With the news in that North Korea has sentenced Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two American journalists it kidnapped in March from just across its border with China, to 12 years in prison, one is tempted to throw up one’s hands in frustration. There’s little the US, Europe, or Japan can do to punish North Korea that they haven’t already done, and no proportional measure is likely to free the journalists anytime soon.
But it’s ludicrous and unacceptable to let North Korea have the idea that it can go around kidnapping people abroad. That’s simply beyond all bounds of behavior that the rest of the world can live with. The appropriate target for a response, therefore, is China. China was clearly allowing North Korean security agents to operate on its side of the border. It is China that allowed North Korea to kidnap these women and take them back to Pyongyang. The US needs to make clear to China that it can’t allow North Korea to do that anymore, period. There’s a similar situation near the Tibetan-Nepalese border, where Nepal allows Chinese plainclothes security agents to operate on the Nepalese side of the border, harassing journalists. That has to stop. It’s one thing for countries to establish repressive legal regimes and harass journalists and activists inside their own borders. But people simply cannot be expected to live in a situation where even when they are in other countries, they may be kidnapped by secret service agents of a country they are reporting on and then accused of violating the laws of a country they never set foot in. This, among other things, is something the US should have been conscious of when it started applying “extraordinary rendition” policies.
Matthew Yglesias writes:
I guess it strikes me that the DPRK’s nose for grabbing attention seems a bit off if they’re deciding to do this over what’s a holiday weekend in the United States.
Depends on whose attention you’re trying to grab. It was a holiday weekend in the US, but I hear there was some kind of Asia-Europe foreign policy summit opening that day in Hanoi, followed immediately by an ASEAN-EU ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh that a lot of the same foreign ministers were going to.
45 chief diplomats from all over Europe and Asia had just gathered in Hanoi for the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Monday morning when the news came through that North Korea had detonated its second nuclear bomb.
ASEM meetings, like most Asian multilateral diplomatic gatherings, are generally pretty soporific affairs. (Not that European, African or American summits are exactly free-for-alls of creative thinking and provocative debate. But it’s a difference of degree.) Nothing is said which might conceivably offend the sensibilities of any of the countries involved. Let’s put it this way: the country that generally says the most outrageous and provocative stuff at an Asian diplomatic summit is Japan. That may give you an idea of how mild-mannered the tone usually is.
This morning was about as close as an Asian multilateral meeting gets to a general freak-out. Everyone had expected the main action to focus on Myanmar. By re-trying Aung San Suu Kyi over a bizarre Boy Scouting escapade gone wrong, Myanmar had managed to bring things to a point where everyone, even its ASEAN neighbors, felt compelled to issue a note of clear if modest disapproval. The lead, of course, would be taken by the EU nations to whom the rest of the world generally subcontracts its moral-disapproval duties these days. But this time it seemed a fair number of Asian nations might be expected to follow along.
And so at about 11:15 am, in the nearly empty marble halls of Hanoi’s three-year-old National Convention Center, Myanmar’s Foreign Minister Nyan Win and his aides went into a meeting with two EU Foreign Ministers, Jan Kohout of the Czech Republic and Carl Bildt of Sweden. The EU handles such affairs via what it call its “troika”: a representative of the European Commission, a representative of the country holding the rotating EU presidency (currently the Czechs), and a representative of the country on deck to take over the presidency next year (Sweden).
By the time they came out an hour later, everyone was talking about the North Korean nuclear test.
A party of Burmese diplomats confronts the press in a fashion similar to a school of herrings confronting dolphins: they turn in unison and break for open water, silently and as quickly as possible — in this case, the elevators. The Burmese were followed by Kohout, a tall, stocky guy who stopped in front of the TV cameras and began answering questions from his own national press, in Czech. Most of the press thus gravitated to the towering, cranelike figure of Carl Bildt. Bildt is a sober and imposing presence with the Scandinavian diplomat’s talent for saying rather obvious and unobjectionable things in emphatic and forceful tones — the righteous common sense of a Calvinist preacher.
Bildt said his government, on behalf of the EU, had called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in order to create the proper atmosphere for Myanmar’s upcoming elections next year. “What is necessary for those elections is to have an inclusive dialogue with all political forces in the country. That is the necessary precondition for the stability that I think everyone is seeking for the country to be able to move forward,” Bildt said. “And for that to be possible, there must of course be freedom for the different political forces.”
Who could possibly disagree with such a common-sense statement of democratic principles? But what makes these situations slightly surreal is that no one in their right mind, Mr. Bildt included, could possibly expect that the Burmese government has any interest in guaranteeing “freedom for the different political forces.” Such freedom is not really conceivable in a Burmese context. In fact, across most of East Asia, from Singapore to Vietnam to China, the idea that political action should be allowed to take place in a protected sphere free of government interference or fear of retribution is nonsense. It’s not just that governments don’t permit such freedom; it’s that for the most part culture and society do not expect such freedom, do not consider it a priority or even understand how it is supposed to work. The spectacle presented is of an experienced, intelligent European diplomat calling in clear and common-sense terms for the respect of human rights that everyone knows do not exist, in a regime that has no interest in introducing them.
The sense of surreality grew some hours later, when Japan called an unscheduled press conference to announce that it was seeking a forceful response to the North Korean nuclear test. Japanese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kazuo Kodama rushed in, out of breath, to announce that Japan would…push for ASEM to issue a separate statement on the test. The nuclear test was a “threat to the peace and stability…of the global community.” And that was about it. What did he think the North Koreans were aiming for? What strategy could the international community use to bring them around? Kodama had not a word on this.
And yet for all that, one senses that these repeated invocations of common-sense points — testing nuclear weapons violates the nuclear nonproliferation regime and threatens world security; repressing the political opposition makes it impossible to carry out legitimate elections — are slowly having an effect. What’s clear at this ASEM meeting is that Myanmar and North Korea, especially the latter, have gradually succeeded in alienating even their close neighbors. They have been able to flout the disapproval of the “international community” when that community meant only the democratic first world. But as they increasingly embarrass and provoke even their developing-country neighbors, they are starting to find that there are real limits to what they can do. Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva’s statement disapproving of Suu Kyi’s detention counted for ten times as much as any statement to the same effect by the US or the UK. And the very fact that ASEM’s agenda has been derailed by these unexpected embarrassments from North Korea and Myanmar is perhaps the most powerful reason to expect a change in attitudes. Asian governments don’t like human rights issues because they mess up the agenda, spoil the atmosphere, and interfere with efforts to keep the economy humming. North Korea and Myanmar, increasingly, are messing up the Asian agenda, spoiling the atmosphere, and interfering with efforts to keep the economy humming. And that’s why bodies like ASEM are gradually becoming more forceful in denouncing their misbehavior.
Why do conservative oppose Obama’s initiative to eliminate nuclear weapons? Anne Applebaum says it’s because biological and chemical weapons are more of a threat to the US. Presumably, then, the treaties banning biological and chemical weapons are also useless? Charles Krauthammer, that desert of inanity, says it’s because restarting arms reduction talks is “a gift to the Russians”. The seething inferiority complex on evidence here requires no explication.
The really desperate threat posed by terrorism is the threat of a nuclear bomb going off in an American city. That threat is greater than the threat of a major biological or chemical attack, even though those attacks are easier to pull off. The reason is that terrorists are not much attracted to biological and chemical attacks, in large measure because such methods of attack are universally considered cowardly and reprehensible. And that is in large measure because chemical and biological weapons have been outlawed since World War I. Killing people with botulin toxin or anthrax is not more intrinsically evil than killing people with a nuclear blast followed by radiation poisoning; both are similarly horrific and indiscriminate. But for a whole complex of reasons, we abhor the former and accept the latter as simply the most terrible form of warfare. Chemical and biological warfare are unclean, treif, defiled; nuclear warfare is taboo, terrible, awesome and forbidden except to the initiated.
Why is this? It’s partly because of the association of nuclear warfare with the prestige of particle physics and the “nature of the universe”, with all the accompanying religious and scientific connotations. It’s partly because of the accident of history that made NATO nuclear weapons the only realistic counterweight to Soviet conventional military superiority in Europe. And it’s partly the pure semiotics of detonations of massive force as the embodiment of political will and the claim to power; deploying poison and disease just isn’t as effective, especially for acts of spectacular terrorism. But whatever the background, the aim of the project of eliminating and then illegalizing nuclear weapons is to consign them to the same opprobrium as chemical and biological weapons. That’s why Obama’s move to restart that project makes sense. When India set off its nuclear device in 1998, a group of women were famously photographed carrying a banner that read “We Proud On Our Bomb”. No one should be proud of their nuclear bombs; people should be ashamed of their nuclear bombs, and Obama’s initiative is a cost-free step towards bringing that about. And conservatives don’t like it because, at root, they proud on their bomb too.
Very weird meeting between Vietnamese FM Pham Gia Khiem and North Korean FM Pak Ui-chun (“Park Ui Chun”? Not clear) on Saturday evening. The two of them smiled and hugged like a couple of ancient drinking buddies when they met, and you’d have thought they’d been roommates at Moskovskii Gosudarstvennii Universitet in 1973 or something. But they were speaking different languages and clearly neither spoke the other one’s, and when their comments were translated, they were completely banal. Not that this isn’t more or less the same as when other FMs meet each other, but this felt like they’d taken it up a notch. Perhaps the absence of substantive cooperation or agreement on anything means they need to ratchet up the meaningless geniality.
Matthew Yglesias notes that John McCain is back to analogizing our presence in Iraq to our presence in South Korea as a way of saying there’d be nothing wrong with an indefinite stay there for US troops. Matt concentrates on how terrible an analogy Korea is to Iraq, but that again misses the point. To reiterate, if Iraq is like Korea, then keeping our troops there for 60 years, as we have in Korea, would be a terrible idea. There are currently 80,000 protestors in the streets of Seoul burning American flags because the government has promised to allow American beef into the country. If you don’t understand how that kind of sentiment is related to the presence of US troops, then you need to read something about the history of the democracy movement in Korea. Keeping US troops in Iraq for decades would feed and nourish anti-Americanism in Iraq just as it has in Korea. And I cannot emphasis highly enough how important it is for everyone to watch “The Host”.
We kept our troops in South Korea from 1953-1989 because of a little thing called the Cold War. We’ve kept our troops there since 1989 (though gradually fewer of them) because North Korea remains a completely insane totalitarian state that poses a credible risk of staging a military attack on South Korea. But as such, the deployment of US troops to Korea produces negative diplomatic and political results and should have ended some time ago if not for these other considerations, and in a country like Iraq that faces no threat comparable to the threat South Korea faces, keeping US troops there is simply a bad idea.