Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

Yet Another North Korean Provocation

On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

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On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

Most Western observers were left guessing as to what was behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to rush the rocket launch. The South Korean government has the best insight and intelligence into its repressive, secretive neighbor, and sources there are suggesting the North is experiencing a level of unrest not seen in the nation in years. Reuters reported last week, 

Kim himself warned of the danger of “rebellious elements” in North Korean society last month and recently met the country’s top law enforcement officials.

“There is a large-scale witch-hunt going on,” a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said.

He spoke with foreign journalists on condition of anonymity due to concerns over rising tensions between the two Koreas over the rocket launch and his comments could not be independently verified, although the South gathers intelligence on North Korea.

Kim has purged much of the top military leadership that he inherited from his father in recent months and often appears in public with armed guards, indicating concerns over unrest, the South Korean official said.

The official said that Kim, believed to turn 30 next year, had ordered modern equipment for his riot police from another country and had also had them trained to handle possible civil disturbances.

“We know that North Korea is sending riot police for training to another country and they are importing a lot of equipment for the riot police,” he said.

He declined to name the country and said that there had been no signs that Seoul could see of unrest in North Korea.

Kim met this week with top North Korean law enforcement officials, according to Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA and the South Korean official said that the message had gone out to prevent the possible spread of dissent.

“They are trying to root out those who are not happy with North Korea,” the South Korean official said.

Considering the news that the satellite attached to the rocket is spinning out of control, it’s increasingly likely that Kim Jong-un pushed ahead with the launch despite major technical difficulties. Could Kim be worried about quelling internal unrest, and thus decided to risk the satellite’s demise in order to test the rocket–which many believe to be the real aim of the launch? Without any reliable intelligence inside North Korea, the best that most experts can do is speculate. This week’s launch and the resulting condemnation follow a familiar pattern that usually ends in international aid.

Lefkowitz suggests an alternative, starting with linking U.S. human rights interests with its security interests. One might hope, especially after this week’s provocation, that the president has learned that adopting another approach has become necessary.

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No Real Reform in North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Is North Korea So Poor?

The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

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The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

Nor was North Korea’s economic decay a passive process. Rather than invest in expanding the economy, the North Korean leadership siphoned all investment into its million plus man army. There is no better illustration today of the human cost of communism and dictatorship than the juxtaposition between North and South Korea.

Reuters may have thought that their explanation of North Korean woes to be a throwaway sentence, a bit of background for those who do not the poverty that blankets North Korea today. When it comes to North Korea, however, there can be no way around blame: The responsibility for North Korea’s dire situation rests solely and completely on its murderous, totalitarian regime.

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Don’t Be Fooled by North Korean Stunts

North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

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North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

There is a long tradition of imputing reformist tendencies on any new ruler of any totalitarian state, especially when that ruler has spent some time abroad. (Kim went to school in Switzerland and is said to love NBA basketball.) Remember when the jazz-loving Yuri Andropov was supposed to reform the Soviet Union? Or, more recently, when the former Londoner Bashar al-Assad, with his chic young wife, was supposed to reform Syria? Such reformers do come along occasionally–think of Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev–but they are extremely rare and almost never part of a hereditary dynasty of dictators, as is the case with both Assad and Kim.

Let us not make the mistake of wishful thinking in regard to North Korea. It is and remains an evil regime that oppresses its own people and threatens regional stability. The chances of Kim making meaningful reforms from within are slim to none. Only through peaceful unification with South Korea will the grim reality of the north change for good.

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How Insulting Is North Korean Flag Mixup?

Right before North Korea was set to compete in an Olympic women’s soccer match yesterday, an introductory video showed the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one — prompting the team to walk off the field in protest. The Olympic organizers have since apologized to North Korea, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, this will “go down in Olympic history as a major insult”:

In the long history of the Olympic Games, stretching across more than a century, two World Wars, and a Games put on by the Third Reich, one might think that exchanging the South Korean flag for the North Korean flag might not be the worst mistake ever made by a host nation.

But it might well be.

“This is way more insulting,” says [David] Wallechinsky [author of a book on the Olympics]. “To actually raise the flag of a nation considered your enemy – that’s a real bad one.”

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Right before North Korea was set to compete in an Olympic women’s soccer match yesterday, an introductory video showed the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one — prompting the team to walk off the field in protest. The Olympic organizers have since apologized to North Korea, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, this will “go down in Olympic history as a major insult”:

In the long history of the Olympic Games, stretching across more than a century, two World Wars, and a Games put on by the Third Reich, one might think that exchanging the South Korean flag for the North Korean flag might not be the worst mistake ever made by a host nation.

But it might well be.

“This is way more insulting,” says [David] Wallechinsky [author of a book on the Olympics]. “To actually raise the flag of a nation considered your enemy – that’s a real bad one.”

However offensive the flag mixup was, it was still less insulting than the fact that North Korea is competing in the Olympics just like any other country while more than 100,000 of its people are thought to be withering away in concentration camps. Those who argue against politicizing the Olympics have some fair points — the games are about the athletes and not the countries. If you ban North Korea, you’d also have to ban Saudi Arabia and Iran, and then there would be a clamor of human rights activists agitating for one country or another to be barred as well.

On a practical level, it’s difficult to get banned from the Olympics, though it did happen to the Taliban’s Afghanistan and apartheid South Africa after their discriminatory laws were carried over to their Olympic teams. Because North Korea’s oppression isn’t confined by gender or ethnic or racial lines, it may continue to get a pass.

But Olympics officials certainly shouldn’t lose any sleep over the flag blunder. The athletes from North Korea deserve as much respect as any other competitors and should be treated fairly. As for their government and their flag — well. Accidentally insulting the DPRK isn’t the same as accidentally snubbing France or Canada, and there’s no reason for commentators to act as if it is.

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What is the UN Secretary-General’s Job?

Several years ago, I took the opportunity to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak at a Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies graduation. The Secretary-General is not the most dynamic speaker and, if memory serves, his speech was basically pabulum, talking a great deal about meetings he had had; if there was a focus, it was probably on global warming. To be fair, while his predecessor Kofi Annan is a better public speaker, there is little substance to Annan’s speeches as well.

The problem with many of the UN Secretaries-General is that they have redefined their position to be that of the world’s diplomat, and have assumed a bully pulpit for which they have no right. When the UN was created, the purpose of the secretary-general, first and foremost, was to be the UN’s administrator. He was meant to make the organization’s bureaucracy function in a clear and efficient way.

By this standard, both Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have been abject failures. Take the most recent scandal at the United Nations: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shipped hi-tech computers to Iran and North Korea in contravention of UN sanctions. That is a failure of administration at the highest level. In any normal organization, it would lead to the resignation not only of WIPO’s director, but also that of the UN administration, because it was the failure of the secretary-general’s oversight that allowed this transaction to occur.

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Several years ago, I took the opportunity to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak at a Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies graduation. The Secretary-General is not the most dynamic speaker and, if memory serves, his speech was basically pabulum, talking a great deal about meetings he had had; if there was a focus, it was probably on global warming. To be fair, while his predecessor Kofi Annan is a better public speaker, there is little substance to Annan’s speeches as well.

The problem with many of the UN Secretaries-General is that they have redefined their position to be that of the world’s diplomat, and have assumed a bully pulpit for which they have no right. When the UN was created, the purpose of the secretary-general, first and foremost, was to be the UN’s administrator. He was meant to make the organization’s bureaucracy function in a clear and efficient way.

By this standard, both Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have been abject failures. Take the most recent scandal at the United Nations: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shipped hi-tech computers to Iran and North Korea in contravention of UN sanctions. That is a failure of administration at the highest level. In any normal organization, it would lead to the resignation not only of WIPO’s director, but also that of the UN administration, because it was the failure of the secretary-general’s oversight that allowed this transaction to occur.

The same is true with Kofi Annan. There has seldom been a statesman who enjoys such a reputation as an elder statesman but whose record rests on failure. As director of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, Annan’s indecisiveness enabled the Rwanda genocide to develop and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, a casualty count for which Annan has apologized. As director of peacekeeping operations, Annan also presided over the failure to protect the safe haven in Srebrenica in 1995, in which 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian fighters. It was as secretary-general, however, where Annan truly failed. He ignored his primary responsibility as administrator-in-chief in order to traipse around the globe at donor expense, giving speeches and collecting laurels. By doing so, he presided over the worst corruption scandal to hit the United Nations, one for which he has never truly paid the price.

The United Nations has an important role. Having a place to convene enemies and combatants is a valuable enabler of diplomacy. If the UN secretary-general is unable or incapable of managing UN affairs, however, then either it is time for the UN secretary-general to resign or it is time to shrink the UN and its myriad agencies back to a manageable size. Rather than sweep the WIPO scandal under the rug, perhaps it’s time to erase this notion of a world diplomat and instead return the secretary-general to his original purpose as an administrator and facilitator.

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What are North Koreans Doing in Iran?

President George W. Bush was widely—and unfairly—castigated for referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “The Axis of Evil.” Academics denied that such diverse countries could cooperate, while diplomats condemned Bush for saying such mean things about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. In hindsight, of course, Bush was right. The only legitimate criticism of the Axis of Evil was that he defined it too narrowly: Certainly, there might have been room for Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez and Sudan’s murderous dictator Omar Al-Bashir, among others.

Blogger Challah Hu Akbar, whom I do not know personally but whose blog I always find interesting, has done some important analysis of Iranian media pictures and asks just what North Korean military officers are doing in Iran?

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President George W. Bush was widely—and unfairly—castigated for referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “The Axis of Evil.” Academics denied that such diverse countries could cooperate, while diplomats condemned Bush for saying such mean things about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. In hindsight, of course, Bush was right. The only legitimate criticism of the Axis of Evil was that he defined it too narrowly: Certainly, there might have been room for Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez and Sudan’s murderous dictator Omar Al-Bashir, among others.

Blogger Challah Hu Akbar, whom I do not know personally but whose blog I always find interesting, has done some important analysis of Iranian media pictures and asks just what North Korean military officers are doing in Iran?

Somehow, I doubt they are teaching the Iranians about effective agriculture or the service industry. They are probably not exporting heavy fuel oil. Nor are they the world’s go-to guys for domestic energy generation. Fatwa or no fatwa, the remaining explanations don’t look good. Perhaps its time for the Obama administration to recognize what the Iranians say openly: Negotiations are a ruse, and it’s full steam ahead on their nuclear program.

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The Country With No Artists

There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

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There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

It’s quite a claim to say that in a country of 20 million – even a prison-state like North Korea – not one person has dared to put ink to paper and create images that aren’t permitted by the government. Underground artists have sprouted even in severely oppressive societies like the Soviet Union and current-day Iran. But then, if anyone is familiar with the inscrutable subject of North Korean art, it is Song Byeok. Once recruited as a propaganda painter for the regime, Song was later imprisoned and tortured by the DPRK after trying to cross the Chinese border to find food. He eventually did escape the country, and now uses his paintbrush to satirize and condemn the regime he was once compelled to glorify.

Song’s most recognizable image, hanging on a nearby wall, is a massive painting of the late Dear Leader donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress and coquettish pose. Behind me is one of Song’s more disturbing works, a painting of bony-legged, toothless children embracing a bloblike Kim Jong Il as he crushes them in a bearhug. On a nearby table lies what, at first glance, appears to be a traditional Korean ink scrollpainting. But instead of rolling hills and farmlands, it is a panorama of totalitarianism, complete with looming monuments to the omniscient rulers and forced labor camps.

Song’s paintings strike an odd balance between humor and horror. Many evoke the classic pop art style, with solid backgrounds, cheerful commercial allusions, and bright primary colors serving as a haunting contrast to the subject matter.

The artist has a quiet manner, and speaks little to no English. We talked through a translator. On Friday night, he opened his first art expo in D.C. to a packed house, and during our interview on Saturday afternoon people trickled in and out of the exhibit, buying prints of his work.

Despite Song’s artistic training, he claims that he never considered drawing anything anti-government while living in North Korea. Not due to fear of discovery, he explained, but because the independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state.

“The fact is that I would never even think about it,” said Song. “That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”

The dearth of art may seem like the least of concerns in a country where many die of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. But the physical suffering is only one tragedy of North Korea. Other tyrants have also starved and brutalized the bodies of their own people, but the North Korean government has achieved unprecedented success when it comes to starving its peoples’ minds and souls. The DPRK’s oppression is so total that Song maintains he once couldn’t even fathom drawing anything subversive about a government he eventually risked death and torture to try to escape.

The truth is, nobody – not even Song Byeok – can say with absolute certainty that there are no underground artists inside the borders of North Korea. Though if any exist, we would likely never know about or see their work.

The other alternative, far more unsettling, is that Song is right – that North Korea truly and horribly is the first state in the world where art has ceased to exist.

While Song is now out of the physical reach of the North Korean government, some shackles remain. Even “Song Byeok” is a pseudonym, to protect family still in the country. He says his art has already caught the eye of the upper ranks of the regime, something he’s openly proud of.

Song views his art as more than just a mode of self-expression and catharsis. He acknowledges that his work has a political objective, and says his main goal “is to be able to inform the people about how valuable freedom is.”

That desire extends beyond just North Korea. “The next country I’m planning to portray is Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan, and the way they’re treated in the name of religion,” he told me, adding that he was disturbed by the fact that Afghan women can be stoned to death for simply running away with someone they love.

But for now, the artist seems preoccupied with his home country, and his hope that “North Korea can get better.” Song says his paintings are ideally intended to reach the public of North Korea, as implausible as that idea seems. “They’ll pass out of shock,” he predicted.

Song said that even in a country without artists, the public would still grasp the meaning of his paintings. “[They] will definitely understand the message,” he told me. “Because unconsciously they do know something is not right in society. That’s why they would understand right away.”

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Should U.S. Shoot Down N. Korean Missile?

Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

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Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

Imagine if the U.S. had taken tougher action in the 1990s to prevent North Korea from going nuclear–or since then to punish it for its violations of international law. Instead,we have engaged in one round of fruitless diplomatic wrangling after another, constantly offering the North Koreans generous incentives to abandon their nuclear efforts only to have the North Koreans violate all of their commitments. This experience of American passivity no doubt encourages the mullahs into pursuing their own nuclear ambitions more recklessly than ever. With Iran poised on the brink of going nuclear, now would be a good time to prove that we will not sit supinely back and accept the world’s most dangerous weapons spreading into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes. Shooting down a North Korean missile launch would be a dramatic yet not reckless way to make the point.

 

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U.S. Intelligence Flying Blind on Iran

Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

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Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

Many writing about the intelligence about Iran continually speak of the days before the invasion of Iraq when we were assured by the government that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Since it was already proven that he had used chemical weapons on his own people and had a nuclear program before Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, these were not unreasonable conclusions even if they turned out to be wrong. However that failure, which led to charges that the intelligence community’s convictions about Iraq were wrongly influenced by political considerations, has led to a passionate determination on the part of those in charge that they will never sign off on any conclusion about this sort of an issue again if it will be used as an excuse to go to war. Like generals who always prepare for the surprises they faced in the previous war, America’s spies will never raise the alarms about WMDs again.

Fear of repeating mistakes is understandable. But history rarely repeats itself in this manner. That makes beliefs grounded in that fear often as wrongheaded as the original errors. If the intelligence community’s beliefs about Iraq were incorrectly influenced by a desire to agree with the Bush administration’s predilections then it is just as easy to argue that its current views about Iran might be just as mistaken.

But no matter what is influencing their opinions, it is difficult to work up much confidence in the conclusions of agencies that are so open about the fact that they are flying blind in Iran. Though the anonymous officials have confidence in their non-human assets, they are quick to dismiss any evidence, such as the recent satellite images that have led the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspect that work on weaponization of nuclear material is being carried on in Iran simply because it does not fit into their preconceptions about the regime. But it’s clear that the lack of input about Iranian intentions that can only come from real human intelligence has crippled American agencies to the point where it has become an article of faith on their part that they must be right, even if they can’t back up those conclusions with any evidence.

What we are witnessing here is the sort of cyclical group-think that will be reversed once again if the Iranians confound our spooks the way the supposedly easier to read North Koreans did. Another U.S. intelligence failure will simply make their analysts lean more on the side of action the next time around. But the problem for Israel, the Middle East and the world is that if they are wrong about Iran, the consequences of that mistake will be far worse than even those generated by the Iraq disaster.

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German Paper: North Korea Tested Nuclear Warhead for Iran

Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

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Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Nothing but nothing will get Iran’s media and academic apologists to admit that the mullahs are pursuing a nuclear weapon. Their newest semantic trick is to post up on the word “building” and insist that the Iranians aren’t physically constructing a bomb, which is silly inasmuch as of course it’s true. They’re merely building all the parts that go into creating a nuclear weapon – detonators, warheads, highly enriched nuclear material – and when those are finished, then they’ll assemble them all together.

But the apologists are part of a coordinated campaign to downplay the Iranian threat. They’ve got their talking points, and they’re going to push them. And – when Iran does go nuclear – these self-styled experts will transition seamlessly to insisting that Iran will never use the nuclear weapons that they said Iran was never going to build.

Meanwhile, the administration is misleading the public about Iran’s hegemonic intentions and regional posture, according to the inside-baseball security bulletin NightWatch:

The U.S. spokesman said there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the latest deployment of the warships. That statement is not accurate because the Iranians showed they are prepared to use military power, such as it is, in support of their allies. That is not a trivial demonstration of intent. The navy’s execution seems to have fallen short, but the leadership’s intention is clear, which is backed up by the decision to cut crude exports to France and the UK. Iranian threats look serious, never mind that they also are potentially suicidal.

The hope, of course, is that the administration is just being disingenuous. The president’s bumbling diplomacy has resulted in an Iran that’s able to deploy warships on behalf of allies and a regional situation amenable to same. So the White House obviously has an interest in waving that away.

But there’s always the possibility they really do believe having Iranian ships deployed in the eastern Mediterranean on behalf of Syria is just how things are. That would be worrisome. The next step after helping allies is targeting enemies, and Iran has already threatened to use its naval assets to start a war with Israel. So it would be better if the White House does in fact understand the significance of Iran’s naval deployments, is planning accordingly, and is just lying to the rest of us about it.

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Dudamel is Not Another Toscanini

Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

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Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

In addition to the current tour that is being used by Chavez to burnish his image at home, Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (for which he also serves as music director) in the national anthem for the initial broadcasts of a new government television channel that replaced an independent channel shut down by Chavez for criticizing his administration. The televised concert was, as the Times noted, “dominated by images of Mr. Chavez and the phrase ‘Onward, Commandante!’”

So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chavez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region.

Many classical musicians have never been squeamish about taking coin from the hands of dictators or about allowing their talents to be purchased for the purpose of bolstering evil regimes. In one of the most recent instances, the New York Philharmonic accepted an invitation to play before the leadership of one of the craziest and most oppressive governments in the world: North Korea. While the New Yorkers claimed their music would be a symbol of freedom and improving relations, the only ones to benefit from the show were the Communist regime and the orchestra.

But there is another more admirable tradition in the arts: that of the artist who puts principle above all else and refuses to bow down to tyrants. The most distinguished example  is the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was an ardent foe of fascism in his Italian homeland. After an initial flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s movement, Toscanini defied the dictator and became a symbol of resistance to his rule. He suffered attacks and insults, and it was only his status as an international superstar that saved him from a worse fate. During this period it should be noted that Toscanini also conducted the inaugural performance of the fledgling Palestine Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic) that was largely comprised of Jewish refugees from Germany. He only returned to Italy after the Second World War and the demise of fascism.

Dudamel may be a wonderful music talent and have a long, celebrated career ahead of him. But the laurels that go to those artists, who, at their personal cost, stand up for freedom, will not go to him. He may be a fine conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is no Toscanini.

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U.S. Getting Smart Too Late on Iran

If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

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If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I –

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea

What we do know Iran has done – and has been doing for some time – is build a “covert” uranium enrichment facility, constructed underground in the mountains near Qom, hidden for years from the international community, with enrichment operations commencing in “blatant disregard” of multiple UN and IAEA resolutions, with “no plausible justification” except to bring Iran “a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.” The quoted language is from Hillary Clinton’s press release last month. The huge underground site is a major expansion of Iran’s program.

Last month, President Obama said America is determined to prevent Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” Secretary Panetta said if we “get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” But waiting for intelligence about getting a nuclear weapon – instead of preventing nuclear weapons capability – sets the red line where a violation can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed, as the North Korea experience demonstrates.

A group of 32 senators introduced a resolution on February 16 that would affirm a “vital national interest” in preventing Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” and reject any policy relying on “containment” of a nuclear weapons capable Iran. It is an effort to avoid repeating the sad story of American diplomacy and intelligence between 2003 – when President Bush declared the U.S. would “not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea” – and 2012, when Director Clapper acknowledged that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.

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Best Option to Stop Nukes? The Military.

Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

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Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

In an article in the New York Times last week, another former U.S. official intimately involved in nuclear policy — Robert Gallucci, who served as chief negotiator with North Korea during President Bill Clinton’s administration — criticized the Bush administration for not taking a hard line on Pyongyang’s transfer of nuclear technology to Damascus. Syria, he noted dryly, might well have nuclear weapons today “had it not been for Israel’s version of a nonproliferation policy — aerial bombardment of the site.” And while Gallucci didn’t mention it, the same is true of Iraq.

In fact, Syria and Iraq are the only two countries where military action has ever been tried to halt a nuclear program. And so far, both are nuke-free. Moreover, in both cases, military action spared the world a nightmare. The current unrest in Syria would create a real danger of terrorist groups obtaining nuclear materiel had Israel not destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007. And by bombing Iraq’s reactor in 1981, Israel made it possible for a U.S.-led coalition to go to war to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – an invasion that, had it gone unchecked, would have destabilized the entire vital oil-producing Gulf region, but which the world would have had to swallow had Iraq had nukes by then.

By contrast, consider the track record in places where military action wasn’t tried, like Pakistan and North Korea. Both not only have the bomb, but have merrily proliferated ever since to some of the world’s worst regimes. And in Pakistan’s case, there’s the added fear that radical Islamists will someday take over the unstable country, along with its nukes.

In fact, nonmilitary sanctions have never persuaded any country to abandon a nuclear program: The few countries that have scrapped such programs did so not in response to sanctions, but to domestic developments (regime change in South Africa) or to fear of military action (Libya after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003).

So far, the same is proving true in Iran, where years of nonmilitary sanctions have slowed its nuclear development, but have utterly failed to halt it, or to alter its leaders’ determination to pursue it. That confronts America with a stark choice: stick to nonmilitary methods that have never succeeded in the past until Iran becomes the next North Korea, or switch to military methods, which have worked in the past.

For if history is any guide, there is no third option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A More Appropriate North Korean Eulogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kim Jong Il and the Horror That Survives

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please do read it all.

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China and Those Tensions that Remain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chipping Away at Global Security

Abe Greenwald unerringly fingers the new U.S.-Chinese nuclear-security center, announced by President Obama today, as a problematic idea. The proposed “Center of Excellence” (a 1990s-speak expression from the “reinventing government” era) will reportedly be opened to other countries in Asia, in the hope that “China can use its influence to improve nuclear security in the region.” A review of the other countries in the region suggests that this is, frankly, just silly. Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea: these countries, whether nuclear armed or merely users of nuclear power, are hardly candidates for having their practices squared away by a “center of excellence” in China.

On the other hand, a nuclear-security center in China could well be opened to North Korea, Iran, Burma, or a host of Arab, Latin American, or sub-Saharan African nations, all in the name of engagement and responsibility. Besides giving China greater access to U.S. information, the joint venture will make China the potential middleman for technology transfers superior to those Russia can offer.

The idea for the center was reportedly suggested by Hu Jintao at Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. The center of excellence is perfectly emblematic of the bureaucratic-engagement style of security policy that Team Obama likes to call “smart power.” The nuclear accord with China is supposed to mirror the one we have had with Russia for some years — but its superficial similarities on paper are overwhelmed by the profound differences in circumstances. Proliferation, not a superpower standoff, is the main security problem today. The past 40 years should have taught us that there is no nation — none — whose motivation to prevent dangerous nuclear proliferation is of the same order as ours. If there is any such nation, it certainly isn’t China.

But the Obama administration has a big appetite for paper activism in foreign policy, regardless of the consequences. The Center of Excellence in China has been announced on the heels of last week’s vote in the Russian Duma to advance the New START treaty to its third and final reading, which should assure ratification. The problem with this good-news story is that the Duma, like the U.S. Senate, has attached its own understandings to the instrument of ratification — and the Russians’ understandings directly contradict those of the U.S. Senate. The Senate specifies that New START does not constrain any U.S. missile-defense plans or any U.S. use of strategic delivery platforms for non-nuclear warheads. The Duma understands the opposite, characterizing its legislative understandings as a restoration of the treaty’s original, intended meaning.

On such shoals, “agreements” founder. New START represents no benefit to national security if neither side interprets the treaty to mean the same thing. (At NRO today, Keith B. Payne has another reason why it’s not a boon to U.S. security.) But, like the nuclear-security center in China, New START will have consequences. Treaties and nuclear-security centers shouldn’t be agreed to as if they are items on a peppy “good ideas” checklist. Team Obama too often comes off like a student seminar putting on a mock inter-agency working group. In the real world, poorly conceived joint ventures turn into throbbing security toothaches with alarming frequency.

Abe Greenwald unerringly fingers the new U.S.-Chinese nuclear-security center, announced by President Obama today, as a problematic idea. The proposed “Center of Excellence” (a 1990s-speak expression from the “reinventing government” era) will reportedly be opened to other countries in Asia, in the hope that “China can use its influence to improve nuclear security in the region.” A review of the other countries in the region suggests that this is, frankly, just silly. Russia, India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea: these countries, whether nuclear armed or merely users of nuclear power, are hardly candidates for having their practices squared away by a “center of excellence” in China.

On the other hand, a nuclear-security center in China could well be opened to North Korea, Iran, Burma, or a host of Arab, Latin American, or sub-Saharan African nations, all in the name of engagement and responsibility. Besides giving China greater access to U.S. information, the joint venture will make China the potential middleman for technology transfers superior to those Russia can offer.

The idea for the center was reportedly suggested by Hu Jintao at Obama’s nuclear-security summit in April. The center of excellence is perfectly emblematic of the bureaucratic-engagement style of security policy that Team Obama likes to call “smart power.” The nuclear accord with China is supposed to mirror the one we have had with Russia for some years — but its superficial similarities on paper are overwhelmed by the profound differences in circumstances. Proliferation, not a superpower standoff, is the main security problem today. The past 40 years should have taught us that there is no nation — none — whose motivation to prevent dangerous nuclear proliferation is of the same order as ours. If there is any such nation, it certainly isn’t China.

But the Obama administration has a big appetite for paper activism in foreign policy, regardless of the consequences. The Center of Excellence in China has been announced on the heels of last week’s vote in the Russian Duma to advance the New START treaty to its third and final reading, which should assure ratification. The problem with this good-news story is that the Duma, like the U.S. Senate, has attached its own understandings to the instrument of ratification — and the Russians’ understandings directly contradict those of the U.S. Senate. The Senate specifies that New START does not constrain any U.S. missile-defense plans or any U.S. use of strategic delivery platforms for non-nuclear warheads. The Duma understands the opposite, characterizing its legislative understandings as a restoration of the treaty’s original, intended meaning.

On such shoals, “agreements” founder. New START represents no benefit to national security if neither side interprets the treaty to mean the same thing. (At NRO today, Keith B. Payne has another reason why it’s not a boon to U.S. security.) But, like the nuclear-security center in China, New START will have consequences. Treaties and nuclear-security centers shouldn’t be agreed to as if they are items on a peppy “good ideas” checklist. Team Obama too often comes off like a student seminar putting on a mock inter-agency working group. In the real world, poorly conceived joint ventures turn into throbbing security toothaches with alarming frequency.

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Are China’s Neocons Taking Power?

It’s often said that some people have such a hysterical obsession with the dreaded “neocons” that they probably search for them under their beds before going to sleep at night. And after reading Jacob Heilbrunn’s ominously titled column “Are China’s Neocons Taking Power?” it sounds like he’s probably the type to keep a flashlight handy on his nightstand:

So China flew its experimental J-20 stealth fighter jet while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting President Hu Jintao? It would be hard to think of a more calculated insult–and one that America should, and will, take in stride. The Los Angeles Times reports that China’s military didn’t even bother to inform the civilian leadership. Gates knew about the test. Hu didn’t.

What does that tell you?

The real snub wasn’t directed at Gates but at Hu and his associates. Could it be that the real China threat is a military going rogue? It’s clear that China’s military is balking at pretty much everything the Obama administration wants. It doesn’t want to rein in North Korea. It doesn’t want strategic talks with America.

Heilbrunn goes on to equate the belligerent segments of China’s military with American neoconservatives:

And for now, it looks as though China’s neocons have the upper hand. Like the neocons who wrecked American foreign policy, they may be poised to follow policies that are actually inimical to China’s true interests, while arguing that they are pursuing its true ones.

First, as Max pointed out, it’s troubling that Hu seemed unaware of the J-20 flight. But there may be a reason to take this story with a grain of salt. With Hu’s planned trip to the U.S. next week, it could be possible that either Chinese or U.S. officials would want to give the impression that the president wasn’t aware of the test. The timing of the demonstration was obviously a snub to Gates, and by claiming ignorance, Chinese officials might be trying to side-step an unpleasant confrontation.

Second, it’s pointless to try to affix to the military of the Chinese authoritarian regime a label that originated out of the complex politics of the United States. Simply being “hawkish” doesn’t make someone a neocon, as Heilbrunn appears to be suggesting. And needless to say, the Chinese military isn’t even interested in promoting democratic values in its own country, much less abroad.

It’s often said that some people have such a hysterical obsession with the dreaded “neocons” that they probably search for them under their beds before going to sleep at night. And after reading Jacob Heilbrunn’s ominously titled column “Are China’s Neocons Taking Power?” it sounds like he’s probably the type to keep a flashlight handy on his nightstand:

So China flew its experimental J-20 stealth fighter jet while Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting President Hu Jintao? It would be hard to think of a more calculated insult–and one that America should, and will, take in stride. The Los Angeles Times reports that China’s military didn’t even bother to inform the civilian leadership. Gates knew about the test. Hu didn’t.

What does that tell you?

The real snub wasn’t directed at Gates but at Hu and his associates. Could it be that the real China threat is a military going rogue? It’s clear that China’s military is balking at pretty much everything the Obama administration wants. It doesn’t want to rein in North Korea. It doesn’t want strategic talks with America.

Heilbrunn goes on to equate the belligerent segments of China’s military with American neoconservatives:

And for now, it looks as though China’s neocons have the upper hand. Like the neocons who wrecked American foreign policy, they may be poised to follow policies that are actually inimical to China’s true interests, while arguing that they are pursuing its true ones.

First, as Max pointed out, it’s troubling that Hu seemed unaware of the J-20 flight. But there may be a reason to take this story with a grain of salt. With Hu’s planned trip to the U.S. next week, it could be possible that either Chinese or U.S. officials would want to give the impression that the president wasn’t aware of the test. The timing of the demonstration was obviously a snub to Gates, and by claiming ignorance, Chinese officials might be trying to side-step an unpleasant confrontation.

Second, it’s pointless to try to affix to the military of the Chinese authoritarian regime a label that originated out of the complex politics of the United States. Simply being “hawkish” doesn’t make someone a neocon, as Heilbrunn appears to be suggesting. And needless to say, the Chinese military isn’t even interested in promoting democratic values in its own country, much less abroad.

Read Less




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