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Korean Rhetoric and Reality

Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said that North Korea was the “neighbourhod outlaw” after Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear weapons test on Friday. Barack Obama said that “The United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” Even China voiced its “firm opposition to the test.” And South Korea’s president, Park Gyeung-hye, accused North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong-un of “maniacal recklessness”.

So far, so restrained – in stark contrast to the berserk threats and fulminations that are the usual fare in North Korea. (Promising to obliterate Seoul, the South Korean capital, in a “sea of fire” is a familiar favourite.)

But then a military spokesman of the South Korean government promised that Pyongyang “will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells” if North Korea even thinks of launching a nuclear attack on the South. The city will be “reduced to ashes and removed from the map,” said the official – and districts of Pyongyang thought to be hiding the North’s leadership will be particularly targeted in the attack.

So much for restraint. Sixty-six years of intense hostility have bred an extreme brand of rhetoric on both sides of the border that sounds quite demented to the ears of outsiders. Germany was divided for 44 years, and hundreds were killed on the heavily fortified border between them, but you never heard this kind of invective coming out of the mouths of East or West German officials.

Maybe it’s just a stylistic thing, but it does suggest that the possibility of a real war between the two Koreas is higher than it ever was between the two Germanies. But why does North Korea need nuclear weapons to carry out its threats? It’s perfectly capable of destroying Seoul with “ballistic missiles and high-explosive shells” too.

The centre of Seoul, a city of 11 million people, is only 50 km from the North Korean border. Ordinary artillery could take out the northern half of the city, while short-range missiles dealt with the southern half. (North Korea has 21,000 artillery pieces and thousands of Scud missiles.) Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons must be for something else.

North Korea’s strategic problem is that it has no allies, while South Korea is allied to the world’s leading nuclear power, the United States – which has never promised not to use its nuclear weapons first. Pyongyang needs some means of deterring the use of American nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula if there is a war.

This does not justify what North Korea is doing – United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced the latest nuclear test as a “brazen breach” of UN resolutions – but it does explain it.

So Kim Jong-un, like his father and his grandfather before him, wants the ability to make nuclear attacks on America’s main Asian ally, Japan, for a start, and later on the United States itself. Regrettably, that’s how deterrence works.

The North Korean regime is almost uniquely awful, but the strategic logic would be exactly the same if it were run by much nicer people. And although the regime is completely paranoid, it is not crazy. It has not started a war in the past six decades, and there is no reason to think that it is planning one now.

North Korea’s paranoia is also misplaced, because nobody in the South dreams of reunifying the peninsula by war either. In fact, most people in South Korea would not welcome reunification now even if it happened non-violently.

I happened to be in Seoul interviewing somebody in the Korean Central Intelligence Agency building on the day in 1996 when the death of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, was announced. The scene that followed reminded me of the old naval adage: “When in danger or in doubt, Run in circles, Scream and shout.” But the dominant emotion was certainly not joy.

It was fear that the North Korean regime would collapse, and that newly prosperous South Korea, having dragged itself out of poverty by two generations of sacrifice, would inherit 25 million impoverished North Koreans with few skills relevant to a modern economy, and have to start all over again. Twenty years on, it’s almost certain that a majority of South Koreans still feel like that about it.

So there really is little risk of war – which is just as well, because there is also little chance of diverting Pyongyang from its course. Another round of sanctions will not do the trick – on Sunday Pyongyang said that the threat of “meaningless sanctions” was “highly laughable” – because the country is almost completely cut off from the global economy already.

Putting a Thaad anti-ballistic-missile unit in South Korea, as Washington has promised to do, will make the South Koreans and the Japanese feel a bit safer, but everybody is just going to have to live with the problem. They probably won’t die from it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“The centre…else”; and “This…it”)

Why Are Wars So Hard To End?

After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.

But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?

We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.

The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for fifteen years.

When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 percent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.

FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 percent of younger Colombians are now literate).

Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.

On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?

Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given garantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust
was in short supply.

It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.

Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.

Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.

Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.

There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.

Perhaps that is true, but it may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3 and 13. (“We’re…Syria; and “Every…moment”)

The Index of Ignorance

To cut to the chase, the five most ignorant countries in the world are Mexico (a world leader at least in this), India, Brazil, Peru and New Zealand. And the five best informed are South Korea (take a bow), followed by Ireland, Poland, China and the United States. Ignorant about what? About the realities in their own country.

Every year the London-based polling organisation Ipsos Mori does its “Perils of Perception” poll, asking people in many countries what they believe about, say, the proportion of the population who are immigrants, or overweight, or over 65, and comparing their answers with the true numbers.

Putting all the results together, Ipsos Mori then comes up with its famous Index of Ignorance. The level of ignorance is startling – and yet these mistaken beliefs can play a big role in the political choices that countries make.

Take immigration. Almost every country over-estimates the number of immigrants in their population, sometimes by huge amounts. The Chinese, for example, believe that 11 percent of the people in their country are immigrants. The real number is 0.1 percent, so their guess is 110 times too high (and maybe just a little paranoid). Brazilians are just as bad: they think 25 percent of the population are immigrants; it’s really just 0.3 percent.

Most countries do better than that, but not that much better. Americans think 32 percent of their population are immigrants, when actually only 13 percent are. The Japanese think it’s 10 percent, when it’s really only 2 percent. And the Poles recently elected a right-wing nationalist government in large part because they fear being overrun: they think 14 percent of the population are immigrants, when it’s really less than half of one percent.

Or take the number of Muslims living in countries that are historically non-Muslim. The highest proportion of the population is in France, where 8 percent are Muslims – but the average guess of the French people polled was 31 percent (and Fox News seems to believe it’s nearly half). Only one percent of Americans are Muslim, but Americans believe it is 15 percent. In Canada it’s 2 percent, but Canadians think it’s 20 percent.

These huge over-estimates are probably driven in part by the fear of Islamist terrorism, which in turn is driven by the media’s fascination with the subject. It’s quite striking, for example, that while Americans guess three times too high when asked about the proportion of immigrants in the country, they guess fifteen times too high when asked specifically about Muslims.

One could go on and on about how wrong people get things. Indians (urban, educated Indians who take part in internet polls) think that one-third of the country’s population is non-religious. In fact, less than one percent is.

Saudi Arabians think that 28 percent of the population are overweight or obese, when actually 71 percent are (the highest proportion of all 35 countries polled). But the more interesting question is: how much do these misperceptions affect politics and policy?

Not much, probably, when we’re talking about religion or obesity or the share of the population that is over 65 years old (which was over-estimated in every country polled). But it’s pretty clear that a huge popular over-estimate of the number of immigrants in Great Britain contributed to the “Leave” victory in last June’s referendum on British membership of the European Union.

But the ignorance often gets a lot of help. London’s population, for example, is more than a third foreign-born: almost 37 percent. But Londoners are quite comfortable with this, and voted strongly for “Remain”. In fact, almost all of the big English cities voted “Remain”. Whereas in suburban and rural parts of England, where immigrants are rare or entirely absent, people were so panicked by immigration that they voted equally strongly for “Leave”.

This was not just a coincidence. For many years a big chunk of the British media, including the country’s three largest-circulation morning papers, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, has constantly exaggerated the scale of the immigration and the problems it causes. So in parts of England where immigrants are scarce, people don’t believe the evidence of their own eyes; they believe the media instead.

The same phenomenon has played a big part in the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. When he talks about building a wall to stop hordes of Mexican rapists pouring across the southern border of the US, or promises to ban all Muslim immigration to the country, the media-fed misconceptions of Americans about immigrant and particularly Muslim numbers make his lies easier to believe.

There is a chicken-and-egg question here, of course. Are the media just pandering to existing popular fears, or are they actually creating them? The unsatisfactory but inevitable answer is: a bit of both.

In the century and a half when there have been free mass media (and now social media as well), nobody has come up with a solution for this problem. “Free” includes free to make mistakes, and free to distort facts and tell outright lies.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But the…instead”)

Trump in Power

Let us suppose that it is July 2017. Let us suppose that Donald Trump, nominated as the Republican candidate for the US presidency exactly a year ago, won the November election – quite narrowly, perhaps, but the polls are certainly suggesting that such a thing is possible. So he was inaugurated six months ago, and has started to put his campaign promises into effect.

We may also assume that the Republican Party retains control of both houses of Congress. If it doesn’t, then Trump’s ability to execute his plans would be seriously circumscribed, but the surge of support that gives Trump victory would probably also give the Republicans a win in some close Senate races. The Republican majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to extensive gerrymandering, is practically fireproof.

Trump’s three most disruptive campaign promises were also the three that had the most appeal to his core voters, and he is implementing them fast. They are: a 40 percent tariff on all foreign imports, an end to free trade deals, and tight curbs on immigration – especially the famous “wall” on the Mexican border.

It won’t actually be a wall, of course. It will be the kind of high-tech barrier that countries build when they are really serious about closing a frontier. There will be a ditch about three metres deep and ten metres wide extending for 3,000 km along the US-Mexican border. It will have a three-metre-high razor-wire fence along the front edge of the ditch, facing Mexico, and another along the back edge.

The front fence has a high-voltage current running through it. The back fence carries the video and infra-red cameras and motion-sensors that detect attempts to cross the ditch, and the remotely controlled machine-guns that respond to those attempts. There are also land-mines down in the ditch. Why is it so lethal? Because long experience has shown that the only way to really close a border is to kill people who try to cross it.

The “wall” is not yet finished in July 2017, of course. It will take several years to complete, at a cost of $30-50 billion. Already, however, there are daily deaths among the tens of thousands of Mexican protesters who gather at the construction sites – and a few among Mexican-American protesters on the other side of the fence as well.

The Mexican government, faced with economic disaster as the millions of manufacturing jobs created in Mexico to export back to the United States evaporate, has broken diplomatic relations with Washington, as have several other Latin American nations. State Department experts are worried that a radical nationalist regime may come to power in Mexico, but “establishment experts” are not welcome in the new White House.

Negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the US and European Union have been broken off, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership will never be ratified by Congress. The legislation for a 40 percent tariff on foreign imports is still making its way through Congress, as is the bill to end the North American Free Trade Agreement (which is causing panic in Canada, 73 percent of whose exports go to the United States).

The new laws will go through in the end, and the most important casualty will be US-China trade (as Trump fully intends it to be). China is already in a thinly disguised recession, and the impact of the new trade measures will turn it into a political crisis that threatens the survival of the Communist regime.

Beijing will certainly respond by pushing forward with the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which would include sixteen nations of the Asia-Pacific region but exclude the United States. However, it may also manufacture a military confrontation with the United States to distract popular discontent at home with a foreign threat. The dispute over the South China Sea would do nicely.

Japan, which is starting a major military build-up after Prime Minister Abe finally removed the anti-war Article 9 from the constitution in March 2017, will be at America’s side in this confrontation, but its European allies may not. Trump’s pro-Putin posture has not gone down well in the EU, which worries about Russia’s intentions, and his demands that Europe’s NATO members pay more of the alliance’s costs have not helped either.

The European Union, still in shock after Britain’s Brexit vote in 2016, has been further shaken by the near-win of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right, anti-EU National Front, in the May run-off of the French presidential elections. The spectre of EU collapse comes nearer, and Europe has no time for America’s Asian quarrels.

In the United States, the economy is still chugging along despite the stock-market crash of November 2016. Trump’s big increase in the military budget, his huge expansion of infrastructure spending (with borrowed money) and the rise in the minimum wage have kept the machine turning over for the time being. The effect of declaring a trade war on the rest of the world is not yet being felt at home – but it will be.

And it’s only July 2017. Trump still has another three-and-a-half years in the White House.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“We may…fireproof”; and “The European…quarrels”)