North Korea nukes, again
May 24, 2009 10:46 PM   Subscribe

North Korea has confirmed that it has performed another nuclear test. Soth Korea measurements say it was magnitude 4.5, compared to 3.6 for the last one. USGS says 4.7 this time. Last year, Joe Biden said that within months of his inauguration, hostile foreign powers would attempt to test Obama. Looks like he was right.
posted by Chocolate Pickle (102 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not a whole lot different than the "testing" they did of the last administration.
posted by jeblis at 10:58 PM on May 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


If only we had a more hawkish president to scare them into civilized behavior...
posted by yeloson at 11:07 PM on May 24, 2009 [7 favorites]


FFFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUU....
posted by Effigy2000 at 11:10 PM on May 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


They also appear to have done more missile testing at the same time.
One might think this had more to do with the suicide of South Korea's last president Roh, and how this has affected the political situation there regarding the new president's more cofrontational stance on foreign relations.
If one were of the opinion that North Korea does anything for any reason other than having the crazy turned up to 11 all the time.
posted by nightchrome at 11:13 PM on May 24, 2009


Lose the poxy editorial. Ta.
posted by pompomtom at 11:39 PM on May 24, 2009


I'm not sure how to react to this news. On one hand it worries be that atomic weapons are still being utilized, but on the other I wonder how much of a threat the North Korea's bombs pose. How powerful was this most recently detonated bomb, as compared to those dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki? I would be surprised if North Korea's atomic weapons program was even that sophisticated. Not to mention it seems they lack a delivery system. As I understand it, North Korea lacks the technology for ICBMs, but what's stopped them from sticking in a plane and flying it wherever they want?
posted by arcolz at 11:41 PM on May 24, 2009


The great strategic problem of the Korean peninsula is that Seoul lies within artillery range of the border (about 30 miles south of the DMZ). Just about any low-tech delivery method will suffice to put a nuke on Seoul with no warning whatsoever.

It's not North Korea nuking the U.S. or Japan that's as worrisome as nukes being used in the opening moments of renewed north/south hostilities.
posted by fatbird at 11:50 PM on May 24, 2009


arcolz: the most important difference between a plane and an ICBM is that the plane is a lot easier to shoot down.
posted by aubilenon at 11:55 PM on May 24, 2009


Looks like you're right, nightcrome. ABC News Australia has listed under it's breaking news banner "North Korea has test-fired a short-range missile, media reports say."

Gulp.
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:01 AM on May 25, 2009


On one hand it worries be that atomic weapons are still being utilized, but on the other I wonder how much of a threat the North Korea's bombs pose.

North Korea is a crazy guy standing on a bridge, threatening to jump off. This is extremely inconvenient for all the commuters.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:09 AM on May 25, 2009 [19 favorites]


Came home for lunch, KBS was on the TV, my wife said they'd done another test a couple hours earlier. I'm about as far from the test site as you can get and still be on the Korean peninsula, but all I thought was 'well, I hope the prevailing winds are blowing north today.'

I have a batshit-insane acquaintance here who swore to me last month that he was psychic (news to me, but he's been getting progressively odder as time goes by) and was having visions of Seoul in a lake of fire circa October/November.

We shall see, I guess.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:12 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


How skilled are wonderchickens at pushing dudes off bridges onto partially inflated mattresses? Do you accept payment for services rendered in fluffy kittens?
posted by b1tr0t at 12:15 AM on May 25, 2009


I wonder how much of a threat the North Korea's bombs pose.

Keep in mind, this is the country that kidnapped Japanese nationals to teach Japanese to their spies. Later, they apologized, but still... kidnapped?

We shall see, I guess.

Do you have a link to a version that doesn't scroll at an annoyingly slow pace?
posted by fatbird at 12:17 AM on May 25, 2009


Do you have a link to a version that doesn't scroll at an annoyingly slow pace?

Nope. That's Young-hae Chang's schtick.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:20 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much of a threat the North Korea's bombs pose

North Korea's first bomb had a yield of 0.5kt, so small that initially there were suggestions the explosion was a conventional one. It was most likely a fizzle, in which the nuclear chain reaction fails at some stage due to poor design/construction.

This second bomb is alleged to have a yield somewhere around 20kt, which puts it in the Hiroshima ballpark. It's not particularly large when compared to modern multi-megaton thermonuclear weapons, but it does suggest that they've mastered the construction of a nuclear weapon and that they are able to obtain sufficient high-quality highly enriched fuel.
posted by alby at 12:25 AM on May 25, 2009


"I wonder how much of a threat the North Korea's bombs pose?"

Your questions answered.
posted by Effigy2000 at 12:28 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


this I do not believe. The north koreans should have been invaded years ago. Even China would have helped us do the job and then they would have begged South Korea to have the country. China knows North Korea has no options, but it would be politically sensitive to its own people if they acted alone because they would most fatefully acknowledge the death of the communist international.
posted by parmanparman at 12:32 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not that I'm excited by this news, but I'm also not all that worried living here in sunny, balmy Seoul. Countries that are still trying to develop nukes (DPRK, Iran) or that have done so recently (Pakistan) do it for completely rational reasons -- the US (or India, in the case of Pakistan) doesn't directly fuck with countries that have nuclear capability. It's the best form of insurance against a Bush Doctrine/pre-emptive invasion out there.

So yes, the DPRK's regime is batshitinsane in many ways. But wanting nukes? Perfectly reasonable and rational. Just ask Iraq ca. 2003.
posted by bardic at 12:50 AM on May 25, 2009 [13 favorites]


If one were of the opinion that North Korea does anything for any reason other than having the crazy turned up to 11 all the time.

There's very very little crazy happening, in my opinion, a least in terms of the way they deal with the rest of us. The regime is fucking nutty in terms of their ideology and leader-worship and repression of their own people and stuff, hell they're pure evil, as close as we get to it in these relativist times, but. For many years they have played and continue to play America and the ROK (and the rest of the disunited nations) like a fiddle.

The key to the puzzle is understanding a few things: that they never, ever act in good faith, that 'negotiation' for them is entirely about what they can get, that they understand that the grip on power of Dear Leader (or more accurately the military leadership that continues to prop him up) is completely dependent on a total hardline, and even that is time-limited, because when he karks it (and he's close, by all reports), his weak-sauce progeny are going to be mighty hard to elevate to the ridiculous (to us) demigod heights he inherited from his father, Kim Il Sung. They're aware the clock is ticking, and I reckon that they really don't have any real belief that the DPRK as it has been since the Korean war is long for this world, but that they do want to keep playing it out at least until they die. Then the chips can fall as they may.

They also understand that they'd be crushed like bugs in a real shooting war, pretty quickly, no matter how much damage they'd do to the South in the initial volleys, and despite the fact they've got about 2.5 times the number of active-duty soldiers compared to the South with half the population. Their great hope, I think, in terms of doing as much damage as possible if hostilities were to break out, is that China would line up behind them (less likely all the time, but if China and America were facing off again over the peninsula in actual hostilities, China might see it as a situation where they wouldn't lose anything by trying to take Taiwan, which the Americans are pledged to support, and the whole region would be in the shit), with the Americans et al supporting the South again.

I think that Kim Jong Il's stroke a while back has got the military there both on the ascendant in terms of decision making and shit-scared that when he dies, the whole leader-worship structure that has been built up over the last 40+ years will come crashing down, with nobody but themselves to keep it lashed together.

I think they see themselves progressively painted into a smaller and smaller corner, and that could well turn into an increasingly dangerous state of affairs.

On the other hand, the NORKs consistently and repeatedly pull grand dramatic shit like this when they see an advantage and they want to press it to gain concessions from the international community. With Roh Moo Hyun committing suicide two days ago and much turmoil and anti-government feeling at the moment in the South (the current rightish administration is being widely blamed for hounding the poor old bastard to death for compromising his lofty ideals while he was President), with a new US administration in place dealing with a host of major domestic problems and not yet able to withdraw over-extended troops from Iraq and elsewhere, I think this is probably just more of the same brinksmanship bet-the-farm grandstanding that they always do.

how much of a threat

Very little for folks over there across the Pacific. A whole lot more if you're actually here in Korea. I might actually be a little nervous if I lived in Seoul. But I have been before, and nothing came of it. But when Kim Jong Il finally buys it, the bastard, all bets are off, and the flag could go up mighty quick.

Whoops. That turned out mighty long.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:56 AM on May 25, 2009 [44 favorites]


Honey it's time to move. The neighbours are testing their damn nuclear weapons again.
posted by gomichild at 1:16 AM on May 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Meh. I'd be more worried if I lived in Tokyo. For realsies.
posted by bardic at 1:35 AM on May 25, 2009


bardic: Meh. I'd be more worried if I lived in Tokyo. For realsies.

Eh, North Korea has no reasonable way of getting a nuke to Tokyo. Their missile program was a pretty dismal failure and I'm not sure their missiles could even transport a large, low-tech nuke - ICBMs are pretty sophisticated technology. I'm not even sure South Korea is in any real danger from the nuke itself - launching primitive missiles takes time and is obvious, and nobody will let them do it as a first strike maneuver. If a war ever starts, North Korea's airstrips and launch facilities will be one of the first things to go, probably within 48 hours.

I'd be more worried about it starting hostilities in general. The most likely possibility seems to be that that North Korea will either sell the device or the materials, someone will blow something up, it'll get traced back to North Korea, whoever got nuked will attack them, and they'll bomb Seoul as a sort of last gesture of bastardry.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:45 AM on May 25, 2009


The north koreans should have been invaded years ago. Even China would have helped us do the job...

Really? We lost Vietnam in the court of public opinion, but we more or less officially surrendered in Korea. China was ready to put all it had behind North Korea, and once that became apparent the game was over.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:05 AM on May 25, 2009


Meh. I'd be more worried if I lived in Tokyo. For realsies.

Well, if things turn into a shooting war, even for a day or two, it's not the nukes, if there actually any that are deployable, that'll flatten Seoul, it's the tens of thousands of conventional mortars and bombs aimed at it already from across the DMZ. Other cities in Korea don't need to worry as much, because as Mitrovarr notes, the DPRK's missiles are pretty much crap.

If it were to happen, and even if it were a 48-hour last-gasp, balls-to-the-wall paroxysm as the DPRK collapsed before they got shut down, we'd be saying goodbye to Seoul.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:07 AM on May 25, 2009


I wonder: is the DPRK mind control of the Imperial Japanese or the East German flavour? Once the whole thing falls apart, do the North Koreans run for the Sanyo and LG products, or do the sleeper agents begin their terror campaign?

Seoul, AP, June 2033 - A man believed to be one of the last true believers in the DPRK has been coaxed from his tunnel beneath the former DMZ. He refused to defuse his primitive nuclear mine until his former commander entered the tunnel, with newspapers and other documentary evidence proving the death of Kim Il Sung and the unification of Korea, some 25 years ago.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:51 AM on May 25, 2009


oops, Kim Jong Il that is
posted by Meatbomb at 2:52 AM on May 25, 2009


Once the whole thing falls apart, do the North Koreans run for the Sanyo and LG products, or do the sleeper agents begin their terror campaign?

Both and more, I think. It's going to be utter chaos, but it'll be interesting, that's for sure.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:35 AM on May 25, 2009


What are the chances of that place turning into a 'Myanmar' when Kim kicks the bucket? Seems like the top-level military people would want to maintain power (of course), but do they really need a next generation 'Fearless Leader' in place, or could they just set up a military government?

If that turned out to be possible, then this thing could drag on for generations yet, as we see down there in Myanmar, with no resolution visible, even on a distant horizon.
posted by woodblock100 at 3:54 AM on May 25, 2009


I think it comes down to a 'who knows', but for my part, I reckon that it's a very Korean thing, this Maximum Leader stuff, and a military junta won't be able to inspire the same sort of mindset, even they continue to push people's faces into the mud. I think the dynastic thing really is a keystone that keeps the whole nasty edifice standing. If it ends up being a deflation rather than a dislocation event, once the cracks begin to show and it becomes clearer and clearer just how bad ordinary people have it compared to their richer cousins down here in the south, nothing will stop the dam from bursting, I don't think. Rapid, transformative change has been the hallmark of Korea for the last 60 years, after the 30+ years of Japanese occupation ended the sleepy backwards hermitry of the Choseon Dynasty and itself ended with war and partition.

Since then, though, and still today: the country changes at a rate of knots, all around you, all the time. It's one of the reasons I continue to live here after all these years. It's never boring.

Just me talking, but I reckon once it starts in the North, for whatever reason, it's going to fall apart quickly.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:13 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


But you could easily turn this argument over and say well, it's been 60 years and the DPRK is arguably doing well on its own (highly bizarre and repugnant) terms, perhaps better than ever before. They're a player on the world stage in a way that Kim Il-sung might only have dreamed of, and they're quite clearly doing it without much help from China or (obviously) the USSR.

To paraphrase Bruce Cumings, South Koreans and Americans have been underestimating North Korea since forever.

Obviously my crystal ball is as good as any other, but I do know that when people start predicting the inevitable (hurf-durf) fall of the North Korean regime, then we've probably got at least another two to three decades left of it.
posted by bardic at 4:45 AM on May 25, 2009


North Korea is a crazy guy standing on a bridge, threatening to jump off. This is extremely inconvenient for all the commuters.

Yeah, except Seoul is the one unfortunate commuter upon which the crazy guy will land, and kill. There is no military solution that doesn't include the demolition of Seoul, and Stavros is right in that the real danger is all the conventional weapons aimed at Seoul. That has had the practical effect of acting like a one off nuke for the past few decades.
posted by caddis at 5:08 AM on May 25, 2009


It's worth remembering that the DPRK doesn't need nukes to destroy Seoul. It has so much artillery it could destroy it by conventional means. In fact it could destroy South Korea by opening the border. The nukes have other uses. Or so I have read, anyway.
posted by WPW at 5:16 AM on May 25, 2009


I've been curious as to why, if South Korea has known the dangers to Seoul for such a long time due to their proximity to North Korean hostilities, South Korea has continued to centralize everything in Seoul instead of working on distancing themselves. I'm in South Korea now, and it seems, and most say, that everything revolves around Seoul. Perhaps Busan is the backup?
posted by Knigel at 5:19 AM on May 25, 2009


Surely though, the North Koreans think of themselves as 'Koreans', and of the South Koreans as 'family who got a bit off on the wrong path, and should be brought back into the fold.' I can't see how dropping a nuke on Seoul fits in with this.

Those people (both sides of the 38th) have their real hate-on for the country across the Japan Sea. Drop a nuke on Tokyo? That one I could understand. You'd be a hero/martyr in Korean history for evermore ...
posted by woodblock100 at 5:26 AM on May 25, 2009


"It has so much artillery it could destroy it by conventional means."

It'd basically be a race between DPRK artillery (which may or may not be of dubious quality after sitting for so many decades) and ROKA/US airpower's ability to neutralize the pieces as quickly as possible. And this is of course contingent on how good the latter's intelligence is. This stuff has been gamed hundreds of times over (if the Air Force guys I sometimes play poker with are to be believed, and I think they are).

Believe me, I'm no optimist. There would be a horrible number of civilian casualties if a conventional war broke out here, and I'm well aware that there's probably a bunch of stuff that the ROKA/US forces aren't fully aware of. But still, flattening a city takes more than lots of tubes filled with shells. You need fire control, you need intelligence, and you need lines of communication to stay open for at least a little while. (I'd imagine those would be the highest priority targets.)

If North Korea has a viable nuke, it's been built for the US, not for South Korea. It's insurance against an invasion. And not to sound too friendly to the maniacs running North Korea, but can you really blame them for wanting that type of insurance?
posted by bardic at 5:30 AM on May 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


"South Korea has continued to centralize everything in Seoul instead of working on distancing themselves"

There's a movement underway to relocate more of the South Korean government/bureaucracy to Daejon further south.

But hey, according to many South Koreans you'd be crazy to live that far from Seoul. (Joking, just a little.)
posted by bardic at 5:34 AM on May 25, 2009


I've been curious as to why, if South Korea has known the dangers to Seoul for such a long time due to their proximity to North Korean hostilities, South Korea has continued to centralize everything in Seoul instead of working on distancing themselves.

I don't know, but I imagine the costs of such a strategy wuld far outweigh any potential benefits, and a resumed war woud be an all-encompassing national disaster for both countries, so the benefits would really be minimal. Not to mention the fact that the North would be acting in character to interpret such a move as unreservedly hostile. Contingency plans must be in place, but we humans also have a striking ability toput risk from our minds if we're exposed to it for long enough. I mean, Los Angeles isn't in an ideal place for a city but everone there mostly gets on with life without being paralysed by fear about earthquakes/wildfires/killer drought.
posted by WPW at 5:35 AM on May 25, 2009


I don't understand how Kim Jong Il can be labelled a power hungry egomaniac when any strike on ROK would be instant suicide. Not gonna happen.
posted by gman at 5:36 AM on May 25, 2009


Bardic, I'm sure you're right. I'm extemporising here, I don't have any special knowledge of the situation and I don't want to come across like one of those internet characters who thinks he's Henry Kissinger because he read two-thirds of an Economist piece five years ago.
posted by WPW at 5:38 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've been curious as to why, if South Korea has known the dangers to Seoul for such a long time due to their proximity to North Korean hostilities, South Korea has continued to centralize everything in Seoul instead of working on distancing themselves.

I'm not sure if this went ahead, but Seoul was planning to move the capital.
posted by gman at 5:38 AM on May 25, 2009


What interests me about this test, more than any direct indications it has for relations between the West, China, Russia and North Korea, is how the response to this event will instruct Tehran. Iran is said to have financed North Korea's April 2009 missile test. They are known to have observed the launch, and to have had on-going cooperation on nuclear technology with North Korea, for years. Iran is putting forth more and more foreign aid and spending in efforts to counterbalance U.S. efforts to control events in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.

The Obama administration is no doubt being tested by this, perhaps as much by Tehran as by Pyongyang. Perhaps such events can catalyze a more effective U.S. policy than we have so far seen from the Obama administration.
posted by paulsc at 6:01 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Aren't the Chinese going to get sick of this crazy uncle in the attic one of these days? Supporting N. Korea in a shooting war would be economic suicide for them right now, and the current regime, while not Democratic, seems to be pretty capitalistic, with all domestic their efforts being geared towards modernization and an economic restructuring. I just can't see what China would gain from supporting them, and wonder why they haven't bothered with shutting them down, yet. It seems like an iron-clad Chinese blockade along the border would do the trick.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:14 AM on May 25, 2009


paulsc's "catalyze a more effective U.S. policy" toward Iran link is really interesting and worth reading in full:

Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department. Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an “engagement with pressure” strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views — and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, “an offer we can’t accept,” simply to gain international support for coercive action.

Understandably, given that much of Mr. Obama’s national security team doesn’t share his vision of rapprochement with Iran, America’s overall policy is incoherent....

To fix our Iran policy, the president would have to commit not to use force to change the borders or the form of government of the Islamic Republic. He would also have to accept that Iran will continue enriching uranium, and that the only realistic potential resolution to the nuclear issue would leave Iran in effect like Japan — a nation with an increasingly sophisticated nuclear fuel-cycle program that is carefully safeguarded to manage proliferation risks. Additionally, the president would have to accept that Iran’s relationships with Hamas and Hezbollah will continue, and be willing to work with Tehran to integrate these groups into lasting settlements of the Middle East’s core political conflicts.

posted by mediareport at 6:31 AM on May 25, 2009


But you could easily turn this argument over and say well, it's been 60 years and the DPRK is arguably doing well on its own (highly bizarre and repugnant) terms, perhaps better than ever before. They're a player on the world stage in a way that Kim Il-sung might only have dreamed of, and they're quite clearly doing it without much help from China or (obviously) the USSR.

No, no you really can't, if you are informed at all. The crazy shouty guy smeared with his own feces bellowing on the streetcorner about how he's the king of the fucking world gets lots of attention, but there aren't many people who are seriously going to suggest he's 'successful on his own terms'. The DPRK is that guy, except he's armed.

'Juche' nonsense aside, and contrary to what you suggest about doing it without help, without China (with the ROK, the largest food aid donor until couple of months ago and a major donor of fuel oil) and Russia and of course South Korea, America and others providing aid, well, in addition to a couple of million people (10% of the population at maximum estimates) dieing of famine ten years ago, the regime might have fallen as well. The morality of denying food aid to help topple a regime is a thorny question, though, despite the fact that the Bush administration predictably did so, especially when it is debatable whether much or any of the food aid gets distributed to the people who need it, rather than being sequestered for the leadership and the army.

The DPRK was the rich half of the country when partition happened almost 60 years ago, with all the industry. The south was a bunch of shit-hammered rice farmers, and nobody expected it to survive. The situation is neatly reversed now. Even with handouts from their direst enemies, they can't feed their people. They can't make a fucking multistage missile that works, even if they seem to have a nuke (thanks to plans and advice from the foreigners again (see paulsc's link above), even more severely undermining the Juche ideology). The average height of their adult population is 8cm less than that of their cousins to the south, in two generations. There is no metric that, even internally, they could apply that points to anything remotely like success. Attention? No, I don't think that's going to do it for them.

Kim Il Sung, that wily old fucker, he had some dreams all right. They didn't come true, though, and his dearest principles have been compromised for expediency by his jerkoff son as the country he turned into a crucible of horrors crumbles in slow motion.

It'd be funny if it weren't so deadly serious.

So, sorry, I've got to disagree with you again, there, bardic, on pretty much every point.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:31 AM on May 25, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh, except that having nukes is a deterrent to having America get all up in your national face. I'd agree with that, but it's pretty much self-evident, isn't it?

The fact that the international community let things get to this point is shameful.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:35 AM on May 25, 2009


Aren't the Chinese going to get sick of this crazy uncle in the attic one of these days?

No. If NK falls apart, they get a lot of refugees streaming into their country. And China looks better if there's a country crazier than them around. Plus it's probably entertaining for them to watch the rest of the world tied in knots over North Korea.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:50 AM on May 25, 2009


North Korea is playing as Terrans then.

Terran vs. Terran Strategy
Protoss vs. Terran Strategy
Zerg vs. Terran Stategy

Personally, I thinks Nukes are a waste of time and minerals/vespene, I'd go mass BCs, but that's me.
posted by Scoo at 6:51 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


I reckon that it's a very Korean thing, this Maximum Leader stuff,

Has there ever been anything comparable in the south, or in the whole before it was divided? (I know next to nothing about Korean history.)
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on May 25, 2009


The North Koreans aren't insane or unpredictable. They just have a different reality from the rest of us. They aren't like Stalin, they are more like that other guy who wrote it all down in Mein Kampf. And it's not hard to get into their minds - they have also written down all of their ideas, and helpfully put it online translated into English so that even a bored undergrad could read it. (That would be my husband, whose rants are informing this post).

Also, this isn't about testing Obama. I mean, to North Koreans, it's really hard to tell you Americans apart - you all look alike. This is about forestalling the inevitable American invasion of North Korea - which is the number one American goal - and the enslavement of the North Korean people. I mean, the election of Obama was probably all about North Korea, as far as Pyongyang is concerned.
posted by jb at 7:17 AM on May 25, 2009 [3 favorites]


Mitrovarr: Eh, North Korea has no reasonable way of getting a nuke to Tokyo. "

Except for something like a boat.
posted by jefeweiss at 7:18 AM on May 25, 2009


["asians talk like this" comments go directly to metatalk, please don't do that here, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:29 AM on May 25, 2009



Mitrovarr: Eh, North Korea has no reasonable way of getting a nuke to Tokyo. "

Except for something like a boat.



Yeah, North Korea is good at the spy game. If I had to bet on any nation planting a weapon overseas, it would be them.
posted by The Whelk at 7:45 AM on May 25, 2009


You have an interesting friend there stavros. I hope he's just hallucinating his visions.

Young-hae's vision don't account for the Chinese and Japanese, who would also swarm into to protect whatever remained of Seoul. (I think that the Chinese actually would sit out the fight as long as they could afford to, but Japan's been preparing for this scenario for years. The DPRK's the only reason they can justify their military spending.)

Overall, I agree with you - whenever the beloved leader dies, all bets are off.
posted by blahblah at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2009


The really interesting thing is the apparent silence from China.

Do they see DPRK as a potential wild card? A convenient distraction for the West? Do they have any concern about a potential conflagration? Or would a war simply be a useful way to extend power, nukes or not? And, as mentioned above, the issue with Taiwan hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the whole thing.
posted by Xoebe at 7:52 AM on May 25, 2009


North Korea doesn't have much in the way of export industry. They've made some money by exporting cash: they're big into counterfeiting US $100 bills. They've been involved in processing heroin.

But their big cash cow has been weapons exports. They've been selling SCUDs, for example.

If they have the ability to produce nukes, selling them could be an extremely profitable business. First in line to buy? Probably Syria.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:55 AM on May 25, 2009


The fact that the international community let things get to this point is shameful.

Not sure what they could have done about it. Not really sure what the international community is. Mostly a bunch of Kitty Genovese standbyers often as not.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:11 AM on May 25, 2009


I had a buddy who was stationed in Seoul for 2 years. He came back to the States with a lovely wife. His job? To drive in a blacked out HUM-V with a "plugger", a GPS type map thingy, and map out multiple options and routes for the evacuation of US Military Personnel from the DMZ to the coast.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2009


Since Saddam was killed and Kim Il wasn't, the message should be clear for every "rouge state":

Get A-Bombs ASAP!

Under these circumstances it is a very rational decision for Iran to get the bomb.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:03 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Christ this is tiresome. We all know what's going to happen - more posturing, more stern warnings, threats of denial of aid and/or cuts in aid, then talks, then some modicum of cooperation in return for more aid. North Korea striking first would be their absolute annihilation, and anyone else striking North Korea first would be Seoul's flattening. I'm with gman on this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:04 AM on May 25, 2009


I still doubt North Korea's ability to use this in any military capacity, even slinging it across the border in an artillery shell would assume that they can control detonation well enough outside a lab. And it would assume they could get their contraption into an artillery shell, which is no small feat. That's not to say they couldn't get it on a small fishing boat and ram it into Tokyo Bay. I downloaded War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, which is surprisingly good, especially the later segments.

The ball is really in China's court, I wonder what benefit they have in propping up this unstable nation. If China cut off trade, I doubt you'd see a massive assault on South Korea, more like the world's worst refugee crisis as various generals try to vie for legitimacy.

For some reason I suspect that China has a quid pro quo with Kim, they prop him up and his death China releases a pre-recorded, lay down your arms by their leader, or something like that. Probably not the prettiest way to go about it, but would go a long way in explaining why they continue to help this mess.
posted by geoff. at 9:11 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The ball is really in China's court, I wonder what benefit they have in propping up this unstable nation.

peace and tranquility - my guess is that they don't want to provoke them into doing something crazy and don't want to undertake the messy process of regime change themselves - they also don't want to see them collapse

the current status costs them little and the risks fall on others
posted by pyramid termite at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2009


The main thing China is afraid of is a huge flow of refugees across their border. There's already been a lot of that, and it's a real problem. If things get worse in NK, or if there's a war, or any other negative change to the status quo, the flow of refugees will get immeasurably worse.

The Chinese leadership has also been using the NK situation as a diplomatic lever to try to gain concessions from the US regarding Taiwan. During the Clinton and Bush administrations that didn't work; American support for Taiwan remained strong. But given the kind of rhetoric they've been hearing from Obama (what with his notorious "World Apology Tour"), the Chinese leadership may think there's a chance of getting Obama to sell Taiwan out.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:10 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


The really interesting thing is the apparent silence from China.

Googling "China condemns North Korea" yields many results.

Mostly a bunch of Kitty Genovese standbyers often as not

There's a lot of myths in the Kitty Genovese story.

There are several factors going on with North Korea, such as internal struggles with change and who will succeed Kim-Jong-il (probably his third son), the new President in South Korea, who has promised to be much tougher than the previous president, who actually met with Jong, the global recession making things tighter for everyone, and the Obama Administration and comments by Secretary of State Clinton. The best defense is an offense and as long as everyone is thinking "Will they or won't use the bomb" then North Korea probably thinks they're doing something right.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:25 AM on May 25, 2009


China has also been particularly critical of North Korea's inability to contain refugees streaming into China, or people travelling back and forth across the Amnok River - even after China erected a fence along their border. They might view North Korea as some kind of buffer between them and South Korea, but their relationship has been pretty chilly lately.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:29 AM on May 25, 2009


North Korea has confirmed that it has performed another nuclear test.

Look, people... how do you expect them to be safe for everyone if they don't test them first? Imagine how much harm could be caused if they ever exploded all wrong!

This seems very responsible of Dear Leader.
posted by rokusan at 10:40 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


In 20 years, the question to the Jeopardy answer of "Japan" might be:

"The first and only country to be independently nuked by two other countries".
posted by blue_beetle at 10:54 AM on May 25, 2009


jefeweiss: Except for something like a boat.

I suspect we're watching the North Korean coastline pretty closely and any vessel which tried to sail from there into Japan would be intercepted. Anyways, I'm not sure what North Korea has to gain by setting off a nuclear weapon in Tokyo except for immediate and complete destruction.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:39 AM on May 25, 2009


Why is this such a big deal? Who are they going to bomb? No really- don't say Japan or S Korea, are they going to commit suicide by using nukes on another nation? All nukes are bad news but N Korea is sick nation surrounded by a enemies, and unless they're ready to roll over and give up then they won't use em.
What is this other than flexing?
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:51 AM on May 25, 2009




Eh, North Korea has no reasonable way of getting a nuke to Tokyo.

Submarine. They've used subs to put raiding teams ashore to capture Japanese citizens. I imagine they could put a sub in a harbor too if they put their mind to it.
posted by zippy at 12:15 PM on May 25, 2009


zippy: Submarine. They've used subs to put raiding teams ashore to capture Japanese citizens. I imagine they could put a sub in a harbor too if they put their mind to it.

Hmm. I wonder if we're watching for them now? Seems like something that could easily be prevented with subs guarding the Japanese coastline.

It's also worth noting that a weak nuclear weapon burst on the ground or at sea level is not going to be city-wide devastation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't actually destroyed, just damaged, and you lose a lot by having the nuke on the ground. Plus, by most accounts, this weapon is 1/4 the power of those. It would be a really scary terrorist attack, not the destruction of Tokyo, and they could probably do more damage and kill more people by cutting loose on Seoul.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:41 PM on May 25, 2009


This weapon is approximately the same power as the Nagasaki bomb, on the order of 20 Kt. If it were set off in Tokyo harbor, the damage would be dreadful.

What does North Korea gain from having nuclear weapons? Two things. One is deterrence. The other is leverage for extortion.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:57 PM on May 25, 2009


The second-worst thing about a ground explosion is fallout. Maybe not such a problem for Tokyo, but if they got creative I'm sure a hypothetical North Korean ship or submarine could place their bomb in such way as to cause a maximum amount of terror and radiation sickness in the Japanese population. And the terror would be even worse if other subs (or the threat of subs) were still lurking out there. Bombs could still be delivered long after the North Korean command was obliterated.

But the real danger of a nuclear capable North Korea is that they might sell their weapons, as paulsc and others have stated. Heck, they don't even have to sell the primitive bombs - just the plutonium would be bad enough.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:17 PM on May 25, 2009


This weapon is approximately the same power as the Nagasaki bomb, on the order of 20 Kt. If it were set off in Tokyo harbor, the damage would be dreadful.

Looking at googlemaps, if you set off a 15-20kt bomb in the middle of Tokyo harbor the blast and thermal damage on shore would be negligible.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:50 PM on May 25, 2009


What kind of 'test' is this for Prez Obama? He wouldn't even have to declare war if we invaded - The Korean War, er, police action, never ended.

I tried to find some North Korean perspective on this, but it looks like they haven't updated since the 22nd. They probably took a long weekend for Memorial Day. That was thoughtful.

However, they have some great articles up!....

Natural Toothpaste with Special Remedial Result

U.S. Invariable Ambition for World Domination Flayed

Kim Il Sung Praised

Whoever they have translating the articles into English should get an extra ration of wheat liquor! The writing is fantastic. Many poems and words of songs created(!)
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 4:48 PM on May 25, 2009


There's a lot of myths in the Kitty Genovese story.

If you say so. But those myths are still good short hand for my point.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:06 PM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stavros, check your condescension at the door. By your own admission, the DPRK has played the international community like a fiddle for generations now. Cumings is one among a few scholars who has argued that simply pointing a finger at the North and calling them koo-koo crazy actually plays a hand in this sort of myopia. Yes, the DPRK relies to a large extent on food aid, but you over-estimate how much help they're getting from China these days, who would probably prefer that the regime somehow disappear into the night. Also, you can't judge the DPRK on the terms of "success" that a Western nation would. Well, obviously you can, but you'd be missing the point entirely, as you have.

As I mentioned above, and as you failed to seriously acknowledge, North Korea has been severely misunderstood and underestimated since its establishment. This isn't an endorsement of their policies by any means, just a statement of fact. And a much more serious one than your insightful analysis of "OMG Kora is all changey and stuff North Korea will fall soon."
posted by bardic at 5:16 PM on May 25, 2009


err, Kora = Korea
posted by bardic at 5:16 PM on May 25, 2009


I have to amend my earlier statement as pointed out to me by one of my conservative friends. There is a military solution that does not require the demolition of Seoul. There might be some carryover and it is best employed when the winds are blowing north, like for a few decades. Open up a few silos and flatten everything, starting with that array of weapons poised at Seoul. You know, NK (DPRK oh please) is a puny little country and one or two missles with mirvs would eliminate the whole place. Another couple lobbed into Iran would reinforce the message to all these rouges that talking back has consequences. I think my friend is bloated on Kool Aid, yet he has lots of people who agree. What could go wrong? Well he won't listen. I am glad he isn't holding the nuclear keys.
posted by caddis at 6:03 PM on May 25, 2009


Caddis, your friend is full of it. Most of the artillery facing Seoul is underground in reinforced concrete bunkers. Nuking that mountain might take out some of it, but a large percentage would still be functional.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:22 PM on May 25, 2009


Do North Koreans have a particular fondness for red cosmetics? I'm so confused.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:25 PM on May 25, 2009


Nuking that mountain might take out some of it, but a large percentage would still be functional.

Presuming the bay doors can be opened.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:54 PM on May 25, 2009


HAL can do that.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:18 PM on May 25, 2009


"Looking at googlemaps, if you set off a 15-20kt bomb in the middle of Tokyo harbor the blast and thermal damage on shore would be negligible."

Ya, you'd have to cozy up to one of the shorelines. There must be at least a couple high value/high population targets within 500m of the shore line.

The world wide over reaction to such a bombing would make 9/11 look like a walk in the park.
posted by Mitheral at 10:02 PM on May 25, 2009


Stavros, check your condescension at the door.

No condescension involved. What, I can't think you're wrong?

By coincidence, I'm rereading Bruce Cumings' Korea's Place In the Sun for the third time at the moment. It's one of the more approachable works on Korea, along with Michael Breen's The Koreans, which I prefer, because it's just better-written. I find it hard to place overmuch faith in a man who can't even accurately quote Mel Brooks (page 75).

As I mentioned above, and as you failed to seriously acknowledge, North Korea has been severely misunderstood and underestimated since its establishment.


The blindingly obvious needs little acknowlegedment. Besides, I don't and haven't disagreed.

This isn't an endorsement of their policies by any means, just a statement of fact. And a much more serious one than your insightful analysis of "OMG Kora is all changey and stuff North Korea will fall soon."

Ooh-hoo, who's being condescending now, pardner?

But since you seem to have started it, and you're reading me that way anyway, I feel I'm obligated to a response in kind: I will say that after 13 years since I first arrived here, I'm far from an expert on the country. What I do find tiresome, though, is the legions of foreign kindy-teachers who've been here for 8 or 14 months and are suddenly and magically transformed into learned historians and Korean Kultural Kritics. You're welcome to your opinions, of course, but when you are either factually wrong or stating the equivalent of 'water is wet', I feel like it's a reasonable thing to point it out.

Has there ever been anything comparable in the south, or in the whole before it was divided? (I know next to nothing about Korean history.)

Yeah, very very much so, IndigoJones. Partition's only been a matter of 60 years or so, but you can go right back to the late 14th century, to the beginning of the Choseon Dynasty, when what was an essentially very egalitarian and relatively open society for the time and the region was deliberately overlaid with strong hierarchical neo-Confucian ideals that, among other things, strongly curtailed the roles of women. I often wonder what Korea would have been like today without those Confucian scholars trying to out-Chinese the Chinese and make themselves the outpost of civilization when the Ming Dynasty fell and the Manchu incursions began.

But the neo-Confucian hierarchical (more properly, interconnected, as I talked a bit about here, way back when) organization of society continued to become more ingrained for the subsequent 500+ years, until the Japanese invaded early in the last century and the last Dynasty ended, but most assuredly since, as well.

The kind of slavish devotion to leaders is pretty deeply baked-in. It crops up throughout the society in the south, and it's been taken to a logical extreme in the North. One of the most obvious manifestations of it in the south is the way in which the chaebol -- Samsung, LG, Daewoo and all the rest, the megacompanies that literally own the country and the politicians in it, for the most part -- leadership is family-based, and handed down like hereditary royalty passes the crown. I sometimes joke with Korean friends, when the DPRK comes up, by asking them what they biggest chaebol in Korea is, and they usually answer 'Samsung'. I suggest that it's North Korea, and much hilarity ensues. OK, not really, but hey, I try at least.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:04 PM on May 25, 2009


"I'm far from an expert on the country."

Obviously.

"the legions of foreign kindy-teachers who've been here for 8 or 14 months and are suddenly and magically transformed into learned historians and Korean Kultural Kritics."

Uh-huh. Better I just didn't read anything about the country before I came over and bowed down to your own self-professed ignorance on all issues, historical, cultural, and otherwise.

"You're welcome to your opinions, of course, but when you are either factually wrong or stating the equivalent of 'water is wet', I feel like it's a reasonable thing to point it out."

What was I factually wrong about? I offered the opinion, one shared by an author who you obviously admire to some extent, that the West's problem with the DPRK is that it has always under-estimated the regime. It's a miserable, despotic regime, but one that is doing pretty well re: being a major player in world politics despite its horrendous economy. You came back over the top at me as if I was somehow endorsing the regime, which I obviously wasn't.

Back off.
posted by bardic at 10:43 PM on May 25, 2009


You came back over the top at me as if I was somehow endorsing the regime, which I obviously wasn't.

Phhtt. After half a dozen of your disclaimers, I don't think that particular misunderstanding was happening.

What was I factually wrong about?

Well, this, at least: "they're quite clearly doing it without much help from China or (obviously) the USSR"

Better I just didn't read anything about the country before I came over and bowed down to your own self-professed ignorance on all issues, historical, cultural, and otherwise.

Oh, I'm not claiming to be ignorant. Far from it. I am saying that much as I've been able to learn, I am very much aware that the mountain is high and I am still in the foothills after all this time. But it's good that you read something about Korea before you came -- that's more than most do.

Back off.

You first, Internet Tough Guy! :P

Look, whatever. Condescension was not intended off the get-go. I was not 'coming over the top' at you -- far from it. Apologies. I get annoyed (not specifically at you) when it seems to me that the fog of misconception about the Koreas, either of them, is getting thicker rather than thinner. It seemed to me that was happening.

Oh, and as far as Cumings goes, he has often been criticized as a DPRK apologist (and often by rightwing shouters, it must be said), with at least some justification, it would seem. I am not bothered by his perceived anti-American stance at all, but I do have doubts about his even-handedness. His work is interesting, and a good entry into Korea studies in general, but it's a reasonable idea to take it with a grain of salt.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:10 PM on May 25, 2009


Stavros, the part of your comment that raised my eyebrows was that you were claiming the DPRK was not successful on its own terms with reference to food aid, famine, poverty etc.

Certainly if we are taking the medium-term view and comparing how the DPRK has matched up to Kim Il Sung's promises of a socialist utopia with how other nations have fared in living up to their own post-war rhetoric, then the North has indeed failed badly. (Although that's by scoring 1/100 compared to 15/100 for the West imo, so it's not a great measure for anyone.)

However, I understood that the 'success' that was being talked about upthread was in terms of the current goals of the state: the preservation at all costs of the leadership. Stating the obvious, Kim Il Sung ruled for almost 50 years and like him, his son will most likely die in his bed as leader of the world's only remaining totalitarian communist regime. Those are the terms on which it has succeeded and famine doesn't seem to have much relevance to that success, except in that people pulling bark off trees are too weak to form an effective opposition.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 11:47 PM on May 25, 2009


However, I understood that the 'success' that was being talked about upthread was in terms of the current goals of the state: the preservation at all costs of the leadership.

Sure, Busy Old Fool, I'd totally agree that in that very narrow scope -- the 'staying in power' tickbox -- they (well, the Kims and the military) have been successful beyond all expectations. But it is a very narrow scope.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:05 AM on May 26, 2009


But it is a very narrow scope.

Indeed. And that such a narrow goal is so paramount, hugely more important than feeding the people, is yet another illustration of the regime's evil.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 12:34 AM on May 26, 2009


"they're quite clearly doing it without much help from China or (obviously) the USSR"

China is giving far less aid to North Korea than they were in say, I dunno, 1950-1953. And if you read Cumings more closely you'd know that one of his major points is that Soviet/Chinese support for the regime was always highly exaggerated for the reason of keeping the "Communist Menace" on the front pages of American and South Korean newspapers, rather than talking about the realities of crucial splits between Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongang, some of which go back to even before the end of WWII.

Cumings' point on the DPRK (I agree he's strikingly "pro" North Korean, or better yet sympathetic, if only because he has a nuanced understanding that you don't) is that we're better off judging the success of the regime on their own terms rather than that of Western values like access to food, education, and health-care in order to understand that regime and what keeps it ticking. It isn't mutually exclusive to say the DPRK is a horrible place and that it's been highly successful at a) staying in existence against all odds and b) continuing to scare the shit out of the civilized world through much more than being plain crazy. This isn't about endorsing or vilifying the regime, it's about trying to understand why it's still there.

The fact that at this late a date we're even talking about the North Korean regime and the threat they pose to advanced neighbors like South Korea, China, and Japan kind of makes the point painfully obvious to everyone in the room but you.

I mean c'mon, there's tons of wank-tastic right-winger historians who have a very different approach to looking at North Korea. You happened to agree with me that Cumings is worth considering on this issue, then proceed to completely misread him. (But hopefully the third time's the charm.)

(What's even stranger to me about Korea's Place in the Sun is how he spends a lot of time talking about how bad the Japanese occupation was, then in a short little paragraph (don't have my copy on me) sums everything up by saying that Korea would still be a yangban dominated backwater without the 1910-1945 occupation. I.e., he tacitly approves of 35 years of imperial domination with hardly a whisper.)
posted by bardic at 1:18 AM on May 26, 2009


You happened to agree with me that Cumings is worth considering on this issue, then proceed to completely misread him.

I don't think I'm misreading him. I merely suggest that as in all things, a grain of salt is a good thing.

China is giving far less aid to North Korea than they were in say, I dunno, 1950-1953.

Well, sure. I think, bar the reparations the Japanese coughed up in the 60's, that would be the case for most of the world. But as you can see in this table (if you tilt your head), at least up until several years ago, China was giving nearly the same amount of food aid as Japan and South Korea and Europe, but about half that of America, so you can't really discount them.

then in a short little paragraph (don't have my copy on me) sums everything up by saying that Korea would still be a yangban dominated backwater without the 1910-1945 occupation

Well, it is pretty much verboten to suggest that the Japanese occupation had any positive influences to go along with the litany of negatives, but I would go so far as to say that after the heights of the 15th century, it was basically a long decline for the Choseon society right up to the end of the 19th century, and it didn't take much to topple it. I'm not sure it's reasonable to say that Korea'd still be a sleepy hermitry without the savage kick in the head delivered by the Japanese. But it is also true that the Japanese brought with them modern postal systems, education, modern systems of governance, industry and a host of other 'positives' that most Korean folks, rightly or not, prefer not to think about too much.

I'm not sure it's ever an intellectually honest thing to seriously suggest might-have-beens with historical events, as you say Cumings does. What happened, happened. But I tend to think that without the Japanese occupation, Korea would have modernized, eventually, and be a united nation today, never partitioned, free of all the baggage and the collective psychological scarring from the tragedies of the last century. Whether that united nation would be a vibrant, forward looking, bustling place that the South is or a belligerent destitute communist hellhole like the North or somewhere in between, well, who knows?

So, anyway, on that point, I reckon Cumings is talking out his butt a bit. But hey: I do the same, and he's an Authority, and I'm just a Guy On The Internet. Heh.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:56 AM on May 26, 2009


Also, if anybody's still following this thread, the Economist's take is as usual quite good.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:21 AM on May 26, 2009


A serious question to stav and the other Korea pundits here. It seems the powerful leader ideal is strong throughout Korean history, based on all the history you guys have been mentioning.

I would like to know, how does the recent trend in the South fit into this? IIRC 3 or 4 past presidents have been jailed, you have the recent suicide... is this a radical break with the past, or does it somehow still fit? Like you have to kill the last king now the new one is on the throne?
posted by Meatbomb at 2:49 AM on May 26, 2009


It's an excellent question, Meatbomb, and one of the contradictions that makes Korea fascinating to me and others.

But it's not a 'recent trend', if by that you mean something confined to the past couple of decades. In the history of the republic, probably only Park Chung Hee (maybe Kim Dae Jung) is looked back on with admiration by a large number of Koreans and there are plenty of people queueing up to castigate his actions.

It's also not true that Korea waits for its presidents to leave office before turning on them. Lee Myung Bak's approval ratings were once somewhere around 17% (GWB at his lowest hit 25%), though they have recovered somewhat since then.

I think the reason may be something as simple as the extraordinarily high expectations that Koreans have of their leaders. Confucianism requires respect towards those above one in the social order, but also expects them to act impeccably. Finally, it's possible that Korea, as a relatively young democracy, has unrealistic expectations of the degree to which a president can satisfy all the demands and expectations of its people. Koreans aim high and when their nation does not achieve those heights, the president is a logical scapegoat since it certainly couldn't be the fault of Korean culture itself!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:21 AM on May 26, 2009


Actually, just had an interesting chat with a couple of Korean colleagues to get their impression of the reasons for the respect authority, but not presidents contradiction. Gratifyingly, they brought up all the points I made above without prompting, except the last one. They also added a few more:
  • Politicians are not kings and do not get the same respect in Confucianism.
  • Presidents, however, tend to believe they are kings and don't bother listening to the public. (I told them I'd rather have this than the focus-group obsessed UK political system.)
  • Most Korean presidents actually were corrupt and thus worthy of disapprobation.
  • Korea has many special interest groups and the political parties try to be all things to all people, thus inevitably disappointing some.
Note that I am just passing these opinions on, I don't necessarily agree with them.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 5:40 AM on May 26, 2009


Nothing to add (at least partially because it's my bedtime)!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:43 AM on May 26, 2009


List of South Korean presidents via Wikipedia.

IMO, the legacy of exiled, murdered, jailed, and now suicidal presidents of the modern era (post 1948) has a lot to do with two things. First, the first modern president of SK, Syngman Rhee, was a complete bastard. He was very much the CIA's man in Seoul after the Japanese departed in 1945, and even American contemporaries were quick to say the guy was of limited mental capacity (even Princeton, where he got his PhD, makes mistakes, to paraphrase Woody Allen). And American contemporaries were obviously highly biased, but make no mistake -- they saw all of Korea through the lens of anti-Communism, and in particular anti-Soviet policies. This is where the tragedy of a split Korea begins in many ways. America saw pro- and anti-Communist Koreans, and an opportunist like Rhee was happy to play the part. Most Koreans simply saw fellow Koreans divided between North and South (that was the CIA's doing as well). But even now South Korean men do a mandatory two-year military service, so they get a lot of the Cold War rhetoric drummed into them pretty hard.

Even more highly IMO, the Confucian ideal of the perfect leader is built on an understanding of the harmonious family unit as the first step towards a harmonious nation. Just reading about the on-going Roh scandals, there's a pattern that quickly emerges -- new president is expected to indirectly repay the corporations (jaebol, like Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc.) with favor and juicy construction contracts. He's also expected to provide sinecures, if not outright "loans," to his extended family. Even "clean" and generally reformist presidents like Kim Young-Sam and Kim Dae-jung have relatives that went to jail on corruption charges.

President Roh himself claimed that he never took kick-backs, but that his wife did, without his knowledge, some of which included a million-dollar condo in Manhattan for his daughter.

The story emerging here is that Roh engaged in the expected sort of back-scratching that any self-regarding South Korean president would engage in, but that since he was a relatively liberal and somewhat anti-US figure, he pissed off far too many of the old guard conservatives with too many ties in the media who were hell-bent on bringing him down.

And to throw out another consideration of South Korean presidents, if you follow through on Wikipedia you see that it wasn't until the 1990's that non-career military types like Roh (and the current prez, Lee Myun-bak, who made his nut by working his way up with Hyundai) could even dream of becoming president.

Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were actually both part of the same graduating military class for the South Korean armed forces. They were both later jailed for their parts in the Gwangju Massacre.

Fascinating and confusing. A Korean friend of mine who's roughly the same age as me (early-mid 30's) is distraught about all of this, because she thinks Roh's recent suicide was motivated by a conservative, pro-US (more Bush II than Obama) media that didn't engage in the usual ignorance reserved for more "establishment" types like Lee Myun-bak. I don't think she's alone in this.
posted by bardic at 6:13 AM on May 26, 2009


Nicely summarized, bardic. The only thing I'd add was that Roh Moo Hyun (that romanization always annoys me so much) was a transformative figure for many, especially the young. The 'Friends of Roh' movement that elected him was mostly young people, organizing on the internet and their mobile phones, and the feelings were intense (sometimes disconcertingly so, given Korean tendencies to be emotive and sentimental), and kind of Obama-esque for the country and the time -- less than a decade ago.

Of course, that was just another, newstyle manifestation of the Leader Fixation that runs as an undercurrent through everything here, business and politics and family alike.

Anyway, Roh's death is hitting people hard, even those, like me, who were disappointed that his high ideals and big promises for reform failed, through his own lack of skill and more particularly through the powerful conservative (in the broadest sense -- not wanting change) forces arrayed against him in politics and business.

I don't know if recent events (Roh's being hounded to suicide, North Korea flexing and the business-loving, right-leaning ROK government looking weak and corrupt) will be enough to galvanize the young (and increasingly economically and politically disenfranchized) again or not. But the generational timing is perfect to start running the reactionary wrinkly old bastards that have had a stranglehold on this country for decades out on rails and starting a generational change, passing power on to younger people that have a more global perspective, that will really transform this country. We shall see.

Interesting times.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:47 PM on May 26, 2009


Interesting comment, Bardic. However, I don't understand your first paragraph, which seems to argue that the failings of Syngman Rhee explain the miseries of his successors. Are you saying that were it not for him, the South would be less politically divided now?

More generally, I wonder at the suggestion both you and Stavros seem to be making that Roh was hounded in a way that more conservative Presidents were not. I don't get the impression that any ROK presidents have been given a free ride, by the press or the courts.

(My Korean history is very patchy and I'm well aware that I might be mistaken here.)
posted by Busy Old Fool at 7:39 PM on May 26, 2009


I was just trying to say that in karmic terms, having a guy like Rhee as your first president doesn't bode well. More specifically, everybody knew he was on the take, and it seems to me that he did set something of a precedent, albeit an unspoken one.

As for Roh, many of his supporters at his funeral made a human chain of sorts to block certain conservative politicians from paying their respects. But I forget if I read that in the Korea Herald or Times.
posted by bardic at 8:54 PM on May 26, 2009


More generally, I wonder at the suggestion both you and Stavros seem to be making that Roh was hounded in a way that more conservative Presidents were not.

I don't think I've suggested that at all, but now that you bring it up, I think there is an element of truth there.

Nothing really happened in that direction until the late '90s, when Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo were actually made to answer (but whose sentences were commuted and who really just received slaps on the wrist) for the murderous excesses of their military dictatorships and the hundreds of millions of dollars each they received from the major chaebol in the 80s. It continues to infuriate me that those bastards basically got away scot-free (claiming that there was no money left -- like fuck), and now Roh Moo Hyun's in a goddamn coffin. He did wrong, possibly -- it remains to be proven -- but at a scale literally orders of magnitude smaller.

Since then, it's been Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung, both of whom have had sons imprisoned because of corruption, then Roh Moo Hyun, who killed himself on Saturday, and the current incumbent, Lee Myung Bak. (I know you know these names, BOF, just listing them for the benefit of folks unfamiliar.)

I actually do think Roh Moo Hyun was hounded more than others (although, of course, famously, Kim Dae Jung was imprisoned for many years and a target of a KCIA assassination attempt way back when), because his apparent singleminded determination when he achieved the presidency -- as literally the first outsider to the political system since Korea has had presidents -- to clean up the institutionalized corruption, limit the overwhelming power of the chaebol, and seek a degree of independence from the Americans, well, shit. Declaring that one was going to attack the three key supports of the Korean political system (and I'm only joking a little, there) meant that he had enormously powerful forces lined up against him from the outset, even more than his predecessor Kim Dae Jung had, because Kim was, after all, one of the good ol' boys from the 70's along with all the other power brokers still running the country at the time. And today, in large part, for that matter. Not only that, but Roh achieved power through a people-power movement based in large part on younger voters, liberal-minded ones, and that scared the living crap out of the old guard. Hell, they impeached him for a minor infraction, midway through his administration, as part of their attempts to prove that an outsider could not wield power effectively. They were right, but it's a matter of debate whether they created that result or not. I believe they did.

So there're a few things at play -- ex-Presidents weren't really brought to task for their wrongdoings until the late 90's (and then, for things done 15 years or more earlier), and Roh was really the first president who really made a good-faith (and doomed) attempt to change the system, or at least loudly claimed that he intended to try, and incurred much wrath because of it.

The other thing that's worth noting is the literally outrageous power of the Office of the Prosecutor here, and the way in which they literally spill the beans to the media whenever they get a whiff of wrongdoing, proven or not. Although they are supposed to honour the principle of innocent until proven guilty, they customarily hold press conferences on the latest information they receive on cases dealing with famous people, going as far as repeating unsubstantiated claims before they are verified. It makes for very noisy, very messy, very Korean proceedings when a public figure is accused of something.

It's possible that the very slow trend towards a mitigation of the corruption and bribery and backroom dealing amongst the three Kims (Young Sam, Dae Jung, and Jong Pil) and the rest of the old guard from the 70s, let alone the newer entrants to the game, means that infractions that are smaller in scale are prosecuted with even more vehemence. I don't know.

The Korean way is to get caught, apologize contritely, profess great regret for 'disappointing the people' or 'harming the country' and get off with a slap on the wrist, if you are rich and/or famous. In a society that's structured on the group rather than the individual, it's shame as much as fear of punishment that is the driver of remorse.

I actually think that Roh killed himself more out of shame than anything else, which is, I know, in these shameless ParisHiltonian days, a pretty foreign concept in the rest of the world.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:11 PM on May 26, 2009


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