The Korea Situation

Here on the Korean Peninsula, something big is happening and everyone knows it. What was once a stable regime now has an uncertain future. You see signs of the political changes everywhere.

Literal signs.

I’m talking, of course, about the South Korean election, which is the most significant thing happening here, at least from the perspective of most South Koreans. There are election signs everywhere!

Why, what you you thinking?

Nothing has changed

I’m aware that for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the Korea expert for a lot of people I know. My credentials extend as far as a couple semesters of politics courses focused on the region plus a few years in a minor role in the South Korean government a decade ago, plus I read things and I live here. So read on with that in mind.

So yeah, the North Korea nuclear thing.

North Korea has nukes and has had them for a while. North Korea has missiles and has had them for a while. North Korea is developing longer-range missiles and has been developing them for a while. There’s nothing happening this week that’s substantively different from what was happening six weeks ago when no one was talking about North Korea. North Korea has had the ability to nuke Tokyo for maybe a decade, and we’ve lived with it, just as we live with Pakistan having both nuclear weapons and a very serious Islamist insurgent problem.

Tensions are high, but the US is going to great lengths to signal that we’re not going to war. The secretary of state and vice president assured South Korea that the US wouldn’t launch an attack without Seoul’s approval, which is not likely to be forthcoming. There’s zero panic in South Korea, and no real reported panic in North Korea either.

We’ve been here before. We’ll probably be here again. As it goes on, ignore right-wing cranks who insist that this is the red-line moment and that the situation demands action now. Ignore left-wing cranks who insist that this is all American provocation and North Korea is just misunderstood. None of that is true. North Korea’s regime is brutal and murderous, with a horrific human rights record. They just killed a guy in a Malaysian airport. They’re not nice. They’re also not nuking anyone next week. And the best solution to the situation is not outright war, just as you don’t resolve a hostage situation by blowing up the whole neighborhood (well, maybe Russia does).

So take a deep breath. If you’re American, calm down and keep protesting the president for the actual awful things he’s doing. If you’re South Korean, make sure to vote in the upcoming election. And if you’re president of a nearby country, please see if you can avoid starting a war.



The brewing crisis in Haiti has made the headlines in recent days, as has Bush’s reluctance to get involved militarily. But a story you almost certainly haven’t heard of — I only just learned of it myself — is the ongoing genocide in Darfur, a region of southern Sudan. Sudan’s government in Khartoum is Arabic Muslim and for decades has been waging a slow, grinding war against the black Africans in the South, who are mostly Christian or follow traditional tribal religions. The war has gained some attention among right-wing Christians in the U.S. who sympathize with their beleaguered brethren, and antislavery groups have made some noise about the horrific human trafficking that goes on, as blacks from the south are sold to Arabs in the north in a trade that most of us imagine ended by the 18th or 19th century. (A while back I read that singer Perry Farrell went to Sudan and put on an impromptu concert for a group of freed slaves.) But the Sudanese civil war has never made much impact with the mainstream American press.

While trekking in Nepal I met an Irish woman, Louise, who’d worked with an NGO in the region, helping to build schools and clinics. She told me that they build two of everything; that way, after the Sudanese army comes flying over in its aging Soviet Antonov airplanes and throwing bombs out the windows, you still have one school and one clinic left over. The war goes endlessly on because the Sudanese government does not want to give up its oil-rich territory in southern Sudan.

If America truly believed in bringing democracy to the oppressed, Sudan would be a fine place to do it. Its military is weaker than Iraq’s was, and the government’s crimes are current and glaringly obvious. But we don’t, because our government is concerned neither with spreading freedom nor with protecting Americans. As far as I can tell, our current regime is largely interested in increasing the power and wealth of its leaders. And so, despite our professed desire to spread democracy and defeat terror, Sudan remains completely off the radar.