A 48 Hrs. Tribute: The Boys are Back (in Panmunjeom)

Taking a page out of Bill Simmons’ playbook, I’m commemorating the inter-Korean talks that were held yesterday with quotes from the movie 48 Hrs. (As those who are following this story know, that could be quite a crucial timeframe for determining how long this latest burst of optimism is sustained.)

“I been waiting for a lot of money for a long time, man” – Reggie Hammond

To the North Korean regime.  After a seven year hiatus that began when incoming President Lee Myung-bak famously scrapped the 2007 summit agreements that would have brought billions of dollars of investment into North Korea, inter-Korean dialogue finally resumed yesterday at the border village of Panmunjeom. In an indication of just how badly the relationship has deteriorated during the interim – a period that pitted increasingly hostile and desperate moves from the North Korean side against an almost total absence of creativity or initiative from US and South Korean leaders - the mere fact that the two parties are talking with rather than threatening each other has been treated as an overwhelmingly positive development in much of the media.  And despite the flippant tone of this post, I would very much agree with this portrayal – after all, it’s been so long since we’ve seen any semblance of progress on the Korean Peninsula that even a meeting between some moderately high level officials feels like a major breakthrough.

“The only thing you’re good for is games!  So far, all I got outta you is nothing.” – Jack Cates

Again, to the North Korean side, which has a penchant for backing out of deals, most recently with the proposed family reunions last fall and the short lived Leap Day agreement two years ago. Yesterday, the topics up for discussion included next week’s family reunions, the Park administration’s desire to build a “peace park” in the middle of the DMZ, and the joint US-ROK military exercises scheduled to begin later this month. Representatives from the South also attempted to convey more specifics about Auntie Park’s infamous “trustpolitik” (obviously concluding that their Northern brethen don’t read Foreign Affairs) while their counterparts expanded on the “important proposal” offered by the Rotund Marshal last month.

"Look I've been waiting for a lot of money for a long time, man."

“Class isn’t something you buy.  Look at you, you’ve got a $500 suit and you’re still a low-life!”

One ongoing point of contention concerns the fact that the family reunions are scheduled to take place from February 20-25, while the Key Resolve military exercises which the North Koreans have been complaining about repeatedly (and over which they threatened to cancel the family reunions  just late last week) are slated to begin on February 24th.

“You switch from an armed robber to a pimp, you’re all set.” – Cates

Applies to all parties, but in this case the US-ROK side specifically.  Logical, objective, reasonable people might look at this situation and think, “Well, if we’re trying to build trust, and these family reunions really are a ‘good first step’ to achieving that, why not just move the military training back another 48 hours so that the two things don’t overlap?”  In fact, that was what the eminently logical and reasonable Robert Carlin pointed out in an interesting piece on 38North.org, saying that by asking for the exercises to be postponed rather than canceled, the North may signaling its intention to compromise.

“I’m going to lay it out straight, Jack.  I don’t like you, and I don’t trust you.” – Reggie 

But in going that route, of course, you’d open up yourself up to charges of looking weak and condoning appeasement.  Oh, heaven forbid!  So what you get instead is Secretary of State Kerry declaring in Seoul yesterday that under no circumstances will Key Resolve be postponed and chastising the North by saying that “there is no reasonable excuse for linking the two.”  Showing that he was also not looking for compromise, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se told the NY Times, “there is no difference at all between South Korea and the US on this issue.”

“You said bullshit and experience are all it takes, right?” – Reggie

Would it really kill anyone?

Would it really kill anyone?

And what better way to describe 60 years of one-step forward, two-step back negotiation patterns on the Korean Peninsula?  On this one, the US and South Korea will probably win out and they will be able to have their cake (family reunions) and eat it too (Key Resolve.) The notion that the North would actually cancel the family reunions for the second time in six months – especially after the turmoil caused by the Jang purge, and the subsequent need to give the public some positive news – strikes me as incredibly cynical/unrealistic. But at the same time, because of the way the regime uses the military exercises to keep the fear factor on high they may be getting exactly what they want out of this, too.

In the short run, things are undoubtedly looking up. However, the lack of willingness to consider even small compromises on the part of the US and South Korea casts serious doubt on whether this recent bit of momentum can be sustained over the course of the coming year. And that’s taking a huge leap in itself by assuming that the North Koreans are even sincere about wanting better relations in the first place. But by demonstrating a complete refusal to discuss rescheduling for a couple of days, what hope does that give that the two sides will be able to make progress in more significant areas? I’ll let Reggie Hammond have the last word: “This ain’t no goddamn way to start a partnership.”

On racism – both reverse and latent – exploitation, and whining native teachers

A couple of days ago I met a girl from California who was complaining about the fact that she wasn’t going to get paid her 퇴직금 (year end bonus) because she was quitting after 10 months of a year-long contract, unreasonably claiming she was entitled to having ten-twelfths of it pro-rated. “It’s just not fair,” she moaned. “I’m getting screwed.”  With her in mind, and after reading an article in my favorite Korean newspaper the other day, I was inspired to do a little key tapping.

This post is for those native English teachers who think that they have it rough, bitching and moaning about their terrible hagwon situations, despite making roughly the average income of a typical Korean, working less hours, and getting free accommodation out of the deal, even though they typically have little to justify these benefits beyond the fact that they were born in an English-speaking country. Unsurprisingly, this seems to have become a more widespread phenomenon after the economic crash of 2008 and the ensuing influx of young graduates who couldn’t find a job back in the old country – according to a very cursory glance of the statistics, the number of native English teachers in Korea more than doubled from just over 10,000 in 2007 to more than 23,000 in 2010. (In case you’re wondering, if this post was meant for anything beyond the blog, I would try and find the official statistics  - but being that the numbers seem to jive with my own observation, and I don’t feel like going through Korean government websites looking for stats, you’ll just have to live with the figures.)   To paraphrase my friend Howard, “that’s about the time that naive college kids with a sense of entitlement started to outnumber those who came to Korea just for the adventure.”

That’s not to say that foreigners don’t get a bit of undeserved stick sometimes thanks to our friends at the Anti-English Spectrum, deliberately misleading programming from MBC, sloppy journalism and the occasional pedophile or drug smuggler who makes life a little more difficult for the rest of us. (And let’s not forget our boys doing their bit to make the world safe for democracy by drunkenly mixing it up with the local police.)

On the whole, though, Korea is a pretty easy place to teach English, and playing that foreign card has brought far more advantages than not over the seven years I’ve been in the country. I would add though, that being a tall white guy probably has a lot to do with it. After all, I’m not directly affected by absurdities like blackface on 21st century television or cigarette ads featuring monkeys smoking the ‘taste of Africa’. Beyond chuckling about just how obliviously racist Koreans can be, of course.

Having said that, it is apparently not such an easy place to be if you’re an African performer of traditional arts.  A couple of days ago the Hankyoreh ran a piece detailing the appaling treatment of a group of workers at the African Museum of Original Art in Poheon. According to the article, the workers were being cheated out of wages, lived in moldy, mouse-infested rooms with no heating or insulation, and had their passports confiscated by museum staff. To top it off, when they complained about not being paid their promised salaries, they were supposedly told, “this is a lot of money in your country.”

Lending credibility to the allegations, the paper ran a follow-up story with pictures showing the living conditions of the workers and, as the head of vice president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, Ju Bong-hee, pointed out in the article, they probably wouldn’t be out in Yeouido demonstrating in the middle of winter if they didn’t have some valid complaints.

Hopefully the attention from this story will result in some form of redress for these workers;  returning their passports and giving them enough back pay for a first class ticket to a country  which has a little more appreciation for their culture and talents seems like the least that could be done. Then again, given that the head of the museum, Hong Moon-jong is a ranking member of the Saenuri Party (not exactly known for its progressive stance toward unions), who knows what, if any, improvements will be on offer.

Bringing it back to the original point: unless you’re black, if you’re teaching English in Korea, you probably don’t have a lot of cause for complaint. So buck up, and remember the plight of the “African 12,” as I’m sure we’ll soon be referring to them. After all, they’re beating treated a lot worse than you are. And they’ve probably got a helluva lot more talent to boot.

Well that was unexpected…

No, I’m not referring to North Korea’s threats to call off scheduled family reunions later this month because they’re upset about the upcoming US-ROK military exercises. That was completely predictable. What is unexpected, rather, is the acquittal of former Seoul Metropolitan Police Chief Kim Yong-pan on charges that he obstructed an investigation into the NIS’ involvement in the 2012 presidential election. Apparently, I’m not the only one surprised by this result; Kwon Eun-hee, who had been the lead investigator in the case which sparked the allegations, termed the acquittal “shocking and unexpected.”

In testimony to the court, Kwon alleged that Kim had improperly pressured officers who were pursuing the investigation into unlawful election activity on the part of NIS agent Kim Ha-Young .  He was also accused of whitewashing the results of the investigation by issuing a press release three days before the election which exonerated the NIS of any wrongdoing. This was before police reversed themselves four months later by acknowledging that two NIS agents – including Kim, who was the original target of suspicion, and who had famously  locked herself inside an apartment for three days after police knocked on her door – had indeed engaged in electioneering shenanigans by posting online messages which made DP candidate Moon Jae-in sound as if he was going to hand over the country to the communists. (I thought North Korea was stuck in the past, but apparently the NIS is right back there in the 1970s along with them.)  Given that roughly 10% of Korean voters said they would have voted for Moon instead of Park had they known about NIS involvement in the election (and with Park having defeated Moon by about 3.6% of the vote), it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that the actions of the former police chief may have played a critical role in Park’s victory.

The court, however, did not see things this way, ruling that the prosecution could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Kim (the police chief, not the NIS agent) had acted improperly.  In doing so, it dismissed allegations of a cover-up, and sided with officers who backed Kim by denying that there had been any untoward pressure to soft-pedal the investigation, and that the press release had been  issued based on interim findings, before any wrong-doing on the part of the NIS could be determined.

Without wanting to run afoul of Korean libel laws – which I have been doing intensive research on lately in preparation for the East-West Center Media Center’s Yangon Conference – I will say that it somewhat defies belief to think that lower level police officers acting on their own volition just happened to drag their feet in the course of investigating Agent Kim’s actions, or that their initial investigation can best be described with that wonderful Korean phrase 대충대충 (which roughly translates to “half-assed.”)   Or that Chief Kim was unaware of what the consequences on the election would be when he ordered the police to put out a press release exonerating the agency three days before the vote (on a Sunday night, and right after the final presidential debate, no less.)

Then again, given how this messy affair has played out so far – with the original prosecutor in the case, Chae Dong-wook, forced to resign over allegations about an illegitimate child, a second prosecutor, Yoon Seok-yeol, fired for apparently doing his job too well, a constantly evolving story about the extent of the NIS’ actions during the campaign, allegations that the Cyber Command of the Korean military was also involved in electioneering, and an alleged mastermind who was recently convicted on unrelated bribery charges – I may have just become overly cynical.  But I still would’ve bet that they were going to let the former police chief take the fall for this one.

Either way, with two appeals process left in Kim’s trial, and with the verdict in the Won Sei-hoon case yet to be handed down, about the only thing we can be sure of is that the best running Korean drama won’t be coming to a close anytime soon.

Can we just agree to call them the Liancourt Rocks?

In the unending war of words over Dokdo/Takeshima/Liancourt Rocks, the nationalist government of Shinzo Abe has decided to revise their educational curriculum to reflect Japan’s “inherent territory.” (Which, as you could probably guess, includes not just Dokdo/Takeshima but also the disputed Senkaku/Daioyu Islands in the South China Sea.) So of course just when it seems like a modicum of progress is being made with North Korea over family reunions, it’s that time of the month when we have to shift our attention back to a couple of rocks out in the middle of the Sea of Japan (oops, sorry, I mean East Sea.)

"It's Dokdo!" "No! Takeshima!"

“It’s Dokdo!” “No! Takeshima!”

As anyone who has ever taught in Korea knows, Dokdo is a very important issue to Koreans, and students who can barely string together two sentences in English can usually figure out a way to let their ignorant foreign teacher know that Dokdo is Korean land.  I  have a great picture on my phone of a sticker I took in a public bathroom that says, 독도는 우리땅!!  (Sadly, I am one of the only people on the southern half of this peninsula under the age of 70 without a smart phone, otherwise I would upload it here.  As it is, you’ll just have to take my word for it.)  After having my opinion on Dokdo sought out for seemingly the hundredth time, I finally came up with a great response:  ”Since you guys and the Japanese can’t agree on this, you should just hand it over to the United States and we’ll take care of it for you.”  To which the reply was, “No, no, no!  Teacher, that’s a very bad idea!!”  So for those scoring at home:  US troops stationed in the middle of Seoul: no problem.  A couple of rocks out in the middle of nowhere: hey, now, hold on a second!

Probably the best solution to the Dokdo/Takeshima question came from a Japanese classmate of mine at Sogang.  Last year when North Korea was going full-bore with the “Sea of Fire” rhetoric, she said, “I wish that Kim Jong-un would just launch a missile at those islands and we then could stop fighting about it.”  As Michael Scott would say, “That’s a win-win-win solution.” (And you can be forgiven for feeling like Michael Scott is prominently involved in these disputes.)

The Dokdo dispute dates back centuries, with the Korean government’s Dokdo website going back to the the sixth century for historical justification of Korean sovereignty over the islands. But in real terms, this is mainly about outstanding issues from World War II. When Koreans say that Japan won’t own up to its history, what they’re really saying is that the Japanese government should renounce its claims to the rocks, and probably also set up a compensation fund for the so-called “comfort women” who were forced to serve as prostitutes for the Japanese military during the colonial era.

I’m not well versed on Japanese politics, so it’s difficult for me to put this into context from their point of view. But I do know that for most Koreans, every time the issue of Dokdo or the comfort women comes up, it’s just like tearing open a wound that’s never really healed. That’s a big reason why, even though Japan has apologized several times through the years, and given billions in economic assistance, they are never seen as being truly repentant about the past. And those visits to Yasukuni Shrine by sitting Prime Ministers don’t help the cause either.

For its part, the United States is paralyzed on this issue because of competing interests. A wonderful site that I just recently discovered, Jon Reinsch’s Blog succinctly sums up the problem: The United States would like a more assertive Japanese government to help contain China. Ideally, this would involve closer military cooperation with South Korea, which was the subject of a failed US-backed initiative two years ago. However, a more assertive Japanese government by nature is going to do things that ratchet up tensions with South Korea: pressing the Dokdo issue, celebrating rather than condemning the past, and increasing defense spending.

Last year, I wrote an article for George Washington University’s IR student journal that said the US would be better off disengaging militarily from the Korean Peninsula as a way to reduce tensions and open the door for rapprochement between North and South. While I stand behind what I wrote, I realize now that there is a big blind spot that the paper didn’t consider: US military presence as a stabilizer between Japan and South Korea. Political analysis in Northeast Asia these days tends to focus exclusively on the rivalry between China on one side and the US on the other. But as the Abe government has shown, tendencies which have been dormant for seventy years in Japan may require a US presence simply to keep a lid on tensions between the two closest American allies in the region. For someone who can be politically summed up as isolationist, anti-imperialist, and believes in the self-determination of all people, that is a depressing conclusion to ponder.

Here we go again?


Note: Before subjecting anyone to my armchair analysis, let me refer you to a fascinating interview with a bonafide NK expert, Robert Carlin, who spoke with the Hankyoreh last week. The entire article is worth reading, but particularly noteworthy are his thoughts on the 1994 Agreed Framework, and the differing attitudes of Bush and Clinton officials in terms of following through with American obligations under the deal.  Among other things, this period of attempted reconciliation coincided with the last time that joint US/ROK military exercises – then known as “Team Spirit” –  were cancelled.  These exercises are one of the points of contention in the North’s recent “important proposal,” submitted to Seoul last week.  

The Lunar New Year is almost upon us, which means that it’s about that time for North Korea to start playing nice again. And Kim 3.0 hasn’t disappointed, recently offering a message of reconciliation in his New Year’s speech, which has served as catnip for those who make a living following the bizarre nation’s every move. (For example, in their latest bid to justify high subscription prices, NK News came out with three experts’ take on the latest developments, conveniently forgetting that the rotund marshal had said pretty much the exact same thing last year right before conducting a nuclear test and sparking two months of escalating tensions and rhetoric.) This being North Korea, it’s fitting that these latest attempts at “reconciliation” came during the same week that multiple South Korean news outlets reported that Kim’s well publicized purge of his uncle, Jang Song-taek, extended to his entire family, including children. 표범은 반점을 바꿀 수 없는 법이다. (A leopard can’t change its spots, after all.)

Despite the Park government dismissing the ‘important proposal’ out of hand, the regime has continued with the charm offensive, announcing that it would agree to hold family reunions sometime after the 설날 holiday. While this is certainly a hopeful sign, it’s probably worth taking a wait-and-see approach. 가족이산 (Separated families) will undoubtedly be holding their breaths all the way to Geumgangsan, given that it was barely six months ago that the North cancelled planned family reunions for – to put it mildly – rather dubious reasons, which included the arrest of a leftist lawmaker on charges of plotting insurrection against the South Korean government.

No one is more directly affected or feels the pain of the division of Korea more than families who have had to endure 65 years of separation.  It is tragic that these people have become political pawns in the endless bickering between their governments.  Hopefully this time the reunions will go ahead as planned, and the NK leadership will restrain themselves from using the event as an opportunity to air unrelated grievances or score cheap political points.  But don’t count on it.

Regardless of whether or not the reunions take place, the two sides are still far apart on the other issues in the ‘important proposal’, notably the Key Resolve/Foal Eagle  military exercises scheduled to take place next month.  Because, hey, nothing says laying the groundwork for peaceful unification like a month’s work of military training.  It’s also probably worth reiterating that the last time these exercises were cancelled was back in the mid-90s during the Clinton Administration, and suffice to say that the chances of them being abandoned this year are about as likely as playoff basketball coming back to Sacramento this spring (quick confession:  I’m watching another Kings loss as I type this.  To think that the city will most likely bankrupt itself building an arena to keep this lousy team – something I wholeheartedly support, by the way –  is almost unfathomable.  But I digress…)

Back to the point: there probably isn’t much reason to be excited about the the events of the past week, beyond the fact that the two sides have decided to take the holiday season off from going at each other’s throats.  But that doesn’t mean that in another few weeks, Kim Jong-un won’t  have made like Lucy with the football, pulled the reunions off the table, and started preparations for another nuclear test .   And given the track record of North Korea, maybe that’s exactly what we should expect.  Your move, Charlie Brown.


대박 대통령: Park Geun-hye and ruling by slogan

*This post is dedicated to the memory of Jeremy Brandon and his undying cynicism toward politicians of all stripes.

I will say this much for Auntie Park: while she may not be the most effective leader around, she is unrivaled when it comes to manufacturing pithy slogans. First there was her Foreign Policy coming-out party, when trustpolitik officially entered the lexicon. (Note to readers: sorry if you can’t access the whole article, as it requires a subscription to Foreign Policy magazine. Rather than wasting your money allow me to quickly summarize for you: you have to trust the other party in order to make progress in foreign affairs.) There is the ad-nauseam refrain of the creative economy which apparently has something to do with “creating new business opportunities, industries and jobs through the fusion of information and communication technology, culture and other realms.” If you can glean any specifics from that, please let me know. And let’s not forget her flagship 474 economic plan which has been panned by most economists as being unrealistic. (On that last one, she basically just took former president Lee Myung-bak’s 747 plan, which even the pro-government Joongang Daily kinda, sorta, admitted didn’t work out so well and switched around a few numbers, but kept the essential thrust of the policy.)

But the point is, this president has slogans. And panache. In fact, in this piece last November by noted Korea watcher Aidan Foster Carter, she’s referred to as being a “star” abroad. She made Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list last spring, and spoke in front of the US congress just three months after taking office. She made headlines within Korea a few weeks ago during her first press conference – after almost a year on the job – when she said that unification with the North would be 대박 (a “jackpot”), making her sound more like a 15 year old girl talking about the latest Big Bang hit rather than the head of state talking about one of the most complex and bedeviling issues of our time (the same Aidan Foster Carter had a nice rebuttal for that idea in the Wall Street Journal.) And now she’s making speeches at Davos pimping that creative economy theme again.



This smoke-and-mirrors approach to government typifies the reality of the first year of Auntie Park’s reign. As noted before, one of her first major domestic moves was to renege on her pension pledge for seniors, who had overwhelmingly supported her in the presidential election. Young people have responded to her economic plans with the “how are you?” movement, a nationwide phenomenon designed to showcase the difficulties that college graduates have when it comes to finding a job (perhaps they just aren’t being creative enough?) The country was wracked by a railroad strike throughout the month of December, after suspicion emerged over the government’s plans to establish a private company to run the new bullet line connecting Suseo in Seoul with the southern part of the country. And of course there is the ongoing NIS election scandal which threatens to poison the atmosphere surrounding the government for a second year running.

Despite these setbacks and an almost complete dearth of legislative accomplishments, the president has crucially benefited from three things: 1) the economy is relatively stable, 2) she handled the situation with North Korea last spring with aplomb (which is to say she talked tough and didn’t really do much of anything, and then North Korea backed down) and 3) she’s still in a bit of a honeymoon phase, as her core supporters have been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt over things like the pension mea culpa and the NIS story.

As long as the economy remains in decent shape and North Korea continues to play nice, our international star probably won’t be too badly damaged by whatever revelations come out of the NIS saga, which should be wrapping up early in the new year (in a related story, former NIS head Won Sei-hoon, who is currently on trial for his involvement in the election scandal, was recently convicted in a separate case on corruption charges and given a two year prison sentence.) That being said, her standing among independents has fallen considerably in recent months, and this trend could continue as popular independent politician Ahn Cheol-soo prepares the launch of his own party. With a successful alliance of Ahn’s party and the opposition DP in the local June elections, the president could soon be looking for a new slogan: 도와줘! (Help!)

Elegy for J

This has nothing to do with Korea, but it’s what I feel like writing today.

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine passed away. The usual reaction upon hearing of an unexpected death is an immediate desire to know what happened, and I was no different. I got in touch with the people back home, but nobody really seemed to know the exact cause, saying that we’d all have to wait for toxicology reports to come back in a few weeks. Those few weeks have passed and I no longer care about the cause. Death is waiting for everyone in the end, and the finality of it is all that matters. Jeremy Brandon was 35 years old, and to many that might seem an untimely death, but in thinking about it, in J’s case, it was almost overdue. The truth is what killed him, and J had known and battled with the truth pretty much his whole life.

Truth is a funny thing. Some people spend their whole lives searching for it, others do their best to live in blissful ignorance of it, and some just inherently know it. Of the latter group, there are two responses: act upon that knowledge to try and change things, as hopeless as that endeavor may seem, or be beaten down by the overwhelming bleakness of it and withdraw. To paraphrase Camus – and J was probably the only one of my friends who had read him – falsity is decorative and beautiful but the truth is bare and ugly. And that ugliness is something that J wasn’t able to reconcile or overcome.

He had a recognition for truth that few did. I remember once right before I came to Korea, I was hanging out at his place with him and Andy, watching late night TV. It was “Making the Video: Mike Jones’ Back Then.” It was without a doubt the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen – this was before Mike Jones was famous – with 90% of the show consisting of Jones whacked out on pills, stumbling around crosseyed, repeatedly rambling, “know wha I’m sayin” during the interviews, even though it was clear that nobody actually did. (It’s worth noting that this particular episode has been completely erased from the existence of history – just go ahead and try to find it – and to this day, I’m convinced that the three of us were the only ones who actually saw it. Sometimes I wonder if I simply dreamed it all up.) The absurdity of it had left us in tears, and at the end of the show, I couldn’t possibly believe that it was true. “That has to be a parody of the rap industry, right? No way that’s real!” I was adamant, Andy was kind of on the fence about it, but J just stopped laughing and looked calmly at me and said, “Come on, man. Of course that’s real. That’s what reality is nowadays.” Straight to the heart of the matter, that was J.

He was consumed by politics, but it was too painful a subject for him to ever discuss. I love talking about that stuff, and I was always desperate to draw J into a conversation about it, to glean some of the wisdom that I was certain he possessed. But in order to do that, I’d have to prove worthy of it, throwing out some reference to Patrice Lumumba or Frantz Fanon that he would find suitably obscure enough to become engaged. The one time that we ever really got into it – when I told him he should give up booze and become an organizer – was after I’d been in Korea for several years and came home, randomly met J up at the Clubhouse. I hadn’t seen him in years, and he was drunk and in good spirits. We talked a while, he invited me over to his place to burn a few bowls, and that evening turned into the best conversation I ever had with him. It was strictly societal and political stuff, and apparently I had built up enough credit by being out of the country that he was willing to talk about it and let me ramble self-righteously.

But there was always a dark side, always a limit. That particular night, I had evidently surpassed it, because I remember him getting progessively more annoyed and worked up as the conversation continued – I do like to push buttons when I’m drunk – and to cut to the chase, I woke up groggily on J’s floor at about four am with two cops in my face, rudely waking me up and asking me what I was doing there. Meanwhile, J was pacing around the kitchen in great agitation saying, “The pigs are in my house! The pigs are in my house!” while the still lucid part of my brain was thinking, “Yeah, because you called them, you stupid asshole!” Anyway, the cops eventually realized that there was nothing to see – they probably thought it was some bizarre lovers’ quarrel – and left me on the floor with a stern warning not to call them anymore. But that was J, too – push him too far, and hit one of those raw nerves, and he’d even call the cops (his sworn enemy) on one of his best friends.

I never begrudged him for it, though. If anything, it made us better friends in the long run, because you never truly know someone until you find their limits and surpass them. I saw him about a year later – one of the last times I saw him, 4th of July 2012 – and confronted him about it, and he just laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened.” And then it was over, all was forgiven, and we had an epic night, putting the Don of the Court on trial on my back porch. The charge was a wasted life; Don was the defendant, Andy was the jury, I was the prosecutor. And of course J was the judge – who better to be?

The real tragedy with J is that, in his own way, his was a wasted life as well. There are few people I’ve met who are more passionate or more articulate, but he just could never find a healthy relationship with the truth. He let the bitterness and anger that he had with the hypocrisy of the system eat him up, and when he no longer had the drums to play – a necessary outlet for battling whatever demons he was dealing with – that was really when a slow downward spiral became a steep decline, which only had one possible ending. Now that he’s gone, I think about what he could’ve been had he directed some of that anger and passion into something bigger than himself, if he could’ve accepted the inherent hopelessness of the struggle instead of refusing to play at all. And it makes me sad.

Rest in peace, Jeremy. You were one of a kind.

Peacemaking proves too much for Rodman

This blog has been dead for too long, and it’s gotten to the point where I didn’t even want to look at lately. But starting this week, I’m going to start updating again. Much has happened over the past five weeks that I should’ve been offering my amateur analysis on, but other projects and general laziness got the best of me. With that mea culpa out of the way, I’ll start back up with a topic that combines two of my favorite interests: basketball and Korea.

Word came out today that Dennis Rodman has become the latest celebrity to use alcoholism as PR damage control, checking into rehab after his latest controversial – and that’s putting it mildly – visit to the third happiest place on Earth (right behind China and Disneyland.) Even Rodman’s agent termed the experience a “nightmare” after he came under harsh criticism for that disaster of an interview that he did with CNN to kick off the trip. I feel bad for Dennis, since the fact that he came under criticism at all means that people out there had higher expectations of Dennis Rodman than to befriend a dictator and drunkenly flip out and say something stupid and insensitive on camera. And really, that should say more about society than it does about Dennis Rodman.

You're going to give this guy grief for saying something stupid and insensitive?  Seriously?

You’re going to give this guy grief for saying something stupid and insensitive? Seriously?

As for the game itself, there’s no truth to the rumor that Dick Bavetta was flown in personally by Kim Jong-un to referee, or that the ex-NBA players had a chance to win at the end before Doug Christie airballed a three from the left wing (apologies, you’d have to be a Kings fan to get those references. None of us have ever really gotten over the 2002 Western Finals. If you’d like to find out more, here’s a good place to start.) Also unconfirmed is that Christie’s birthday present to Kim was one of the “instructional porn” videos that he and his wife have reportedly been filming.

Lost in all the weirdness was the fact that this trip actually was a good idea. The phrase “winning hearts and minds” has become almost a bad joke at this point, since it’s usually being applied in the context of some country that ‘Merica (because there’s only one ‘a’ in ‘aggro’) has just bombed & invaded. In the case of North Korea, however, it may be one of the better – and for that matter, only – options available. As has been covered ad-nasueum, hating the United States is part of the doctrine that NK citizens are subjected to from the time they hit kindergarten. Seems to me that there are far worse ways to show a little goodwill than to send over some past-their-prime ballers to give the people a show on the Leader’s birthday. No money’s changing hands (except maybe to ex-NBAers like Kenny Anderson and Vin Baker, whose financial problems have been well documented), no promises about restarting negotiations have been made. These guys aren’t diplomats – obviously – and to start frothing at the mouth as some commentators have done about this visit is just ridiculous. Honestly, it was just a game folks, there was no need to flip out or call him a traitor. (Mike Tyson’s contribution to the debate nicely summed up the other side of the argument.)

The real tragedy is that if Rodman had just responded to the CNN interviewer, “That dude shouldn’t have been proselytizing and praying for the destruction of the North Korean state,” when they pressed him on the Kenneth Bae issue, it would’ve at least caused a bit of long over-due discussion on why he’s been imprisoned. And if your response was, “well, the least he could’ve done was take up the subject with his ‘best friend’ and traded him a hostage for a basketball game,” I would agree with that. But then again, that just goes to show what should’ve been obvious all along: Dennis Rodman is not a diplomat!! So stop getting so worked up about it and give the man a break. After all, he’s an alcoholic.

Three weeks of catch up

It’s a bit frightening how quickly the time can get away from you on vacation.  Three weeks since I’ve updated the site – yikes!  Seems to happen whenever I come back to Greenland for the holidays.  During that time time, there’s been quite a bit happening on the always interesting Korean Peninsula.   The big story up north is that Kim 3.0 has obviously been studying the ways of his father and grandfather by purging his uncle, Jang Sung-taek, who had been perhaps the most powerful person in the DPRK leadership structure. This of course has led to the usual round of speculation concerning the stability of regime, and those interested in reading further on the subject can gain plenty of insight from the usual round up of NK analysts, a few of which are listed in the Links section. Personally, I think it is a sign that the regime is actually being strengthened, since the younger Kim felt strong enough to get rid of the man who was charged with shepherding his transition to the throne. We might be due for a round of threats and posturing, though, if the regime decides that its people have been taking notice of the latest happenings in the Pyongyang Court and started asking too many questions. What better way to provide a distraction for the populace than to dust off the ol’ war drum and start beating it?

The Jang purge coincided with the release of Merril Newman, the 85 year-old Korean War vet who had been detained under rather unusual circumstances. Unusual, that is, until it came to light that he had been an adviser to a South Korean guerilla unit called kuwol (September)  that was particularly hated in North Korea and accused of killing civilians during the war. After spending about a month in detainment, Newman apologized for his alleged crimes and was released.  Upon returning to the United States, he claimed the apology was fabricated by North Korean authorities.  But in a part of the world where apologies are a big deal – Japan is still loathed by many countries in the region for not having offered a sincere apology for its empire building in the first part of the 20th century (despite having offered numerous apologies through the years, as wikipedia conveniently keeps track of) it’s clear that Newman made a convincing enough show for the North Koreans to be allowed to come home. The fact that this incident occurred at the same time as Jang was being retired to Wonsan (as Adam Johnson’s wonderful novel The Orphan Master’s Son euphemistically phrased it) is probably just coincidence. Unless of course it was an attempt to draw attention away from Jang’s sacking. As with most things North Korea, it’s all open to speculation.

Crossing to the other side of the 38th, PGH is still embroiled in the NIS scandal, and she and her Saenuri party have gone on the warpath, accusing critics of being pro-North and attempting to undermine national unity. It’s evident that by resorting to McCarthyite tactics to tar the opposition, the ruling party is beginning to feel the heat over the evolving story. With the agency now being suspected of putting out up to 22 million tweets during the election, the NIS scandal has become the major issue in Korean politics, and seemingly all other legislative issues have been put on hold until the trial of former agency head Won Sei-hoon and Seoul Metropolitan Police Chief Kim Yong-pan is resolved. My guess is that the administration will let Won and Kim take the fall and hope that moves to rein in prosecutors like Chae Dong-wook and Yoon Seok-yeol by replacing them with people close to the administration will limit the fallout. Whether or not the Democratic Party will be willing to let the issue go is another matter entirely. Something tells me that this is going to plague PGH all the way until the next National Assembly elections in 2016.

On a personal note, the strategy of trying to cast legitimate criticism as deceitful or unpatriotic is deeply distressing for me. One of the reasons that I left the US back in the bad old days of GW Bush was his tendency to pit people against each other, famously stating that “you’re either with us or with the terrorists.” Bush was without a doubt the worst president in American history – and it says something for our country that it took all the abuse and punishment that he and his incompetent gang could muster and still come out more or less intact – and just because I think so now or thought so at the time doesn’t make me a terrorist. On the contrary, it goes to show how much people love their country by taking the risk of speaking out, especially in a place like South Korea, which isn’t exactly known for its progressive attitude toward free speech .

And now that I’ve found a way to work my latest piece for FPIF into the blog, it’s time to call it a day. Hopefully it won’t take me another three weeks to get back at this thing, but California has a strange way of sabotaging my productivity. Too much nice weather and Kings basketball!

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day

In Korea, there is an old superstition that if you see a magpie in the morning, the day will bring good luck.  But in the case of North Korea, the expression could be updated to say that if a missile goes flying in the morning, a nuclear test will soon be on the way.

Most of the people who study or write about North Korea have fun mocking the mainstream media’s characterization of the country as, “unpredictable.”  After all, each of the three nuclear test cycles (2006, 2009, 2013) followed the same pattern which can be succinctly broken down into: “missile test, retaliatory UN sanctions, nuclear test” spliced with a number of shrill threats against the US and South Korea.  Then after they boys up in Pyongyang have gotten that out of their system, they play nice for awhile and ask for negotiations.  In two of the three cases (2006 and 2013), the tests came within about a year of North Korea backtracking on some kind of international commitment (the 2005 Joint Statement in the Six Party Talks, and the 2012 Leap Day agreement with the United States.)  None of this is exactly breaking news.

That being said, there are times when the North does do something that is completely bizarre and unexpected.  Apparently, this happened last month when an 85 year-old Korean War veteran was detained on his way out of the country for reasons unknown. Usually when the North detains someone, it is either a deluded missionary like Kenneth Bae who thinks that he can bring about the regime’s collapse through prayer or journalists like Laura Ling who, for some reason thought they could simply enter the world’s most closed country without permission. Oh, and then there was that nut who who got naked and swam across the Yalu back in the 1990s. The point is, if you get detained in North Korea, it’s usually because you did something to warrant it (and I have no hesitation in saying that people who came to the US via the same route would also be seeing the inside of a jail cell, so let’s not deceive ourselves here.)

That’s what makes the latest case so strange.  By all accounts, Mr. Newman was on an officially sanctioned tour and was having a great time in the country.  According to the friend who’d accompanied him, he’d had an uncomfortable conversation with one of his guides on the last day concerning his experiences in the war, so that may have had something to do with it.  However, that is hardly grounds for imprisonment – in my experience, you have some leeway to talk to the guides about politically sensitive subjects, as long as you tread lightly – and besides, Koreans on both sides of the border have great respect for the elderly, so it really is hard to figure out.  The NY Times piece quoted Bill Richardson – who is usually the first guy on the phone whenever this kind of situation occurs – as saying he was “flabbergasted” as to why the North Koreans would do this, and a similar piece in the LA Times quoted Daniel Sneider up at Stanford as saying, “this is a real weird one” and speculating that it may show signs of regime instability.  Of course, it could just be that the North is pursuing some misguided attempt to gain leverage now that there is talk of the Six Party Talks being revived .

For now, it looks as though Mr. Newman is going to have to sit tight for awhile because the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to be too interested in jumping back into negotiations with Pyongyang.  A better bet might be to get Dennis Rodman on the line. When is that basketball tournament starting again?

For those interested in reading an account of my own trip to North Korea last summer, please go here:

DPRK: Dometic Issues and Regional Implications