Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

The emperor’s new clothes: North Korea keeps on marching

Sometimes, you just want to give them a hug.

Pyongyang put on this earnest show of transparency around its rocket launch, inviting foreign journalists into the heart of their futuristic Space Control Centres (SCCs).

Witness the marvels of our microcomputers and our, umm, extraordinarily large antennae!

It was one part quaint, one part chilling. The display was clearly designed to flummox Western voices that North Korea has something to hide, and, if lucky, to also alert the world as to the advanced state of North Korean spacefaring, and the military implications of that.

The problem with Pyongyang’s approach is that what they put on display was utter rubbish.

Watch this BBC video – seriously.

At 0:48, foreign journalists are shown the satellite itself – a locally-designed and constructed device to be launched as a spaceborne weather station. Look at it. Look at it. I am not exactly an engineer, but can we all agree that this is a 100W guitar amp with a tin can screwed to the top? Is one of those foil baubles meant to be a camera? Or some means of adjusting its trajectory? Somehow?

It really does appear to be something a precocious seven-year old might duct tape together in his dad’s workshop, and take to Show and Tell as his real, genu-wine, state-of-the-art weather satellite. So absorbed in his own delusions of imagined grandeur, he could not detect any of the snickers coming from around the class.

At 1:02, we are introduced to North Korea’s apparent Space Control Centre. You’d be forgiven for believing it instead to be the set from a community theatre’s stage production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cue big projection screen showing the rocket, awaiting its command! Cue about twelve scientist-folk looking studiously at Google Earth on their enormous computers!

I’m being ultra-glib. But they’ve earned glibness, haven’t they, and moreover, perhaps they will appreciate a candid critique of their offering? Room for improvement and all that?

The assumption among the North Korean hosts must have been that the visiting journalists (and the Western audiences they feed) are actually somehow quite comparable to their equivalents in North Korea itself – woefully undereducated and easily gobsmacked by technology that looks suspiciously like Robotix.

Perhaps their version of MI7 have gotten lazy, with the success of their internally-directed propaganda depending principally on the religiosity of its people, and not the sophistication of their messages. Perhaps it’s a fortunate irony that North Korea’s propagandists are themselves the product of the same propagandist educational system as the people they now propagandise – a feedback loop of loopiness that renders their narrative almost incomprehensible to foreign ears.

All of this serves to reinforce the Wizard of Oz aspect to Pyongyang’s military prowess. The bluster almost certainly magnifies actual capacity several-fold, and someone atop the KPA will have to know that the failures yesterday have exposed their bravado as somewhat unwarranted.

Unfortunately, they’ll seek to correct that – this embarrassment may shock North Korea into reasserting itself with a more tangible display of power. Whatever the delusion in Pyongyang that it can convince the world that it’s a military space-power, the real power they can wield is closer to Earth – firefights along the disputed maritime boundary would rattle markets, shake China’s image in Washington as a robust regional power, and create conditions for big powers to come back for more talks on more aid.

The emperor may have no clothes, but I suspect he knows it and does not mind it. Because there’s no telling what an angry, naked emperor might do next.

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Filed under: International, Korea, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Baird’s Korea rhetoric leaves us in the cold

North Korea, despite its flagrant flouting of nuclear non-proliferation conventions, shall nevertheless chair the UN’s disarmament conference for four weeks – just like every country at the convention does. Imagine, a vitriolic loudmouth making an ironic mockery of the whole diplomatic system, eh John Baird?

Once in a while, the UN system throws up a scenario that can read as farce, it’s true. Libya had its stint chairing the UN Human Rights Commission, just as the DPRK now has its chance at the nuclear non-proliferation convention. It is silly on the surface. The United Nations, though, as a universal organisation, includes everyone. It’s a greater merit of the UN that we at least have a space where mortal enemies can at least purport to sit together resolving things. There are no surprises that governments we find distasteful have a kick at the can as well as our biggest trading partners. That is how the world works.

Canada’s having none of it, though, boycotting the convention over the course of Pyongyang’s four-week presidency. To what aim? This occasion could be one of the most important, if not the only, opportunity of the year where North Korea finds itself in the nuclear spotlight. It’s a chance for a framework besides the moribund six-party talks for the international community to roll up their sleeves and compel some kind of negotiation with the world’s most erratic nuclear power. The Six-Party Framework is, after all, rather a “superpower framework,” plus the two Koreas. Where do middle powers fit? What role can countries like Canada play in strengthening non-proliferation norms on the Korean Peninsula, and how might middle powers elicit a different type of response from a Pyongyang reared on anti-super-imperalist mythology? This could be just such an opportunity for us to build an agenda there, but Ottawa’s turning its back.

Baird’s case will be that he thinks the whole of the UN system has become preposterous, and that he’s trying to embarrass the organisation into reform, beginning with its convention chair rotation policy.

You know, if the Conservatives haven’t learned it yet, I don’t know that they ever will. You cannot effectively contribute to reforming an organisation that you repeatedly ignore and abandon. We have little sway there anymore. Our participation has not been valued for years anyway.

Canada in the UN these days is just like the underperforming whinger on a hockey team – the one who refuses to come to practice, who lobs insults at the bulk of his teammates, who spends more time in the donut shop than the gym, and then threatens to walk out on game day. In the hockey world, the team would say “goodbye!” And in the UN, I assume the response will be the same.

There are plenty of countries in the world not to our liking, and the UN system includes us all. Suck it up is what I’d advise the Baird Ministry. Diplomacy requires something more subtle than feigned outrage followed by the silent treatment. Sticktoitiveness and sleeverollupitiveness is a much more important part of the job, however much Baird can’t stand the smell.

Filed under: Canada, Korea, Politics, , , , , , , ,

Sabres and rattles

Regarding the Korean clashes today, there is one thing that this does not represent – weird volatility surrounding the accession of Kim Jong-Un as heir-apparent.

The Kim Family hold a spiritualising, legitimising position for the army – it’s a kind of military papacy. But the idea that the military establishment itself has queries or quibbles about Jong-Un’s ascendance is to misunderstand North Korean decision-making. The Kims are now, and will continue to be, figureheads approved by the army, and any skirmish or belligerence we see from the DPRK is down to decisions made by the National Defence Commission and senior generals. Their target is almost always the United States via South Korea.

Last week’s visit by American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker to an expanded and modern uranium enrichment facility in North Korea, possibly Yongbyon, is the first chapter in the story of the week. Hecker’s invite was intended to provoke a clear reaction in the United States – the North Koreans are building some amazing stuff, it’s virtually ready to go, it’s extraordinarily scary. Pyongyang wave its hardware around anytime it wants Washington to paddle across the Pacific, pleading for another chance at Six-Party Talks with whatever conditions the North might want.

Hecker played his part correctly, with genuine alarmism at the advanced state of the DPRK facilities. But Washington didn’t. Envoy Stephen Bosworth, who’s just been to South Korea, hardly dismissed the seriousness of the nuclear developments, but nevertheless suggested that, if the North Koreans are pursuing things at that level, the last thing we’re going to do is start to negotiate terms of diplomatic engagement with them. He said “this is not a crisis,” which in diplomatic speak means: “They can fly kites.”

It was the right response, I think. But Pyongyang could not accept it. The serpentine inter-Korean maritime border that snakes within short miles of the DPRK coastline is a natural place for Pyongyang to vent, and vent it did (to be fair, the maritime border is ridiculous. It creates a massive maritime advantage for Seoul and is far, far from equidistant from each states’ coastlines). The message delivered to the U.S. via South Korea is simply “We want new talks. We want some stuff. We are not kidding around!”

Hoping that Washington holds its line, frankly. Korean People’s Army chiefs are brinkmanship tacticians, not utter madmen, and they will be very averse to escalating beyond what they can control.

Is silence an appropriate response? South Korean marines were killed in this shelling.

“Silence,” no. But equally no to a rushed new round of nuclear talks in some attempt to assuage Pyongyang. Not under these conditions. Third-parties such as Sweden, who have a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, will be useful to deliver that message. But formalised Six-Party Talks are going to have to keep waiting, however Pyongyang fumes.

Filed under: Korea, Politics, , , , , , , ,

He makes the photo!

And he looks right chuffed with himself. “See, I’m not always forgotten in the loo.

The photo just reminds me, though – no stylist myself, but what is the story with Stephen Harper’s addiction to these fatdiagonallystriped ties? Is there no one around him who dares criticise them? Or buy him a new one?

Filed under: Canada, International, Korea, Politics, , , , ,

Jong-un’s long road

With less than a month before the anticipated Korean Workers’ Party Conference in September, North Korea Leadership Watch has posted an insightful piece about what the conference may mean in the context of leadership succession.

Party Conference a Coronation?

The post draws from a Korea Herald interview with Sejong Institute analyst Cheong Seong-chang, who goes a long way in identifying who’s providing tutelage to heir-somewhat-apparent Kim Jong-un:

Jong-un’s uncle Jang Song-thaek tutors him on the country’s finances and relations with China while Kim Young-choon is in charge of the military. Jang and Kim Young-choon are two of the four vice chairmen of the National Defense Commission, the country’s de facto supreme guiding organ.

Jong-un consults O Kuk-ryol, another NDC vice chairman, on operations against South Korea, Joo Kyu-chang on the North’s defense industry, Woo Dong-cheuk on international counter-espionage operations, Joo Sang-song on public security, Cho Myong-rok and Kim Jong-gak on military politics, and Lee Yong-moo on the private sector. All of them are members of the NDC, “elected” to their posts in April 2009.

It goes some distance to reinforce the supremacy of the National Defence Commission that it has produced so many of Jong-un’s regents and advisors, and/or incorporated these mentors into its own fold within the last couple of years. Jang Song-thaek, Jong-un’s uncle and principal advisor and mentor, is the most powerful of these NDC officials – Cheong notes that:

“Jang manages the finances of the NDC, the Cabinet and the security organs controlled by the NDC such as the secret police, the military intelligence unit, the prosecution and the court. He is also known to be responsible for North Korea’s relations with China.”

As to what is expected to be decided at the Party Conference itself, I suppose it’s the wrong way to look at it. The Party Conference will approve, rather than decide, questions of succession, which have presumably been decided by the NDC by now.

So a presentation of Kim Jong-un as the real heir apparent could be made, though Jong-il has been cited as wanting the Conference to be a “quiet affair,” which could well suit the NDC and the KWP interests as well – especially considering that we haven’t seen much evidence of any revolutionary narrative yet being built around Jong-un (where does he fit in Kim Family mythology, what are his “supernatural” qualities?). As such, there may only be inference to Jong-un’s future through some formalisation of new positions that point to a pretty incredible career trajectory. And, as Michaëlle Jean once said after tasting raw seal heart in Canada’s Arctic, “Take from that what you will.”

Blindly hoping that we’ll be some the wiser in September.

Filed under: Korea, Politics, , , , , , ,

The man who would be Kim

Kim Jong-Il is not a dictator, and probably has only the barest interest in being one.

There are lots of semi-decent reasons to say that – first of all, have we ever heard him do any dictating? We hear mostly about the pool parties, the cognac, the film collections. With good reason, as those are his principal areas of interest.

I’m going to try (to straighten things out in my own head, mostly) to sketch out what I mean. As with everything in North Korea, outside observers can only infer. “Pyongyangology” (o.k., the term doesn’t exist, but why shouldn’t it?) is a dark art that blends symbolism, chance, theory, and observer’s bias. Only once in a while does one come upon a fact.

So any tantalising morsel of facthood emerging from beyond the event horizon of North Korean politics is seized on by outside enthusiasts with great, err, enthusiasm. The newest signal of movement within the governing superstructure is an extraordinary meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Politburo this September. When I say extraordinary, it’s because this is only the third time the Politburo has ever met. The last meeting was in 1966.

South Korean intelligence understands that Kim Jong-Un, youngest son of Jong-Il, is being manoeuvred to inherit power from his father, in an emergent tradition of “meandering” royal lineage, one which veers across birth order and locates itself in the most “honourable” eligible inheritor. One could see their system as an elective monarchy, with monarchical candidates drawn exclusively from the Kim Family, and chosen by an electoral college consisting exclusively of the KWP Politburo (meeting in Sept.) and the National Defence Commission – the organising arm of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), and, since 1998, the highest legislative body in the land, with more clout than the Supreme People’s Assembly (the legislature overall, which itself convened twice this year, unusually).

I say “since 1998” with a purpose. This is a year that Pyongyangologists must obsess over, especially in the context of succession.

Again, I’m blending fact with speculation and imagination. But bear with me, as I try to sketch out an image of how this country might be working. First, insight from North Korea Leadership Watch:

Kim Jong Un’s road to succession runs through the Korean Workers’ Party, if KJI’s history is a reliable guide. This Party Conference represents another phase of the succession, but may only be the prologue to a more definitive event further on. One credential Kim Jong Un does not possess is membership in the Supreme People’s Assembly. Kim Jong Il did not join the SPA until 1982, two years after the 6th Party Congress. Until Kim Jong Un is elected to the SPA, he shall continue to lack the most basic, superficial, credential to hold any significant government power in North Korea.

They are right, I think, that Jong-Un needs to hold some important jobs, and soon. But I don’t believe it’s because he actually needs the skills – it’s so that a plausible revolutionary narrative can be built around him, he can be held up as a remotely “qualified” leader, but the actual leading will never be done by him. Nor will it be primarily through the KWP, but through the “definitive event” that Michael Madden from NK Leadership Watch anticipates in the future. This would, I think, have to involve his getting a senior role in the National Defence Commission itself.

Tiny bit of history: how did we get to here?

Founding father Kim Il-Sung was the country’s president from the Korean War onwards, and presided over the Supreme People’s Assembly, a body populated by Korean Workers’ Party members. The Korean People’s Army were headed by a National Defence Commission, which was seen as subordinate to the People’s Assembly. It was a normal Stalinist arrangement, but with Maoist “cultural revolution” whammo sauce.

When Il-Sung was 68 years old, in 1980, he saw to it that his son Jong-Il would be heir apparent (ironically, Kim Jong-Il turns 69 in 2010, and succession talk is rife. An emerging tradition?). Years later, 1994, Kim Il-Sung dies. So, predictions (among those bold enough to predict anything in North Korea) suggested Kim Jong-Il would take over the job of president, and the state would either collapse, or continue as normal.

But neither thing happened. Four years went by with no official “crowning” of Jong-Il as leader, no announcement as to who was in charge, or what. The rationale was that Jong-Il needed to mourn his father’s death for three years before assuming his duties, as Confucianist dynastic tradition suggested (and North Korea is much more a medieval Confucian dynasty than anything like a Marxist revolutionary state). It was a plausible excuse given the conservative culture, the role of filial piety, son-father worship, all the rest of it. But there was much more happening.

By 1998, the Supreme People’s Assembly announced some changes to the system, something like this:

1) Since we all love our dear departed Kim Il-Sung so much, we decided he should be president forever, even though he’s died. That means we had to abolish the role of President on earth. We will always worship and love our Eternal President in the sky (any disagreements?)
2) Our man Kim Jong-Il can clearly not be the “president” now, but as we still need his wise and holy guidance, we gave him a different job: Chairman of the National Defence Commission. We know he was never a soldier and has no military experience. But he has good advisors, and he’s extraordinarily clever (and a messiah… no disagreements there).
3) Oh, that also meant we had to make the National Defence Commission the most powerful body in the whole government. More powerful than the Assembly. Long live Kim Jong-Il, etc.

What happened in 1998 was rather like a quiet, contained coup-d’etat of the Army over the Party. Some observers saw Kim Jong-Il’s “takeover” of the National Defence Commission as a sign of his irresistable power and influence. Whereas I think it’s much more about the Army appropriating the spiritualised power of the Kim Family that the personality cult has so successfully established.

The Army itself knows it relies on two powerful propaganda tools it can use to subdue the North Korean population: first, promote a constant and undying sense of impending emergency, with nations of the globe all chomping at the bit to invade and conquer. And second, wield the papal power of the Kim Family and its god-cult, promote worship of the Family, and by association, worship of the Army which is titularly led by that Family.

But while the Army needs the Kims to give them a veneer of dynastic legitimacy, prince regents such as Jang Song-Taek (Jong-Un’s uncle, who was named in June as National Defence Commission’s Vice-Chair… an ideal place to mentor a nephew as a future Full Chair, and ceremonial president) and senior military figures are doing the governing and setting the policy.

If the Kims are so powerless in real terms, why does this process take so long? Just because the real levers of power are in the NDC ranks doesn’t mean the Kims have no effective power. They are fully aware that without their royal endorsement of any policy piece, it will not go far. Different Kim potential-heirs could equally have their own KWP and KPA mentors who are extremely competitive between and amongst each other. And also, these succession dilemmas may never have been needed if Jong-Il’s eldest son Jong-Nam didn’t screw up his chances by being such a public buffoon.

Sorry, none of this leads to a natural conclusion. Only to say, a twice-annual meeting of the Assembly this year, the election of Jang Song-Taek as essential second in command (and his alleged closeness to Jong-Un) and a third-time-ever meeting of the KWP Politburo, seem to suggest that succession is being worked out.

In this whole storm of intrigue, though, I wouldn’t too get carried away as to how much it matters which Kim son, nephew, or love-child gets the nod. Whoever it is will be spending most of their time lounging at the pool, sipping cognac, and waiting for the generals to inform him what they’ve been deciding.

Filed under: Korea, Politics, , , , , , ,

Chollima vs. the Universe

Putting on a brave face against vastly superior adversaries is nothing new to North Korea. But tomorrow’s World Cup tilt versus Brazil will prove one of the more lopsided altercations in a long, long history of seemingly hopeless battles for the Hermit Kingdom.

The #105 ranked DPRK side will be hoping to count on two main factors vs the #1 ranked Brazilians. They’ll seek to:

1) aim for a draw by adopting a strong defensive game, shutting the South Americans down throughout

2) summon a hitherto-unknown karmic spirit-force who might blow, umm, “divine wind” the Koreans’ way, as willed by their Eternal President, puppeteering the match from the skies.

Who can know which approach the underdogs will focus on. What we do know is that, in 1966, the last (and only) World Cup appearance for North Korea, they defeated top-ranked Italy in the group stages and advanced to a strong quarter-final showing against Portugal – leading 3-0 at half-time, only to be disposed of 5-3 at full time. The Chollima had to fly home, but with heads held high.

Back here in 2010, many observers might pity the North Koreans for having to face football’s ultimate global supremo early in the group stages, but I have to suspect it suits them just fine. In the DPRK, the political-cultural worldview seems to hold (though what do we know?) that the world is full of seemingly unassailable giants, and that it is the noble (indeed holy) duty of the DPRK to be ever-ready to lash at them with the fury of a thousand suns.

It makes me think of this.

But where does the worldview come from? No short answer to this one. I see it as something inherited through a long history of subjugation to, and invasion by, exceedingly well-armed (and just a bit duplicitous) foreign powers. This only reinforced their extreme hermitisation – their isolationist, spiritualised dynastic system was then hijacked by a 20th Century military leadership which twisted itself into a thoroughly bizarre regal Communist/neo-Confucianist military papacy. Or something.

It’s a worldview that’s enabled the military leadership, and its Kim Family god-figureheads, to strengthen their sense of legitimacy everytime they’re dealt a serious blow from outside. Indeed, when blows from the outside are in short supply, the North Koreans do seem to actively seek them out. They wave a pseudo-existential nuclear threat in the face of the UN, with words and promises of war that almost certainly outgun capacity, while the UN is trying to keep its eyes on the serious nuclear game in Iran. They torpedo a South Korean vessel in the midst of a relatively unremarkable period of inter-Korean relations, thus launching both countries back to the brink of war once again.

The natural state for the DPRK leaders is the state of emergency, and there’s a strategic case for it – whatever religious devotion North Koreans do feel for their collective military messiah and its holy objective of total “splendid isolation”, faith can sometimes, surely, be tested. Without actual Goliaths to tussle with, the relevance of a holy army can, in time, diminish all by itself.

How will this translate on the pitch? It’s win-win, really. A DPRK victory is a crushing blow to all those who ever doubted that their land is, indeed, a land of exquisitely talented ubermensch who routinely achieve greatness and can easily smite any enemy, no matter how well-equipped or well-regarded in the so-called “rest of the world.” A DPRK loss, likewise, is an undeniable affirmation that the tournament is rigged, and the group stages are pre-designed with no other purpose than to try to sully the natural dignity of their country. The nations of the Earth conspire endlessly to harass North Korea – why should FIFA be any different?

As always, however strange it seems, North Korea just can’t (appear to) lose.

Filed under: International, Korea, Politics, , , , ,

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