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.

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, , , , , , , ,

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