Posts Tagged ‘North Korea’

Faking democracy

May 13, 2019

Kings used to rule everywhere by “divine right.” It was unquestioned. “Democracy” wasn’t even a thing. But in modern times it has acquired such universal moral force that even the most tyrannical regimes feel they must give it lip service. As in “The Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea.” It takes no fewer than three liberal-sounding words to lipstick that pig. They even pretend to “vote” in “elections.”

Is this progress of a sort? Well, at least “divine right” rulers were honest about it. Now, dictators are perfecting the art of faking democracy.

I’ve written recently how Venezuela’s regime practices democratic theater to create a potemkin fiction of popular sovereignty.

Then there’s Turkey. I’d warned that by electing Erdogan president, and then voting him untrammeled powers, they’d politically disembowel themselves. They did it anyway (probably helped by regime ballot rigging).

Yet in March elections, an opposition candidate somehow managed to narrowly win Istanbul’s mayoralty. Erdogan cried foul, claiming vote fraud — with a straight face. Then the regime-controlled electoral authority simply annulled the result, scheduling a revote (whose outcome, observers say, Erdogan will not leave to chance). The legal pretext for this usurpation was transparently phony. Meantime, in numerous other cities, elected opposition mayors have simply been kicked out, and the runners-up installed.

All this Erdogan — still with a straight face — calls a triumph of democracy.

Then there’s Thailand. In 2011, I wrote a post titled “Democracy wins in Thailand.” It was a resounding vote against anti-democratic pro-royalty, pro-military forces. But in 2014 the army stomped in and seized power. Then came the obligatory charade of a “transition” back to “democracy,” with a new constitution blatantly stacked to keep the military chief in power. The army would even appoint the entire upper house of parliament.

The Thai king since 1946, Bhumibol, was revered to excess, supposedly above politics but giving free reign to anti-democratic palace and military intriguers, including 2014’s putschists. But he was literally uncriticizable by grace of a draconian “lese majeste” law, useful for jailing anyone, for any words construable as unflattering toward the monarchy. Bhumibol died in 2018, succeeded by Vajiralongkorn, a vile arrogant self-indulgent creep even more in bed with the military rulers.*

They’ve finally held an “election” under the new constitution, and despite every possible trick to hamstring opponents and rig the result, the military still failed to gin up a parliamentary majority. Or so it seemed — until the electoral authority simply changed the opaque formula for allocating seats, and hence the outcome. For good measure, the leader of one of the biggest opposition parties has been thrown in jail on ludicrous charges.

Then there’s America. Trump has shown his contempt for democracy. In 2016 he said he’d accept the election result only if he won. Now he thinks Congress’s subpoenas for documents and for testimony by administration officials can be simply ignored. If this is rewarded with his re-election, that will be a big step down the road toward joining Venezuela, Turkey, and Thailand, in their sham of “democracy.”

* My setting foot in Thailand would risk imprisonment for those words. Seriously. An Australian writer made that mistake. (His book had reportedly sold one copy.)

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A Nobel for Trump?

May 3, 2018

Some credit Trump’s bluster with getting Kim Jong Un to negotiate (hence the Nobel Prize chatter). Or did Kim, instead, see Trump’s behavior as creating an opportunity, to be exploited?

He is not crazy. He sees how hungry Trump is to claim some supposed triumph. Kim is canny enough to do what will achieve his own aims without actually paying a price.

So far, he isn’t paying any. Smiles and hugs are nice but don’t cost anything and don’t really mean anything. He’s decommissioned (he says) a testing facility that was no longer functional, or needed. He’s already got working nuclear weapons and missiles.

And won’t give them up. Qadafy gave up his, and Kim saw Qadafy’s fate — killed by a mob.

Trump says he won’t be played. But he’s already been played. A photogenic meeting with America’s president is a huge propaganda coup, boosting Kim’s status and legitimacy. Price paid: zero.

The two will emerge from their meeting all smiles and hugs. North Korea will be our new BFF — just the kind of country and leader (a cold-blooded murderer) the dotard dotes on.

Kim will agree to disarm. But agreeing, and disarming, are different things. North Korea had previously agreed to disarm, in exchange for goodies and concessions, which they pocketed, and then reneged on their promises. (Our negotiating stance should be to insist on the disarmament they already owe us.) What else will Trump give Kim in exchange for more worthless promises?

A deal worth having cannot come from one meeting. It would require a complex web of safeguards to ensure that disarmament commitments are honored. Will Trump have the preparation, patience, depth of knowledge and understanding, and deference to expert assistance, to negotiate such nitty-gritty? Don’t make me laugh.

In fact, that very kind of nuke deal was what we had with Iran — painstakingly negotiated over years — which Trump is now set to blow up.

He calls it a bad deal. Throwing around such words is his shtick. He’s said the same about NAFTA, the TPP, and Paris Accords. Those too were painstakingly negotiated by people knowing what they were doing — not with irresponsible rhetoric like Trump’s. NAFTA did hurt some Americans — as the TPP would have — but the benefits vastly dwarf the harm. But in Trumpland such facts and realities don’t matter. Just repeat “bad deal, bad deal, bad deal,” everybody but Trump was stupid. And his fans lap up these lies. (While his North Korea deal will be a bad one. Because he is stupid.)

Of course, the Iran deal mainly suffers from having Obama’s fingerprints. A guiding animus of Trump’s presidency is shitting on Obama’s.

Killing the Iran deal will be one of the stupidest things ever. “Bad deal,” Trump says, but can he replace it with a better one? No chance (just like “repeal and replace” re Obamacare). The problem with the Iran deal is that it still enables Iran to get nuclear weapons — eventually. But absent the deal, Iran can get them sooner.* Hastening the very thing Trump says he won’t allow.

If the Iranians were really smart they’d play Trump like Kim Jong Un is doing — renegotiate something Trump can claim is better, even if it’s actually not. But Iran’s leadership (unlike North Korea’s) is too disorganized for that.

And if we cannot get a better deal, what is the alternative? Bombing? It would literally blow up the region, in massive conflict, without damaging Iran’s nuclear program much (but maybe the real aim would be to distract from the Mueller investigation).

Meantime, shredding the Iran deal will also shred America’s credibility as a negotiating partner whose commitments can be relied upon, and our relationships with our chief allies, who are heavily invested in the deal. Further reducing America’s international standing and ability to shape the global landscape, making a more dangerous world.

Sorry, Donald, no Nobel Peace Prize for you. Maybe they can create a Nobel Booby Prize.

*Israel’s intelligence “coup” proving Iran lied in denying nuclear ambitions changes nothing. We knew Iran was going for a bomb. Why else the agreement?

The Orphan Master’s Son

August 12, 2013

You know those dystopian portrayals of imaginary future societies (1984, Soylent Green, etc.), dark and creepy. Adam Johnson’s Unknown-3novel The Orphan Master’s Son is like that. From the start, the societal setting is like nothing we can recognize. But it’s not imaginary. It’s North Korea.

This is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read.

First we meet Jun Do (John Doe), who starts in an orphanage. That’s pretty grim in most places, but North Korea makes horrors elsewhere look like a walk in the park. Jun Do is not actually an orphan; his father runs the place (hence the title). Or so Jun Do believes. What people believe is not always true; especially in North Korea.

The adult Jun Do gets on a kidnapping team, grabbing Japanese off beaches, for conscription as language teachers and so on. But these are mainly practice runs for the headline mission of nabbing a Japanese opera singer, fancied by a higher-up. Jun Do earns brownie points by not only bringing her back, but also a team member who’d tried to abscond into Japan.

15beah-img-articleInlineThen he gets English training, and assigned on a fishing boat to covertly eavesdrop on radio traffic. His next gig is accompanying a diplomatic mission to Texas. And then he’s sent straight to a prison mine – North Korea is a fickle mistress. No reason for his fall is given; but anyone who’s seen Texas would probably be considered compromised. Even though initially at least, Planet Texas was so alien to Jun Do’s experience that he couldn’t properly process what he saw there, through his North Korean colored glasses.

Though this is fiction, in general the author aims to portray North Korea accurately. The kidnapping program, for example, was factual. It seems to have stopped, but no victims have been freed. North Korea did allow five to visit Japan with an agreement they’d be sent back. But Japan refused to return them to captivity. North Korea provided death certificates for eight further abductees, but later admitted they were fakes.

Unknown-2If anything, Johnson pulls some punches – malnutrition and outright starvation loom large in North Korea, but not in the more privileged echelons of most characters in the book, so the reader may not get the full picture.

On the other hand, there are some apparently fictional touches. One chilling detail is Wonsan, a beach resort where oldsters go to retire. Supposedly. But parents gone to Wonsan never write their children; Jun Do passed it on the fishing boat and saw no umbrellas or beach chairs. Some limited googling failed to confirm any such “retirement” scheme. The Wonsan beach resort exists, but apparently not for elderly commoners, who do continue living in North Korea. (I was going to add, “if you call it living;” but human beings have an immense capacity for adapting to circumstances.)

images-1Another issue concerns the portrayal of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il as a character. The Times’s reviewer criticized his depiction as a “merry prankster.” Certainly it’s not a fully rounded portrait. However, given that Kim presided over and directed the horror-show otherwise described, his seeming insouciance in the book, to me, made him all the more sinister.

The book’s depiction of the nightmare of the prison camps and mines, based on much solid information we have, is all too realistic. They are death camps. End of story for the Jun Do character.

So now we meet a new one: Commander Ga. A taekwondo master, he gained fame by beating a Japanese champion (and not defecting); also for purging North Korea’s army of homosexuals (don’t ask what became of them). Ga’s reward was marriage to the nation’s leading actress, Sun Moon (a favorite of the Dear Leader), and a cushy post as minister of prison mines. UnknownHis exalted status even exempts him from having to kiss Dear Leader’s ass. But as for other male asses . . . .

So on an inspection tour of a prison mine, down in a tunnel, he attempts a “man-attack” (as it’s phrased). But the inmate targeted not only resists, he manages to get Ga in a choke-hold, and next thing you know he’s in Ga’s uniform, out the gate, into Ga’s car, and is driven home to Sun Moon. Who basically accepts this switcheroo. As does even Dear Leader. (Each has reasons.)

Now, sometimes fiction calls for a “suspension of disbelief” – a literary term of art, meaning that for the sake of the plot you must accept things that may strain credulity. It’s voluntary of course. Here the strain skirts the breaking point. But so powerful was the book otherwise, I went along.

The new “Commander Ga” (yes, it’s our old friend) already had Sun Moon’s picture tattooed over his heart. The eventual consummation of his relationship with her was one of the funnier sex scenes I’ve read, it being North Koreanized. But by now, both of them are fully alive to the vile reality behind the country’s pervasive happy-talk brainwashing. Ga conceives a plan to get Sun Moon and her children, if not himself too, out of the country.

The book has many other characters and twists, but more of the plot I shouldn’t divulge. However (hint), I will mention one other character, who is an interrogator. There are two kinds. The “Pubyok” use brutal, direct methods. imagesOur character’s “Division 42” disdains that, preferring a more intellectualized approach. Sort of a good cop/bad cop thing. However, Division 42 does utilize the “autopilot,” a diabolical electrical apparatus (apparently another of those author embellishments). Yet Johnson manages to portray this guy sympathetically, more or less. He even winds up a hero. More or less. And what that “heroism” entails provides the final word in bleak commentary on North Korea’s society.

To read this book, ensconced in my comfy chair, in my beautiful home inhabited by my lovely wife and daughter, with whom I enjoy honest relationships, in our wonderful free and prosperous country, gave me juxtapositional goosebumps.

I’ve written before on what to do about North Korea. This is not just another garden variety dictatorship. The other concerned powers refrain from doing anything that would actually undermine the Kim regime, fearing a huge costly mess to clean up. Unknown-1Yes, it would be bloody. But the price of avoidance is to perpetuate the suffering of millions, suffering we can scarcely grasp, for generation upon generation. I say bite the bullet.