Geopolitics

North Korea Brinksmanship And My Pyongyang Memories

Watching the latest missile news in Pyongyang in June
Watching the latest missile news in Pyongyang in June

In May 1999, I visited North Korea. I was based at the time in Beijing as a correspondent for a Slovenian newspaper, and it was impossible not to visit the country that had aroused so many questions and offered so few answers. One just needed to see the place. So I did. I joined a hypocritical game: I used my Chinese contacts to deal with the other side, added some money, and provided a letter that said I was researching revolutionary art, a cover to facilitate my contact as he would never be able to issue a visa to a journalist. As I said, it was a hypocritical game, my passport and a Chinese visa within it evidence that I was head of a Slovenian news organization in Beijing. They never noticed.

I remember the excitement preparing for the trip. It was similar to when I was a small kid and my father and older brother were making preparations to climb the highest mountain in Slovenia. That summer our house was full of expectations, of clothes and equipment I never saw before. Going to North Korea was the opposite. Before I got to the airport, I dropped my cell phone and address book; I took only a limited amount of money, no books, just empty notebooks, and pencils, while I went carefully through my clothes, respecting the instructions from my Chinese friend about what to wear and what to say.

Looking back, the impact of Pyongyang was similar to what I experienced many years later when I saw the first episode of the Game of Thrones. It was surreal, of unknown iconography, sounds, and smell. I did not know where I was and standing alone in front of the police control, the entrance to the kingdom of the darkness, I realized that I did not have anything on me. No contact name, no passport (I'd had to give it away on the airplane), no nothing. What if… the thought flashed before me when the two guys waved to the policemen, pointing at me. They were my security, my interpreter, and behind the little airport building the driver, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, was sleeping in an old Volvo. I got through.

We drove toward the city, stopped by many roadblocks where the military treated my three companions badly. We made it. We entered Pyongyang at the same arch where the young commander and later leader Kim Il-sung entered during the liberation war. We then went to offer flowers and bow to the statues of the two Kims and ended in the stadium to watch the acrobatics. It was me and about 15,000 young soldiers, all in their brown uniforms, undernourished and bold. They were kids. I had no interest in watching what was going on onstage, I was watching the audience. We only stayed about half an hour, long enough for the authorities to inspect my modest luggage and belongings.

I passed the test. I did not get scared or paranoid, I called on all my experience from the period I spent in totalitarian China, and all of a sudden, North Korea became a child's game. It actually was an art, the biggest and most thorough art installation I ever saw. It would have been impossible to take it seriously if not for the sadness and the silence of the place, with people constantly walking in one direction. Not strolling but walking, since North Korea in 1999 was still short of public transportation. Or even bicycles.

One gesture of tenderness

The impression was that all the people were walking towards an execution, a precipice, with their heads bowed down, in order to avoid any possible eye contact. In one week of traveling north and south of the country with all my guards, I only saw one little gesture of human tenderness. It was on the bridge near my hotel when a mother in the afternoon light caressed the head of her small son who was tagging along behind her. All the rest – beyond the general loneliness, lethargy, and silence – was a performance art installation, in the form of a regime.

In 1999, North Korea started to make its first steps out of a long period of famine that killed millions of people and left many more undernourished. It was the horrific period during which North Korea received a lot of international humanitarian aid, while its new leader, Kim Jong-il, was developing a taste for good French wines and even ordered an Italian "pizzaiolo" to his court. The Kim dynasty's passion for good food and wine seems to be rooted deeply –now in its third generation of power – paralleled only by the family's ever increasing appetite for nuclear weapons.

During his six years in power, Kim Jong-un has already managed to surpass his father in nuclear tests. The young Kim's regime also successfully developed the ICBM technology that turned many American cities into potential nuclear targets. The reaction to what seems to be the steady and linear North Korean strategy is a confused and incoherent response from Washington. As it is, the State Department says that the US does not seek a regime change in North Korea, but just a day later the CIA director comes along and drops heavy hints that taking out the country's leader is the goal. In addition, Business Insider writes, "when Donald Trump lopsidedly focuses on ‘fire and fury" toward North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have laid out the US's comprehensive approach to dealing with the country."

So how will this dangerous game play out in today's world, a much more fragile one than during the Cuban missile crisis?

Despite the deep ideological divide between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the two sides had the code of knowledge to understanding each other. The Diplomat recently raised the question of whether the North Korean nuclear crisis erodes the so-called nuclear taboo: "Conversely, the threat of preventive military strikes against North Korea and the Trump administration's willingness to accept nuclear war as an outcome undermines both nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo simultaneously and independent of their relationship to one another. Implying that current U.S. nuclear posture cannot deter Kim Jong-un and that the nuclear taboo is not credible enough to contain irrational behavior weakens the credibility of both and makes them less effective in preventing nuclear conflict."

In other words, we have to realize that nuclear deterrence and the nuclear taboo are social constructs — a shared assumption about political and military realities — and as such can only contribute to strategic stability (i.e. peace) if there is a consensus that they are real. Trump's talk of preventive war is gradually undermining this shared assumption influencing the U.S.-North Korea nuclear relationship by denying the effectiveness of the two social constructs underpinning it. This is a very dangerous development indeed.

The absence of these two restraining influences will embolden North Korea to maintain its aggressive nuclear posture vis-à-vis the United States and its regional allies increasing the risk of accidental nuclear war. It could also force the United States to adopt more aggressive and unorthodox methods to try to influence North Korean behavior. This could leave the United States not only in the position of a less credible nuclear power in a face off with its chief nuclear competitors, China and Russia but also raises the prospects of nuclear war across the board.

The existence of an American plan for destroying North Korea goes in a similar direction and presents a serious nuclear threat, the potential destruction of our planet. As Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the Korean peninsula, pointed out: "There are good reasons why military strikes have come to be seen as a prohibitively risky option. Most likely, the North Koreans will react to a sudden attack against their military facilities and/or centers of command with a counterstrike against Greater Seoul, a metropolis with a population of 24 million people. Such a strike is nearly certain to result in a second Korean War, a massive land war in Asia, which is currently seen by the U.S. military planners and political leaders as a true nightmare."

The secretive regime is not irrational.

What Lankov proposes is "managing" the North Korean nuclear program. "Instead of chasing an impossible and unachievable goal of a non-nuclear North Korea, the U.S. and other interested parties should quietly switch to a less pleasant, but realistically achievable goal: North Korea with a small and stable nuclear arsenal. "We are talking about an imperfect compromise. The North Koreans will likely cheat," he writes.

Can this be a realistic plan? Lankov, who is one of the most accurate observers of North Korea, a decade ago suggested not to follow the tactics of blackmail coming from Pyongyang. Instead, Lankov was advocating to let Kim's regime implode. The situation has changed since we now have a North Korea that is much different from what I saw in 1999. Lankov is the only observer who points out what the others have not yet seen: the North Korean economy is booming and with 3,8% growth in the year 2016.

This is happening regardless of the sanctions in place and, as the expert says, offers other possibilities of regime changes in Pyongyang. In other words, Washington should consider other options before it implements the dangerous preemptive strike tactic on the regime in Pyongyang. The secretive regime is not irrational, but its leader, if endangered, might go ballistic. In the same way, an American president might lose it, going further off the rails than ever anticipated. Perhaps someone should explain to him that a bomb is not a tweet, a tweet is not a bomb.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ