for provocative behavior over the past week, including its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island and its disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant. Beijing called for emergency talks with North Korea, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, participants in the six-party nuclear talks, which have been suspended indefinitely.

Finally. Now — what’s the rationale for talks with the mullahs? I substitute “Iran” for “North Korea” and you see the point:

“The United States and a host of others, I don’t think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

He said that the talks “without an understanding and agreement from the [Iranians] to both end their behavior … but also to come to the table with a seriousness of purpose on the denuclearization issue — without that seriousness of purpose, they’re just a P.R. activity.”

But back to North Korea. Step one is to stop doing unhelpful things — rewarding bad behavior by the North Koreans and indulging in the fantasy that if we are polite enough (and reticent enough when it comes to human rights), China will come to our aid. The good news is that there is, albeit quite belatedly, a recognition that China is of no help here. (“Rejecting the emergency talks amounts to a pointed rebuke to China. The United States wanted China to signal clearly that North Korea’s aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. Instead, Beijing remained neutral about who was responsible for the recent flare-up, and offered only to provide a venue for all sides to air their differences.”) The bad news is that the administration has yet to come up with an alternative.

It’s not only the WikiLeaks documents that are revealing the flawed assumptions of the Obama foreign policy approach. Every day, reality intrudes and tells us that the world is not as the administration imagines it to be.

Perhaps the Obama administration has finally lost its infatuation with engagement. This marks a step in the right direction and a departure from the Bush administration and the first two years of this one:

The United States, South Korea and Japan are all balking at China’s request for emergency talks with North Korea over the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as high-profile military exercises between South Korea and the United States in the Yellow Sea continued on Monday in a show of force.

Obama administration officials said that a return to the table with North Korea, as China sought this weekend, would be rewarding the North for provocative behavior over the past week, including its deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island and its disclosure of a uranium enrichment plant. Beijing called for emergency talks with North Korea, the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, participants in the six-party nuclear talks, which have been suspended indefinitely.

Finally. Now — what’s the rationale for talks with the mullahs? I substitute “Iran” for “North Korea” and you see the point:

“The United States and a host of others, I don’t think, are not interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R. activities,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman.

He said that the talks “without an understanding and agreement from the [Iranians] to both end their behavior … but also to come to the table with a seriousness of purpose on the denuclearization issue — without that seriousness of purpose, they’re just a P.R. activity.”

But back to North Korea. Step one is to stop doing unhelpful things — rewarding bad behavior by the North Koreans and indulging in the fantasy that if we are polite enough (and reticent enough when it comes to human rights), China will come to our aid. The good news is that there is, albeit quite belatedly, a recognition that China is of no help here. (“Rejecting the emergency talks amounts to a pointed rebuke to China. The United States wanted China to signal clearly that North Korea’s aggressive behavior would not be tolerated. Instead, Beijing remained neutral about who was responsible for the recent flare-up, and offered only to provide a venue for all sides to air their differences.”) The bad news is that the administration has yet to come up with an alternative.

It’s not only the WikiLeaks documents that are revealing the flawed assumptions of the Obama foreign policy approach. Every day, reality intrudes and tells us that the world is not as the administration imagines it to be.

Read Less

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.

Read Less

A Times Bouquet for Those Lovable North Koreans

This summer marks the 60th anniversary of one of America’s least-known conflicts: the Korean War. The remarkable thing about Korea is that even at the height of the Cold War, when leftist apologists for the Soviet Union and other Communist aggressors were at their high watermark, in the West there were few if any among them who spent much time criticizing America’s decision to save South Korea after it was invaded in June of 1950. Even in those decades when defenders of the Soviets, Castro, and even Mao were never in short supply, it was hard to find anyone to say a good word about the lunatic regime in Pyongyang, a government so oppressive that it gave dedicated Stalinists the willies. There was little room for debate about how the Korean conflict started or what the consequences for the Korean people would have been had the Communists been allowed to complete their takeover of the entire country. But with the passage of time, memory of these basic facts fade, and for the squishy left there is no topic, no matter how cut and dried, that is not ripe for a revisionist retelling as long as America can be portrayed as the villain. That’s the only way to explain a new book about Korea by Bruce Cumings, the chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, and the rapturous review it received in today’s New York Times. Turning history and logic on its head, Cumings believes that not only was American intervention in Korea wrong but the North Koreans were the good guys.

To be fair, Cumings clearly knows a lot more about modern Korean history than most of those Americans who have written about the war. He has a point when he notes that a record of collaboration with the brutal Japanese occupation of the country compromised the South Korean leadership during the first half of the 20th century. But however nasty some of the South Korean leaders were, it is impossible to compare them unfavorably with their Stalinist opponents in the North. Cumings also spends much of his book attempting to paint the American-led United Nations force that defended the South against Communist aggression as genocidal murderers. The strategic bombing of the North exacted a high toll of casualties, but the same could be said of Allied bombings of Germany and Japan during World War Two. But Cumings’s argument isn’t so much with American tactics but rather with its goal of defeating the Communists.

One of the interesting sidelights of the book, touched on with approval in Dwight Garner’s fawning review, is the way the Chicago historian torches the late David Halberstam’s book about Korea. Halberstam, a liberal icon, played a key role in demolishing support for America’s war in Vietnam, but he rightly understood that there could be no ambivalence about his country’s role in saving South Korea. But for a blinkered leftist like Cumings, there are no enemies, no matter how despicable, on the left and no good American wars.

It is Cumings who can’t face the basic truth about Korea. Without American military intervention, the whole of the peninsula would today be under the rule of a maniacal Communist dictatorship that prides itself on starving and oppressing its own people and threatening its neighbors. After a rocky start to life in the midst of the destruction wrought by the North Korean invasion, South Korea has become a democracy with a vibrant economy. The reality of the contrasting fates of the two halves of the Korean peninsula is a testament to the courage of President Truman and the Americans and other UN troops that fought there. It is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary liberal intellectual life — demonstrated by Cumings’s book and the Times review — that the impulse to trash America’s past is so strong that it takes precedence over a respect for history’s verdict about Communist aggression in Korea.

This summer marks the 60th anniversary of one of America’s least-known conflicts: the Korean War. The remarkable thing about Korea is that even at the height of the Cold War, when leftist apologists for the Soviet Union and other Communist aggressors were at their high watermark, in the West there were few if any among them who spent much time criticizing America’s decision to save South Korea after it was invaded in June of 1950. Even in those decades when defenders of the Soviets, Castro, and even Mao were never in short supply, it was hard to find anyone to say a good word about the lunatic regime in Pyongyang, a government so oppressive that it gave dedicated Stalinists the willies. There was little room for debate about how the Korean conflict started or what the consequences for the Korean people would have been had the Communists been allowed to complete their takeover of the entire country. But with the passage of time, memory of these basic facts fade, and for the squishy left there is no topic, no matter how cut and dried, that is not ripe for a revisionist retelling as long as America can be portrayed as the villain. That’s the only way to explain a new book about Korea by Bruce Cumings, the chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago, and the rapturous review it received in today’s New York Times. Turning history and logic on its head, Cumings believes that not only was American intervention in Korea wrong but the North Koreans were the good guys.

To be fair, Cumings clearly knows a lot more about modern Korean history than most of those Americans who have written about the war. He has a point when he notes that a record of collaboration with the brutal Japanese occupation of the country compromised the South Korean leadership during the first half of the 20th century. But however nasty some of the South Korean leaders were, it is impossible to compare them unfavorably with their Stalinist opponents in the North. Cumings also spends much of his book attempting to paint the American-led United Nations force that defended the South against Communist aggression as genocidal murderers. The strategic bombing of the North exacted a high toll of casualties, but the same could be said of Allied bombings of Germany and Japan during World War Two. But Cumings’s argument isn’t so much with American tactics but rather with its goal of defeating the Communists.

One of the interesting sidelights of the book, touched on with approval in Dwight Garner’s fawning review, is the way the Chicago historian torches the late David Halberstam’s book about Korea. Halberstam, a liberal icon, played a key role in demolishing support for America’s war in Vietnam, but he rightly understood that there could be no ambivalence about his country’s role in saving South Korea. But for a blinkered leftist like Cumings, there are no enemies, no matter how despicable, on the left and no good American wars.

It is Cumings who can’t face the basic truth about Korea. Without American military intervention, the whole of the peninsula would today be under the rule of a maniacal Communist dictatorship that prides itself on starving and oppressing its own people and threatening its neighbors. After a rocky start to life in the midst of the destruction wrought by the North Korean invasion, South Korea has become a democracy with a vibrant economy. The reality of the contrasting fates of the two halves of the Korean peninsula is a testament to the courage of President Truman and the Americans and other UN troops that fought there. It is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary liberal intellectual life — demonstrated by Cumings’s book and the Times review — that the impulse to trash America’s past is so strong that it takes precedence over a respect for history’s verdict about Communist aggression in Korea.

Read Less

Storms Brewing in the Asian Seas

In response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship last March, the United States and South Korea will hold a series of joint military exercises beginning next week. But the joint exercises have become as much about geopolitics and China as they are about North Korea.

Although the exercises may be adroitly executed from a military-strategic standpoint, their success in sending a political and symbolic message is less certain. As the exercises have been considered throughout recent months, the Chinese protested aggressively and created a situation that tempts U.S. overreaction — which would be especially destructive now, as Sino-U.S. relations are already strained. The Obama administration has avoided that temptation, and the handling of the joint exercises has been both reasonable and measured. But the risk remains that Washington’s tact will be misinterpreted as a major concession to Beijing. This would be a pity. In a rare act of real smart diplomacy, the Obama administration is standing by our ally, South Korea, while also taking a moderate approach to China.

After Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates met with counterparts in Seoul this week, the Department of Defense announced a series of exercises to be held in both the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. In the Sea of Japan, a large-scale air and naval exercise will begin Sunday. But notably, the details of the Yellow Sea exercises, to be held at some point in the future, were not announced, leaving more questions than answers. (The locations of both seas are crucial to understanding the issue.)

The locations of both seas are crucial to understanding the issue.

Given Beijing’s strong objections to military escapades in the Yellow Sea, which it considers its territorial backyard, the U.S.-South Korean exercises take on new significance. The fear is that unless the United States stridently defies Chinese concerns, it will be seen as conceding to Beijing and setting a precedent about what constitutes Chinese territory. This perception would be overblown given the facts, but it is all the more worrisome in the context of growing Chinese naval assertiveness.

Some have speculated that the Chinese are seeking to establish their own Monroe Doctrine and see this as a chance to reinforce it. Contrary to the UN Law of the Sea, China has objected to any unapproved non-surveillance navy activity in its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from shore. Beijing has repeated strongly worded protests against exercises in the Yellow Sea, especially those involving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington.

If the United States proceeds with a major military exercise in the Yellow Sea, a military response from the Chinese would not be unprecedented; during the 1994 North Korea nuclear crisis, the U.S. sent a similar carrier, the Kitty Hawk, into the Yellow Sea. Although China was then a lesser military power, a Chinese submarine trailed the Kitty Hawk, and the Chinese air force dispatched fighters.

But the biggest risk is not military but political: China is trying to assert sea control; Sino-U.S. relations are already rocky, especially given Obama’s adherence to an arms deal with Taiwan; under a new prime minister, Japan is questioning whether to tilt its national-security strategy toward Beijing or toward Washington; South Korea is determining how steadfastly the United States intends to defend it from its hostile Northern neighbor; and North Korea wants to know what it can get away with.

Upon examining the facts, it’s clear that the plan announced yesterday serves the United States’s primary objectives: the Sea of Japan exercise is sufficient warning to North Korea, and it is also an impressive display of solidarity with South Korea. The scale of the exercises is huge: about 8,000 American and South Korean military personnel will participate. And the United States will employ some flashy assets. The exercise will include the George Washington, which is the core of U.S. naval power, and F-22s, the best of the best among tactical aircraft. The few disadvantages of a Sea of Japan–based exercise is that the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was sunk in the Yellow Sea, and Pyongyang lies closer to the West. Hillary Clinton announced today, however, that the Obama administration would be imposing further economic sanctions against North Korea, strengthening the U.S. stance even more. The message to Pyonyang and to our allies is loud and clear.

This approach also enables the U.S. to avoid needlessly provoking China without conceding U.S. military rights, while taking into consideration the unavoidably necessary collaboration with China regarding the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese have suffered some of their most embarrassing historic defeats in the Yellow Sea, so they’re understandably sensitive. At the same time, joint Yellow Sea exercises will follow eventually, and the Pentagon’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, stated clearly that the United Statesobviously [has] the right to navigate all international waters, conduct operations in all international waters at the time and place of our choosing.” Furthermore, China will also be a major player in the future of North Korea and in any reunification of the Korean Peninsula; therefore, our allies in Seoul could suffer more harm than benefit from outright defiance of Beijing’s concerns.

The Obama administration’s challenge now will be to convey the wisdom of this approach to China and to America’s allies. The Nobel-winning president has made this harder on himself because of his history of pacifying aggressors and distancing allies.  But in international relations, perception is reality. Had Obama been more fearsome before, he’d be more credible now.

In response to North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship last March, the United States and South Korea will hold a series of joint military exercises beginning next week. But the joint exercises have become as much about geopolitics and China as they are about North Korea.

Although the exercises may be adroitly executed from a military-strategic standpoint, their success in sending a political and symbolic message is less certain. As the exercises have been considered throughout recent months, the Chinese protested aggressively and created a situation that tempts U.S. overreaction — which would be especially destructive now, as Sino-U.S. relations are already strained. The Obama administration has avoided that temptation, and the handling of the joint exercises has been both reasonable and measured. But the risk remains that Washington’s tact will be misinterpreted as a major concession to Beijing. This would be a pity. In a rare act of real smart diplomacy, the Obama administration is standing by our ally, South Korea, while also taking a moderate approach to China.

After Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates met with counterparts in Seoul this week, the Department of Defense announced a series of exercises to be held in both the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. In the Sea of Japan, a large-scale air and naval exercise will begin Sunday. But notably, the details of the Yellow Sea exercises, to be held at some point in the future, were not announced, leaving more questions than answers. (The locations of both seas are crucial to understanding the issue.)

The locations of both seas are crucial to understanding the issue.

Given Beijing’s strong objections to military escapades in the Yellow Sea, which it considers its territorial backyard, the U.S.-South Korean exercises take on new significance. The fear is that unless the United States stridently defies Chinese concerns, it will be seen as conceding to Beijing and setting a precedent about what constitutes Chinese territory. This perception would be overblown given the facts, but it is all the more worrisome in the context of growing Chinese naval assertiveness.

Some have speculated that the Chinese are seeking to establish their own Monroe Doctrine and see this as a chance to reinforce it. Contrary to the UN Law of the Sea, China has objected to any unapproved non-surveillance navy activity in its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 miles from shore. Beijing has repeated strongly worded protests against exercises in the Yellow Sea, especially those involving a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington.

If the United States proceeds with a major military exercise in the Yellow Sea, a military response from the Chinese would not be unprecedented; during the 1994 North Korea nuclear crisis, the U.S. sent a similar carrier, the Kitty Hawk, into the Yellow Sea. Although China was then a lesser military power, a Chinese submarine trailed the Kitty Hawk, and the Chinese air force dispatched fighters.

But the biggest risk is not military but political: China is trying to assert sea control; Sino-U.S. relations are already rocky, especially given Obama’s adherence to an arms deal with Taiwan; under a new prime minister, Japan is questioning whether to tilt its national-security strategy toward Beijing or toward Washington; South Korea is determining how steadfastly the United States intends to defend it from its hostile Northern neighbor; and North Korea wants to know what it can get away with.

Upon examining the facts, it’s clear that the plan announced yesterday serves the United States’s primary objectives: the Sea of Japan exercise is sufficient warning to North Korea, and it is also an impressive display of solidarity with South Korea. The scale of the exercises is huge: about 8,000 American and South Korean military personnel will participate. And the United States will employ some flashy assets. The exercise will include the George Washington, which is the core of U.S. naval power, and F-22s, the best of the best among tactical aircraft. The few disadvantages of a Sea of Japan–based exercise is that the South Korean ship, the Cheonan, was sunk in the Yellow Sea, and Pyongyang lies closer to the West. Hillary Clinton announced today, however, that the Obama administration would be imposing further economic sanctions against North Korea, strengthening the U.S. stance even more. The message to Pyonyang and to our allies is loud and clear.

This approach also enables the U.S. to avoid needlessly provoking China without conceding U.S. military rights, while taking into consideration the unavoidably necessary collaboration with China regarding the Korean Peninsula. The Chinese have suffered some of their most embarrassing historic defeats in the Yellow Sea, so they’re understandably sensitive. At the same time, joint Yellow Sea exercises will follow eventually, and the Pentagon’s press secretary, Geoff Morrell, stated clearly that the United Statesobviously [has] the right to navigate all international waters, conduct operations in all international waters at the time and place of our choosing.” Furthermore, China will also be a major player in the future of North Korea and in any reunification of the Korean Peninsula; therefore, our allies in Seoul could suffer more harm than benefit from outright defiance of Beijing’s concerns.

The Obama administration’s challenge now will be to convey the wisdom of this approach to China and to America’s allies. The Nobel-winning president has made this harder on himself because of his history of pacifying aggressors and distancing allies.  But in international relations, perception is reality. Had Obama been more fearsome before, he’d be more credible now.

Read Less

Potemkin Futbol

Truth has it all over fiction. Sports photographers captured a poignant moment at the Brazil–North Korea match in Tuesday’s World Cup play, when North Korea’s star striker, Jong Tae-Se, stood with tears in his eyes as his national anthem was played and a tiny contingent of fans cheered wildly. The New York Times’s Rob Hughes, answering the call of sentiment, reported that the match helped “bridge the world’s divides” and urged “everyone [to move] away from the notion that the isolation of half of the Korean Peninsula makes its citizens and players somehow inferior.”

No trip back to the manufactured atmosphere of Cold War–era sporting events would be complete without some kind of deceptive show put on by the Marxist side. And this incident requited expectations: it turns out that the 100 North Korean fans vigorously waving their flags last night in the bleachers in Ellis Park were Chinese actors, hired by China to play North Korean fans.

China didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup. According to a Chinese TV news anchor who’s now in Johannesburg covering the tournament, “Chinese fans will stand for the Asian teams.” South Korea and Japan are also competing for the World Cup this year, but the TV anchor’s additional comments clarify why China is standing for one Asian team in particular:

… 60 years ago, China’s military forces valiantly crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans against their enemies.

Sixty years on, we cheer for their football team and hope they will go far.

These aren’t comments a Chinese TV personality can make without government approval. America may have common interests with China in a variety of situations, but we’ve been deceiving ourselves for too long that such commonality exists when it comes to the disposition of the Korean peninsula. In significant ways, it’s still 1950 in Beijing. What China wants is a viable North Korea that can withstand attempts at unifying the Koreas under a U.S.-friendly government. China can wait for a propitious time to foster reunification to its own advantage; the key under current conditions is to prevent the Kim regime from collapsing.

In light of North Korea’s torpedoing of the South Korean ship in March, the Chinese endorsement at the World Cup is very pointed. It’s also classic state-socialist stage management — if with a twist this time, China having straightforwardly announced what it’s doing back in May. China’s apparent sense that such signals will be either missed or shrugged off by the U.S. has deepened considerably with the Obama presidency. Asians are less obtuse in this regard, however, and they are the target audience.

Brazil defeated North Korea 2-1, incidentally — a creditable showing by the North Koreans against the world’s top-ranked team.

Truth has it all over fiction. Sports photographers captured a poignant moment at the Brazil–North Korea match in Tuesday’s World Cup play, when North Korea’s star striker, Jong Tae-Se, stood with tears in his eyes as his national anthem was played and a tiny contingent of fans cheered wildly. The New York Times’s Rob Hughes, answering the call of sentiment, reported that the match helped “bridge the world’s divides” and urged “everyone [to move] away from the notion that the isolation of half of the Korean Peninsula makes its citizens and players somehow inferior.”

No trip back to the manufactured atmosphere of Cold War–era sporting events would be complete without some kind of deceptive show put on by the Marxist side. And this incident requited expectations: it turns out that the 100 North Korean fans vigorously waving their flags last night in the bleachers in Ellis Park were Chinese actors, hired by China to play North Korean fans.

China didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup. According to a Chinese TV news anchor who’s now in Johannesburg covering the tournament, “Chinese fans will stand for the Asian teams.” South Korea and Japan are also competing for the World Cup this year, but the TV anchor’s additional comments clarify why China is standing for one Asian team in particular:

… 60 years ago, China’s military forces valiantly crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans against their enemies.

Sixty years on, we cheer for their football team and hope they will go far.

These aren’t comments a Chinese TV personality can make without government approval. America may have common interests with China in a variety of situations, but we’ve been deceiving ourselves for too long that such commonality exists when it comes to the disposition of the Korean peninsula. In significant ways, it’s still 1950 in Beijing. What China wants is a viable North Korea that can withstand attempts at unifying the Koreas under a U.S.-friendly government. China can wait for a propitious time to foster reunification to its own advantage; the key under current conditions is to prevent the Kim regime from collapsing.

In light of North Korea’s torpedoing of the South Korean ship in March, the Chinese endorsement at the World Cup is very pointed. It’s also classic state-socialist stage management — if with a twist this time, China having straightforwardly announced what it’s doing back in May. China’s apparent sense that such signals will be either missed or shrugged off by the U.S. has deepened considerably with the Obama presidency. Asians are less obtuse in this regard, however, and they are the target audience.

Brazil defeated North Korea 2-1, incidentally — a creditable showing by the North Koreans against the world’s top-ranked team.

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Fear and Loathing in the Far East

Conspiracy theorists would imagine that the Americans engineered the sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan – and pinned it on North Korea — as a means of pressuring Japan to agree to relocate the disputed Marine Corps air base on Okinawa. But conspiracies don’t work that well; only the natural course of events produces such ironies.

Shortly after Seoul announced its findings last week on the Cheonan sinking, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama publicly reversed his position on relocating the U.S. base. Vocal Okinawan activists have long wanted the U.S. Marine Corps out of their archipelagic prefecture entirely. Hatoyama promised during his 2009 campaign to revisit the previous government’s agreement to move the air base from its current position at Futenma to a new location in the Henoko district. And late last year he did just that, producing a months-long standoff with the U.S. over the fate of Marine Corps basing in Japan.

The Obama administration’s stance has been unyielding and less than cordial: December saw a painfully undiplomatic sequence in which President Obama refused a request for a sidebar with Hatoyama at the Copenhagen environmental summit; the Hatoyama government announced that it would not move on the basing matter at all until May 2010; and Hillary Clinton summoned the Japanese ambassador to lecture him on his government’s obligations under the previous agreement.

In spite of this unpromising history, however, the Hatoyama government has now agreed to continue with the plan to move the air base to Henoko. The move remains deeply unpopular in Okinawa, but Hatoyama is quite explicit about his reason: his concern for Japanese security in light of the tensions on the Korean peninsula.

This is a pyrrhic victory for Obama’s diplomacy. The alliance with Japan is worth tending better; it might have been possible to achieve this or a similarly advantageous outcome without leaving Japan’s government and the Okinawans feeling cornered and resentful. But our “smart power” administration didn’t even try.

Events will not always yield blind luck and drive our allies to do what we want. With events likely to begin piling up faster than we can react to them, greater care is called for. Observing with our allies the basic norms of courtesy, access, negotiation, and compromise would go a long way toward cementing our commonality of purpose as the challenges to our global security arrangements accelerate.

Conspiracy theorists would imagine that the Americans engineered the sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan – and pinned it on North Korea — as a means of pressuring Japan to agree to relocate the disputed Marine Corps air base on Okinawa. But conspiracies don’t work that well; only the natural course of events produces such ironies.

Shortly after Seoul announced its findings last week on the Cheonan sinking, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama publicly reversed his position on relocating the U.S. base. Vocal Okinawan activists have long wanted the U.S. Marine Corps out of their archipelagic prefecture entirely. Hatoyama promised during his 2009 campaign to revisit the previous government’s agreement to move the air base from its current position at Futenma to a new location in the Henoko district. And late last year he did just that, producing a months-long standoff with the U.S. over the fate of Marine Corps basing in Japan.

The Obama administration’s stance has been unyielding and less than cordial: December saw a painfully undiplomatic sequence in which President Obama refused a request for a sidebar with Hatoyama at the Copenhagen environmental summit; the Hatoyama government announced that it would not move on the basing matter at all until May 2010; and Hillary Clinton summoned the Japanese ambassador to lecture him on his government’s obligations under the previous agreement.

In spite of this unpromising history, however, the Hatoyama government has now agreed to continue with the plan to move the air base to Henoko. The move remains deeply unpopular in Okinawa, but Hatoyama is quite explicit about his reason: his concern for Japanese security in light of the tensions on the Korean peninsula.

This is a pyrrhic victory for Obama’s diplomacy. The alliance with Japan is worth tending better; it might have been possible to achieve this or a similarly advantageous outcome without leaving Japan’s government and the Okinawans feeling cornered and resentful. But our “smart power” administration didn’t even try.

Events will not always yield blind luck and drive our allies to do what we want. With events likely to begin piling up faster than we can react to them, greater care is called for. Observing with our allies the basic norms of courtesy, access, negotiation, and compromise would go a long way toward cementing our commonality of purpose as the challenges to our global security arrangements accelerate.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Uh oh: “Initial claims for unemployment benefits shot up by 25,000 to 471,000 last week. Economists had expected claims to drop to 440,000. ‘This is horrible,’ Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients. ‘The Labor Dept told the press that there are no special factors lifting claims, so we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that the trend in claims has not only stopped falling, but may be turning higher.’”

Yikes: “It’s true that Obama ‘encouraged’ Turkey and Brazil to hold discussions with Iran, a White House official tells The Cable, but he never indicated that a deal like the one announced this week would be sufficient to alleviate international concerns or stave off sanctions.”

Panic (for Democratic incumbents): “So far in 2010, an average of 23% of Americans have been satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. That is well below the 40% historical average Gallup has measured since 1979, when it began asking this question. The 2010 average is also the lowest Gallup has measured in a midterm election year, dating to 1982. … Democrats are clearly vulnerable to losing their majority this year.”

Nervous (Republicans) as Rand Paul gets snared on the race issue. “Several senior Senate Republicans seem to be taken aback by Rand Paul’s pronouncements on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The GOP’s Kentucky Senate nominee has suggested that he doesn’t believe the federal government has a role in preventing private businesses from discriminating against racial minorities, and he dodged Wednesday night when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked him whether he would have supported the landmark 1964 act.” Paul then went into damage-control mode. But if this keeps up, Mitch McConnell’s going to look very smart for backing the other guy.

Scary (especially with Iran about to join the nuclear club): “The delicate standoff on the Korean peninsula over charges that North Korea sank a South Korean ship — killing 46 sailors — stands as a compelling example of why rogue states want nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to mess with them.”

Grim (for Obama sycophants): “For the first time since he emerged as a national political figure six years ago, Obama finds himself on the wrong side of the change equation — the status quo side — with challengers in both parties running against him, his policies or his handpicked candidates.”

Defiance: “The House Armed Services Committee’s approval of a $726 billion defense authorization bill sets the stage for a clash with the Obama administration. A veto threat has loomed since defense authorizers started writing the legislation, and now that the bill is headed to the House floor, the question is whether President Barack Obama will follow through.”

Five is the current tally of the times Richard Blumenthal lied about serving in Vietnam. This one is as bad as you can get: “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support.” When we get to 10, will he resign?

Vile: I wonder if the moral preeners in Hollywood have read “[Roman] Polanski’s probation officer’s report — an extraordinarily revealing document which records in grim and forensic detail how the then 43-year-old went about seducing a girl 30 years his junior with the aid of a good deal of alcohol and a drug that would have rendered her almost incapable of resisting.”

Pathetic: Maureen Dowd writes an entire column on “When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?” Maureen, whatever it is, you’re past it. Which is why she whines: “For some reason, Kagan’s depressing narrative is even more depressing because it’s cast in the past tense, as if, at 50, Kagan has resigned herself to a cloistered, asexual existence ruling in cases that touch on the private lives of all Americans.”

Uh oh: “Initial claims for unemployment benefits shot up by 25,000 to 471,000 last week. Economists had expected claims to drop to 440,000. ‘This is horrible,’ Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients. ‘The Labor Dept told the press that there are no special factors lifting claims, so we are left with the uncomfortable possibility that the trend in claims has not only stopped falling, but may be turning higher.’”

Yikes: “It’s true that Obama ‘encouraged’ Turkey and Brazil to hold discussions with Iran, a White House official tells The Cable, but he never indicated that a deal like the one announced this week would be sufficient to alleviate international concerns or stave off sanctions.”

Panic (for Democratic incumbents): “So far in 2010, an average of 23% of Americans have been satisfied with the way things are going in the United States. That is well below the 40% historical average Gallup has measured since 1979, when it began asking this question. The 2010 average is also the lowest Gallup has measured in a midterm election year, dating to 1982. … Democrats are clearly vulnerable to losing their majority this year.”

Nervous (Republicans) as Rand Paul gets snared on the race issue. “Several senior Senate Republicans seem to be taken aback by Rand Paul’s pronouncements on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The GOP’s Kentucky Senate nominee has suggested that he doesn’t believe the federal government has a role in preventing private businesses from discriminating against racial minorities, and he dodged Wednesday night when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked him whether he would have supported the landmark 1964 act.” Paul then went into damage-control mode. But if this keeps up, Mitch McConnell’s going to look very smart for backing the other guy.

Scary (especially with Iran about to join the nuclear club): “The delicate standoff on the Korean peninsula over charges that North Korea sank a South Korean ship — killing 46 sailors — stands as a compelling example of why rogue states want nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to mess with them.”

Grim (for Obama sycophants): “For the first time since he emerged as a national political figure six years ago, Obama finds himself on the wrong side of the change equation — the status quo side — with challengers in both parties running against him, his policies or his handpicked candidates.”

Defiance: “The House Armed Services Committee’s approval of a $726 billion defense authorization bill sets the stage for a clash with the Obama administration. A veto threat has loomed since defense authorizers started writing the legislation, and now that the bill is headed to the House floor, the question is whether President Barack Obama will follow through.”

Five is the current tally of the times Richard Blumenthal lied about serving in Vietnam. This one is as bad as you can get: “I wore the uniform in Vietnam and many came back to all kinds of disrespect. Whatever we think of war, we owe the men and women of the armed forces our unconditional support.” When we get to 10, will he resign?

Vile: I wonder if the moral preeners in Hollywood have read “[Roman] Polanski’s probation officer’s report — an extraordinarily revealing document which records in grim and forensic detail how the then 43-year-old went about seducing a girl 30 years his junior with the aid of a good deal of alcohol and a drug that would have rendered her almost incapable of resisting.”

Pathetic: Maureen Dowd writes an entire column on “When does a woman go from being single to unmarried?” Maureen, whatever it is, you’re past it. Which is why she whines: “For some reason, Kagan’s depressing narrative is even more depressing because it’s cast in the past tense, as if, at 50, Kagan has resigned herself to a cloistered, asexual existence ruling in cases that touch on the private lives of all Americans.”

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The Ongoing Korean War

Having just visited South Korea, I felt as if I were in a time warp. It’s not that South Korea itself is out of date; if anything, it is ultra-modern — at the cutting edge of technology, culture, and social and economic development. But its neighbor to the north seems never to have passed out of its Stalinist phase. In addition to starving and repressing its own people, and proliferating weapons technology, counterfeit currency, and other illegal substances, North Korea keeps on threatening the south.

The latest manifestation was of course the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which occurred back in March and which killed 46 sailors. It is now generally agreed that the culprit was a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. This is a bit out of the norm, but not wildly so. Every few years, North Korea commits some provocation along those lines. This is actually fairly mild compared with the bomb blast back in 1983, which killed a number of top Korean officials while they were on a visit to Rangoon.

More often, of course, the North-South standoff results not in actual fighting but in tensions along the DMZ, or demilitarized zone — a misnomer for one of the most heavily armed places on earth. Along with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, I visited Panmunjom, the area in the DMZ where negotiations with the north are conducted, and found a surreal scene, with North Korean guards peering at us through the windows of a hut as if we were animals at the zoo. Meanwhile tense South Korean soldiers in sunglasses and shiny helmets stood around, fists clenched, in what is called the “ROK Ready” position. Don’t dare open the back door, we were told; a soldier who made that mistake was snatched by the North Koreans.

There seems scant hope of ending this standoff anytime soon — not unless the bizarre North Korean regime collapses. It is certainly dysfunctional enough to come to an end at any time, but it could just as easily last for decades as impoverished dictatorships still do in Burma and Cuba. The ultimate objective for American and South Korean policy should be to encourage the north’s peaceful implosion, and that in turn means reducing outside support for the regime. That’s something South Korea, under a more conservative government led by Lee Myung-bak, has already been doing lately. Ultimately, though, the north relies for life support on China, and there seems scant prospect that Beijing will do anything that might undermine the Kim Jong-Il regime. There is nothing that Chinese leaders fear more than an implosion on their border, leading to huge refugee flows and possibly the establishment of a unified Korea aligned with the West, not with China.

So in practical terms, South Korea and its American allies will have no choice but to continue preparing for the resumption of the war that was suspended in 1953. That task is increasingly being taken up by the Republic of Korea, which has 655,000 active-duty military personnel and 3 million reservists — the sixth-largest military in the world. The U.S. still maintains 28,000 troops in the south, but they are increasingly being pulled back from Seoul and from the DMZ toward a new base farther south, away from any major population center. Their role is not to so much to contribute ground combat power as to help in the naval and air operations against North Korea while, critically, providing a tripwire that will guarantee American nuclear protection against North Korea’s nukes.

South Korean generals already exercise full control of their forces in peacetime, but if war were to break out, their military would revert to the control of the Combined Forces Command, run by an American four-star. That is due to change in 2012, when “opcon” (operational control) is supposed to revert to the Koreans even in wartime, but South Korean officials we spoke to said they want to move that date back by several years. Not only are they still lacking confidence that they can exercise the same kind of command and control as U.S. officers, but they also think it would be a bad signal of disengagement to the north at a dangerous time. Of course, on the Korean Peninsula, every moment since 1950 has been a dangerous one.

Having just visited South Korea, I felt as if I were in a time warp. It’s not that South Korea itself is out of date; if anything, it is ultra-modern — at the cutting edge of technology, culture, and social and economic development. But its neighbor to the north seems never to have passed out of its Stalinist phase. In addition to starving and repressing its own people, and proliferating weapons technology, counterfeit currency, and other illegal substances, North Korea keeps on threatening the south.

The latest manifestation was of course the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, which occurred back in March and which killed 46 sailors. It is now generally agreed that the culprit was a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine. This is a bit out of the norm, but not wildly so. Every few years, North Korea commits some provocation along those lines. This is actually fairly mild compared with the bomb blast back in 1983, which killed a number of top Korean officials while they were on a visit to Rangoon.

More often, of course, the North-South standoff results not in actual fighting but in tensions along the DMZ, or demilitarized zone — a misnomer for one of the most heavily armed places on earth. Along with a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations, I visited Panmunjom, the area in the DMZ where negotiations with the north are conducted, and found a surreal scene, with North Korean guards peering at us through the windows of a hut as if we were animals at the zoo. Meanwhile tense South Korean soldiers in sunglasses and shiny helmets stood around, fists clenched, in what is called the “ROK Ready” position. Don’t dare open the back door, we were told; a soldier who made that mistake was snatched by the North Koreans.

There seems scant hope of ending this standoff anytime soon — not unless the bizarre North Korean regime collapses. It is certainly dysfunctional enough to come to an end at any time, but it could just as easily last for decades as impoverished dictatorships still do in Burma and Cuba. The ultimate objective for American and South Korean policy should be to encourage the north’s peaceful implosion, and that in turn means reducing outside support for the regime. That’s something South Korea, under a more conservative government led by Lee Myung-bak, has already been doing lately. Ultimately, though, the north relies for life support on China, and there seems scant prospect that Beijing will do anything that might undermine the Kim Jong-Il regime. There is nothing that Chinese leaders fear more than an implosion on their border, leading to huge refugee flows and possibly the establishment of a unified Korea aligned with the West, not with China.

So in practical terms, South Korea and its American allies will have no choice but to continue preparing for the resumption of the war that was suspended in 1953. That task is increasingly being taken up by the Republic of Korea, which has 655,000 active-duty military personnel and 3 million reservists — the sixth-largest military in the world. The U.S. still maintains 28,000 troops in the south, but they are increasingly being pulled back from Seoul and from the DMZ toward a new base farther south, away from any major population center. Their role is not to so much to contribute ground combat power as to help in the naval and air operations against North Korea while, critically, providing a tripwire that will guarantee American nuclear protection against North Korea’s nukes.

South Korean generals already exercise full control of their forces in peacetime, but if war were to break out, their military would revert to the control of the Combined Forces Command, run by an American four-star. That is due to change in 2012, when “opcon” (operational control) is supposed to revert to the Koreans even in wartime, but South Korean officials we spoke to said they want to move that date back by several years. Not only are they still lacking confidence that they can exercise the same kind of command and control as U.S. officers, but they also think it would be a bad signal of disengagement to the north at a dangerous time. Of course, on the Korean Peninsula, every moment since 1950 has been a dangerous one.

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Containment Has Its Own Costs

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

The signs are building that administration officials are essentially throwing up their hands when it comes to Iran policy and implicitly conceding defeat. Their offer to hold talks with Tehran predictably went nowhere; that wasted the administration’s first year. The justification for all this futile diplomatic activity was that it would supposedly enhance American credibility to seek crippling sanctions against Iran. No such sanctions are on the horizon; instead what we will get, at best, is more toothless gestures from the UN. With time running out, the only feasible way to stop or at least substantially delay the Iranian nuclear program is through military action. But, as senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy concedes, that option is “off the table.” (She added “in the short term,” but does anyone imagine that the Nobel laureate in the White House is going to start a war in the long term?) Meanwhile, the growing rift between the U.S. and Israel makes it less likely that Israel will risk American wrath by striking Iran on its own. (Israeli officials are said to be worried that “a unilateral strike would cause a break with Washington that would threaten Israeli national interests even more than a nuclear-armed Iran.”)

So where does that leave us? With policy wonks and administration officials increasingly turning to “containment” and “deterrence” as the answer to Iran — a trend noted in this Washington Post article.

Those policies worked against the Soviet Union, but no one should have any illusions that they provide a painless fix to the threat posed by Iran. In the first place, even with the Soviets, there were a few moments when nuclear war was a serious possibility. Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis? There is no guarantee that a replay with Iran — say a Lebanese Missile Crisis — would be resolved so peaceably. Moreover, even if we avoided World War III, containing the Soviets was hardly bloodless — it cost the lives of nearly a 100,000 American soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

For a reminder of how difficult containment can be, consider the latest news emanating from the Korean peninsula. There are reports circulating that a South Korean ship that sank on March 26 with the loss of 46 sailors was torpedoed by North Korea. Even if true, South Korea’s options are limited. What’s it going to do — attack a nuclear-armed state? The U.S. faced a similar quandary with the Soviet Union, whose nuclear arsenal gave it a free pass to commit all sorts of aggression against the U.S. and our allies, often by proxy.

The danger is much greater from a nuclear-armed Iran than from a nuclear-armed North Korea. The latter, after all, is a sclerotic state whose leader’s only goal is to stay in power and enjoy various imported delicacies. Iran, by contrast, is a still a relatively young, revolutionary regime ruled by leaders with a fervor to remake the Middle East in accordance with their extremist ideology. Given all the carnage Iran is already responsible for — it has backed some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq, among other places, and it has been behind the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of American service personnel — it is terrifying to imagine what the region will look like when the mullahs have nukes. But that is precisely where we are headed thanks to the Obama administration’s feckless policies.

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The Futile Engagement-Pressure-Containment-Engagement Loop

At yesterday’s State Department news conference, Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked about President Obama’s statement that UN sanctions on Iran could occur “within weeks.” Toner confirmed there is not yet a draft resolution and cautioned that Obama had “noted that we don’t have international consensus yet.” But as we enter the fourth month after Iran ignored the last of the president’s deadlines, a conference call to pursue lowest-common-denominator sanctions “shows how serious we are.” Toner continued:

What we do have is broad support among the P-5+1 for a dual-track approach. The President was quite clear yesterday in saying that we’ve tried the engagement track and we’re now moving towards the pressure track. The engagement part of it is not off the table, but we’re moving with deliberation on the pressure track now. And we’re consulting, and the P-5+1 call within that context just shows how serious we are.

Haaretz describes the conference call Toner referenced, in which the U.S., Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and China reportedly agreed to begin drafting a UN resolution. “While the agreement seems to be an achievement for the Obama administration, China will agree only to relatively weak sanctions, [Reuters] quoted diplomats as saying.”

The sanctions – which the administration was supposedly working on all last year to prepare for the possibility that engagement might not succeed — will not be crippling; they will “bite” only around Iran’s ankles; and it is unclear, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, whether they will even “nibble.” But after they fail, we will move to containment, and then we will be in the same situation we currently face with North Korea — which Toner also described yesterday:

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said yesterday at the joint press briefing with G-8 foreign ministers that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. So isn’t [the] new U.S. Government position to acknowledge North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons?

MR. TONER: On North Korea, I would just say that we remain steadfastly committed to getting the Six-Party Talks going again. North Korea knows what it has to do and we’re trying to get them back to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: Yeah, but how about the fact that they already have nuclear weapons? That’s what she mentioned yesterday.

MR. TONER: We’re still – our goal remains the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what we’re trying to achieve through the Six-Party process. So we just urge North Korea to get back to the negotiating table.

Watching U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, Iran can feel some confidence about what will happen if it completes its nuclear-weapons program: undoubtedly, we will still be steadfastly committed to getting talks with Iran going again; we will state that Iran knows what it has to do (let us process their nuclear fuel for them while we talk); we will repeat that our goal remains the denuclearization of the Middle East; and we will urge Iran to return to the negotiating table.

The engagement strategy is a unique contribution to American diplomacy: it is used only on adversaries (allies get less courteous treatment); it is never off the table; it remains there while other options are pursued; it will still be there when they fail; and it will continue even after it is overtaken by events. The Haaretz report ends with a small vignette indicating engagement may be somewhat harder later on:

When a senior representative from Pyongyang was asked in Moscow last month at an international conference on nuclear proliferation what assurances his country needed for its security, he said: “We do not have to talk. We have nuclear weapons.”

At yesterday’s State Department news conference, Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner was asked about President Obama’s statement that UN sanctions on Iran could occur “within weeks.” Toner confirmed there is not yet a draft resolution and cautioned that Obama had “noted that we don’t have international consensus yet.” But as we enter the fourth month after Iran ignored the last of the president’s deadlines, a conference call to pursue lowest-common-denominator sanctions “shows how serious we are.” Toner continued:

What we do have is broad support among the P-5+1 for a dual-track approach. The President was quite clear yesterday in saying that we’ve tried the engagement track and we’re now moving towards the pressure track. The engagement part of it is not off the table, but we’re moving with deliberation on the pressure track now. And we’re consulting, and the P-5+1 call within that context just shows how serious we are.

Haaretz describes the conference call Toner referenced, in which the U.S., Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and China reportedly agreed to begin drafting a UN resolution. “While the agreement seems to be an achievement for the Obama administration, China will agree only to relatively weak sanctions, [Reuters] quoted diplomats as saying.”

The sanctions – which the administration was supposedly working on all last year to prepare for the possibility that engagement might not succeed — will not be crippling; they will “bite” only around Iran’s ankles; and it is unclear, in Sarah Palin’s phrase, whether they will even “nibble.” But after they fail, we will move to containment, and then we will be in the same situation we currently face with North Korea — which Toner also described yesterday:

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton said yesterday at the joint press briefing with G-8 foreign ministers that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. So isn’t [the] new U.S. Government position to acknowledge North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons?

MR. TONER: On North Korea, I would just say that we remain steadfastly committed to getting the Six-Party Talks going again. North Korea knows what it has to do and we’re trying to get them back to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: Yeah, but how about the fact that they already have nuclear weapons? That’s what she mentioned yesterday.

MR. TONER: We’re still – our goal remains the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s what we’re trying to achieve through the Six-Party process. So we just urge North Korea to get back to the negotiating table.

Watching U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, Iran can feel some confidence about what will happen if it completes its nuclear-weapons program: undoubtedly, we will still be steadfastly committed to getting talks with Iran going again; we will state that Iran knows what it has to do (let us process their nuclear fuel for them while we talk); we will repeat that our goal remains the denuclearization of the Middle East; and we will urge Iran to return to the negotiating table.

The engagement strategy is a unique contribution to American diplomacy: it is used only on adversaries (allies get less courteous treatment); it is never off the table; it remains there while other options are pursued; it will still be there when they fail; and it will continue even after it is overtaken by events. The Haaretz report ends with a small vignette indicating engagement may be somewhat harder later on:

When a senior representative from Pyongyang was asked in Moscow last month at an international conference on nuclear proliferation what assurances his country needed for its security, he said: “We do not have to talk. We have nuclear weapons.”

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Combat-Ready

I confess I haven’t listened to all 80 minutes of this interview with Nancy Pelosi. But my CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald tells me that, in addition to crediting Iranian munificence for the growing stability in Iraq, the Speaker made the following statement:

The undermining of our military strength is just staggering. We don’t have one combat-ready unit in the United States to go to protect our interests wherever they are threatened, or those of our friends .

I suppose this is further confirmation of the old chestnut about what goes around comes around: Back in 2000, conservatives were lambasting the Clinton administration for declining readiness levels (see, for instance, this Heritage paper) and promising “help is on the way.” Now it’s the turns of liberals. In both cases the attacks are partially fair, partially not.

The issue is that a unit’s combat readiness declines immediately after rotating out of a war zone. At that point, lots of soldiers and officers leave and lots of new ones come in. Worn-out equipment is repaired or discarded; new equipment arrives slowly. Gradually, the unit fills up and trains up in preparation for another deployment. Often it will not reach the highest level of combat readiness until just before the deployment. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most active-duty army and marine units are either deployed, preparing for deployment, or recovering from deployment. That doesn’t leave a lot of units sitting around at high levels of readiness in CONUS–the military abbreviation for Continental United States. But the units we are sending into combat are the most experienced and best-prepared we have ever sent to fight any war.

Traditionally the 82nd Airborne Division maintained one home-based brigade at the highest state of readiness at all times-ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 72 hours. Last year all four of the 82nd brigade’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off the “ready brigade” mission to the 101st Air Assault Division, which has lots of its units deployed too. Three of the 82nd‘s brigades have now returned home to Fort Bragg and the division is supposed to re-assume the “readiness” function next year.

It would be nice to have more units standing by at a higher level of readiness, but that hardly means the U.S. is defenseless. In addition to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have substantial numbers of ground forces deployed in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany that in a pinch could be used to deal with another crisis. More importantly, we have lots of air and naval assets that are not engaged in the fight today. Pelosi did not refer specifically to army units; she said “combat-ready units.” By that standard, there are lots of air force squadrons and naval task forces that qualify. And they would in fact be our first line of defense against a crisis in, say, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Iran.

Anyway, just what is Pelosi’s point? Is she saying that she supports a large increase in the size of the active duty force? John McCain has called for increasing the overall size of our ground forces (army and marines) from today’s projected level of 750,000 to 900,000. Is Pelosi willing to support legislation along those lines? Or is she instead suggesting that, rather than substantially increase our forces, we downsize their missions? I suspect it’s the latter, and that her preferred option is to pull units out of Iraq, thereby losing the most significant war we’ve fought since Vietnam, in order to keep units in readiness for another contingency that may or may not materialize. But, if Vietnam teaches anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed to harm long-term readiness more than losing a war.

I confess I haven’t listened to all 80 minutes of this interview with Nancy Pelosi. But my CONTENTIONS colleague Abe Greenwald tells me that, in addition to crediting Iranian munificence for the growing stability in Iraq, the Speaker made the following statement:

The undermining of our military strength is just staggering. We don’t have one combat-ready unit in the United States to go to protect our interests wherever they are threatened, or those of our friends .

I suppose this is further confirmation of the old chestnut about what goes around comes around: Back in 2000, conservatives were lambasting the Clinton administration for declining readiness levels (see, for instance, this Heritage paper) and promising “help is on the way.” Now it’s the turns of liberals. In both cases the attacks are partially fair, partially not.

The issue is that a unit’s combat readiness declines immediately after rotating out of a war zone. At that point, lots of soldiers and officers leave and lots of new ones come in. Worn-out equipment is repaired or discarded; new equipment arrives slowly. Gradually, the unit fills up and trains up in preparation for another deployment. Often it will not reach the highest level of combat readiness until just before the deployment. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most active-duty army and marine units are either deployed, preparing for deployment, or recovering from deployment. That doesn’t leave a lot of units sitting around at high levels of readiness in CONUS–the military abbreviation for Continental United States. But the units we are sending into combat are the most experienced and best-prepared we have ever sent to fight any war.

Traditionally the 82nd Airborne Division maintained one home-based brigade at the highest state of readiness at all times-ready to deploy anywhere in the world within 72 hours. Last year all four of the 82nd brigade’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, handing off the “ready brigade” mission to the 101st Air Assault Division, which has lots of its units deployed too. Three of the 82nd‘s brigades have now returned home to Fort Bragg and the division is supposed to re-assume the “readiness” function next year.

It would be nice to have more units standing by at a higher level of readiness, but that hardly means the U.S. is defenseless. In addition to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have substantial numbers of ground forces deployed in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany that in a pinch could be used to deal with another crisis. More importantly, we have lots of air and naval assets that are not engaged in the fight today. Pelosi did not refer specifically to army units; she said “combat-ready units.” By that standard, there are lots of air force squadrons and naval task forces that qualify. And they would in fact be our first line of defense against a crisis in, say, the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Iran.

Anyway, just what is Pelosi’s point? Is she saying that she supports a large increase in the size of the active duty force? John McCain has called for increasing the overall size of our ground forces (army and marines) from today’s projected level of 750,000 to 900,000. Is Pelosi willing to support legislation along those lines? Or is she instead suggesting that, rather than substantially increase our forces, we downsize their missions? I suspect it’s the latter, and that her preferred option is to pull units out of Iraq, thereby losing the most significant war we’ve fought since Vietnam, in order to keep units in readiness for another contingency that may or may not materialize. But, if Vietnam teaches anything, it is that nothing is guaranteed to harm long-term readiness more than losing a war.

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“Pariah Diplomacy”

Jimmy Carter, writing in this morning’s New York Times, praises his own “Pariah Diplomacy.” He cites, as an example of success, his mediation in Nepal that led to the Maoists joining the government. He then describes the results of his just-concluded meetings with the leaders of Hamas. “In the Middle East, as in Nepal, the path to peace lies in negotiation, not in isolation,” the Nobel laureate writes.

Whatever one thinks of Carter’s diplomacy with Nepalese Maoists and Palestinian terrorists, it’s too early to pronounce final verdicts in either case. Yet we can begin to judge the former President’s general approach by looking at the results of his past efforts.

Take his peacemaking initiative with regard to Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, for example. After meeting with the charismatic dictator in June 1994, Carter said that he had performed “a miracle.”

At the time, he looked as if he were right. He had, on his own initiative, gone to Pyongyang despite the wishes of the Clinton administration and the government in Seoul-sound familiar?-and, by all accounts, averted war. He did that by putting together a plan that formed the basis of the Agreed Framework, a bilateral deal inked in October 1994 by Washington and Pyongyang.

It’s clear that Carter, by willfulness and charm, reduced the possibility of war. But did he bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula? Since then, Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father, has tested long-range missiles, detonated an atomic device with a plutonium core, pursued a uranium weapons program, proliferated nuclear technology to Syria, and worked with Iran on its nuclear weapons and missiles.

None of this, in all probability, would have occurred if Carter had not gone to Pyongyang. On the eve of his visit, Bill Clinton had accomplished something that so far has eluded George W. Bush–he had prepared the international community for the use of force against the Kim family regime. In one of those rare moments of unity, the world was ready for meaningful coercive measures against the North. Even China, Kim Il Sung’s staunch ally, was willing to permit the United Nations to impose penalties-and had told Kim Il Sung as much. Carter’s trip, unfortunately, dissolved that unity. Left without support for the use of force, the Clinton administration had no choice but to accept the Agreed Framework, which provided a crucial lifeline to the abhorrent Kim regime.

So bolstered, Kim Jong Il adopted polices that could only have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow Koreans, and that is exactly what happened in the great famine in the middle of last decade. When nobody had to starve, many perished. Since then, North Korea has done more than almost any other nation to destabilize the international community. Carter, the itinerant peacemaker in 1994, apparently prevented war. Yet he stopped the United States and the rest of the world from putting together an enduring solution-and he essentially permitted Kim Jong Il to commit murder on the largest scale since the end of the Cold War.

This, more than anything, is Jimmy Carter’s legacy so far. I hope there can be peace in Nepal and in Israel. But if we have learned anything from Ronald Reagan, it is that we should talk with tyrants as Carter advises, but only when they know they have been defeated. Jimmy’s approach, however, first legitimizes and then strengthens them. And that is why the world is in such disarray at this moment.

Jimmy Carter, writing in this morning’s New York Times, praises his own “Pariah Diplomacy.” He cites, as an example of success, his mediation in Nepal that led to the Maoists joining the government. He then describes the results of his just-concluded meetings with the leaders of Hamas. “In the Middle East, as in Nepal, the path to peace lies in negotiation, not in isolation,” the Nobel laureate writes.

Whatever one thinks of Carter’s diplomacy with Nepalese Maoists and Palestinian terrorists, it’s too early to pronounce final verdicts in either case. Yet we can begin to judge the former President’s general approach by looking at the results of his past efforts.

Take his peacemaking initiative with regard to Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, for example. After meeting with the charismatic dictator in June 1994, Carter said that he had performed “a miracle.”

At the time, he looked as if he were right. He had, on his own initiative, gone to Pyongyang despite the wishes of the Clinton administration and the government in Seoul-sound familiar?-and, by all accounts, averted war. He did that by putting together a plan that formed the basis of the Agreed Framework, a bilateral deal inked in October 1994 by Washington and Pyongyang.

It’s clear that Carter, by willfulness and charm, reduced the possibility of war. But did he bring lasting peace to the Korean peninsula? Since then, Kim Jong Il, who succeeded his father, has tested long-range missiles, detonated an atomic device with a plutonium core, pursued a uranium weapons program, proliferated nuclear technology to Syria, and worked with Iran on its nuclear weapons and missiles.

None of this, in all probability, would have occurred if Carter had not gone to Pyongyang. On the eve of his visit, Bill Clinton had accomplished something that so far has eluded George W. Bush–he had prepared the international community for the use of force against the Kim family regime. In one of those rare moments of unity, the world was ready for meaningful coercive measures against the North. Even China, Kim Il Sung’s staunch ally, was willing to permit the United Nations to impose penalties-and had told Kim Il Sung as much. Carter’s trip, unfortunately, dissolved that unity. Left without support for the use of force, the Clinton administration had no choice but to accept the Agreed Framework, which provided a crucial lifeline to the abhorrent Kim regime.

So bolstered, Kim Jong Il adopted polices that could only have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his fellow Koreans, and that is exactly what happened in the great famine in the middle of last decade. When nobody had to starve, many perished. Since then, North Korea has done more than almost any other nation to destabilize the international community. Carter, the itinerant peacemaker in 1994, apparently prevented war. Yet he stopped the United States and the rest of the world from putting together an enduring solution-and he essentially permitted Kim Jong Il to commit murder on the largest scale since the end of the Cold War.

This, more than anything, is Jimmy Carter’s legacy so far. I hope there can be peace in Nepal and in Israel. But if we have learned anything from Ronald Reagan, it is that we should talk with tyrants as Carter advises, but only when they know they have been defeated. Jimmy’s approach, however, first legitimizes and then strengthens them. And that is why the world is in such disarray at this moment.

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“Everything Will Be in Ashes”

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

Today, Pyongyang threatened to destroy archrival South Korea. “Everything will be in ashes, not just a sea of fire, once our advanced pre-emptive strike begins,” promised an unidentified North Korean military analyst. The remarks, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, cap days of escalating tension on the peninsula. Yesterday, the North threatened to cut off all dialogue between the two states. Pyongyang pinned the blame for its bellicose words on recent comments by Kim Tae Young, the new chairman of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, Kim said that his forces were ready to attack suspected North Korean nuclear sites if it appeared that Pyongyang was about to use atomic weapons against the South.

The exchange of nasty words about nuclear war comes amid a general breakdown in relations between the two Koreas. Last Thursday, Seoul withdrew all its officials from the Kaesong industrial park, just north of the Demilitarized Zone. Pyongyang demanded the withdrawal after the new South Korean government said that it would not expand the zone, created to attract South Korean manufacturers, until the North honored its promises to give up its nuclear weapons. On Friday, Pyongyang tested ship-to-ship missiles in what was characterized as a display of anger.

South Korea’s new president, Lee Myung-bak, has taken a noticeably tougher line than either of his two predecessors, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The North’s propaganda machine had mostly held off criticizing the South Korean president until last week. Now it appears that Pyongyang will try to undermine Lee by a new round of belligerent conduct and words.

Deteriorating relations on the Korean peninsula are bound to finally scuttle the Bush administration’s efforts to salvage the so-called six-party process. The North is months late on honoring its agreement to make a complete declaration of its nuclear programs, and even before last week there was little prospect that Pyongyang would reverse course and comply.

Despite its promises, the regime in Pyongyang has yet to make the critical decision to give up its atomic arsenal. We will not know for some time whether Kim Jong Il is holding out for a better deal from a new administration in Washington, as some contend, or whether, more probably, he has been unable to obtain the cooperation of his military to disarm. In any event, it is time for President Bush to acknowledge that his Korean policy is being overtaken by events in Korea. His counterpart in Seoul already knows there can be no progress until governments are willing to hold the enigmatic Kim to his promises. The time for American patience with the dangerous autocrat in Pyongyang is now over.

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The Philharmonic’s “Glass House”

The New York Philharmonic will be playing in Pyongyang next Tuesday. Lorin Maazel, its music director, notes in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that the decision to take the Philharmonic to Communist North Korea has been greeted in some quarters with shock and dismay. Presumably, among those whom Mazaal is answering is Terry Teachout, who wrote this trenchant column, also for the Wall Street Journal

Mazaal lays out the case that, pace Teachout and others, the visit will do some good:

bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

I lived in Russia for a spell back when it was Communist country and am willing, by extrapolating from that experience, to grant Maazel a point on behalf of the concert that he could have made but does not. North Koreans, completely isolated from the outside world, are presented with a ubiquitous stream of propaganda that portrays the United States as a country full of avaricious militarists bent upon provoking a new war on the Korean peninsula. A concert in Pyongyang performed by American musicians, the very idea of which runs counter to the officially generated images of the past, is likely to evoke extreme curiosity in the North Korean populace, both about the visiting Americans and about what their visit portends for the future of their society.

But beyond that minimal effect of generating curiousity, let’s not get carried away by illusions and other political maladies, which is precisely what has happened to Maazel. “Human rights are an issue of profound relevance to us all,” he writes, noting that “[a]ny citizen, anywhere, can be deprived of them — brutally under tyrannical regimes, subtly in more open societies . . . . If we are to be effective in bringing succor to the oppressed, many languishing in foreign gulags, the U.S. must claim an authority based on an immaculate ethical record.”

Is that really so? What Maazel has done here is create the impression that when it comes to human rights, a country like North Korea and the United States are on the same continuum, the major difference between the two being that Pyongyang operates “brutally” while democratic societies like our own oppress “subtly.” “Woe to the people we are trying to help if we end up in a glass house,” he writes.

This is disgraceful. What does this “glass house” metaphor mean other than that we should be wary of criticizing North Korea because our own human-transgressions are on a par in some way with the most oppressive society on earth? Artists in the public arena, writes Maazel in the same op-ed, “must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas.” If only he would follow his own advice. 

Maazel recounts that in negotiating arrangements for the Philharmonic’s visit, “[w]e requested that the concert in Pyongyang be open to the average citizen.” The average citizen? The naivete on display here is record-setting. One thing is utterly certain: the average North Korean citizen will not be attending the Philharmonic’s concert next week. Maazel’s op-ed leaves the impression that he is completely incapable of imagining the nature of the society he will be visiting, a place where the lot of the average citizen is constant exposure to terror, lawlessness, a cradle-to-grave system of political indoctrination, and starvation.

The grim reality of Communist North Korea is that the average citizen is not a citizen at all but a slave.

The New York Philharmonic will be playing in Pyongyang next Tuesday. Lorin Maazel, its music director, notes in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that the decision to take the Philharmonic to Communist North Korea has been greeted in some quarters with shock and dismay. Presumably, among those whom Mazaal is answering is Terry Teachout, who wrote this trenchant column, also for the Wall Street Journal

Mazaal lays out the case that, pace Teachout and others, the visit will do some good:

bringing peoples and their cultures together on common ground, where the roots of peaceful interchange can imperceptibly but irrevocably take hold. If all goes well, the presence of the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang might gently influence the perception of our country there. If we are gradually to improve U.S.-Korean relations, such events have the potential to nudge open a door that has been closed too long.

I lived in Russia for a spell back when it was Communist country and am willing, by extrapolating from that experience, to grant Maazel a point on behalf of the concert that he could have made but does not. North Koreans, completely isolated from the outside world, are presented with a ubiquitous stream of propaganda that portrays the United States as a country full of avaricious militarists bent upon provoking a new war on the Korean peninsula. A concert in Pyongyang performed by American musicians, the very idea of which runs counter to the officially generated images of the past, is likely to evoke extreme curiosity in the North Korean populace, both about the visiting Americans and about what their visit portends for the future of their society.

But beyond that minimal effect of generating curiousity, let’s not get carried away by illusions and other political maladies, which is precisely what has happened to Maazel. “Human rights are an issue of profound relevance to us all,” he writes, noting that “[a]ny citizen, anywhere, can be deprived of them — brutally under tyrannical regimes, subtly in more open societies . . . . If we are to be effective in bringing succor to the oppressed, many languishing in foreign gulags, the U.S. must claim an authority based on an immaculate ethical record.”

Is that really so? What Maazel has done here is create the impression that when it comes to human rights, a country like North Korea and the United States are on the same continuum, the major difference between the two being that Pyongyang operates “brutally” while democratic societies like our own oppress “subtly.” “Woe to the people we are trying to help if we end up in a glass house,” he writes.

This is disgraceful. What does this “glass house” metaphor mean other than that we should be wary of criticizing North Korea because our own human-transgressions are on a par in some way with the most oppressive society on earth? Artists in the public arena, writes Maazel in the same op-ed, “must be totally apolitical, nonpartisan, and free of issue-specific agendas.” If only he would follow his own advice. 

Maazel recounts that in negotiating arrangements for the Philharmonic’s visit, “[w]e requested that the concert in Pyongyang be open to the average citizen.” The average citizen? The naivete on display here is record-setting. One thing is utterly certain: the average North Korean citizen will not be attending the Philharmonic’s concert next week. Maazel’s op-ed leaves the impression that he is completely incapable of imagining the nature of the society he will be visiting, a place where the lot of the average citizen is constant exposure to terror, lawlessness, a cradle-to-grave system of political indoctrination, and starvation.

The grim reality of Communist North Korea is that the average citizen is not a citizen at all but a slave.

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Tokyo’s False Choices

“A gloom is settling over Tokyo,” writes Brad Glosserman of Pacific Forum CSIS. Japan, he notes, is insecure as it watches its protector, the United States, rush to embrace a rising Chinese state. Glosserman correctly notes that the Japanese feel threatened by improving relations between Washington and Beijing.

As a result of their fears, he believes the Japanese see “false dichotomies” and are making “false choices.” Policymakers should stop framing things “in overly simple terms.” “Tokyo should adopt an inclusive outlook and not feel threatened by improved relations between Washington and Beijing,” Glosserman writes. “Just as a positive Japan-China relationship will not threaten Tokyo’s ties to Washington, improved U.S.-China relations need not undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Really? Diplomacy may not always be a zero-sum game, but it is in Asia at this moment because the most important continental power there—China—sees it as such. Beijing has foreign policy goals that contemplate the removal of the United States from Asia and the neutralization of its two historical rivals, India and Japan. The Chinese, Indians, and Japanese are engaged in intense competitions, and Americans, who fought a series of wars in Asia last century, should know better than to spout bland statements and expect everyone to just get along.

For one thing, the American alliances with Japan and South Korea have no purpose if there are no threats. Why should we keep 28,000 military personnel on the Korean peninsula and 50,000 on the Japanese islands if they are not needed? They are there because the South Koreans and the Japanese feel insecure. And contrary to the blame-America-first crowd, it is not Washington that is creating an enemy to keep its alliances in place. Its alliances remain in place because Asians residing on the perimeter of the modern Chinese state are concerned about Beijing. They see that China is sustaining a hostile North Korean state, threatening the democracy on Taiwan, claiming vast expanses of international waters as its own, making outsized territorial claims, regularly violating their neighbors’ sovereignty, and engaging in aggressive military maneuvers.

The United States has sought to come to an accommodation with China as we hope that the Chinese will moderate their behavior and integrate themselves into the existing international system. So far, we have viewed this as a cost-free exercise. It is not. By doing so, we are undermining our alliances with democratic Japan and South Korea, both of which view our actions with concern if not alarm. Asians do not see “false dichotomies,” they are not making false choices,” and they are not viewing their region “in overly simple terms.” They are reacting to the failure of Washington to understand both the dynamics of Asia and the cost of its policies.

“A gloom is settling over Tokyo,” writes Brad Glosserman of Pacific Forum CSIS. Japan, he notes, is insecure as it watches its protector, the United States, rush to embrace a rising Chinese state. Glosserman correctly notes that the Japanese feel threatened by improving relations between Washington and Beijing.

As a result of their fears, he believes the Japanese see “false dichotomies” and are making “false choices.” Policymakers should stop framing things “in overly simple terms.” “Tokyo should adopt an inclusive outlook and not feel threatened by improved relations between Washington and Beijing,” Glosserman writes. “Just as a positive Japan-China relationship will not threaten Tokyo’s ties to Washington, improved U.S.-China relations need not undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance.”

Really? Diplomacy may not always be a zero-sum game, but it is in Asia at this moment because the most important continental power there—China—sees it as such. Beijing has foreign policy goals that contemplate the removal of the United States from Asia and the neutralization of its two historical rivals, India and Japan. The Chinese, Indians, and Japanese are engaged in intense competitions, and Americans, who fought a series of wars in Asia last century, should know better than to spout bland statements and expect everyone to just get along.

For one thing, the American alliances with Japan and South Korea have no purpose if there are no threats. Why should we keep 28,000 military personnel on the Korean peninsula and 50,000 on the Japanese islands if they are not needed? They are there because the South Koreans and the Japanese feel insecure. And contrary to the blame-America-first crowd, it is not Washington that is creating an enemy to keep its alliances in place. Its alliances remain in place because Asians residing on the perimeter of the modern Chinese state are concerned about Beijing. They see that China is sustaining a hostile North Korean state, threatening the democracy on Taiwan, claiming vast expanses of international waters as its own, making outsized territorial claims, regularly violating their neighbors’ sovereignty, and engaging in aggressive military maneuvers.

The United States has sought to come to an accommodation with China as we hope that the Chinese will moderate their behavior and integrate themselves into the existing international system. So far, we have viewed this as a cost-free exercise. It is not. By doing so, we are undermining our alliances with democratic Japan and South Korea, both of which view our actions with concern if not alarm. Asians do not see “false dichotomies,” they are not making false choices,” and they are not viewing their region “in overly simple terms.” They are reacting to the failure of Washington to understand both the dynamics of Asia and the cost of its policies.

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Book Review: In the Ruins of Empire

More than six decades after the end of World War II, Asia continues to grapple with the legacy of war. Unlike in Europe, where countries have attempted to create a new set of norms and institutions designed to link them ever more closely together, Asia in many ways seems stuck in history, revisiting old wounds and squabbling over the same territory. In his compelling new history of the aftermath of war in the Pacific, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, $27.95), Ronald Spector argues that the region’s future was largely determined in the year after the Japanese surrender, and was doomed primarily by the misguided and unrealistic attempts of the victorious Western allies to impose order on the chaos unleashed by Japan’s surrender and abandonment of its occupied territories. Washington spent much of the cold war dealing with the resulting instability.

Certainly in comparison to Europe, postwar Asia seemed almost incomprehensibly complex. Moreover, as Washington grappled with creating a pax Americana, Asia appeared less strategically important than Europe, in part because nothing like the specter of all-out conflagration hung over the region, and in part due to the absence of ethnic connection to the Atlantic world. And yet at the same time, while the cold war certainly affected Asia, causing extensive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the region’s nations were spared Europe’s draining twilight struggle.

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More than six decades after the end of World War II, Asia continues to grapple with the legacy of war. Unlike in Europe, where countries have attempted to create a new set of norms and institutions designed to link them ever more closely together, Asia in many ways seems stuck in history, revisiting old wounds and squabbling over the same territory. In his compelling new history of the aftermath of war in the Pacific, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, $27.95), Ronald Spector argues that the region’s future was largely determined in the year after the Japanese surrender, and was doomed primarily by the misguided and unrealistic attempts of the victorious Western allies to impose order on the chaos unleashed by Japan’s surrender and abandonment of its occupied territories. Washington spent much of the cold war dealing with the resulting instability.

Certainly in comparison to Europe, postwar Asia seemed almost incomprehensibly complex. Moreover, as Washington grappled with creating a pax Americana, Asia appeared less strategically important than Europe, in part because nothing like the specter of all-out conflagration hung over the region, and in part due to the absence of ethnic connection to the Atlantic world. And yet at the same time, while the cold war certainly affected Asia, causing extensive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the region’s nations were spared Europe’s draining twilight struggle.

American and European policymakers found themselves at odds over what to do with Asia almost as soon as the Japanese surrendered. For Americans, the basic template they applied to Europe—liberalism versus Communism—quickly dominated their thinking. The potential loss of China was contrasted with the success of a democratizing Japan, while naked aggression by North Korea against the South in 1950 would be repulsed as the front line in the struggle against Communism in Asia. The British, French, and Dutch tenuously sought to recreate their prewar spheres of influence and control. Both the Americans and Europeans, however, found themselves enmeshed in the quicksand of the numerous liberation movements, revived ethnic conflicts, and simple power struggles that erupted throughout the region, from Indonesia to the Korean peninsula.

Best known for his classic one-volume history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, Spector here turns his gaze on the confused conditions prevailing immediately after Tokyo’s surrender in August 1945. Noting that the traditional historical narrative assumes that the end of war meant the end of fighting and the spontaneous regeneration of order, Spector argues that the post-World War II “peace” in Asia was the continuation of war under another name (with, in some cases, fiercer fighting than during the war). His book, inasmuch as it tells this story, neatly complements John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, which tells a similarly revisionist tale of the U.S. occupation of Japan. Both works give primary importance to the mistakes, failures, and naiveté of the so-called victorious powers; both assert that domestic players and local conditions truly created postwar Asia.

The central dynamic in Spector’s story is the disintegration of empire—that of wartime Japan, and the feeble attempts at reconstituting the empires of prewar Europe. The Japanese had erected an ideological scaffolding of colonial liberation over their wartime occupation of most of Asia. They justified their brutal control over China and Korea with the goal of creating a new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The conditions the Japanese had faced quickly transferred to the victors. In some areas of Japanese control, such as in China, occupation overlay an existing condition of civil war. In Indochina, Japanese troops fought rebels, like Ho Chi Minh, who were experienced in combating European powers. The pre-1937 dynamics continued into the postwar period, and were realized fully in China: stabilizing Chiang Kai-shek became Washington’s primary Asian policy. Spector’s first three chapters cover well-trodden ground, emphasizing the incompatibility of America’s attempt to act as an honest broker between the Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists with its effort to secure Chiang’s victory. (Not even the great George Marshall could square that circle.)

That, indeed, is the leitmotif of Spector’s book: the basic inability of the Allied powers to adjust to the realities on the ground. Wishful thinking and good intentions proved no match for unleashed nationalist passions, as Spector’s subsequent chapters show. In Malaya, for example, the British attempt to reassert control lasted less than a year, until April 1946. The ineffective British Military Administration proved helpless in the face of intense ethnic strife between Chinese and Malays, in which Communists and mystical Islamic movements all contributed to chaos and bloodletting. Nor were the Allies above using their erstwhile enemies, the Japanese, thousands of whom were enrolled to fight rebels and Communists; for these soldiers, too, the end of war did not bring about the end of fighting. Spector condemns in particular the French and Dutch (as well as the rapacious Soviets), whose violent and stubborn attempts to reconstitute prewar empires in Indochina and Indonesia, respectively, led to widespread atrocities and scuttled any possibility of reaching some type of negotiated settlements among the parties. The particular tragedy of Vietnam, where the anti-colonial animus of the Americans was subordinated to supporting a European ally, underscores Spector’s analysis of the irreconcilable tensions in U.S. Asian policy.

What also emerges with crystal clarity from Spector’s account is the importance of personalities. Bucking the trend among professional academics, Spector shows that individuals count, and in some cases were the deciding elements in the paths their countries took. Not only well-known figures such as Mao and Ho, but equally important leaders in Indonesia and Korea, who frustrated European and American plans, and labored to realize their own visions.

Given the rich history of post-1947 Asia, one might be dissatisfied with the limited chronological scope of Spector’s book. The pivotal events in the region all happened after 1947, and none of them was foreordained. In that respect, it is impossible to judge whether Spector’s assertion—that the vacuum of the immediate postwar months set the path for the following decades—is accurate or overstated. Moreover, strained comparisons between postwar Asia and postwar Iraq, which read like afterthoughts, fail as attempts to make the book somehow more timely or relevant. As his fluid prose and thorough archival research show, telling the story of the battle for postwar Asia needs no justification.

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Kim Jong Ill

Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)

Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.

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Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)

Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.

The South Koreans follow Kim Jong Il’s health with great interest. A sudden turn for the worse in his condition could throw the Kimist state—and the entire Korean peninsula—into turmoil. Rival factions in Pyongyang could struggle for power, making almost no scenario implausible.

What will happen the next time Kim’s health falters? North Korea survived the 1994 death of Kim Il Sung, its founder, because the Great Leader devoted decades to ensuring a peaceful transfer of power to his son, the current leader. Kim Jong Il was formally designated his father’s heir in October 1980, but the transition had been in the works since the early 1960’s.

Kim at one time entertained the notion of transferring power to his eldest son, Jong Nam, but apparently he changed his mind in 2001, when the younger Kim was nabbed at the Tokyo airport, traveling under a false Dominican passport with two women and one child. Jong Chol, one of his two younger sons, is reportedly cruel enough to be a North Korean leader, but suffers from afflictions that could make him unfit—including a potentially incurable disease and an obsession with Eric Clapton. In any event, Kim Jong Il has not devoted sufficient time to grooming a successor. (There have already been reports of palace shootings between rival supporters of the two potential heirs.)

Many say that the Chinese want to see a Beijing-style collective leadership replace the erratic Kim. China seems to have been working hard to build ties with different factions in the North Korean capital. As much as we may dislike Kim today—and there are certainly good reasons for doing so—the next leader in North Korea may be even more of a strategic nightmare.

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