Articles Book Reviews Featured Korea

Left Behind by Korea’s Success

In South Korea these days, a popular dish at trendy restaurants is budae jjigae—an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stew full of noodles, red pepper paste, Spam, sausages, kimchi, American cheese, baked beans, tofu, and whatever else the chef might want to throw into the mix.

Budae means “battalion” in Korean, which points to the stew’s origins in the Korean War. The conflict took a heavy toll on agriculture and livestock—not to mention able-bodied farmers—and pushed many Koreans to the brink of starvation. Those living close enough to U.S. military outposts often scavenged from the nearby garbage dumps, secreting away items that U.S. soldiers prized least, such as Spam and baked beans. The addition of fermented cabbage and chili paste to these foreign tastes created something new and distinctly Korean.

South Korea has since become a wealthy country, but signs of past underdevelopment often still lurk just beneath the surface of everyday staples. Indeed, in novelist Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Thingsbudae jjigae features prominently, its inglorious origins a stand-in for all the other horrors that Koreans would prefer to forget. Familiar Things was initially published in South Korea in 2011; its English translation, which will finally be distributed in the United States starting this month, serves as a powerful and potentially contentious reminder of the difficult backstory to South Korean success.

As one of the country’s most prominent novelists, Hwang has never shied away from controversy. He has written about South Korean complicity in a Korean War massacre usually attributed to U.S. soldiers (The Guest, 2001), the abuses of the dictators that ruled South Korea during the Cold War (The Old Garden, 2000), and South Korean involvement in the Vietnam War (The Shadow of Arms, 1985).

With Familiar Things, Hwang turns his attention to the underside of South Korea’s remarkable economic development, namely, the vast underclass it has created. Hwang’s riveting tale of second-class citizenship, in which the main characters are forced to pick through garbage to survive, gestures not just at the country’s past and what was lost during rapid modernization. It also serves as an implicit warning about the future of the Korean peninsula.

As North and South Korea make tentative moves toward reconciliation, it is worth remembering that the economic gap between the two is staggering. Reunification remains a daunting challenge, not least because it is difficult to imagine a scenario that would not instantly turn North Koreans into second-class citizens and semi-permanent dependents.

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Familiar Things resonates with today’s political moment even though it is set in the early 1980s. At that time, South Korea was in a deep dictatorial funk and just beginning to enjoy some of the fruits of economic modernization. In the space of a single generation, the country rocketed from having one of the lowest per-capita GDPs to being one of the top industrialized nations in the world. But that economic miracle depended on the sacrifice of millions of farmers and industrial workers who tightened their belts—or had their belts tightened for them.

The protagonists of Familiar Things—a boy, nicknamed Bugeye, and his mother—are two members of this pivotal generation. Thirty years have passed since the Korean War, but they too must pick through trash to survive. The novel takes place almost entirely on “Flower Island,” a garbage dump on the outskirts of an unnamed South Korean city.

The dirty, dangerous, demeaning work at the dump is in fact a step up for Bugeye and his mother, who were on the verge of going hungry after the authorities marched off his father to one of the dictatorship’s “reeducation camps.” To celebrate their arrival, Bugeye and his mother’s new neighbors at the dump welcome them with “Flower Island stew,” which Bugeye’s mother immediately recognizes as budae jjigae. It is a signal that their survival will depend on cast-offs—this time not from U.S. soldiers but from their Korean brethren.

By the 1980s, South Koreans had become prosperous enough to throw out perfectly edible food as well as usable clothes, fixable appliances, and even the building materials that Flower Islanders use to create shacks for themselves. The garbage pickers extract everything that can be recycled—paper, metal, plastic, glass—in order to earn their modest wages. The smell of garbage on Flower Island is pervasive, and the odor marks the scavengers as an underclass. In order to venture into the city without attracting scorn, the Flower Islanders must keep a separate set of clothes at a nearby drycleaners.

Bugeye, who is thirteen but looks older, quickly acclimates to his new life. He befriends the younger boy next door, Baldspot, and joins a local gang of kids. But it is far from an idyllic life:

In the shantytown where they lived, children were useless, worth less than scrap metal. To make matters worse, no one wanted to deal with a kid like Baldspot, who was slow and stammered when he spoke. For the grown-ups, who had to work nonstop from dawn to dusk, children were nothing more than an obstacle that slowed them down.

Baldspot initiates Bugeye into the otherworldly realm of the dokkaebi, a variety of spirit that alternately plays tricks on humans or assists them, depending on the dokkaebi’s disposition. The dokkaebi of Flower Island are the area’s former inhabitants from before South Korea’s great economic leap forward and the subsequent arrival of the garbage. With this excursion into magical realism, Hwang strives to capture the often-surreal experience of South Korea’s mad dash to modernity.

Unlike the trash-pickers, the dokkaebi need the children. These hungry ghosts ask the two children to get them a prized food item: memilmuk. This traditional dish, a buckwheat jelly, is both a favorite of dokkaebi and also part of the ceremonial offerings made to ancestors. It is a taste of the past, of the countryside, and of a way of life that Korea’s modernization is gradually eroding.

When the children offer the dokkaebi their memilmuk, one of the spirits who steps forward to thank them is wearing a baseball cap that says “New Village Movement.” It is a telling detail that all Korean readers would instantly recognize. The New Village Movement was both an effort in the 1970s to modernize villages—replacing thatch roofs, for instance, with tile—and to eliminate any lingering forms of resistance in the countryside. The government program also sought to suppress older belief systems such as Confucian-style ancestor worship. Through the New Village Movement, the authorities would have displaced the original inhabitants of Flower Island to make room for the garbage dump. And so for the dokkaebi to wear such a hat is the equivalent of a recently laid-off coal miner continuing to sport his “Make America Great Again” cap.

In return for the memilmuk, the dokkaebi direct the children to a stash of money buried in the garbage. Bugeye and Baldspot use it to buy new clothes, go to a public bathhouse, and emerge as different children. As if seeing each other for the first time, they exchange their real names, transformed into more than their defects. Then they take a trip into the nearby city where they buy a Nintendo and search out food unavailable on Flower Island, including, of course, the ultimate sign of economic progress: hamburgers and French fries.

Modernization is a process of throwing out the old and welcoming the new, regardless of the relative merits of either. To accomplish this magic trick, modernization makes the radically new into the commonplace even as it transforms the familiar into the unfamiliar. As Hwang writes:

People threw away so many things that by the time the objects lost their shape and decomposed into smaller and smaller and more complex parts, they became strange and curious objects that bore no resemblance whatsoever to whatever the machines in the factories had originally spat out.

Through this transformation, Flower Island conceals in its scrap heap the violence of the past—the dislocation of both people and things—in the same way that budae jjigae hides the Korean War in its hybrid flavors. The new is built on the terrain of the discarded.

But the violence of Flower Island is also ongoing. Scavengers die when they slip beneath the dump trucks. They lose arms and legs. The garbage itself conceals pockets of highly flammable methane that send up occasional fireballs. One night, in fact, the entire shantytown goes up in flames, and more than a dozen trash-pickers perish. Baldspot, mid-evacuation, turns around to fetch his beloved Nintendo and disappears into the conflagration.

The cheap luxuries produced by modernization have an instant appeal but, Hwang reminds us, their allure is ultimately dangerous. Things are expendable in the wild whirligig of economic progress, and so are people, a conclusion that strikes Bugeye with considerable force: “People bought things with money, did whatever they wanted with those things, and threw them away when they were no longer of use. Maybe folks like him had also been thrown away when they were no longer of use.”

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North Korea makes no appearance in Familiar Things. But it lurks just beyond the pages: as the enemy that required the sacrifices of the Korean War, as the threat that the dictators of the Cold War frequently invoked to justify their clampdowns, and as the economic competitor that pushed South Korea to embark on its ambitious effort to integrate into the global economy. The North Koreans are the unfamiliar things that, even more so than the dokkaebi, lie beyond the ken of the denizens of the South.

Hwang has wrestled with the challenge of North Korea as both a novelist and a progressive activist. His first novel, Mr. Han’s Chronicle (1970), depicts the travails of a family divided by the Korean War, and subsequent books, such as The Guest, squarely address South Korea’s complex perceptions of the North.

As a labor activist, Hwang spent a couple of years in prison in the 1960s. He stepped up his opposition to successive dictatorial governments and even went into exile in the United States. He returned to Korea in 1993 only to be thrown in prison once again where he conducted numerous hunger strikes to protest conditions both inside and outside his cell. He was released in 1998 after a presidential pardon, and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung subsequently sent him to visit North Korea as part of a new wave of cultural exchanges.

Hwang has long been concerned about the empty materialism of South Korean society, its flashy consumerism, and its growing indifference to traditional values. But with Familiar Things, he is also sending out a warning about possible Korean futures. Do not risk your lives for cheap video games, Hwang is telling his brethren to the north. Do not content yourself with living on what the rich throw your way.

Today, many of the 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea self-report feeling as though they are “second-class citizens.” Like Bugeye and his mother, most of these exiles arrive in the promised land with virtually nothing only to discover that their new home is, if not atop a garbage dump, then a considerably less desirable location than they imagined. Marked not by a peculiar odor but by their accent and their lack of marketable skills, the North Korean defectors often end up with the same demeaning jobs forced upon Bugeye and his mother, such as cleaning the streets or workplaces of the South. They suffer from discrimination and homesickness in equal measure. Although the South Korean government lists only a dozen or so defectors who have returned to the North, as many as 25 percent want to go home, despite the obvious political and economic hardships back there.

These defectors amount to a mere 0.14 percent of the North Korean population and yet South Korea, despite its wealth, has had great difficulty accommodating them. Little wonder then that many South Koreans are skeptical of their country’s capacity to absorb North Korea in a German-style reunification.

For North Korea to have a chance of becoming an equal partner in any future reunification, it will have to undergo its own accelerated modernization. But in the end, Hwang seems doubtful of the capacity of economic development to provide an answer to economic inequality and political disenfranchisement. Familiar Things concludes with an image of sweet-smelling flowers pushing aside the charred earth and garbage. “They would come back,” he writes. “They always had.” During this current global environmental crisis when humanity has trashed so much of the planet, perhaps Hwang is suggesting that everyone pay more attention to enduring nature rather than transient commerce.

Boston Review, May 15, 2018

Articles Asia Book Reviews Featured

America’s Violent Century

John Dower is one the most preeminent historians of World War II’s Pacific theater and the aftermath of the conflict in Asia. His book War Without Mercy (1986) described the racial component of the U.S. campaign against Japan. In Embracing Defeat (1999), he examined the post-war U.S. occupation of Japan. He has long taken a critical look at U.S. foreign policy, subjecting the vaunted ideals of America’s global pretensions to skeptical scrutiny. He’s not interested in “good wars” or “good occupations.” He describes the exercise of power, and it’s almost never a pretty picture.

In recent years, Dower has been extending his critical analysis both chronologically and geographically. Cultures of War (2010) was an initial effort to link the violence of World War II to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Now, with The Violent American Century, Dower deepens his analysis by addressing the emergence and expansion of American global power all the way up to the Obama era. Dower is particularly interested in connecting the dots between the United States that emerged victorious from World War II and the America of the 21st century that appears willing to do almost anything to maintain its status as the world’s only superpower.

Dower begins his story just at the moment when the United States is poised to become a global titan. It’s 1941, the year the United States officially entered World War II. It’s also when Time’s Henry Luce proclaimed the beginning of “the American century.” For all his talk of democratic principles and the American spirit, Luce was not naïve. He knew that America would have to use force – in some cases, overwhelming force – to establish its global position. The saturation bombing of Dresden and Tokyo followed by the nuclear attacks against Nagasaki and Hiroshima became the pivotal moments of “war and terror” on which the United States would secure its authority.

Dower traces the impact of America’s nuclear policy from Hiroshima to the present, explaining how the “balance of terror” served a key role in cementing U.S. status. He discerns in U.S. indifference to human rights considerations during the Cold War – with the exception of the first two years of the Carter administration – the origins of later torture policy in the post-9/11 era. Certainly successive administrations in Washington introduced innovations in the maintenance and control of U.S. global influence, such as extraordinary rendition, drones, and enhanced surveillance capabilities, but many of the features of the “violent American century” were present at the creation.

And that’s Dower’s point. He is writing against a

chorus of detached observers who argue that violence has been contained compared to the horrors of World War Two and earlier times – and that even the death, pain, and agony we have seen since September 11 actually reflects, on the part of the United States, a praiseworthy technological and psychological turn in the direction of precision, restraint, and concern with avoiding civilian casualties.

Quite the contrary: the United States, Dower argues, may have refined its techniques, but it has done nothing to minimize the brutality. The casualties of the Iraq War alone – which number in the hundreds of thousands – undermine any notion that the United States had become a kinder, gentler superpower.

By 2016, the “American century” was only three-quarters complete. Dower brilliantly describes the infancy, adolescence, and working years of U.S. global dominance. He spends less time exploring the slowing down of the U.S. war machine during the period of international instability the Obama administration experienced. And he doesn’t speculate much on what will happen with America’s global power during what might very well be its dotage.

True, the United States seems unlikely to retire from the international stage as the American century passes the 75-year mark. But the election of Donald Trump does appear to herald a kind of second infancy, as the new president toddles about the world stage, promises to use force without restraint, and makes the most elemental of errors.

Even without Trump, whose election came after the completion of Dower’s book in September 2016, the United States was showing the strain of its “long war” against terrorism, its military bases and operations in more than 100 countries around the world, and the opportunity costs for American infrastructure and American lives at home. The obvious question, which Dower doesn’t ask or answer, is: what comes next?

China has proposed its own dream of power and prosperity. Many Russians would like to put together a Eurasian century. The European Union vacillates between disintegration and a larger global role for itself. The global South – India, South Africa, Brazil – is tired of the arrogance of the global North.

Will these aspirants to global power necessarily adopt comparable policies of war and terror to displace the United States and maintain their new status? That’s not part of Dower’s remit. But however brutal the century that follows the “American century,” you can be sure that the new hegemons will use the same language of virtue and restraint as the United States has done, even as they engage in abuses both large and small.

Korean Quarterly, Summer 2017

Book Reviews Featured Korea

Strange News from Another Star

NORTH KOREA IS NOT the information black hole it’s so often made out to be. It’s more like Alpha Centauri, a star several light years from Earth. We can remotely acquire a wealth of information about this distant location, even though there’s always a frustrating time lag.

It’s not the speed of light, but the speed of processing defectors that prevents us from getting information about North Korea in a timely manner. By the time the South Korean government has vetted, interviewed, and oriented those who have left the North and the information they carry in their heads has filtered into the public, it’s already old news.

But North Korea doesn’t change, you might protest. It’s been stuck in a Cold War time warp for the last couple of decades. It’s a land of Mao suits and labor camps, a country without internet, dissidents, or stand-up comedians. So, what difference does it make if the information from defectors is a year or two old?

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson want to explode this image of North Korea as an opaque, unchanging, and fundamentally alien land. Their new book,North Korea Confidential, is all about the transformations taking place in the country, most of them from below, and many of them quite out of keeping with the official orthodoxy. Indeed, North Korea is in so much flux these days that this short but informative book may well be out of date as soon as you get your hands on it.

Unleashing the Market

The most obvious change that has transformed North Korea over the last 15 years is the market. The leadership in Pyongyang has emphatically rejected Chinese-style economic reform. But as a result of the famine of the 1990s and the virtual collapse of the state-run economy, the market became a de facto method of survival for a large number of North Koreans. Even though the food crisis has gone from acute to chronic, private markets remain a fixture of everyday life throughout the country.

The North Korean government has begrudgingly accommodated to this new reality by taxing and regulating these private markets. One sign that the new entrepreneurs are now embedded in the system is the pervasive bribery required to keep a business going. Rather than repress this gray economy or look the other way, both the government and its organs of law enforcement have decided to grab a piece of the action.

As Tudor and Pearson point out, the North Korean leadership is not ideologically opposed to the market. Marxism-Leninism has long ceased to have any real meaning in the country. Rather, the apparat is worried about losing control over the changes that the market generates. Founder and first leader Kim Il-sung used to talk about the flies that come in when you open a window like market reform. These flies are now buzzing all around North Korea.

As a guide to this new insect life, North Korea Confidential discusses all manner of illicit activities — taking drugs, enjoying South Korean films, wearing skinny jeans — as well as the efforts by the regime to discourage their growth. The market, in its creation of a space somewhat independent of the government, serves as the method by which these influences spread throughout society and transform the culture.

Take, for instance, the issue of gender. Despite its adherence to dialectical materialism, North Korea has always been a thoroughly Confucian society. Like its feudal predecessors, North Korea has strictly observed various hierarchical relationships: between the leaders and the led, the older and the younger, and men and women. True, women have entered the workplace in large numbers, just as in other nominally Communist countries (proletarian values do occasionally trump Confucian ones). But women have generally remained subordinate, as the virtually all-male composition of North Korea’s political organs demonstrates.

The market, however, has upended the traditional status equation in North Korea. Women are usually the market sellers, and they have taken advantage of this unprecedented alternative path to success. Tudor and Pearson write:

In North Korea, adults are assigned to work units, to serve the state in return for pitiful salaries. Married women, however, are exempted from this. This means they are free to work as market traders. They can therefore earn significant multiples of what their husbands make, turning them into breadwinners and challenging the traditional Korean husband-wife dynamic.

This accumulation of power outside the traditional system — but now increasingly within a newly ordered system — has challenged not only the older Confucian tradition but also the Communist overlay of stratification known as songbun (the division of society into three classes: loyal, neutral, hostile). Women in particular are rising in status not through songbunposition, Party membership, or family connections, but because of their willingness to take risks. As Tudor and Pearson point out, this change is reflected in the language as well, as women have begun addressing men with informal speech, previously unheard of in the country.

The creation of new paths of opportunity has also created new reasons for leaving North Korea. During the famine years, it was hunger and poverty. Many have also left for political reasons or because they fear punishment for some transgression. Now, according to Tudor and Pearson, some are explaining their defection by saying it was because “I could not develop myself.” They see the new chances for advancement but can’t figure out a way to succeed except through exit.

Those who leave remain a fraction of those who remain: the population of North Korea is roughly 25 million people while the population of defectors is roughly 25,000. For those who stay in North Korea, the market has brought both opportunity and unpredictability. “North Korea’s new ‘system’ is unfair and Darwinian,” Tudor and Pearson write, “but it at least gives the average person a sense of agency, and the chance to earn a (admittedly meager) living.”

The Singularity of the North

There is no shortage of information about North Korea, but interpretation can still be challenging. The default position among casual observers is to assume that the country is simply bizarre. How else to understand the personality cults surrounding the Kim dynasty, the synchronized spectacle of the Mass Games, the expletive-laden diatribes against South Korea and the United States, or the mindless cruelties of the prison camp system?

North Korea Confidential does devote considerable space to describing and explaining some of North Korea’s idiosyncrasies. Tudor and Pearson itemize the methods by which North Koreans watch contraband material (generally by flash drives smuggled into the country). They identify train travel as one of the few opportunities for strangers to meet, talk, and trade rumors. They debunk the rumors of widespread marijuana consumption but report on the pervasive use of crystal meth.

But the purpose of North Korea Confidential is not to treat the country as a sideshow exhibit. For all the peculiarities of the system, Tudor and Pearson argue, North Koreans are not much different from people anywhere. “North Koreans are concerned with making money, raising their children well, and occasionally having a little fun,” they write. More importantly, they are no mere parrots. By looking at the ways North Koreans express themselves, in both sanctioned and unsanctioned ways, the book humanizes a population so frequently dehumanized by its own government, not to mention by those who blithely talk of war with Pyongyang without considering the devastating consequences.

The authors, who have both worked as journalists in Seoul, are able to normalize North Koreans in large part because they can speak Korean, are familiar with South Korea, and possess a general knowledge of Asia. Thus they’re able to see that many of the “strange” aspects of North Korea are part of the larger patterns of Korean or Asian culture. For instance, their discussion of “line” in North Korea — the patronage associated with family or hometown or school connections — is informed by their knowledge of a similar dynamic in South Korea.

This knowledge also enables the authors to resist conventional interpretations of North Korean actions. It is commonplace, for instance, to identify reformers and hardliners inside the North Korean regime — such a dynamic exists in virtually every country, so why not in Pyongyang as well? In fact, though, they report, this kind of segmentation hasn’t (yet) occurred in the top echelons of the political elite. Remember: North Korea has no visible dissent and little if anything that resembles civil society. It is not Burma or Iran. Being a “reformer” in North Korea, where the very word “reform” has negative connotations, carries too many risks for politicians there to identify themselves as such.

Also important for any analysis of North Korea is verification. In a country where rumor is the most respected news agency, accuracy is hard to come by. For the most part, journalists don’t have access to the country, so they must make do with interviewing defectors and outside observers. Tudor and Pearson do as best they can — in addition to their own investigations, they cross-check defector accounts and subject some popular claims to proper skepticism.

For instance, the conservative South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that in 2012 the North Korean state executed the members of a popular music ensemble because of the distribution of a pornographic video involving its members, including a former girlfriend of leader Kim Jong Un. But this former girlfriend is still around and not even out of favor with the regime, the authors write.

The Chosun Ilbo — which enjoys a close relationship with the South Korean government and intelligence service — is fond of running stories based on unnamed intelligence sources, which invariably make North Korea look evil, eccentric, or both. This in turn bolsters the position of the South Korean intelligence service at home, especially in an era when it faces continual calls for reform on the grounds of its politicization.

As this example reveals, while the media in both South Korea and the United States love to portray the North Korean leadership as crazy, Tudor and Pearson believe that: “The DPRK leadership may be many things, but irrational is not one of them.” Pyongyang would not, in their opinion, go to war against Washington or Seoul because the North Koreans know that they are seriously outgunned. They might be proud and pugnacious, but they are not suicidal. They’re interested in maintaining their status quo. In that sense, they’re not very different from political elites anywhere in the world, though they are willing to use more brutal means than most to maintain that status quo.

By putting North Korea in its proper cultural, regional, and historical context, North Korea Confidential provides a vivid, concise, and useful account of a country that has generated much heated commentary but much less accurate reporting. The book should put to rest the notion that North Korea is a black hole. And like the distant star it attempts to describe, North Korea Confidential offers considerably more light than heat.

Los Angeles Review of Books, April 10, 2015


Articles Book Reviews Korea

The Other Vietnam Syndrome

THE VIETNAM WAR, for most Americans, has always been a tragedy with only two characters: the courageous but callow GI and the wily and ultimately victorious Vietnamese Communist. Everyone else, from the hapless South Vietnamese allies to the sinister Soviet and Chinese supporters of Ho Chi Minh, have been just bit players. This boiled-down confrontation has shaped a nearly continuous stream of US books and movies, from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato to the more recent best seller Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. These accounts of Vietnam reveal the folly, the brutality, even the surrealism of the war. But the narrator’s point of view remains remarkably consistent, of naive American soldiers pushed beyond their limits by the unforgiving terrain of a foreign land and by the otherworldly determination of a foreign army.

The Vietnam tragedy also has a defined length for Americans. The war unspools newsreel-style from the contingent of troops sent by John F. Kennedy to the ignominious image of an overcrowded helicopter taking off in 1975 from the roof of the US embassy in Saigon. We’ve paid only intermittent attention to the country since its unification under Communist rule. Optimists celebrate the happy ending of a US–Vietnam rapprochement: normalized diplomatic relations, boosted commercial dealings, and even closer military ties, made possible by a mutual fear of a rising China. The pessimists, meanwhile, continue to refight the battles of the past by trying to overcome the infamous “Vietnam syndrome,” the perception that a vanquished United States no longer has the stomach for extended military interventions. From Hollywood to the Pentagon, no matter whether your glass is half full or half empty, the Vietnam War continues to be all about us, here in the United States, and our preoccupations.

But the war was never all about us. Long before Kennedy or the Green Berets entered the picture, the Vietnamese had been waging an anticolonial struggle against both French and Japanese occupiers. US soldiers were only the latest in a long line of outsiders to stand between the Vietnamese and self-determination.

And the GIs did not stand alone. Alongside the nearly three million US soldiers who served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1973, 10 other countries sent contingents, including Australia (61,000), Canada (30,000), and the Philippines (10,000). But the most enthusiastic supporter of the US intervention was South Korea. It was the only country to send a large number of combat troops. More than 300,000 Korean soldiers fought alongside American GIs, many out of gratitude for the three years that the US Army spent on the Korean peninsula preserving a divided country. During the conflict, 90,000 of these troops were killed or injured, the vast majority affected negatively by defoliants.


In South Korea today a minor cottage industry is devoted to memories of the Vietnam War. Indeed, South Koreans struggle with their own Vietnam syndrome, which crops up in several popular novels, including White Badge(1983), and a stream of movies from the horror flick R-Point (2004) to somewhat lighter fare like Sunny (2008). The war was not just a minor chapter in South Korea’s military history. And the country’s Vietnam syndrome is not just about military failure.

“The blood money we had to earn at the price of our lives fueled the modernization and development of the country,” writes Ahn Junghyo in his 1983 bestseller White Badge. “And owing to our contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least a higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market.”

The Vietnam War is the dark shadow of Korean economic development. Just as Japan’s post–World War II economic success owes much to its supplying of US troops in the Korean War, South Korea used the Vietnam War as a springboard for its own great leap forward. Several successfulbusinesses, like the chaebols Hyundai and Daewoo, grew into huge conglomerates as a result of war-related contracts with the United States. The South Korean military, sustained by US supplies and training during the Vietnam era, also served as the backbone of South Korea’s authoritarian regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980, the Chun Doo-Hwan government relied on battle-hardened Korean troops to put down the Gwangju Uprising, the penultimate challenge to the US-backed dictators. Korea’s Vietnam syndrome is less about what Korea did in Vietnam than about the way the war transformed Korea for better or worse, and the consequent feelings of guilt and anger that have settled into the silt of the Korean psyche.

And now, thanks to Hwang Sok-yong and Seven Stories Press, the English-speaking world has another literary take on Korea’s Vietnam syndrome. Hwang is one of South Korea’s leading novelists. He was also one of the country’s most prominent dissidents. He was first jailed in 1964 for labor activism. Later, facing a seven-year prison sentence, he decamped to the United States and Germany. When he returned to Korea, he was promptly thrown in jail again, where he conducted numerous hunger strikes. Finally pardoned by President Kim Dae-jung in 1998, he continued to write and publish novels, including The Guest, a powerful exploration of guilt and responsibility in the Korean War that won the prestigious Daesan Prize in South Korea in 2001.

This biography, a not uncommon one for a politically committed writer in Korea during the authoritarian period, contains an unusual interlude. From 1966 to 1969, Hwang Sok-yong served in Vietnam. He had a special role in the war: destroying evidence of civilian massacres. He once compared the experience to the service of his father’s generation in the Japanese Imperial Army, and the war figured as a subject of several of his stories when he returned to Korea.

His novel The Shadow of Arms, which appeared in Korea in 1985, just translated and released in the United States this year by Seven Stories Press, is not a conventional tale of the country’s Vietnam syndrome. There are no scenes that take place in Korea after the war among anguished veterans or guilty chaebol owners. Only one principal Korean character occupies the spotlight. Hwang is not really interested in how Vietnam shaped Korean psychology or the Korean economy. His focus is instead on Vietnam, and what Korea, the United States, and the Vietnamese themselves created there during the war.

The economic underpinning of the conflict — the “shadow” that the war casts — captivates Hwang. War, he tells us, is all about money, and The Shadow of Arms follows the money. His tale is in many ways an updated version of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage. But where Mother Courage struggles to retain her humanity as a low-level war profiteer in the Thirty Years’ War, the characters in The Shadow of Arms become increasingly dehumanized as they pursue their myriad economic deals.

War novels, since they focus on young people thrown into trials by ordeal, are necessarily coming-of-age narratives. The Shadow of Arms focuses on Ahn Yong Kyu, a Korean “crawler” plucked from his foxhole in the opening pages and sent to work in the Criminal Investigation Division. Immediately he is tasked with following the Byzantine black market deals that skim off luxury goods for the elite, resell daily necessities on the market, and divert war material to the Viet Cong. Everyone, it seems, is on the make. The Shadow of Arms depicts the war as a vast moneymaking enterprise, one that almost as a secondary byproduct kills people in combat. Ahn Yong Kyu comes of age in this shadow economy in the same way a young Corleone might learn the ropes inside the mafia.

The narrative also follows two Vietnamese brothers. Pham Quyen is a high-ranking South Vietnamese army officer who demonstrated early in his career that he “thought like an American.” Of course, Pham Quyen doesn’t really think like an American, in the sense of believing that brute force will overwhelm local realities and overcome local resistance. But he wants the Americans to think that he does. He is a thoroughly cynical operative, with an equally cynical Korean girlfriend, who facilitates the blatant corruption of the Americans’ “strategic hamlet” project. He even comes up with his own scheme to use South Vietnamese troops to “pacify” a section of mountainous region and then harvest cinnamon that he then can sell for export.

His younger brother Pham Minh, after secretly undergoing basic training with the Viet Cong, uses his brother’s connections to infiltrate the South Vietnamese Air Force. Pham Minh becomes involved in the smuggling of American arms to the Viet Cong in barrels of fish sauce. But while his brother and Ahn Yong Kyu are only in it for the money, Pham Minh is a believer willing to sacrifice his life for the cause. Even more, he is willing to endure the taunts of his countrymen who, not realizing that he is undercover, believe him to be a coward.

There is very little in the way of conventional war narrative in The Shadow of Arms. Ahn doesn’t reflect much on his battle experience prior to his promotion to CID. Only near the end are there several tersely described military operations. It’s as if Hwang wants to mimic the rhythm of the war itself — long stretches of waiting punctuated by sudden chaos, bloodshed, and death. It is a novel written as if the narrator had access only to the tax receipts and reports of financial investigators. Those hoping for a ripping war yarn will be disappointed. Those hoping for a realistic account of the actual business of war will not be.

Still, the war’s bloodletting is present throughout the book, and no more so than in the fragments of collage that Hwang pastes into the narrative. He includes three excerpts from interrogations about civilian atrocities, passages that indirectly reveal his own experience of the war. Hwang takes pains not to glorify war, and these transcripts destroy any notion of heroism. In the first, a group of American soldiers explain why they raped and murdered a young Vietnamese woman. In another, an American soldier explains why he shot a young Vietnamese boy in order to save him from further torture at the hands of his interrogators. In the third, the investigators lay bare the My Lai massacre and the actions of William Calley.

The Shadow of Arms is a long book. It goes into great detail — perhaps too much detail — about the infrastructure of the war’s shadow economy. It is blunt about where the responsibility lies: “The dollar is the leading edge in the imperialist order and the American ID is the organizer.” But these heavy-handed asides are an exception. The book takes care to reveal the complex motivations of the Vietnamese and the ambivalence of the Koreans. In this, Hwang is ably assisted by his English translator Chun Kyung-Ja, who does a fine job of capturing the colloquial banter of the three cultures — Korean, American, and Vietnamese. The profusion of military ranks in the novel can be bewildering, something a Korean reader might not find off-putting given the Korean language’s richer vocabulary of hierarchy. But even American novels like Matterhorn can’t avoid this challenge.

In the end, Hwang offers a different Vietnam syndrome to consider: how the war pitted two Asian countries fierce in their determination to escape colonialism yet unable to find common cause because of the orthodoxies of the time. One country passed from colonialism through war to unification. The other remains divided. The “Vietnam syndrome,” for both Korea and Vietnam, is all about dealing with the ghosts of the past. But the “Vietnam syndrome” of The Shadow of Arms is really about the future, for it asks the implicit question: can Korea achieve what Vietnam did without another war, and all of its attendant sufferings?


Los Angeles Review of Books, September 8, 2014


Articles Book Reviews Featured Korea

The Real North Korea

Any book that purports to tell the story of the “real North Korea” runs the risk of serious overhype. North Korea, after all, is perhaps the least understood, least accessible, and least research-friendly country in the world. It has been called an “intelligence black hole.” Journalists rarely visit, and when they do they can’t just interview anyone they please. Historians rarely visit, and when they do they don’t have access to the archives. Only a small number of tourists are allowed in each year and then only to select sites. The stratosphere and the bottom of the ocean are both probably better understood than this country of 25 million people in Northeast Asia.

But if anyone has a shot at delivering the goods on the “real North Korea,” it is Andrei Lankov. He studied in Pyongyang in the mid-1980s as a Soviet exchange student. He’s fluent in Korean and now teaches in South Korea. He seems to have more on-the-ground contacts than most North Korea experts. And he has written extensively on many North Korean subjects, from history to economy to politics.

In his new book, The Real North Korea, Lankov attempts to do the impossible: describe a country that has spent considerable time and effort defying description. With a few exceptions, he does a very good job, notwithstanding all the wiggle words — “it is not impossible that” and “there are some indications that” and “it seems that as a rule” — that he uses to couch his conclusions.

For those unfamiliar with North Korean history – and this book is designed to appeal to novice and expert alike – Lankov quickly goes over the necessary background, from the country’s creation in the wake of World War II through the quick rise and steady fall of the North Korean political economy in the decades since. He is especially good on the purges that founder Kim Il Sung launched in the late 1940s and 1950s to eliminate all sources of potential dissent. “Out of the ten people who ran the country in 1949, only two avoided persecution and died natural deaths,” he writes. “Of the others, two were killed by people whom they regarded as enemies. Of the remaining six, all were purged by their own comrades.” Without access to North Korean archives, we can only guess at how these purges affected those lower down in the hierarchy.

Lankov turns a very critical eye on the North Korean system: the ideological conformity, the human rights abuses, the economic failings. But he is sufficiently attuned to the practice of such regimes that he can perceive even the system’s advantages. Constant surveillance, for instance, turns out to convey certain collective health benefits. Regular health checks and immunizations ensure that North Korea’s overall health statistics are remarkable given its current per capita GDP. Nor is Lankov deaf to the advantages of the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ), even as other critics of the regime describe it as a “slave labor camp.” This description, he retorts, “is grossly unfair: even after the deductions, the KIZ jobs are by far the best paid regular jobs in North Korea.”

North Korea has developed a reputation for being the most totalitarian society yet conceived and established on the planet. This would seem to be the case when judging the virtual absence of organized dissent in the country. But particularly since the famine of the late 1990s and the collapse of industry and agriculture that ensued, the North Korean state has aspired to totalitarianism without achieving it. One major reason for this falling away of state control is the rise of corruption.

“Sometimes, North Koreans could and can get away with what used to be seen as political crimes,” he writes. “For example, possession of a tunable radio set has been a political crime for decades. This still technically remains the case, but nowadays a bribe of roughly $100 can buy a way out of punishment for someone unlucky enough to have been caught while listening to such a radio (police would probably even give the offending radio set back to the culprit).”

Perhaps the most important achievement of Lankov’s book lies in its humanizing of North Koreans. They are not “brainwashed automatons” or “docile slaves.” Nor does he make the mistake of so many observers by applying categories from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and assuming that North Koreans are all “closet dissenters.” Instead, he talks to a variety of North Koreans both inside and outside the country to paint a picture of “normal” North Korean life.

He introduces us to Mr. Kim, in his early 40s, who is the private owner of a gold mine, though technically the gold mine is a state enterprise. Ms. Young runs several factories producing copies of Chinese clothing. And one of his North Korean interlocutors, who remains nameless, worked on the construction of Kumgang Mountain resort in the North. All these “informants,” to use the anthropological rather than the espionage variant of this word, provide a picture of a society increasingly market-oriented, socially unequal, and open to outside influences such as Chinese products and South Korean television.

The shortcomings of Lankov’s book are two-fold. He presents his policy position as more singular than it really is by positioning himself in the reasonable middle between two policy extremes. The soft-liners favor negotiation and concessions, which he views skeptically; the hardliners favor increased pressure and sanctions, which he notes have not worked either. The only thing that will work, he believes, is providing North Koreans with more information. Governments should continue to fund radio operations like Voice of America and promote official exchanges with the expectation that the participants will someday act on what they have learned. NGOs should continue their work in-country to expose North Koreans to alternative ways of doing things. These are indeed reasonable suggestions. But Lankov is hardly the first person to make them, and the camps of “soft-liners” and “hard-liners” are not quite as impermeable as he implies.

A second, less important flaw involves his caricature of the South Korean left as still under the thrall of North Korean ideology. A “significant number of the 386ers,” he argues, are North Korean sympathizers. It’s one thing to make inferences about North Korean society based on scant information. But Lankov lives in South Korea. He should know that most 386ers – those born in the 1960s and who came of political age in the 1980s – favor engagement with North Korea without sympathizing with the regime.

In the end, Lankov repeats what should be the golden rule for dealing with North Korea: only North Koreans can change North Korea. Attempting to impose a solution from outside – whether from Beijing, Seoul, or Washington – will just not work. North Koreans are a proud people, even more so after several decades of austerity and government-sponsored nationalism. Like Afghans and Iraqis, they will not take kindly, to say the least, to military invaders. And they know the limitations and leverage points of their society better than any outside political missionary bent on a softer version of regime change.

This golden rule extends as well to North Koreans living in South Korea. It is in the interest of both Koreas for this group of people to succeed rather than live in a kind of underclass in South Korean society. Successful North Koreans in South Korea can provide remittances to their family and friends in the North along with information about their successful lives. As importantly, they will someday be available to fill positions of importance, both political and economic, when change finally comes to North Korea. It’s impossible to know when that day will come. But only then perhaps will we finally know the “real North Korea,” even as it changes irrevocably before our eyes.

Korean Quarterly, Spring 2013

Articles Blog Book Reviews Eastern Europe Europe Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The Secret History of Yugoslavia

In the 6th century, in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the historian Procopius penned an account of the misdeeds of the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. The Secret History is a compelling account of the court intrigues of a treacherous emperor in a crumbling empire. That Justinian enjoyed a high reputation, the result of the military victories of his brilliant general Belisarius, vast expenditures on public infrastructure, and the numerous panegyrics of sycophantic followers, only made the Secret History that much more delicious when it was rediscovered and published in 17th-century Italy.

More than a millennium after Justinian, Slobodan Milosevic and his wife Mirjana emerged as the heirs to this Byzantine tradition of secret intrigues, complete with their own crowd of sycophantic followers. Pictures of the dough-faced Milosevic were once ubiquitous in Serbia, right next to Tito on the walls of public places. Pro-democracy activists detested him and his equally power-hungry wife. But Serbia was swept up in a nationalist fervor in the 1990s, sparked and then stoked by Milosevic. The Milosevic duo used this nationalism very deliberately – without necessarily embracing it fully themselves – as they tried to prevent the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. Like Justinian and his wife, the Milosevics enjoyed a reputation for treachery among adversaries and putative allies alike. Just ask the Bosnian Serbs, who felt that they’d been sold out at Dayton. Milosevic lacked a Serbian Belisarius to execute his plans, having to make do with the considerably less capable Ratko Mladic, and the Milosevics as well as the Yugoslavia they tried to hold together by force eventually exited history.

Numerous accounts of the fall of Yugoslavia have attempted to shine a light on the machinations of the Milosevics. But now, thanks to human rights campaigner Sonja Biserko, we have a Serbian Secret History. Biserko was never a court follower of the Milosevic couple, and she is not interested in the sins of the private life of the elite that so engaged Procopius. But having worked in Yugoslav political structures into the early 1990s, she knows that world from the inside and can dramatically describe the sins of the public life of the Serbian elite. Her new book,The Implosion of Yugoslavia, is a devastating indictment of not only Slobodan Milosevic and his circle of supporters but the entire culture of extreme nationalism that enveloped Serbia in those years like a fever dream.

The “secret history” of Yugoslavia’s implosion is essentially a narrative of covert operations by Milosevic and his supporters to stage-manage, behind the scenes, a Yugoslavia controlled by Serbia. Nationalists viewed this project as the construction of a greater Serbia, with Belgrade extending control over areas with significant Serb populations in Croatia and Bosnia (not to mention direct rule over Kosovo). Milosevic was more interested in state power, however, not so much the millennial aspirations of an ethnic group. But the nationalists were his shock troops, and he used them tactically and to devastating effect.

What makes this history secret, in addition to all the fancy code names that Belgrade bestowed on its covert operations, is its relationship to the conventional narrative. Yugoslavia fell apart, according to this more common account, because of a tug-of-war between secessionist republics (Slovenia, Croatia) and the Machiavellian politics of Milosevic. As Biserko emphasizes, however, this was in some sense a false dichotomy. In her account, Serbia struck first, and the burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Milosevic.

Her book, above all, traces the history of an idea and its implementation. As The Implosion of Yugoslavia makes clear, a group of nationalist intellectuals, among them novelist Dobrica Cosic, prepared the ground for what would amount to acoup d’etat against Ivan Stambolic, a communist leader who had once been the mentor to Milosevic. (In a scenario that could have been ripped from the pages ofThe Secret History, Stambolic would be kidnapped and murdered in 2000, on the orders of Milosevic.) This putsch of the nationalists did not simply effect a change in personnel. It represented a historic shift from communism, which had considerably diminished appeal in Yugoslavia, to nationalism, which as Milosevic understood could more effectively sway public emotions.

His political position more secure after this internal consolidation of power, Milosevic pushed through a new Serbian constitution in 1990 that amounted to de facto secession. A year before Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, Serbia under Milosevic declared itself an independent entity. Article 135, Biserko points out, established Serbia’s right to do whatever it deemed necessary should other republics do anything contrary to Serbian interests.

From that point on, Milosevic eagerly put Article 135 into practice. With Operation RAM, the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) tried to prevent Croatia’s independence by ensuring that none of the weapons in the territorial defense units fell into the hands of the emerging Croatian army. When this effort failed to forestall independence, it pursued Operation LABRADOR to cut Croatia in half, with the help of ethnic Serbs bent on creating their own state within a state. If it hadn’t been for the horrors later in Bosnia and the decision made by the United States to intervene on the side of the Croatians, Milosevic might have gotten away with his plan.

The pattern was to be repeated later in the decade with Kosovo. “There was a plan for ethnic cleansing,” Biserko quotes Ratomir Tanic, a Serbian negotiator with the Albanians. “There was above all a plan to reduce the number of Albanians to under a million, and after that it could be claimed that there are less than 50 percent of the them and because of that they do not have the right to autonomy.”

All of these plans remained secret at the time – or at least semi-secret – because Milosevic was positioning himself as the moderate statesman who leashed the crazies, like the paramilitary criminal Arkan at home or the sociopaths Radovan Karadzic and Milan Babic in their ethnic Serbian fiefdoms in Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic enjoyed the spotlight in Dayton; later he even seemed to relish the spotlight at the Hague tribunal, even as he scrambled to keep secret his own culpability.

Biserko’s focus on Serbia tilts the playing field in The Implosion of Yugoslavia. The secret histories of the other players in the drama receive scant mention, whether Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman’s Operation Storm that expelled a large portion of the Serb population from the country or the covert operations of the Kosovo Liberation Army. A necessary corrective, Biserko’s account still needs to be absorbed alongside works that consider the dissolution of the country from other angles.

After the 2012 elections in Serbia and the return to office of many figures influential in the 1990s, Biserko remains pessimistic about Serbia’s future. Yes, Belgrade complied with the Hague Tribunal by extraditing Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the current leadership has given up on any hope of directly controlling Kosovo, and accession to the European Union is no longer a controversial topic in Belgrade.

But many of the myths of Serbian victimhood remain potent. And few Serbian politicians are willing to squarely address responsibility for the wars of the 1990s. “Only the creation of a new intellectual and cultural elite may in turn create conditions for genuine democratic change,” she concludes. It is a sentiment shared by many others throughout the region, for the era of neo-Byzantine intrigue is, alas, still with us.

Foreign Policy In Focus, April 5, 2013
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Guarding the Empire from Four Miles Up

They are unpopular all over the world, with one exception. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, the only country where a majority of citizens support drone strikes is the country that uses the new technology most regularly: the United States.

Only 28 percent of U.S. citizens oppose drone strikes, compared to 62 percent who approve of their use. Once again, they prove the exception to the rule.

Armed Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile. Credit: Public domain

As Nick Turse and Tom Engelhardt write in alternating chapters in their terrifying new book “Terminator Planet”, drones have been part of U.S. exceptionalism from their very beginning. They were introduced in the late 1990s to conduct surveillance during the Kosovo conflict, and they soon became a major element of the U.S. dominance of airspace.

As the two authors point out, even before the introduction of drones, U.S. pilots had such overwhelming air superiority that Pentagon chief Robert Gates, in a 2011 speech, could declare that the United States hadn’t lost a plane during air combat or a soldier from enemy aircraft attack in 40 years.

With a persistent economic crisis putting cost-cutting pressure on the Pentagon budget, drones have become a low-cost method of preserving U.S. military dominance and thus the status of the United States as the single global superpower. As Engelhardt points out, drones are an integral part of “guarding the empire on the cheap as well as on the sly, via the CIA.”

But drones have played another key role in extending the tradition of U.S. exceptionalism. The Barack Obama administration, inheriting the counter-terrorism programme from its predecessor, expanded the use of drones to kill top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.

“No more poison-dart-tipped umbrellas, as in past KGB operations, or toxic cigars as in CIA ones – not now that assassination has taken to the skies as an everyday, all-year-round activity,” writes Engelhardt.

The United States has asserted its right to conduct these assassinations outside of war zones in the face of global public opinion, U.N. reports, and international law.

In this collection of essays that originally appeared on the TomDispatch website, Nick Turse provides a comprehensive mapping of the new drone world the Pentagon and the CIA have created. The Reapers and Predators and Global Hawks take off from the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the bases at Incirlik in Turkey and Sigonella in Italy, from new sites in Djibouti and Ethiopia and the Seychelles, across Afghanistan, and now even in Asia.

The military has come to rely more and more on the new technology. One in three military aircraft are robots. In 2004, Reapers flew 71 hours. In 2006, this number had gone up to 3,123 hours. By 2009, the flying time had increased to 25,391 hours.

With manpower tied up in operations in Afghanistan, anti-base movements challenging large concentrations of U.S. soldiers abroad, and bureaucrats in Washington desperately looking for places to cut the U.S. budget, drones appear as an attractive alternative.

“We are moving toward an ever greater outsourcing of war to things that cannot protest, cannot vote with their feet (or wings), and for whom there is no ‘home front’ or even a home at all,” Engelhardt observes.

The global unpopularity of drones stems in large part from their fallibility. The pilots and screeners viewing the footage from the safety of bases in the United States make a lot of mistakes and end up killing a lot of civilians, several hundred in Pakistan alone, including nearly 200 children.

So far, U.S. citizens are immune to these effects of drones. They have been reassured by the Obama administration that drones surgically remove the cancer and leave the surrounding healthy tissue intact.

Moreover, the United States continues to maintain a major technological edge in the research and development of drones. The risk of a drone attack on the United States remains low, though the George W. Bush administration justified its attack on Iraq in part on the belief that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction against the United States via drones.

But drone attacks have also generated enormous anti-U.S. sentiment, as the Pew poll suggests. The Times Square bomber, whose car bomb failed to detonate in Times Square in New York in 2010, was motivated to act in part because of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Also, other countries – Israel, Russia, China, even Iran – have entered the drone business. It may only be a matter of time before the United States loses its dominant market share.

Turse and Engelhardt are divided on the question of whether drones represent a fundamental revolution in military affairs or simply an extension of an earlier trend toward air superiority.

“Such machines are not, of course, advanced cyborgs,” Engelhardt writes. “They are in some ways not even all that advanced.”

Moreover, modern air defence systems can rather easily bring down these drones. They have been effective only in places where they are largely unchallenged.

On the other hand, in the same way that the exponential growth of the web not only revolutionised communication but transformed the way humans think, drones may well be precipitating a change in how the United States, and increasingly the rest of the world, is thinking about war and national boundaries. The two authors describe various futuristic scenarios that pit autonomous drones, preprogrammed to target and fight, against each other.

In one of these scenarios, drawn from a Pentagon document titled the “Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap, FY 2011-2036,” U.S. drones detect and neutralise other drones tampering with an undersea oil pipeline off the coast of West Africa. This projection into the future of drones anticipates that the United States maintains its lead in drone technology.

The other scenario that the authors return to again and again is from Hollywood: the “Terminator” movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent from the future to the present to kill the woman who would eventually give birth to a rebel leader. That leader, John Connor, is in charge of the human resistance to the robots that rule the planet.

The Pentagon is betting on the first scenario. Turse and Engelhardt are concerned that a naïve faith in technology, a consistent belief in U.S. exceptionalism, and the exponential spread of drones around the world may well bring about a world much closer to Hollywood’s nightmare vision.

Inter Press Service, June 15, 2012

Articles Book Reviews Featured

Review: Chomsky’s “Occupy”

Noam Chomsky has seen a lot of social movements. He cut his teeth on the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He participated in the anti-intervention struggles of the 1980s as well as in the World Social Forums that began in the 1990s. Now in his 80s, Chomsky has hardly slowed down with his schedule of writing and speaking and agitating. And he is certainly not one to watch the new Occupy movement from the sidelines.

The latest publication from the new Occupied Media Pamphlet Series brings together several of Chomsky’s intersections with the Occupy movement. There’s a lecture he gave at Occupy Boston in October 2011, an interview in January 2012 with a student about the meaning of Occupy, a conference call with hundreds of Occupiers later that same month, a subsequent speech on “occupying foreign policy” at the University of Maryland, and a brief tribute to his friend and co-agitator Howard Zinn.

Having spent so much time thinking about and engaging with social movements, Chomsky is both optimistic about the energy of Occupy and realistic about the challenges it faces. He appreciates the “just do it” ethos and embraces its radical approach to participatory democracy. But he reminds his audiences that all social movements reach further than they can grasp. The influence of money on U.S. politics, the huge weight of the military-industrial complex, the rapaciousness of financial speculation: these are forces not easily dislodged by people gathering together in public spaces and voicing their opinions. And yet, as Chomsky points out, the mostly non-violent, non-funded, and non-partisan set of actions radiating out from Zuccotti Park in Manhattan managed to change the national discussion about economic inequality.

This inequality, he argues, is the result of a 30-year-long class war that has hollowed out the middle class and put great pressure on the poor in the United States. The neoliberal push for privatization and lower trade barriers has carried that war to every corner of the globe. The Occupy movement is pushing back against the actors, the actions, and most importantly the consequences of this class warfare. Not surprisingly, given the vested interests being challenged, the pushback of the 99 percent has generated pushback in turn from the 1 percent.

What makes Chomsky’s perspective so interesting, aside from the wealth of his political experience, is the range of his interests. He draws from examples around the world to demonstrate his points. When talking about community-based media, for instance, he describes a scene from a Brazilian slum where media professionals set up a truck in a public square – to show skits and plays written by people in the community – and then walked around to interview people for their reactions. Why can’t we do something similar in the United States, Chomsky wonders.

It’s a big agenda that Occupy has identified, nothing less than a complete renewal of U.S. society and the U.S. role in the world. Chomsky sees not only the radical agenda but also the radical practice of the Occupiers. “Part of what functioning, free communities like the Occupy communities can be working for and spreading to others is just a different way of living, which is not based on maximizing consumer goods, but on maximizing values that are important for life,” he concludes in this valuable set of remarks and interviews.


Foreign Policy In Focus, August 6, 2012

Articles Book Reviews

Review: The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda

Middle East Reads, November 8, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda by Fawaz Gerges (Oxford University Press, 2011), 272 pages.

Reviewed by John Feffer

Even after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the routing of his organization in Afghanistan, and the assassination of the leadership of the Arabian Peninsula affiliate, the U.S. government continues to promote the threat of al-Qaeda. According to the national security apparatus, al-Qaeda still maintains the capacity to regroup in Central Asia and to launch attacks on the United States from its redoubts in Yemen and Somalia. It still inspires jihadists all over the world with its anti-imperial rhetoric and its dreams of reestablishing a global caliphate. And it threatens all civilization with its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Most of this threat inflation is nonsense, as Fawaz Gerges points out in his new book, The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda. He reserves special scorn for al-Qaeda’s nuclear threat. “For a group that has never displayed any technical sophistication in its attacks, this would involve a monumentally steep learning curve,” he writes. “Even were al-Qaeda to acquire the technical sophistication to build a nuclear bomb – and here we enter the sphere of science fiction – it lacks the structural capacity to develop such a weapon, let alone the necessary ingredients.”

Thanks largely to the spectacle of 9/11, al-Qaeda acquired a mythic reputation. But as Gerges details, the organization basically got lucky. Intelligence services should have averted the attacks beforehand. The Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq gave the organization another shot in the arm. But that’s as far as its luck has gone. Al-Qaeda’s persistent attacks on fellow Muslims – as traitors to the faith – alienated the organization within the Muslim world. Its message of transnational terrorism was never particularly popular to begin with, even among the bulk of jihadists, who preferred to wage their struggles within particular countries such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

As he debunks this central myth of al-Qaeda’s power, Gerges corrects the record on a number of other points. The organization, for instance, did not exist in any institutional sense until the second half of the 1990s, even though its origin is commonly traced back to 1988. Sayyid Qutb did not provide the spiritual inspiration for al-Qaeda, for he didn’t support war against the United States. And bin Laden himself was against the shedding of Muslim blood at first, initially withholding his support for fighting against the Egyptian and Algerian governments in the 1990s.

And perhaps most importantly, al-Qaeda was not the culmination of the jihadist struggle. It was the last dying light of the movement. “When bin Laden’s group burst onto the Islamic scene in the early 1990s, the jihadist movement had largely spent itself – jihadism had failed,” Gerges writes. “Al-Qaeda’s decision to internationalize jihad was less an indicator of internal cohesion and strength of jihadism than of its inner turmoil.” In other words, not only has the reputation of al-Qaeda been over-hyped, but so has the whole tradition of violent jihadism.

The election of Barack Obama has not substantially altered the U.S. approach to al-Qaeda. Although he promised to close Guantanamo, end torture, and pull out of Iraq, and although he did retire to noxious phrase “global war on terror,” the president has largely preserved the counter-terrorism narrative. Instead of extraordinary rendition, the United States now uses drones to identify and kill suspected terrorists (along with assorted other people). And al-Qaeda remains a number one priority. Although the organization even at its height only commanded a couple thousand fighters, possessed little in the way of conventional weaponry and zero weapons of mass destruction, and controlled no significant territory, the United States remains on a war footing comparable to the Cold War when we faced a Soviet Union that matched us in terms of conventional and nuclear armaments and possessed an ideology that was more globally influential than anything bin Laden ever touted. But fear – and the need to find a compelling reason to maintain the national security status quo – has kept the United States on a war footing.

And whatever al-Qaeda was its height, which was minimal, it is now a shadow of its former self. Even its only real successor organization, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is marginal at best. Gerges numbers its core operatives at between 50 and 300. It has no mass following. “It does not possess the material, human means, or endurance to sustain a transnational campaign, nor does it have the assets or resources to build viable alliances with Yemeni tribes and a social welfare infrastructure,” Gerges writes, and this was before the assassination of its leader, Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda is an important book, well-researched and fiercely argued. Its central message, that al-Qaeda poses only a limited, tactical threat – must be heard and absorbed by the entire U.S. national security apparatus. Until then, we will continue to fight against monsters that are largely of our own creation

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Review: The Survival of North Korea

Foreign Policy in Focus, September 29, 2011

Despite the predictions of many obituary writers, North Korea is still around. It was supposed to collapse with the Eastern European communist regimes, but it didn’t. It was supposed to crumble during the great famine of the mid-1990s, but it didn’t. The hard-line policies of the George W. Bush administration were supposed to do the trick, but they didn’t. The North Korean economy is in lousy shape, the ruling elite is a gerontocracy, and several thousand North Korean citizens vote with their feet every year. But the government in Pyongyang soldiers on.

The contributors to The Survival of North Korea attempt to understand the reasons for North Korea’s longevity and the appropriate policy responses. They all come to a similar conclusion. If North Korea isn’t about to collapse, then policymakers must stop complaining and deal with it.

Veteran Korea analyst Bruce Cumings reviews this history of inaccurate predictions and concludes that “foreign policy observers have gone wrong, in my view, by underestimating North Korea in nearly every way possible.” So, for instance, observers underestimate the capacity of the North Korean system to absorb external shocks, respond to internal challenges, and shift from a ruling ideology connected to global communism to one that relies heavily on indigenous Korean nationalism. Observers come and go. North Korea remains.

Often described as the least flexible regime in the world, North Korea has in fact devised a variety of tactics to preserve itself. First and foremost has been the drive to create a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang watched with dismay as regime after regime that didn’t possess a nuclear deterrent succumbed to external change: Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and most recently Libya under Muammar Gaddafi. Today, as physicist Siegfried Hecker estimates, North Korea has four to eight primitive nuclear devices. If not for the effective negotiations of the 1990s, he suspects that North Korea would have an arsenal today of 100 nukes. But even four devices are enough to keep the regime change enthusiasts at bay.

Another strategy has been North Korea’s attempt to woo foreign capital through special economic zones. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just north of the Demilitarized Zone, has been the most successful of these projects. Run by South Korean managers and employing more than 45,000 North Korean workers, Kaesong has survived the downturn in inter-Korean relations over the last several years. Even with the money taken out of their checks by the government, workers at Kaesong earn 70-100 times the average for other North Korean workers, as Sung-Hoon Lim points out.

A third strategy North Korea has employed has been to trade on its location. As Suk Hi Kim relates, North Korea can serve as the key missing piece in a pipeline project that brings oil and natural gas from the Russian Far East down to energy-hungry South Korea. If and when North and South Korea finally get the inter-Korean railroad up and running, it can connect the Korean peninsula to Europe and thus reduce the shipment time of goods by two weeks and the cost by $34 to $50 per ton.

Engaging North Korea along any of these lines involves a trade-off. Providing economic assistance to the country is likely to buttress the regime. But the expectation is that, like China in the 1970s and 1980s, increased engagement with the outside world will be accompanied by substantial internal change. Indeed, Semoon Chang and Hwa-Kyung Kim recommend an expansion of inter-Korean economic cooperation as a way to provide more information to North Koreans about the world at large. Such cooperation also provides a counterbalance to China, which has been keeping North Korea on life support with food and energy while at the same time extracting as much mineral wealth as it can.

Various organizations have also been involved in information exchanges with North Korea. German foundations, for instance, have held a series of seminars on economic issues inside North Korea. The Hanns Seidel Foundation carried out several “capacity-building” projects on international trade and business management. Bernhard Seliger, the foundation’s representative in Seoul, concludes that the results of the seminars were “mixed.” But the exchanges did encourage different ways of looking at policy issues, “the creation of new ideas in a mid-level field of bureaucrats and managers.” He continues: “North Korea is far from being a homogenous mass, though its politics always stress this aspect of its policy-making. It remains important to encourage discussions about openness.”

The Survival of North Korea is a hard-nosed look at the challenges of engaging with a country that is suspicious of outside motives and brutal toward internal dissent. North Korea has proven over the years to be unusually persistent. Policymakers who have based their strategies on its collapse have so far been confounded at every step. This book offers a realistic approach to dealing with a difficult, opaque country that is not going away any time soon.