Posts Tagged ‘Korea’

Brief considerations on Korea

datePosted on 08:36, November 24th, 2010 by Lew

Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.

A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.

There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.

Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.

So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.

Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.


Contrasting examples of cultural difference

datePosted on 21:34, August 4th, 2009 by Lew

Two very different perceptions of the way cultural difference operates. From Tauhei Notts, commenting on Kiwiblog’s thread about the guilty verdict returned against Taito Phillip Field:

I believe that the jury was not culturally sensitive. Many people in Foreign affairs who dosh out us taxpayers’ funds to Polynesian nations are aware that what Field did was par for the course. Indeed, Field was incredulous at the fact that charges were even laid against him. He could not, and would not, see that what he had done was wrong. This is because what he did had been done for decades by Polynesian leaders. Field is the first one to be found guilty of what most New Zealanders consider to be awful behaviour, but what Polynesian people consider okay. The natives of the South Pacific have always had a different slant on morality and I think it is our job to encourage them to join the 21st century world.

And from Raymond Huo, talking about the case of Danny Cancian, who is in prison for killing a Chinese:

With regard to business, Westerners are generally transaction-orientated. They walk in the door, figure out the deal, sign the contract and get out. Chinese, on the other hand, are relationship orientated. The Chinese concept of friendship, or guanxi, is vital. In a highly centralised state, the use of guanxi is sometimes the only way to get things done.
The core of guanxi is doing business through value-laden relationships. To some extent, guanxi is the counter-part of a commercial legal system. Don’t get me wrong – Asian people do respect contracts. They are ethical. The only difference is that they do business differently. Mostly, obligations come from relationships, not only pieces of paper.

I’ve spent no time in the Pacific islands, but plenty of time living in East Asia, where obligations attach to relationships developed in a more or less organic fashion between individuals, their roles and networks, and the censure of failing to fulfill obligations is rendered by those individuals, roles and networks rather than being imposed by external arbitration. I played the kibun game (I think) very well in Korea for three years, until the very last hurdle – severance pay in our final job. On our second-to-last day in the country, several days after it was due to be paid up, I lost my nerve and called my boss (who’d been good to us and generally trustworthy) and insisted that he pay us immediately. He did. An hour later he cancelled the meal which had been called in our honour for that night (and at which he was planning to present us with the money, all in good time).

Transculturalism is complicated.


Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.


Identity politics behind school stabbing?

datePosted on 13:01, March 4th, 2009 by Lew

An article in the Herald gives a clue in favour of what I suspected: that there might be more to the assault by an Avondale College student on teacher David Warren than meets the eye. A few bullet-points below:

  • Warren was a Japanese-language teacher with a brusque and sometimes offensive manner, who allegedly joked about the Republic of Korea. His attacker was new to NZ and likely unfamiliar with our ways had apparently been here for two years and at Avondale College all of 2008.
  • Korean students (and I’ve taught hundreds) are quite strongly inculcated to respect and admire teachers. It’s part of their Confucian socialisation. I simply can’t imagine one attacking a teacher, or even speaking rudely to a teacher they don’t know very well indeed, much less while in a foreign country.
  • Probably the only thing stronger than this is the Korean sense of national pride. If the two things came into conflict, it would have to be a grave insult indeed to result in this sort of response.
  • Koreans have an abiding hatred of the Japanese, founded (among other things) on the crushing occupation they suffered through the first half of the 20th Century and not helped by a) pervasive anti-Japanese propaganda at home and b) continual denial by the Japanese of any imperial wrongdoing (not unlike their attitude to China and elsewhere).
  • If a joke was made in the context of the Japanese language, which Koreans were forced to adopt, learn, and use, even to the point of taking Japanese names (not unlike how Māori was here, though more brutal) about Korea, then I can certainly see it being grave enough.
  • Students are speaking anonymously about the case for fear of expulsion – WTF? Why does the school get to impose this sort of constraint?
  • Avondale College Principal Brent Lewis claims to know nothing of the sort, contradicted by his own staff and pupils. I detect arse-covering.
  • I can’t find any reference to the incident on Korean English-language news sources, but if there emerges a sniff that this may be a matter of national identity, it could turn into a Big Freaking Deal. Especially with Lee Myung-bak here to gladhand and the chance of a Free Trade Agreement being floated. Talk about bad timing. Update: exexpat notes below that Korean-language media have picked it up, with the nationalism line intact.

None of this is to excuse the student’s attack, of course. But it doesn’t look like a random bit o’ violence to me.

Update: The attacker has been named, and a bunch of the details seem to be disputed, see here. I’ve amended the post to remove details which seem to be incorrect.

Disclaimer: Can I be completely explicit for people who are too suspicious to believe or too stupid to read the statement above (which I almost didn’t put in because I thought it was bleeding obvious): I am not trying to blame Warren or defend Chung – I am trying to consider the dynamic in play here. If you attempt to call this into question or engage in any such behaviour yourself, expect to be soundly ridiculed. You might note I’ve tagged this post hate crimes.