Wednesday, June 23, 2004

beheadings and perspective

Some random thoughts on the beheading of Kim Sun-il:

1. The reflexive need to blame Bush/America and only Bush/America is spectacularly stupid. I've read around the various blogs in my cyber-neighborhood and was reassured to see that many of those who did blame Bush/America were rational enough to blame the terrorists as well. I haven't read any of the bloggers carefully enough, but if the equal laying of blame implies some sort of moral equivalence between Bush and the fuckheads who behead people on camera, then I'm sorry, but I disagree. Let me say it outright: if you see Bush as the moral equivalent of any of these terrorists, or as the inheritor of Hitler's legacy (or as Hitler's reincarnation), you're flat wrong.

2. Related to the above: I have to come back to that book by Andrew Natsios, The Great North Korean Famine. (See my sidebar for the essays I wrote on his book.) I'm not citing Famine because the contents are somehow relevant to yesterday's beheading, but because I admire the balanced way that Natsios tackled the problem of how to lay blame for North Korea's current dire situation.

Natsios makes clear that the free world shares a measure of blame in NK's predicament. Only the truly simpleminded would lay total blame on North Korea alone, as if it operated entirely in a vacuum. This warped view is, perhaps, the way some people treat issues of freedom and responsibility. According to this view (a ridiculous caricature, in my opinion), we are-- each of us-- absolutely, radically free and separate moral agents, as if we were not connected by chains of causation. This is a stupid way to view freedom and responsibility.

Natsios says more, however: he makes abundantly clear that the primary responsibility for North Korea's situation is on North Korea's head. I admire Natsios's way of parsing the issues: he sees geopolitical connections, understands how events and motives relate to each other, but has enough perspective to make a clear judgement on who gets the most blame. While I disagree with his book's conclusion (to wit: "Don't mix aid and politics"), I still admire his analytical ability. I suspect Natsios is a very compassionate man, but he's also a rational one, and I'd rather have the calmer, cooler rifleman by my side when the shit hits the fan.

This "Natsionian" perspective is sorely lacking on both sides of the political aisle in current American and Korean public discourse, whose primary mode seems to be sound bites and bumper stickers, even in the blogosphere, where there's a low tolerance for long, involved posts. People who see Bush/America as morally equivalent to the terrorists (or Hitler, etc.) lack the ability to address the complexity of actual situations. By the same token, those on the right who reflexively question the patriotism of the Bush Administration's critics are demonstrating their own inability to address the complexities of actual reality.

Who is primarily responsible for the death of Kim Sun-il? Put the issue in perspective. If you're going to take aim at something, aim well.

The conservative Koreabloggers seem optimistic that, thanks to this horrible incident, Koreans will remember themselves, remember their past fierceness and nobility. As they face the horror of what these terrorists have done to one of their fellow citizens, they'll once again show why Koreans were so feared by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War-- or so these conservative Koreabloggers seem to be saying.

I was feeling down and pissed late last night (or, more truthfully, early this morning; I was up way too late), and I wrote the following comment on Andy's post:

[Andy writes]:

Korea is not Spain* and I think that the Korean people are made of sterner stuff than many observers give them credit for. If Kim is killed, it could very well unite Koreans against the terrorists who are trying to take over in Iraq.

I hope you're right, but I don't have your confidence. More likely, we're going to see a reaction (now that we know Kim is dead) that reflexively blames America-- yet more of the victim mentality. Sadness and fear are what we'll see, not anger properly directed at the people who actually did the killing.

Is South Korea still a nation of the brave? I have to echo Verdun's comment on the Marmot's post:

As a Korean living abroad, I do hope that the citizens of a nation famed for resilience and fortitude haven't all turned into pussies.

I have the same hope.

If you visit the Marmot's post, you'll see that the very first comment in the ensuing thread is exactly the kind of typical and misdirected overreaction I (and others) expected, posted by someone with the handle mmm:

damn America!


Sure, I'll give the naysayers their due: we have our own hair-trigger "Nuke the shit out of Mecca!" crowd in the States. I even joked along those lines in this blog (though I hope you'll read all my posts on Middle East-related subjects before jumping to half-baked conclusions about where I stand).

I'm not hopeful that South Korea will pull its head out of the sands of appeasement. The country is already busy appeasing North Korea (and yes, as Kevin at IA has noted, we're not much better); I've said on this blog before that, at times, South Korea seems like a second France (see here and here). I wish I had more access to Korean-language media (my Korean reading ability still sucks), but if the English-language Korean media are any indication, South Korea is in deep denial about some extremely important matters, not least of which concern its "brothers" to the north. The most embarrassing evidence in favor of this thesis is the recent flap over the radio station run by North Korean defectors. The simple attempt to broadcast how miserable life actually is in North Korea has been met with cries of outrage, even threats against the broadcasters. South Koreans-- at least many of the ones currently living in South Korea-- don't want their brotherhood-myth destroyed, even if it means perpetuating an awful situation indefinitely. This doesn't hold as true for those Koreans who live abroad; I've come to understand, from Korean expat bloggers and people of my mother's generation, that expat (or ethnic) Korean perspectives are all over the political spectrum, often depending on what country the Koreans live in.

Whether we're dealing with terrorist surliness or with North Korean petulance, we're looking at pretty simple human psychology.

I've taught high school kids in America, and I learned some shitty facts about human nature during my two years at a private Catholic school. First: people will push boundaries. We all have a natural tendency both to want limits and to test them: chaos and order are two of our most fundamental impulses. Second: The corollary is that if you don't provide firm boundaries and clear strictures-- if you try to be your students' "buddy"-- you doom yourself to a hell of your own making. If you're not prepared to push your students, to hold them to high expectations, then you'll end up coddling them, and they end up being less than they might have become. I made this mistake repeatedly as a high school teacher, convinced that I could "win hearts and minds" through a sense of humor.

My buddy Jang-woong sees North Korea in this light. "It's like giving candy to a baby to keep it quiet," he says. That's it in a nutshell. The basic mentality really is that simple to grasp.

As I've noted in my more sympathetic posts, however, that simplicity may lie at the core of the peninsular problem, but it's harder to find as you work your way outward. If South Koreans are reluctant to consider war as an option for solving the NK problem, this is because of recent-- and probably ancient-- history. Koreans have known a great deal of violence and oppression. It's unsurprising that, as a result, they don't think like the Japanese or Americans. Japan has a powerful nation-myth of its own, and it still plays a role in the public consciousness. America is currently the most powerful nation on earth-- economically, perhaps even militarily. Asking Koreans to be as hopeful as Americans, or as willing to consider violent options as a path to eventual peace, may be asking too much.

There are further complications, however, that are more strategic (by which I mean game theory-oriented) than psychological. North Korea has done a stellar job of playing the surrounding nations off each other. Its relentless focus on the US as its only dialogue partner remains problematic even as we embark on further "six-party" talks. The image of the Mexican standoff is apropos here, I think. But as that image implies, any sudden change in the standoff will result in a quick and bloody denouement.

I, too, am reluctant to consider war as an option on the peninsula. I've advocated a policy of continued strong rhetoric against North Korea coupled with tighter sanctions and further restricted aid (contra Natsios), even in the face of NK's threats of war and international condemnation. The most desirable outcome is whatever brings about the internal collapse of the NK regime. At the same time, however, I'm not about to take the military option off the table, and here we see yet another wrinkle.

Many South Koreans, as I think Owen Rathbone has noted, don't have the best grasp of geopolitics (by which I'm not implying that I do, nor am I implying that all Americans are spot-on policy wonks!). Or maybe South Koreans do have such a grasp, but don't understand how the politics affect South Korea directly. In the case of North Korea, there are intimate inimical connections ramifying outward-- drug trade and arms shipments, to name the two most prominent ones. American cities have been threatened by NK, and even if NK is simply blowing smoke about its nuclear ability, it's manufacturing and distributing weapons to parties who don't have our best interests at heart.

Simple psychological elements, complicated situation. NK's looking to continue its existence. It knows that a sudden change in the standoff will spell its end. It's therefore vitally important that every player continue to play its assigned, appeasing role, and this is why I think we should play against the grain, ratchet up our own rhetoric (something that won't happen under Kerry), and repeatedly remind NK that the military option isn't off the table. In the meantime, we have to clean up our own appeasing inconsistencies, which are shameful.

Since this post's theme is "perspective," let's zoom back a bit and take a slightly wider view of history. First, we note that the plan to take down the Twin Towers wasn't merely one year in the making, as was previously thought in the disaster's aftermath, but five years in the making. This places us well within the Clinton Administration. Next, we note that the motives behind the attack are positively ancient, if bin Laden's ravings are to be believed. This is all about the restoration of Islam's former glory. America's not an ancient country, but it's assumed an ancient role in the minds of Muslim extremists. Both of these facts are conveniently ignored by people who believe that Bush or Bush's America is somehow the cause or catalyst for what befell my country on September 11, 2001. If you can't acknowledge these two basic facts without debate, then you and I will get nowhere in discussion.

I'm not going to speak at length about the Iraq-al Qaeda connection because, as with my anti-war stance, the issue is academic. We have to look forward, not backward: we're in Iraq now, and whether or not there was a connection between Saddam's government and al Qaeda, there's a definite connection between Iraq and terrorism now. This needs addressing.

Koreans (and Americans) who attempt to blame Bush for too much are accomplishing nothing by thinking sloppily. I think Bush does have a lot to answer for; Richard's recent posts following the Bush Administration's problems have been most informative, and I think there's plenty of dirt and guilt to go around. As a political cynic, I never assume politicians of any country to be totally innocent in their motives.

Speaking of motives: let me state again for the record that I don't see the terrorists as animals. To dehumanize them is to give them a ready excuse for their behavior. I won't let them off that easily. They're responsible for their actions in both the usual senses of that word. The central piece of illogic in much hawk rhetoric is that we're dealing with savages arising from a savage culture and religion-- and this is maintained while at the same time it's argued that, within this cultural/religious milieu, we can build a new Western-style democracy. I don't see how these two convictions are compatible. If, in truth, we're dealing with savages from a savage culture and religion, then really, the only answer is genocide.

There, I said it. Why bother with nation-building? Why not just fumigate the entire nest (or pick your own sick metaphor)? That's the logical conclusion if you're dealing with a species you view as beneath you.

One final note on perspective: Koreans who have managed to witness video of Kim's death (no longer available in Korea? --see Marmot's "Update VIII"; I share his disgust) need to multiply that death by three thousand to understand why Americans remain furious. A fundamental misunderstanding about America-- sourced mainly in European outrage at our outrage-- has been that "we should have gotten over this by now." When three thousand of your countrymen perish in the space of only a couple hours, you don't have that luxury. If three thousand Koreans are suddenly slaughtered because a terrorist-piloted plane has rammed into the Yuk-sam Building, you can bet this nation will be baying for blood. Why? Because it's natural. It's easy to urge calm when it's not your own people. But you start to feel it when your own brothers (actual fellow citizens and not romanticized "brothers" to the north) are sacrificed at the altar of hate and cosmic religious stupidity.

In the meantime, I hope this post is right and I'm very wrong. Sometimes you can't just pray for peace and wish that nothing bad happens. This is a very bad time to be a frog in a well, blinkered in perspective and (if I may give the image a modern twist) unable to avoid a dropped grenade.

UPDATE: Since I mentioned US appeasement, it's only fair to note this Salon article (no link because of those damn ads):

U.S. proposing aid in North Korea talks

By Audra Ang
June 23, 2004

U.S. negotiators presented the first detailed American proposal Wednesday on resolving the standoff with North Korea, offering the North energy aid and a security guarantee in exchange for dismantling its nuclear program.

The proposal is meant to break an impasse in talks that began their third round after earlier negotiations brought no progress on Washington's demand for the North to scrap its nuclear program.

The step-by-step plan would begin with Pyongyang freezing its nuclear program for a three-month period to prepare for dismantling, during which it would list all nuclear activities and allow monitoring of its facilities, U.S. officials said.

North Korea didn't immediately reply to the seven-page proposal presented during the opening session of the third round of talks at a Chinese government guesthouse, the officials said.

The North's envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, said earlier that Pyongyang was willing to renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and an end to Washington's "hostile policy."

"What we will be presenting is a practical series of steps to achieve the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, traveling with President Bush in Philadelphia.
"One way to look at this is to look at the Libya model: Good faith action on North Korea's part will be met with good-faith response by the other parties," he said.

It is the first detailed U.S. offer to North Korea since President Bush took office and lumped it into an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.

South Korea said it would provide fuel for the North once it declares the freeze. But the timetable for any benefits the North might receive for each stage of the process still must be worked out, the U.S. officials said.

Under the proposal, the United States and the other four nations participating in the talks -- South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- would give North Korea "provisional security guarantees" while the nuclear dismantling work is carried out, according to the American officials.

North Korea has insisted that without such a guarantee, it must keep its nuclear program to deter a possible U.S. attack.

"First you would have to have North Korea commit to the dismantlement of its nuclear program," McClellan said. Then the two sides would agree to "a detailed implementation plan."

The plan would include the supervised disabling and dismantling of "all nuclear-related facilities and materials," and the removal of all weapons components, including centrifuges, fissile material and fuel rods, followed by a "long-term monitoring program," he said.

He said North Korea would get tangible benefits in return.

"We would work to take steps to ease their political and economic isolation," McClellan said. "There would be provisional or temporary proposals that would only lead to lasting benefits after North Korea dismantles its nuclear programs."

The help could include the resumption of oil shipments from countries other than the United States, McClellan said. He didn't know whether it could include food or cash.

The dispute erupted in late 2002 when Washington said North Korea admitted operating a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. Under that deal, the United States was providing the North with fuel and helping build nuclear reactors for energy production -- help that has since been halted.

Under the new U.S. proposal, Washington wouldn't directly supply the power-starved North with energy aid, the U.S. officials said.

But South Korea said Wednesday it was prepared to provide fuel oil.

"If North Korea starts freezing its nuclear program under the conditions that we proposed, we, South Korea, will participate in providing North Korea with heavy oil," said South Korea's chief delegate to the Beijing talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck.

U.S. officials say any agreement must cover all nuclear programs in the North. Pyongyang has denied U.S. claims that it has a nuclear program based on uranium, in addition to its disclosed plutonium-based program.

Kim, the North's envoy, said its efforts to possess nuclear arms were "intended to protect ourselves" from the threat of a U.S. nuclear attack.

"Therefore, if the United States gives up its hostile policy toward us ... we are prepared to give up in a transparent way all plans related to nuclear weapons," he said.

But North Korea also demanded that Washington withdraw its call for a complete and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program, casting doubt on hopes for a breakthrough during the talks.

Kim also said the United States must accept the North's demand for aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze. If Washington agrees to both points, "we are prepared to submit specific proposals concerning freezing the nuclear program," Kim said.

He gave no details, however, of how the secretive North's renunciation of nuclear weapons would be transparent, or whether that might involve international inspections.

The U.S. delegate to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, urged the North to seek a resolution, saying that would "open the door to a new relationship" between Washington and Pyongyang. He said there would be "new political, economic and diplomatic possibilities."


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