Archive | April 2013

This Might Sound A Little Pious, But…

In a recent conversation I had over beer cans in the park, an Australian friend of mine remarked how “there are no good causes left anymore” – an apathy that was backed up a few days later by what another Australian friend of mine claimed was his motto for life – “if it’s not fun, then it’s not worth doing”.

To the first remark, I replied in such a feeble way that I have been unable to escape the shame ever since – “Well, I’m pro-Pussy Riot.” I muttered since that was apparently the best example of a “good cause” I could come up with on short notice. Retrospectively I can see in my answer that the remark stirred up instinctive disapproval, and I should be glad for that at least, but it’s a pity the cerebrum couldn’t more quickly kick in with the sort of scathing reply the initial remark deserved.

To the second one, I gave no reply. Of course, what good would life be if it were not in some way “fun”? But then our privileged and thrill-seeking ways were only won through the tired and bloody sacrifices of others. I dare say that soldiers managed somehow with their songs of comradeship and nostalgia to eek out a morsel of fun in the trenches, but I bet not one of them would have called the experience “fun”. Their cause certainly was worth it, though – and it was this alone that stopped them from slicing their necks with their own bayonets.

Yet in our couch-ridden, facebook-drooling, First World comforts we fail to identify the good causes that are still being fought and died for in the world, dismissing them as “boring” and therefore “worthless” or opposing them mistakenly as part of a fashionable “anti-establishment” or “skepticism”. They do exist, however, and I have taken care to list some below, lest I ever neglect them again. You may add more if you please:

– Challenging racist nationalism and homophobia whenever encountered
– Bringing religious freedom to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and so on (as well as “building up that wall” (between church and state) in our own countries as was requested to Thomas Jefferson)
– Convicting war criminals at home and abroad – Henry Kissinger, Charles Taylor e.t.c.
– Scrutinising the motives of corporations at all times
– Helping the large liberal-minded young population of Iran to topple their theocracy
– Releasing North Koreans from their starvation and slavery (somehow)
– Protecting freedom of speech (especially for those whose views we find revolting)

I said it was pious…

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Under Pressure Next To Kim Jong-un

Click here for the article in Tokyo Weekender

Keeping a cool head next to a cantankerous nuclear-armed dictator

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WHEN NBA GIANT Dennis Rodman met the budding dictator Kim Jong-un to watch a jolly game of b-ball over tea and coke, it looked for all the world like a fat piece of satire, like something from Kim Jong-un’s hilarious twitter impersonator – KimJongNumberUn (a must see). Rodman was actually there with the intrepid filmmakers at Vice Media filming a documentary (premiers April 5 on HBO) and ended up calling the 29-year-old basketball-adoring despot of North Korea ‘a great leader‘, ‘a really awesome guy‘ and ‘a friend for life‘. This was just after the guy had launched a nuclear weapons test, just before he had promised an “all out war“, and came in spite his family’s long-standing policy of national enslavement and starvation. But as long as he likes basketball, hey Rodman?

Since the visit (though probably not because of it!), North Korea has stepped up its confrontation with the US with some of the most incendiary language ever to come from the totalitarian state. Most recently, it has cut its last remaining link with South Korea and supposedly put its troops and missiles into “combat posture”. It has also declared its absolute right “to carry out preemptive nuclear strikes” (my italics) against its enemies, which include South Korea and Japan, warning “it would be a fatal mistake for Japan if it thinks it will be safe when a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, adding that as “a stronghold of the aggressors…Japan will never be of an exception”.

One of Japan’s crimes, apparently, is that it ratified UN sanctions on North Korea in response to its weapons testing. According to North Korea it is actually these sanctions that are the “act of war” (and not the weapons testing that brought them about), which if true, would bring North Korea into conflict with its old pal and patron, China (who have, for once, taken a tougher stance against North Korea by leading the sanctions). Falling out of favour with China, who have kept North Korea on life-support for so long, is, needless to say, ill-advised, but precisely the sort of diplomacy one would expect from an upstart with a point to prove. Young Kim Jong-un has instead proved little other than that he likes to play both the eccentric and the madman on different days, and that he has few, if any, other political tools at his disposal.

Of course, experience tells us that he is probably not being serious when he promises to wage “all-out war” on countries that are economically developed, militarily advanced and armed with a far superior nuclear deterrent (South Korea and Japan have nuclear deterrents by proxy). Up until now, he and his family have, for the most part, seemed far too attached to the opulent lifestyle to go ahead and martyr themselves in complete regime suicide. Their numerous threats down the years have principally been used for political leverage (food aid in exchange for occasional compliance with UN resolutions, for example), which tends to suggest that the further he pushes this high-stakes game of brinkmanship, the more desperate he is getting.

His threats have, therefore, not been treated quite with the same degree of alarm as they might. When he visited artillery units on the west coast to remind the soldiers there to “throw all enemies into a burning cauldron”, Seoul’s Defence Ministry insisted it was all part of elaborate mind games to try to “pressure South Korea and the US into changing their North Korea policies”.

Rather than be discouraged by the threat of large-scale nuclear annihilation, the US has instead coordinated efforts with South Korea and Japan to ramp up the pressure on Pyongyang. Japan has blacklisted North Korean trade banks – a counter-measure, which is, along with the sanctions, necessarily punitive but gravely unsatisfactory for the already emaciated population of North Korea – 3 inches shorter than their South Korean brothers and sisters on account of malnourishment and still living in relative darkness (see this satellite image).

Other countermeasures, however, such as those by one third of local governments in Japan to withdraw funding to Korean schools in Japan have shown not alarm, but a muddled panic (Kanagawa cited the nuclear test as their main motivation for withdrawal). Rather than punishing Korean children who live in Japan and speak Japanese for the crimes of their illegitimate leader at “home”, the Japanese government should, as Gerald Curtis said in a talk at Meiji University in February, be leading by example as a “model of democratic development”.

The Japanese know themselves what it means, after all, to feel expendable and disposable – not only have their fellow citizens been abducted and their skies scorched with the clouds of sporadic North Korean missiles, but they have long had to deal with North Korea’s expressed intent of wiping them out. Keeping a cool head in this environment means not turning to panic, but upholding cherished principles as much as possible, subverting tyranny with humour, and making sure to ready a coordinated international relief effort for the collapse of a rancid regime.