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, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Caplan’s “Reagan at 100”

When I saw the headline “A tribute to Ronald Reagan at 100” juxtaposed with the byline “Gerald Caplan,” I knew we’d have one interesting article.

Bravo to offer some rare resistance to the whitewashed Reagan narrative that seems to have emerged since his death. It might comfort a lot of Americans (and Canadians, and all sorts of people) to reflect on the Cold War 1980s with a load of V-signs and hurrahs. “We won, the Soviets lost, how simple, how wonderful.” It’s a very different way for our southern neighbours to conceive of how wars work, given the neverending chaos and stateless complexities of the long wars they’re mired in today.

But that ’80s nostalgia has unhelpfully ironed over the fact that Reagan’s America was among the worst incarnations of America we ever knew.

Filed under: Uncategorized, ,

Regarding the UAE

I’m not quite gone yet 🙂

Thought I’d highlight one of the WikiLeaks cables in particular, concerning the U.S. relationship with the UAE. It’s a glowing assessment largely, and one that might be used in argument against Ottawa’s dismissiveness regarding the recent utter breakdown of our relations with the Gulf State…

(S/NF) The UAE is one of our closest partners in the Middle East and one of our most useful friends worldwide.

— Al-Dhafra Air Force Base is the high altitude ISR hub for the AOR, and supports 50 percent of aerial refueling in the AOR.

— Ports in Dubai and Fujairah are the logistics backbone for the U.S. Fifth. Jebel Ali (Dubai) is the most frequented USN liberty port after Norfolk.

— Minhad Air Base is a critical hub for Coalition/ISAF partners in Afghanistan, including the Australians, Dutch, Canadians, Brits and Kiwis.

— The UAE is a cash customer with FMS sales in excess of $11 billion. Commercial sales have an equivalent value. An additional $12 billion of FMS cases are in development with approximately the same volume of commercial sales in the works.

Afghanistan: UAE SOF has been quietly deployed as part of OEF since 2003, and the UAE surged its contribution in 2009 adding a combined arms task force. The UAE’s UAV capability has been a much appreciated force multiplier. On the economic development side, the UAE has pledged about $300 M in assistance, and quietly supported the Afghan Reintegration Fund at the recent London Conference. You should thank MbZ for his leadership in being the first Arab country to send troops to Afghanistan.

Filed under: Canada, International, 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, , , , , , , ,

War crimes and kangaroo courts

While Naomi Campbell complains about the colour of her blood diamonds at Charles Taylor’s UN SCSL war crimes tribunal, another farce of a trial is taking place elsewhere – and this farce could set horrendous international precedent as well.

In the first war crimes trial under President Obama‘s watch, a former child soldier is being tried by an American military court that hasn’t gained international legitimacy. Never mind the fact that Omar Khadr is Canadian, and the only western, and by far the youngest, tenant still resident at Guantanamo. That’s an embarrassment principally to Canadians, as our government denies any of the responsibility that other Western nations have taken in repatriating their citizens from a prison of felons without charges – indeed, our government helps people to stay in there. So much for protecting our citizens, or standing up for international law.

Where other western countries have successfully lobbied for the return of their nationals from Guantánamo, Canada has refused to intervene despite a recent court ruling that ordered it to remedy its failure to protect Khadr’s rights. The Guardian

The greater farce is that a boy of 15, without any real capacity to choose whether he’d be brought to Afghanistan or not, was incarcerated as a war criminal by sweeping U.S. forces in the earliest stages of the Afghan invasion, and is now being tried in a kangaroo court for crimes he may/may not have committed, using evidence that may/may not have been extracted under torturous duress, subject to a legal framework which isn’t internationally recognised, and which diminishes habeas corpus as well as the moral upper-hand in anything that the U.S. has been up to over the past 10 years in the Middle East.

Sucking up potential combatants and associates (including children) with a giant military vacuum cleaner, locking them up for a decade, and then deciding to press charges and try them in an illegitimate court is teeth-gnashingly wrongheaded for any democratic regime. To press ahead with this trial of a child soldier who’s spent over a quarter of his life in Guantanamo lays bare 1) Obama’s helplessness and 2) Obama’s carelessness. Of course, pressure from Ottawa could have helped, if only Harper would dare!

Charles Taylor’s UN-SCSL trial may have been temporarily dropped in tabloid muck thanks to Naomi Campbell’s airheaded testimony. But at least the United Nations acts as our singular, global agent for convening, designing and upholding international law, and it maintains a globally recognised convention of what a war crime is. The military tribunals for Guantanamo can’t even claim to have that legitimacy.

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

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