In 2006, Ashton Carter called for blowing up a N. Korean missile on the launch pad

At the time, I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about the idea, and I’m still not enthusiastic about it today, but had I known then that George W. Bush and Barack Obama would let things get to where they’ve gotten today, I might have agreed with the idea of an aerial intercept.

One thing we know about Ashton Carter is that he talks a good game.

Continue Reading

Those who’ve been assigned to Yongsan, or who sometimes went to Itaewon, …

will appreciate this well-researched history of the neighborhood’s sleazy past and present gentrification, although sleaze has been a difficult thing to extinguish from the places where it has put down its roots. During my last visit to Seoul, the brothel district near the former Yongsan Station, now a massive E-Mart, was still plying its trade, just a bit more sedately, and just around the corner from a police precinct. Judging from the link, Hooker Hill still features hookers, despite the new development two blocks away.

My prediction: as long as Itaewon remains within easy walking distance of thousands of lonely, horny Americans, and as long as Korean society continues to view prostitution as a necessary vice for men to patronize discreetly — and as an acceptable service for others peoples’ daughters to provide clandestinely — there will be a sex industry in Itaewon.

Continue Reading

Please buy Don Kirk’s new book on Okinawa and Jeju

A few weeks ago, it was my pleasure to meet up with Don Kirk for beers at the Press Club. Don was kind enough to give me a copy of his new book. I’ve only had time to poke through it so far, but it does (as you would expect) a comprehensive job of discussing the politics of military basing on both islands, each with its own history of conflict and controversy.


Don asked me to give it a plug, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s the back cover blurb:


For those in the Pentagon, or who are serving in that area with the armed forces, this is something you’ll definitely want to read. It’s awfully expensive in hard cover, so you may want to buy it for your kindle, or use the kindle app (which I liked very much).

Continue Reading

N. Korea says Park GH’s father “smelled of elderberries,” S. Korea responds with “large wooden badger” plan

I don’t know about you, but I sure got tired of Park Geun Hye’s hippie Earth mother act last summer, after North Korea started making nice, right after banks all over China and Europe started blocking North Korean accounts. Thank God that’s over with. We’re back to steaming reactors, spinning centrifuges, war drums, nasty taunts, and all the things we’ve grown to love and miss about North Korea. The North was uncharacteristically quietly during August’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, but for reasons known only in Pyongyang, it’s having an apoplectic fit over another one being held now:

On Monday Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Pyongyang regime, called the exercise a “bellicose attempt to escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula […] by openly threatening it with nukes,” referring to the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. (The U.S. has a policy of neither confirming nor denying whether its ships are equipped with nuclear armaments.)

A North Korean military spokesman said that the U.S. would be “wholly accountable for the unexpected horrible disaster” that faced its “imperialist aggression forces.”  [Time]

Anyone want to start a pool on when KCNA puts up banners calling for Park’s disembowelment?

Referencing Park by name, rather than using the more neutral “chief executive” moniker, the spokesman warned the president that she was steering the Korean peninsula back into a period of dangerous “confrontation”. The commentary, carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency, was largely a response to a speech by Park on Tuesday urging Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. The president had also talked up the development of a military deterrent capability that would render the North’s nuclear weapons “useless”. [….]

“If Park and her group conspire with outsiders under the pretext of leading (North Korea) to ‘change’ … and force it to dismantle nuclear weapons, it will be little short of digging their own graves,” the NDC spokesman said. “There will be no bigger fool and poorer imbecile than the one who schemes to side with a nuclear-wielding robber and urge one’s own kinsmen to lower a knife first,” he added.  [AFP]

See also Yonhap and Sky News. But at least they aren’t threatening to strike first.

“If our enemies try to threaten us in the slightest, the country will launch ruthless pre-emptive strikes of annihilation,” the CPRK said. [Yonhap]

How to explain the very different reaction? Well, one cause we can eliminate is the exercise itself, given the muted reaction to Ulchi Freedom Guardian. If there’s one thing we should know about North Korea by now, its mood is driven by its own hormonal cycle. No one really knows what’s driving that cycle, but I’ll offer some possibilities.

If you forced me to guess, I’d cite the need to keep the military on high alert and forward deployed as Kim Jong Un sacks the head of his armed forces for the third time since December 2011 (or so say a lot of journalists who don’t really know if that’s true or not). [Update: See also Aidan Foster-Carter’s take–“this is not normal,” although previous reports of Kim Kyok-Sik’s demise have been (possibly) wrong.]

Money is always a reasonable guess, although the signs of financial distress aren’t that clear. Yonhap is reporting that North Korea’s exports to China rose 8 percent (compared to last year) in the first eight months of this year, “thanks to higher exports of coal, ores and woven garments,” while its imports fell by 6 percent. As always, we have to begin by observing that we have no idea if these figures are even accurate before we speculate about what they mean. It could mean that the blocking of some of North Korea’s offshore accounts has caused them to shift toward paying for imports with raw materials instead of cash. North Korea also sounds pretty desperate for hard currency from foreign investment, but what else is new?

This part, however, is much easier to explain: they’ve restarted the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, and said for the umpteenth time that they will never give up their nukes. I speculate that this is because they want them some nukes.

The National Intelligence Service informed lawmakers of the restart, ruling New Frontier Party lawmaker Cho Won Jin said by phone yesterday. Lawmakers were also told that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told his cabinet he plans to seek reunification with the South by force in three years, Cho said.  [Yonhap]

Did you read that last sentence carefully? If you’re reading it from Seoul, no, I don’t have a spare room, unless you’re related to me.

Running the reactor at Yongbyon would mean the North is making good on promises made in April to restart the facility as part of efforts to produce energy and improve its nuclear armed force. The United Nations Security Council has imposed strict sanctions on the North in a bid for it to return to negotiations and abandon its nuclear ambitions. [Bloomberg]

Chris Hill was not available for comment. So what is the South Korean government doing to send a stern message it won’t give cash or concessions in response to North Korean threats? It’s asking us to give the North cash and concessions for (or at least, in the immediate aftermath of) North Korean threats. According to Yonhap, South Korea “will begin talks with the United States next month on whether to entitle its goods made in North Korea to advantageous tariffs under their bilateral free trade agreement.” But Kaesong’s Trojan Rabbit strategy is a conclusive failure. Why double down with a Trojan Badger?

The idea of giving Kim Jong Un free trade benefits would certainly draw furious opposition in Congress, and frankly, I doubt that the administration (State Department notwithstanding) would even support it. It does, however, prove the premise of my own opposition to the FTA, as agreed. Skeptics–you know who you are–said this could never happen. The idea of extending free trade benefits to North Korea–benefits that not even Japan has–when North Korea continues to nuke up, sell chemical weapons technology to Syria, and threaten us is crazy talk, of course, but anything South Korea asks our government to do is self-evidently possible.

Continue Reading

Obama Administration’s N. Korea policy evolves from the 90s to the 60s.

Not surprisingly, North Korea’s missile test is bringing out a lot of criticism of President Obama’s North Korea policy, but sometimes, that criticism writes itself.  Writing at The Cable, Josh Rogin tells us that just as Kim Jong Un was counting down the launch sequence between drags on a smuggled Marlboro, Wendy Sherman and the State Department’s crack team of Asia experts were relaxing at a cocktail party in honor of — smack your forehead now — the Emperor of Japan, while silently thanking Kim Jong Un for not ruining their holidays:

But several attendees at the Japanese emperor’s birthday celebration told The Cable that the fact so many Asia officials were not at their desks illustrated how surprised the administration was about the timing of the launch.

“Everybody stood down. Nobody thought they were going to do it this week. It was a real head fake by the North Koreans,” another top Asia expert and party attendee said. “DOD, State, and the White House were just stunned by it. They were shocked.”

There were varying explanations as to why the Obama administration was caught off guard. North Korea said Dec. 10 said that “technical issues” were forcing it to push back the launch window. Previously, North Korea had said the launch would come by Dec. 22, and the new window was supposed to end Dec. 29. News reports Dec. 9 and 10 also said the missile was being removed from the launch pad. Those reports turned out to be wrong.

It may be that Sherman and the East Asia Bureau types took too much comfort in Joel Wit’s widely circulated — and spectacularly ill-timed — prediction that snow would delay the launch.  Wit may be the most chronic schlimazel of all North Korea watchers who is still taken seriously by most people, but I think Rogin’s post was a little too unkind to him.  Satellite imagery is subject to different interpretations, and I’ve probably made my own share of wrong guesses.  It’s when Wit stubbornly ignores the evidence that is there that he really invites mockery.  Among other treats, Wit insists that North Korea really does abide by its agreements, it really is reforming and opening its economy, and really isn’t to blame for this launch (South Korea’s decision to extend the range of its own missile gave the North no choice). Off-hand, I can think of roughly three people in Washington who still believe this since the D.C.’s Finest cleaned out the Occupy camp.  So the next time Wit tugs at your heart strings to advocate unmonitored food aid, just remember:
Based on the North Korean government’s own calculation of daily need, the money spent on yesterday’s launch could buy 5.8 million tons of corn, enough to feed a population of 20 million for 19 months.  [Daily NK]
Some of the criticism is what you’d expect from people with partisan and ideological reasons to oppose this president, but I’ve tried to pick out the more serious and credible examples.  John Bolton, for example, became a fierce critic of the Republican president who appointed him, and isn’t an inflexible critic of his Democratic successor:

John Bolton:  In 2009, the Obama administration’s approach to Pyongyang appeared unexpectedly realistic. The White House initially seemed to abandon the Clinton-Bush obsession with making deals involving tangible economic and political concessions to North Korea in exchange for yet more promises to terminate its nuclear weapons program. Mr. Obama rightly believed that avidly pursuing such negotiations, offering one “compromise” after another, simply reinforced the North’s craving for attention without producing results.  [….]

But Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage the North, simply abandoning the misguided Clinton-Bush diplomacy, is nothing to write home about. Not making unforced concessions that have the political or economic effect of propping up the regime, which repeatedly promises to give up its nuclear program but never does, avoids one erroneous path but follows another. In fact, administration passivity simply permitted the North to proceed essentially unimpeded.

The problem, in other words, is that our policy hasn’t caught up with the long-overdue consensus that North Korea isn’t going to disarm or cease to be a menace for any price, and won’t allow us to just ignore it.  Talks have failed, deterrence is failing, and trying to wait North Korea out has failed because China keeps it afloat no matter what it does.  North Korea is forcing a confrontation.  We’ll eventually have to face that, but it’s also important to make China pay for the behavior it enables.

Stephen Yates:  China should be named and shamed for its role in enabling North Korea to remain and grow as a threat. North Korea is one of the most sanctioned countries on the planet, but Beijing (with only brief exceptions) has effectively watered down and otherwise dulled the impact of international sanctions on North Korean “stability.”

Beijing no doubt would be horrified by the prospect of an international review of the many ways North Korea’s illicit activities involve Chinese institutions, territory, and personnel, but such a comprehensive audit would be entirely appropriate.

Well, yeah, except that everyone who doesn’t already know what China’s game is, is simply denying the overwhelming evidence of its deliberate bad faith.  It’s a small beginning that Susan Rice, who has taken herself out of the running for Secretary of State, is at least trying to be our U.N. Ambassador by pushing her Chinese counterpart past the limits of polite decorum.  Good luck getting her government to reign Kim Jong Un in unless we do things to make him China’s problem, too.  Like sanctioning the Chinese banks and mining companies that finance Kim Jong Un, and threatening to seed the Tumen River valley with more guns per square meter than Waziristan.

Ed Royce:  “I’ve been calling for a North Korea policy with energy, creativity and focus. Instead, the Obama Administration’s approach continues to be unimaginative and moribund. We can either take a different approach, or watch as the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.”

Royce, who had advocated the global pursuit and freezing of North Korean assets by the Treasury Department, beyond the constraints of a moribund U.N. Sanctions Committee, knows that this strategy worked with devastating effect in 2005 and 2006.  To be fair, the administration has dropped a few hints that it’s considering this:

Even if the Security Council fails to pass sanctions, the United States and other nations could impose unilateral measures, as they have with Iran, the senior administration officials said.  [CNN]

But my guess is they’re more serious when they also say they’ll ask the U.N. for a new (unenforced) resolution, send a few ships to do port calls in Chinhae and Incheon, and stop the long-overdue removal of U.S. ground forces from Korea.

Beijing’s biggest fear has always been destabilizing North Korea, and setting off a collapse that could put South Korean forces, and perhaps their American allies, on China’s border.  [N.Y. Times, David E. Sanger and William J. Broad]

Yeah.  It sure is too bad we have no conceivable means of pressuring China whatsoever.  Any ideas?  Nothing?  In that case, what do you suppose McNamara and Rusk would have done?

But the essence of the American strategy, as described Wednesday by administration officials, was to force the Chinese into an uncomfortable choice.

“The kinds of things we would do to enhance the region’s security against a North Korean nuclear missile capability,” one senior administration official said in an interview, “are indistinguishable from the things the Chinese would view as a containment strategy” aimed at Beijing.

They would include increased patrols in waters the Chinese are trying to claim as part of their exclusive zone, along with military exercises with allies in the region. “It’s the right approach, but whether it works is another matter,” said Christopher R. Hill, who was the chief negotiator with North Korea during President George W. Bush’s second term, and is now dean of the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, on Wednesday. “The approach of thickening up the antimissile effort is something that would get China’s attention.”

Notwithstanding the poor credibility of the Times’s source, I agree that there are some good ideas here, including a regional anti-missile shield, an East Asian analogue of NATO, and an open effort to contain a China whose belligerent territorial claims have scared the bejeezus out of Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and have even given rise to a budding alliance with Vietnam.  This much is to our strategic benefit.  It concerns me that we won’t really go through with this, but it concerns me more that we’ll “send American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”  Increased U.S. involvement should focus on command, control, intelligence, and diplomatic relationships, and controlled sales of the best defensive weapons systems.  It should not focus on putting a heavier U.S. footprint in the region.

I’m sure plenty of Japanese and Koreans sleep more soundly knowing that every Saturday, Itaewon and Pyongtaek are filled with Americans — the likely majority of them civilians — shopping for mink blankets and soju kettles.  They might even feel safe enough to vote for imperialist-America-bashing candidates who promise to cut defense spending and send the difference to Kim Jong Un.  Of course, those soldiers didn’t stop North Korea from sinking the Cheonan, shelling Yeongpyeong, or kidnapping God-knows-how-many Japanese.  In fact, they probably gave the Pentagon enough leverage to prevent South Korea from taking out the North Korean units responsible for the 2010 attacks.  I wonder if any North Korean soldiers know enough to thank Kim Il Sung’s eternal spirit that American G.I.’s keep them safe and well-fed.

Continue Reading

Really? A U.S. General Said Our Special Forces “Have Been Parachuting into North Korea?” (Update: No, Not Really)

What could possibly go wrong with this?

US and South Korean special forces have been parachuting into North Korea to gather intelligence about underground military installations, a US officer has said in comments carried in US media.

Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley, commander of US special forces in South Korea, told a conference held in Florida last week that Pyongyang had built thousands of tunnels since the Korean war, The Diplomat reported.

“The entire tunnel infrastructure is hidden from our satellites,” Tolley said, according to The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine. “So we send (South Korean) soldiers and US soldiers to the North to do special reconnaissance.” [….]

Among the facilities identified are 20 air fields that are partially underground, and thousands of artillery positions. [AFP]

But can this really be true? First, given the way gravity works — yes, even in North Korea — how would these guys get back out again? Jet packs? Second, this would be an act of war, and haven’t we sort of reserved that as North Korea’s exclusive privilege since 1953? Third, assuming that this is true, why would a serving general officer would say it in a room full of people — any room full of any people — thus increasing the risk of compromise and capture? Fourth, even if it is true, why would we hand the North Koreans a propaganda gift like this? Fifth, North Korea’s underground airfields aren’t necessarily invisible to our satellites, which makes the story’s premise questionable.

The report seemed so suspicious to me that I went back to the original source to see if there was more context for the quotation. Although it does name BG Tolley as its original source, it doesn’t claim that Tolley actually said this on the record or in the presence of the reporter, David Axe; instead, it says that Tolley told this to “a conference in Florida.” We don’t know what conference, where, or who was present, which means that this could be third-hand information (and thus, a misunderstanding, or outright disinformation). Nor does it say when these missions occurred.

Within the next few days, we can expect to see an official denial, but a story like this one can’t be untold. No matter how implausible it all sounds, there are just too many people who would never believe a denial. I haven’t decided whether I’m one of those people, but given how little our government does about the things it knows damn well North Korea is doing, you have to wonder why we’d take such profound risks to gather yet more intelligence to not act on.

UPDATE: David Axe seems to acknowledge that he misunderstood BG Tolley. Interesting that AFP, whose story has already circulated globally, quotes the Army’s denial but fails to note that Axe, the original source, now doubts what he wrote, and that it also appears to have misquoted the National Defense Industrial Association journal. I don’t think Axe made this up intentionally, but it’s a case study in how sloppy and false reporting gets around the world before the truth catches up. Why were so many papers so quick to believe this before asking obvious questions and going back to reread the original source?

UDPATE 2: Damn. Just look at all the gullible news sources that ran with this completely implausible story without checking or questioning it. The chatrooms at Naver, Indymedia, and Prison Planet will probably be talking about this all year. Congratulations, AFP. You’ve managed to misinform millions of people all over the world, based on a blog post that should have aroused immediate suspicions by anyone remotely familiar with the subject matter. In retrospect, I’m sure AFP will agree that it ought to have asked for USFK’s reaction or corroboration from someone else who heard BG Tolley’s remarks before rushing to print. Now, having failed to do that, the AFP owes the public more than an Army-denies-secret-war update. It should admit that the whole story was baseless and retract it.

As for Axe, I probably feel sorrier for him than I should, maybe because I’ve enjoyed a lot of other things he’s written. And unlike AFP, Axe has at least published a correction. I know that when you’re scribbling notes at events like this, it can be easy to miss things, but as he’s no doubt realized by now, this isn’t the kind of story you print unless you’re sure.

UPDATE 3: David Axe says he’s stepping down as a regular contributor to The Diplomat, which saddens me. He made a very big mistake, realized it, clarified it, and will now suffer consequences to his career and reputation. Meanwhile, the wire service that reported the since-corrected story globally still hasn’t retracted it or even mentioned The Diplomat‘s “clarification.” In fact, the original story, without USFK’s denial, is still available online. Sometimes I wonder if journalism is the last unaccountable profession.

UPDATE 4: Some of the links to the army-denies version of the AFP story are starting to come up “page not found.” Well, good, but a correction would be better. Why does it sometimes seem that the media are so reluctant to tell the truth and so quick to retract it, yet so quick to spread falsehoods and so slow to retract them?

UPDATE 5: Since I last posted this morning, David Axe has gone back on the defensive and has reverted to standing by the retracted report. He’s even claiming “victory” because a Pentagon media spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel James Gregory, and another unknown reporter say that Axe transcribed LTG Tolley’s words correctly. That’s interesting, but if it doesn’t quite convince me, it may be because Axe seems a lot more certain of the accuracy of the quote now than he did when he started updating that post. For example, I wonder how certain Axe can really be that BG Tolley really said “we,” as opposed to “we’d.”

Whether Axe transcribed BG Tolley’s words accurately is still only one part of the real question — whether Axe reported the meaning of Tolley’s words accurately. I agree with Paul Woodward:

Sorry, but a report shouldn’t run just because the reporter is confident about the grammatical accuracy of his note-taking. Even if the general said in the present tense that U.S. special forces were being sent into North Korea, this statement demanded some follow-up questions and corroboration. Too often, journalists end up chasing quotes instead of gathering facts.

The story still doesn’t ring true, and the story of the admission of the story doesn’t ring true, either. As the expression goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This entire story was implausible to begin with, and it’s based entirely on an alleged admission that the speaker now denies. It’s a sensational claim, and the language of Axe’s original post tells me that Axe knew that this was “a big deal” when he posted it.

USFK also went too far when it accused Axe of making up the quote. That was a reckless and mean thing to say, and it’s likely that that accusation and Axe’s story are both untrue. The defensiveness of both USFK and Mr. Axe are understandable but disappointing, because they bring us no closer to the truth. If Gregory’s concession is meant to take some of the pressure off of Axe, that’s probably a better way to get Axe to make a concession of his own.

Having said that, I know I make mistakes, too. Axe links to this post in his, in a way that might be read as suggesting that I accused him of fabricating the quote. I hope no one draws that conclusion, because I’ve never believed that Axe fabricated anything. When I put up the original post, Axe had not yet clarified that he was there to hear BG Tolley’s remarks. I considered the possibility that someone had misinformed Axe about what BG Tolley said, but I never suspected Mr. Axe of fabricating; I suspect him of misunderstanding. I don’t expect him to be infallible, and I wouldn’t want anyone to expect that of me. I do expect his most honest reassessment of the evidentiary support for his extraordinary claim. Maybe when his embarrassment subsides, he’ll agree that this was probably just a regrettable misunderstanding. I hope that happens before North Korea decides to use this as a pretext for some terrible act, or before this story is forever engraved in Korea’s rich conspiracy lore. That is, if it’s not already too late.

UPDATE 6, 31 May 2012: I want to direct you to two new posts on this topic: one explains how North Korea will take advantage of this report for its domestic propaganda, and the other explains why the story itself is so technologically theoretical and implausible.

Continue Reading

Another North Korean Vessel Intercepted, Turned Around

In an incident reminiscent of the Kang Nam I incident, a U.S. Navy ship has forced another suspected North Korean arms ship to turn around at sea, rather than face the risk of being searched in port. David Sanger of the New York Times reports:

The most recent episode began after American officials tracked a North Korean cargo ship, the M/V Light, that was believed to have been involved in previous illegal shipments. Suspecting that it was carrying missile components, they dispatched a Navy vessel, the destroyer McCampbell, to track it.

“This case had an interesting wrinkle: the ship was North Korean, but it was flagged in Belize,” one American official said, meaning it was registered in that Central American nation, perhaps to throw off investigators.

But Belize is a member of the Proliferation Security Initiative, an effort begun by President George W. Bush’s administration to sign up countries around the world to interdict suspected unconventional weapons. It is an effort that, like the military and C.I.A. drone programs, Mr. Obama has adopted, and one of the rare areas where he has praised his predecessor.

According to American officials, the authorities in Belize gave permission to the United States to inspect the ship.

On May 26, somewhere south of Shanghai, the McCampbell caught up with the cargo ship and hailed it, asking to board the vessel under the authority given by Belize. Four times, the North Koreans refused.

As in the 2009 case, which involved the North Korean vessel the Kong Nam 1, the White House was unwilling to forcibly board the ship in international waters, fearing a possible firefight and, in the words of one official, a spark “that could ignite the Korean peninsula. Moreover, the Americans did not have definitive proof of what was in the containers — and a mistake would have been embarrassing.

Wait till you read what happened when the White House confronted the Burmese with the evidence.

Various nations have now intercepted multiple North Korean arms shipments since the passage of U.N. Security Council 1874, which prohibits North Korea from selling weapons. In some cases, the cargo was seized; in other cases, because of a loophole in the resolution that prevents the boarding of the ships on the high seas, the shipments were merely turned around and forced to return to North Korea.

June 2009: In the first test of UNSCR 1874’s interdiction provisions, the U.S.S. John S. McCain, Jr. shadows the North Korean Kang Nam I, suspected of carrying arms from North Korea to Burma. The North Korean ship eventually turns around and heads home, reportedly after the Burmese authorities accede to U.S. demands to “search” the ship in port.

August 2009: In an incident that’s never fully explained, Indian authorities search a North Korean ship in their territorial waters after ferry passengers point to the ship’s suspicious behavior. No word on what was found on the ship.

August 2009: The UAE searches several containers aboard a Bahamian-flagged ship that are headed from North Korea to Iran. They containers are filled with rocket-propelled grenades of the same kind that Iran manufactures, but which are perfect for terrorist use in a less traceable form. And as I’m sure most of you have heard, North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. Discuss.

October 2009: South Korea seizes four North Korean containers; no word on what’s inside.

– December 2009: An Soviet-built Il-76 cargo plane makes an emergency landing in Bangkok. Authorities search the plane and find it filled with weapons bound for Iran, including ballistic missile parts and man-portable surface-to-air missiles.

February 2010: South Africa seizes containers filled with tank parts, shipped under a false bill of lading, for one of the warring parties in the civil war in D.R. Congo.

To an extent, North Korea has been able to evade the effect of sanctions by shipping its cargo through China, which turns a blind eye to North Korea’s proliferation whenever it can get away with it. That previously included occasions when suspicious North Korean planes were sitting on the tarmac at Beijing, while Condi Rice was cabling the Chinese government.

For all of the criticism from the Bush Administration’s adventurism, its record of enforcement against the North Koreans was flaccid. Recall that Bush himself allowed the So San to deliver its cargo of missiles to Yemen, even after Spanish marines forcibly boarded it. For all the hyperventilations from future Obama voters about Bush’s supposed unilateralism, he decided to let the shipment go (a) to appease the Yemeni government, which probably was worth something to us, but also (b) because he didn’t have a U.N. resolution authorizing the boarding. The latter defense can’t be offered for his 2007 decision to green-light a shipment of tank parts to Ethiopia, just months after John Bolton pushed through UNSCR 1718. But at least Bolton’s legacy has found new life — ironically, during the Barack Obama Administration. Who’d have guessed?

Continue Reading

Heritage Scholar Calls for Asian Missile Defense Alliance

Bruce Klingner at the Heritage Foundation is proposing an idea whose time has come: a comprehensive, multi-national missile defense system for Asia. Klingner’s argument begins with an explanation of what should be obvious — that diplomacy has failed to disarm North Korea, as China’s own missile arsenal is growing rapidly. The land- and sea-based system Klingner proposes would protect Asian democracies from both North Korea and China, and enhance U.S. national security, as well. Here’s the abstract:

The United States and its allies are at risk of missile attack from a growing number of states and non ­state terrorist organizations. This growing threat is partic ­ularly clear in East Asia, where diplomacy has failed to stop North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them on target, and where China continues the most active nuclear force modernization pro ­gram in the world. To counter these growing threats, the U.S. should work with its allies, including South Korea and Japan, to develop and deploy missile defenses, including ground-based, sea-based, and air-based components.

Read the rest here.

Until recently, only cranks like me could propose things like this, and few would have thought we’d see much interest in this in Asia. As recently as two years ago, Asian nations might have seen good diplomacy with China as a cheaper and equally plausible way to mitigate any security threat from China. Today, all of this is revealed as dangerously wishful by China’s own bullying — its failure to throttle North Korea, its risible claims on the Yellow and South China Seas, and its provocations of skirmishes with Japan. In Washington, there is a sizable Hail Ants crowd that loves to speak admiringly of how Chinese diplomacy, unburdened by the whims of the electorate, takes the long view. I’m really not seeing the evidence for that in recent events. Instead, I see a Chinese political class unburdened of the need for objective analysis, beholden to enforced group-think, and addicted to emotional, bombastic nationalism.

Regular readers know that I’ve long advocated removing U.S. ground forces from Korea, but this is the sort of alliance I could support enthusiastically. Our Asian military alliances are still modeled on the deterrence of Cold War-era threats. They are in dire need of modernization to keep peace in the region until the the political systems of China and North Korea inevitably yield to the demands of the governed and become representative states, living (more or less) at peace with their neighbors. The stand-off capability of U.S. air and naval power will be essential to building a modernized Pacific Area Treaty Organization, and beleaguered Taiwan is the exception that proves just how essential. Its conventional deterrent is declining as it loses is qualitative and quantitative edge, as China’s missile force grows to overwhelming strength, and as U.S. security guarantees to a diplomatically marginalized Taiwan become tenuous. This widening military imbalance raises the risk of Chinese aggression, which is why one day, Taiwan should be invited into this alliance, too.

Continue Reading

North Korea: Sorry We Shelled Your “Human Shields”

You have to admit that it was pretty diabolical of Lee Myung Bak to have planted those human shields in their own villages and homes years before he was even inaugurated. In fact, the two civilians who were actually killed were construction workers on the ROK Marine post, but the given the North’s shelling of civilian neighborhoods, it’s lucky there weren’t a lot more “human shields” killed:



The North really does have a special gift for adding insult to injury. Still, just try to fathom the reaction to this if there had been no North Korean shelling, and a single American shell had gone astray instead.

Separately, the North is also making veiled threats against the U.S. carrier battle group that’s now headed for the Yellow Sea:

“If the U.S. brings its carrier to the West Sea of Korea at last, no one can predict the ensuing consequences,” the report said, using the Korean name for the Yellow Sea.

You know, given what the North has shown itself to be capable recently, I wouldn’t dismiss this as an empty threat. I think the danger of a severe escalation is more grave than even most Washington insiders tend to believe. What if the North tried to torpedo one of our ships? Or actually did? Do you suppose we’re really prepared to respond with a conventional attack? I say this because I see the North’s recent behavior as indicative of economic and political desperation. It may mean, among other things, that Plan B is working, the harvest has failed again, and that the North Korean people detest Kim Jong Eun. Whoever is running North Korea today seems convinced that a limited conventional war is the only thing that can save their grip on power. Especially under these circumstances, I’m not a big believer in shows of conventional force as a response to an actual attack. They put U.S. forces at risk, but their deterrent and punitive effect is questionable. Instead, I prefer the direction President Lee is headed:

The South Korean government plans to retaliate with words as ammunition, believing a military strike would be frowned upon by the international community. Now-former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said on Wednesday at a National Assembly hearing that “a psychological war is ongoing, and we will continue that war but I cannot detail how that will take place. The newly launched plan for propaganda will likely be in the form of fliers, which a government source said “are already printed.

The fliers will be flown into North Korean territory on giant balloons, a tactic that civilian groups have used in the past to send propaganda fliers, usually to tell North Koreans about life in South Korea and appeal to them to leave their country. “[North Korea] will have no idea whether it came from civil groups or the government,” a South Korean government official yesterday told JoongAng Ilbo.

Yeah, at least until it was reported in the Joongang Ilbo and attributed to a government source. This idea is a step up from putting big sign boards along the DMZ. It’s hard to say how many minds can be changed by leaflets, but it may well force a significant redeployment of North Korean army units to collect all of that subversive litter. As a tool of persuasion, however, it has far less potential than the idea of giving the North Korean people cheap international and domestic cell phone service. Let’s hope this is just a first step. Propaganda is never more effective than when it comes from someone you know and believe.

Update: The Joongang Ilbo provides this map of the locations shelled. I ask you, what military purpose could possibly have justified shelling a health center, an inn, or the “History Museum of Croaker?”


Update: Watch this CNN correspondent try to dramatize the “danger” of being caught between the riot police and a bunch of pissed-off right-wing ajjoshis. In most cases, South Korean protests are ritualistic street theater where the risk of injury is no greater than your average pillow fight. At times, however, people do show up with bamboo poles, iron pipes, rocks, and the occasional home-made flamethrower.

The head bands say, “Restore our honor.” Hat tip to a reader.

It’s still hard for me to gauge the general South Korean reaction to this. A large minority demands military escalation today, but their support would waver it if the North upped the ante again. In most places, the Silent Majority fears dramatic policy changes and the perception of government overreach. There is a radical minority of South Koreans, of course, who will excuse everything the North does. Some will grow up, and some won’t, but that has little to do with reality and everything to do with emotion. For most South Koreans, coming to grips with the pathology of North Korea will be a gradual process, and may take longer than the North’s descent into Götterdämmerung.

Continue Reading

On McChrystal and Petraeus

I can’t pass on the chance to say a few things about the firing of General McChrystal. I don’t think President Obama could have not fired him, leaving him in charge of our war effort in state where he clearly lacks the confidence of the President, his cabinet, the people, and quite probably his own soldiers. I knew few soldiers who had strong partisan views, but fewer who held much respect for conduct like this. More than a few must have mentally run through their checklist of the Army Values and realized that the first three are “loyalty,” “duty,” and “respect.” As many others have already said, the military leadership must respect and subordinate itself to the elected political branches. It is of no consequence that you might just agree with the substance of McChrystal’s views about, say, Joe Biden (if I’m guessing right, so does President Obama in his tiny sphere of privacy). The decision to fire McChrystal was an obvious one, and President Obama seems to have done it with about the right combination of force and tact.

The harder question was replacing McChrystal without confusing the command structure or the flow of operations, or suggesting a lack of commitment to the greater effort. Here, the choice of General Petraeus clearly satisfies the latter criterion, and probably both of the former ones.

Here, I marvel at how much this President’s views about Iraq have shifted since he, his Vice President, and his Secretary of State were senators using Petraeus as a campaign foil to please their anti-war base. To President Obama’s eternal credit as a patriot, he abandoned that base in their alternative reality, one in which their desperate quest for defeat does not have consequences for the rest of us. I can’t think of a more cogent statement about the state of matters in Iraq today than the choice of Petraeus as the man who might turn things around in Afghanistan, too. I hope he can do it. This time, we are unburdened of the silly post-hoc arguments that hobbled us in Iraq. This time, there’s no argument that Afghanistan has nothing to do with the security of the United States, no hyperventilation that some long-gone president and his oily cabal fed us all a lie to corner the global rug market. People plotted the murder of 3,000 of us from Afghanistan. They’ll do far worse if we choose to let them.

Still, we should remember that Petraeus’s success in Iraq is also a function of luck. He showed up at the right time. Most societies grow tired of wars after a few years, especially wars fought where they live. War fatigue almost defeated us, but it was probably a very big part of what made conditions right for the Awakening. Still, let’s not take away from Petraeus that he had the the savvy to sense opportunity and exploit it.

Continue Reading

Oh, for F**k’s Sake: Not Another Do-Gooder Congressman Out to Rid the USFK of Juicy Girls

Normally, I actually like Chris Smith, but it’s just plain dumb to go after U.S. service members who, while thousands of miles from home, pursue (a) human nature, and (b) a form of commerce that’s more-or-less openly available to 23 million South Korean men around them:

A bill to create a director of global anti-human trafficking policies in the Department of Defense was introduced Thursday in an effort to better monitor the way the military deals with South Korean “juicy bars” that cater to American troops and have often been linked to prostitution.

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., drafted the bill to create the assistant secretary-level position. The office would “investigate links between trafficking in persons and … members of the Armed Forces and contractors of the department,” according to a copy of the bill Smith’s staff e-mailed to Stars and Stripes. [Stars & Stripes]

First, a point of order: juicy girls aren’t necessarily prostitutes. They are employees of “juicy bars” who charge customers, in some places U.S. military personnel, for the privilege of buying them overpriced drinks (usually colored water or juice) while cuddling with the girls or feeling them up. Some sell sex, some sell it to selected customers only, and some don’t sell it at all. (Hey, a defense attorney has to know these things! This is essential professional knowledge, people!)

And sorry, but with a few isolated exceptions, I simply don’t believe that most “juicy girls” were plying their trades involuntarily (if not always enthusiastically, but that’s not the same thing). If there really is a human trafficking problem in South Korea, just how effective can USFK really be in enforcing the laws against it if the South Korean cops — some of who stations were directly adjacent to some of Seoul’s most notorious red light districts until very recently — won’t?

Or perhaps you’d rather have them all hanging out in Hongdae?

What gives this idea legs (!) is its appeal to a number of constituencies that don’t usually agree on much: religious nannies, feminist nannies, and Koreans of both genders who, for various reasons, can’t stand the idea of American soldiers getting laid in a country that happens to have a multi-billion dollar sex industry that is both illegal and mostly tolerated. And frankly, in a society where prostitution still has broad social acceptance and patronage, wouldn’t it be wiser to legalize and regulate it? I know, you’re going to compare it to the drug thing now, which I’d still argue is not widely accepted and more destructive than a natural bodily function with the added fact that money changes hands, though I personally disapprove if one of the persons is married or carries an STD (so regulate it!).

Sure, juicy girls are a waste of money, money that usually just pays for a lot of frustration and gets a lot of soldiers Article 15’s for bouncing checks. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve talked soldiers out of marrying juicy girls as an Army defense attorney. But then, if keeping soldiers from getting screwed — financially speaking — was our primary concern, why not start by shutting down the casino at Walker Hill and taking the slot machines out of the on-post MWR facilities?

Continue Reading

Rumor: U.S., China Planning for “Upheaval” in N. Korea

The United States Thursday denied reports that it will soon have closed-door discussions with South Korea and China on plans for upheaval in North Korea.

“I have not been told we are going to have this type of meeting at this particular point,” a senior State Department official said, asking not to be named. “If we are working on that in sort of an early stage, that could be possible.” [Yonhap]

Normally, I’d be tempted to believe this because they denied it, but in this case, I’m tempted to believe it because they really didn’t deny it.

Reports said that representatives of the U.S. Pacific Command and state-run defense think tanks of South Korea and China will get together in Beijing next month to discuss control of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction and refugees in case of a coup or the sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

This is one area where diplomacy with China is urgent, necessary, and maybe even promising. It’s in our interests to help Koreans realize their dream of living in one country and learning to hate each other as only neighbors and relatives can.

Continue Reading

North Korea Re-Re-Declares War, Threatens “Merciless Physical Force,” Demands Peace Treaty

So Operations Key Resolve and Foal Eagle have started again. I boldly predict that this year, as has been the case for each year for the many decades we’ve had troops stationed in South Korea, the exercise will not end with an American invasion of North Korea. Just as predictably, North Korea is threatening the United States and/or South Korea. The challenge for North Korean propagandists is always how to make each year’s threat stand out from such previous-year classics as “sea of fire.” After all, you can only say “brigandish,” “imperialist,” and “merciless” so many times before people start to suspect you’re writing your missives with pre-printed refrigerator magnets.

The North’s military warned Sunday that it would bolster its nuclear capability and break off dialogue with the U.S. in response to the drills. It also said it would use unspecified “merciless physical force” to cope with them, saying it is no longer bound by the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. [AP]

“The revolutionary armed forces of (North Korea) will be left with no option but to exercise merciless physical force as the rival is set to do harm to the (North),” the military’s mission at the truce village of Panmunjom said in a statement carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea has escalated its threats against South Korea and the U.S. over the planned drills. Last week, the North vowed to strengthen its nuclear deterrent and its means of delivery — an apparent reference to missiles. Last month, the North also threatened a “powerful” — even nuclear — attack if the drills go ahead. [AP]

Also, because any excuse will do, North Korea is telling us yet again that it’s not going to disarm:

North Korea said Sunday it would no longer move forward with nuclear disarmament in response to a planned U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise. The announcement was made by the official Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA.

“The maneuvers clearly indicate once again that the U.S. and the South Korean authorities are the harassers of peace and warmongers keen to bring a war to this land,” the statement said. [CNN]

President Obama decided not to restore North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism on February 3, 2010. President Bush removed North Korea from the list on October 11, 2008 as a reward for its “progress” toward nuclear disarmament. Discuss among yourselves.

“The process for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula will naturally come to a standstill,” the North’s official KCNA news agency quoted a senior military official as saying.

“It is illogical to sit face to face with the dialogue partner, who brings dark clouds of a nuclear war while leveling its gun at the other party, and discuss ‘peace’ and ‘cooperation’ with him,” the official was quoted as saying. [Reuters]

I aligned the picture right so you wouldn't confuse him with Adam GadahnAnd they had been doing so well until now! If only we could all just get along. If only we had another Agreed Framework:

The North has been demanding a peace treaty with the U.S. and even made it a major condition for its returning to the six-party nuclear disarmament talks. [….] On the face of it, it’s a very easy decision to make,” John Feffer, the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a Washington-based think tank, told The Korea Times. The proposition also appears commonsense because the U.S. and North Korea have not exchanged any significant gunfire since 1953.

Some observers correctly say that it’s because U.S. negotiators see granting a peace treaty to the ill-behaving North as a “reward.” But a deeper and even ultimate diagnosis may be that it’s because the U.S. actually cannot afford to give it to North Korea. And the problem lies with its domestic political situation, according to Feffer.

“U.S. law stipulates that a peace treaty must obtain two-thirds of the votes in the Senate. The problem is that there are a number of Senators, mostly Republican, who are not willing to sign a peace treaty with North Korea. This domestic consideration has to be taken into account,” said Feffer, adding that this is the “real reason” the U.S. administration is unwilling to offer a peace pact. [Korea Times, Sunny Lee]

And here I was, prepared to hold Barack Obama responsible for the fact that the people in Pyongyang who tell the KCNA guys what to write who hate us, only to see John Feffer elucidate why the stuff that KCNA says is actually all the Republicans’ fault. But then, Feffer’s unique talent is the capacity to construct an argument that everything that happens in Korea — Kim Jong Il starving North Koreans, Kim Jong Il testing nukes, Kim Jong Il breaking promises, Kim Jong Il threatening the neighbors — is somehow America’s fault. In some circles, this unique gift is confused with intelligence.

Note to Sunny Lee: couldn’t you find anyone to go on record and express a view that isn’t the exclusive dominion of the lunatic fringe? Now fasten your seat belts, because we’re about to cross over to an alternative universe:

In a survey last year by Rasmussen, a U.S. polling organization, North Korea topped the list of countries that American voters see as the biggest national security threat. A Gallup poll in February showed that the view hasn’t changed. The North again topped the list of countries, together with Iran, in “critical threats to the U.S. vital interests.”

The results show the predominantly negative perceptions the American public have toward North Korea. And given that their view on the North, not the U.S. administration, may be the ultimate decider on whether a peace treaty should be signed, Pyongyang is at a critical disadvantage.

In its peace treaty demand, North Korea may have neglected this factor. It’s important for the secretive state to have “winning negotiations” with U.S. nuclear envoys, but behind them are lawmakers, and behind them the general public, who ultimately influences U.S. negotiations.

“There is a tendency in the U.S. that sees a peace treaty with North Korea as somehow a concession,” said Feffer. “That’s why it has been so difficult to push the issue forward domestically.”

Perhaps, it’s time for North Korea to engage in a charm offensive of public diplomacy to earn the hearts and minds of Americans first to see progress on its demand.

I suppose it violates the Feffer Principle to imply that Kim Jong Il modify his behavior — or even that he has the free will to do so — but I would humbly suggest that a minimally effective “charm offensive” might begin with Kim Jong Il announcing a moratorium on declarations of war, nuke and missile tests, public executions, threats against the neighbors, illegal arms shipments and technology transfers to shadowy regimes, and the refusal of international food aid for starving people. Maybe he could even show some sincerity by closing down his death camps. Any one of those things would go a lot further to dispel our hegemonic misconceptions than any of Feffer’s intricate constructs of brittle logic.

Update: Well, this is just lovely:

he North’s People’s Army issued a statement Monday, warning the drills created a tense situation and that its troops are “fully ready” to “blow up” the allies once the order is issued. The North also put all its soldiers and reservists on high alert to “mercilessly crush the aggressors” should they encroach upon the North’s territory even slightly, said the statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. [AP, via Fox]

Continue Reading

Were the Taliban Casing Yongsan?

By what unhappy accident did the muses of Seoul’s urban planning put a large mosque with a significant population of Pakistani fundamentalists in its congregation smack-dab on top of Hooker Hill? Walking through Itaewon shortly after 9/11 and shortly before my DEROS date, watching chitrali hats and shalwar kamiz coexist uneasily with spandex mini-dresses, Dimple scotch, and crowded nightclubs frequented by U.S. military personnel, I confess to having thought: it’s just a matter of when.

A Pakistani man who claims to be a member of the Taliban has been arrested for passing through South Korea 17 times on a fake passport, police said Friday, revealing problems with the country’s immigration control ahead of a summit of the world’s 20 major economies in November, according to Yonhap News. [….]

“He entered Korea with his own passport in 2001 and stayed through June 2003. He confessed that he was asked by Taliban leaders to collect information about the U.S. military bases in Korea,” an office with the Seoul police said. [Korea Herald]

The 31 year-old man entered Korea under the false pretense of being a religious leader of “a local mosque in Korea.” This isn’t the first report of Taliban and other al-Qaeda-linked groups operating in South Korea, either. This is from 2008:

A total of 74 foreigners were arrested or expelled by the National Intelligence Service over last five years in 19 terror-related cases, on charges of plotting attacks, goading anti-American sentiment and spying on the U.S. Forces Korea, according to classified documents released Sunday. Some of them allegedly had connections to al-Qaeda. “We obtained secret information that some Muslim extremists planned an attack on U.S. Army bases in Korea, so we expelled the people related to the plot,” an NIS official said. [….]

According to the NIS report, eight members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a Southeast Asian militant Islamic organization, were expelled from Korea after a plot to attack foreign embassies in Korea had been discovered in Oct. 2004.

Expelled, mind you, not waterboarded — and if the tales told to me by Army CID or fellow prosecutors are at least partially true, that would mean these guys got off lighter than suspected drug dealers in the hands of the Korean National Police.

Recently, the NIS has arrested a number of people involved in illegal foreign exchange transactions and drug smuggling linked to the Taliban. In Feb. 2007, 10 South Asians were arrested over illegal foreign exchange transactions worth W40 billion in collaboration with a global hawala or informal money remittance network. In May, four Arabs were arrested for smuggling in drugs from Afghanistan linked to the Taliban. In July, two Arabs were arrested trying to supply the Taliban with acetic anhydride, a key material for heroin manufacture, via Korea. [Chosun Ilbo]

Aside from putting most of Hooker Hill — and the awful King Club in particular — off limits, I’m not sure how one mitigates this risk consistent with the principles of basic human equality, and generally not punishing whole groups for the actions of a repellent few. Besides which, if you shut down one club, the soldiers will overcrowd some other place. Curfews will work to some extent, but I suspect this risk will exist as long as Seoul is full of American soldiers.

Another dangerous facet of these reports is that if North Korea wanted to hit Americans in South Korea, reports like these offer the North Koreans plausible deniability.

Continue Reading

Equality Begins Where Dependence Ends

South Korea, which spent the better part of the last two decades bitching that it wanted to be treated like America’s equal, has been bitching ever since the Pentagon decided that Korea was just about ready to take over wartime operational control of its own military, you know … for its own defense. Needless to say, and largely as a result of having served in the USFK myself for four years, I’m neither as sympathetic nor as diplomatic as our C.G.:

“We are still responsible to come and help defend this great country,” Army Gen. Walter Sharp said. “And what I’m going to do is to take this year and educate the folks of South Korea as to what these transitions mean.”

Some South Koreans also worry another change the U.S. is making–extending typical troop assignments to up to three years and allowing more personnel to bring their families with them–will lead to a reduction in the roughly 28,000 U.S. troops currently stationed there. Both changes began several years ago after prolonged negotiations between Seoul and Washington. But they have been opposed by many South Koreans, including conservative politicians and military retirees who say any changes will leave the country vulnerable to attack by North Korea. [WSJ, Evan Ramstad]

I give up. They don’t want us to bring our families, but they don’t want young, single soldiers chasing “their” women in Hongdae, either. (For the record, when I was in Korea, there was also a widely violated general order against sex in the barracks; also, I preferred the more bookish girls in Shin’chon and Suktae, but that’s another story).

Maybe the ROK Defense Ministry would be willing to hire scantily clad greeters to drape each incoming American soldier with a floral lei and present him with a monogrammed bottle of personal lubricant. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan of putting more American civilians inside Nodong range, either.

Continue Reading

Happy Veterans’ Day

Sure, I could link to a sappy YouTube tribute, but my weakness for empirical data gets the best of me in my weaker moments, so I decided to link to the latest Brookings Iraq Index instead. If you’re like me, you also look forward to the day when Iraqis are banning GI’s from their booking clubs, protesting the SOFA, and bitching about the high price the Americans are charging for the biofuels that began to edge gasoline aside in 2015 and transformed Saudi Arabia into a blighted, dusty place that survives by sending its daughters off to work as maids in the Philippines.

Then it occurred to me that there’s no rule against following a batch of empirical data with a nice, sappy video:

Oh beautiful, for heroes proved through liberating strife
Who more than selves their country loved,
And mercy more than life

With my deepest appreciation to my fellow vets for an abundance of peace and prosperity we’re all free to take for granted.

Update: At least most of us.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 8