Mushroom cloud

Image source: Stuff.co.nz


Events in Korea over the past year have set East Asia, and the whole world, on edge. North Korea has tested nuclear weapons. America, in league with China, has responded with a crippling sanction campaign. Undeterred, North Korea continues to fire missiles and now claims to have one that can reach America’s very faraway east coast. America has toyed with the prospect of a military strike.

To be fair, this situation should be familiar. Ever since the Koreas were divided by occupying Soviet and American armies in 1945, North Korea has been antagonistic. It tried to conquer South Korea in 1950 and almost succeeded. In the decades since, it has tried to assassinate a South Korean dictator, kidnapped Japanese and South Korean civilians, blown up a South Korean plane, torpedoed a South Korean ship, and shelled a South Korean island near the border. Since the ’90s, it has had a nuclear program; since 2006, it has had nuclear bombs. It has constantly issued overblown, melodramatic threats against its neighbor and its other 2 enemies, Japan and America. America usually takes a hard line and has imposed international sanctions against North Korea since 2006.

But even against this background of threats and hostility, the past year has been an escalation. Gim Jeong’eun, the North’s dictator, has ramped up the pace of his nuclear testing, with 3 since he took power in 2011 and more than 80 missile tests. (His predecessors had 2 and 31, respectively.) Chinese participation is significant because it is supposed to be the North’s ally and has resisted harsh measures against it at the UN before; most Northern exports have now been cut off completely. Donald Trump, America’s blowhard president, has adopted Gim’s hyperbole by threatening “fire and fury” and mulling an attack to give the North a “bloody nose.”

The stakes are high, and it should be obvious, but I’ll explain anyway just in case. Both North Korea and America have nukes, which could kill millions of people. Seoul, a giant city with over 10 million people, is near the border and could get pounded by Northern artillery fire. American troops are stationed in the South and would come to its defense, since it’s a treaty ally. China might intervene, since although it opposes the North’s nuclear antics, it still prefers its regime to the American-backed one in Seoul. South Korea is one of Asia’s economic hotspots and a technological hub for the whole world; a Second Korean War would have a global economic impact.

These considerations should rule out a military strike for any but the most insane, fanatical hawks. North Korea may be an obnoxious, untrustworthy, aggressive tyranny, but conditions must REALLY be intolerable before another Korean War is willingly unleashed. (The first one killed around 5 million people, more than almost any other war since World War II.) America itself would likely suffer consequences since it’s now within range (theoretically) of the North’s missiles. And talk of a “bloody nose” attack is reckless; how many people give up and just slink away when they’re punched in the face?

Given these conditions, previous presidents have resorted to a policy of sanctions and focusing on other problems, quietly hoping that something gives in the North and the regime collapses (or at least acts peacefully). Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor, called this “strategic patience.” It frustrated a lot of his opponents, especially hawks, who pointed to it as yet another example of Obama’s cowardice and passivity — but it’s the better strategy.

Still, it’s hard to argue that the policy worked. Gim Jeong’eun has kept testing weapons and amassing an arsenal of as many as 60 bombs. The North’s propagandists talked about turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” and compared Obama to a monkey. Trump’s patience has clearly run out — as have many other Americans (and Japanese).

But… what can he do?

In the ’90s and early ’00s, the South tried to approach the North with what came to be known as the “sunshine policy,” offering business ventures, badly needed food aid, and high-level talks. America was always skeptical that the North was just gaming the South for emergency supplies and money (thanks to its own dysfunctional economy) and never intended to abandon its nuclear dream. Sure enough, when the North tested its first nuke in 2006, the policy unraveled, and it is now spoken of mainly with scorn.

Nevertheless, I think it’s time to revisit the policy. North Korea feels isolated and insecure; with a subsistence-level economy, no real allies, and an enemy known to overthrow dictators, it has good reason to. Gim is probably confident that no country would dare attack him with the prospect of nuclear retaliation dangling overhead, and again, he has good reason to be. North Koreans are underfed and lack the military technology and numbers of their neighbors. A nuclear deterrent is their best hope.

Given the forces arrayed against it — South Korea, Japan, and America — is it plausible that the North would launch an attack against them? Some worry about this, and it’s still a possibility, but it rests on the presumption that Gim Jeong’eun is some kind of madman who’s drunk on his own propaganda and completely oblivious to the outside world. I don’t buy into this theory — it is much more likely that he’s just acting that way to rattle his adversaries and impress (or intimidate) his own people. Why hasn’t North Korea started a war yet? It started the first one because it thought it had a chance to conquer the South. That chance is nonexistent now. South Korea alone is strong enough to beat the North at this point, leading some analysts to wonder if the alliance with America even makes sense anymore.

Therefore, I think the best strategy now is to hold high-level talks with North Korea, including a summit if possible, and drop the sanctions. Given the current balance of power, it is America in reality that is most threatening to Korean security. An American attack is the most likely flashpoint that would start another war. North (and South) Korea needs an assurance that America won’t start anything and has peaceful intentions.

In fact, I would argue that foreigners should go even further and try to trade with North Korea and loosen the barriers that isolate it. This won’t be easy, given Northern paranoia at subversion and contamination by liberal thought and capitalism, but it’s worth seeing how far it can go. The model should be the opening of China in the ’70s: even though China had been seen by America and its allies as a fanatical, ideological, implacable enemy, it turned out to be willing to reach an understanding and eventually to trade and open up to the outside world. With a growing North Korean middle class and a leader who might be more familiar with the world outside his borders, there might be an opportunity here too.

It’s not a perfect strategy. But none are. North Korea has been called “the land of lousy options.” America and its allies (especially Japan) are committed to halting nuclear proliferation, meaning keeping more countries from getting nukes. Their current strategy hinges on making North Korea give them up. But how would that work? Why would North Korea give up something it has worked so hard on for so long and at such a price? Iraq and Libya did it and were convulsed by invasion and civil war. Iran (apparently) has done it and Trump is talking about cracking down some more because the deal wasn’t harsh enough. Nukes are almost all North Korea has. There is a risk that South Korea and Japan would get nukes if North Korea never gives them up, something they could probably do quickly; North Korea’s precedent could encourage more and more countries to look into building nukes. But it’s a risk worth taking — after all, 9 countries now have nukes, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war yet.

Another problem is the sanctions regime. After 12 years of harsher and harsher sanctions, it would be impractical for America to suddenly back down without an excuse. This is a big problem, and it will probably keep a reconciliation policy from happening in the near future. But I’m not convinced that sanctions are working. It’s extremely hard to understand North Korea given its near-total isolation, but it’s lasted over 70 years and survived devastating war, horrible famine and punishing sanctions. North Koreans are used to hardship, and take pride in their stamina. The longer economic avenues are severed, the more likely they are to lash out and resort to criminal activity to get by.

There is the problem of rewarding bad behavior. It’s an understandable concern, but it’s not worth risking a nuclear holocaust over. In international relations, exceptions have to be made to avert tragedies or forestall problems from escalating. North Korean behavior might even improve if its enemies managed to convince it of their peaceful intentions. Human rights activists would object that a regime as brutal and totalitarian as Gim’s deserves no mercy, and frankly it doesn’t. But in reality lots of evil dictators get away with their crimes, and there’s no real way to hold Gim accountable.

A richer North Korea with trade and contact outside of its borders would also only happen if the elite that sustains the regime was kept secure and happy with lucrative contracts and dodgy kickbacks. The country would still be poor and isolated. Myanmar, which basically opened to foreign development 7 years ago, has headed in this direction. But it’s a common development, and this kind of system would be needed to ensure Gim’s cooperation and the elite’s support. Without it, North Korea would just stay angry and isolated.

America has a historic tendency to favor firepower, muscle and bullying because those are its strong suits. When you have the world’s biggest stick, you look for ways to swing it. Anytime a situation calls for diplomacy or patience, Americans tend to get nervous that they are looking weak. They need to relax and remember how scary they look to almost everyone else. Lengthy hostility didn’t prevent America from coming to terms with China, Cuba, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Finally, it is important to consider South Korea. South Koreans have longed for reunification the whole time, and tend to take a sanguine view of their northern siblings. They are used to belligerent warnings and over-the-top boasts and don’t take them seriously. The South’s current president, Mun Jaein, wants to return to the sunshine policy and has reacted warmly to the North’s recent overtures like the joint Korean Olympic team and the visit by Gim Jeong’eun’s sister. Reunification may not be very realistic, but otherwise America and Japan should respect the South’s wishes for reconciliation and peace. Without being naive about Northern intentions, they should welcome any efforts at lowering tensions and accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea.

Gim Jeong’eun’s new strategy seems to be to try to drive a wedge between the hawkish Trump and Shinzou Abe of Japan and the comparatively dovish Mun. Trump and Abe should avert this by aligning their policies more closely with Mun’s. North Korea might be the single worst country on Earth with no real friends and a population desperate to get out. But I was in Hawai’i this year during the missile scare, and I can safely say the specter of nuclear Armageddon should make everyone think twice about acting tough in these circumstances.





It’s that time of year again — the very end, when every media outlet celebrates the New Year with retrospective articles and year summaries. My favorite has always been TIME Magazine’s “Man of the Year” series, which deems a person, group, or (unfortunately) concept the most influential of the year. It’s a fun tradition, although largely dictated by what would look best on TIME‘s cover. I like to make a more reasoned case for my selections and evaluate theirs too.

Let’s look at TIME‘s runners-up first. In general I think they made good choices, although as usual they are overly Americanocentric. Robert Mueller, the former head of America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the special prosecutor investigating Donald Trump’s links with Russia, has been lurking in the background for the last half of the year and has charged 2 high-level officials, but I get the feeling that he will be more important next year. Colin Kaepernick shaped the news by protesting police brutality and systemic racism before the (American) football games he played in, and TIME relates how his protest spread to South Africa as well. But Trump played some role in rallying support for Kaepernick’s protest, and I’m not entirely convinced that either the original protest or the backlash against it has actually produced any meaningful, lasting change (a common problem with discussions about racism in America).

Kim Jong-un seems like a natural choice, given that his country, North Korea, has been in the news pretty much all year. Although North Korea has faded in and out of the news for 2 decades at least, it received the most sustained coverage this year, as it not only increased the tempo of its nuclear tests, but finally gained the long-sought capability to lob its nukes at America’s East Coast. This has jangled nerves around the world and led to ever tighter sanctions, even by China, North Korea’s only ally. But he doesn’t quite make my shortlist: as usual for these crises, there is much bluster and talk but little real action or change on the ground. It is entirely possible that Kim just wants to get nukes for his own protection, and the rest of the world will just leave it at that. It’s hard to see how Kim has effected real change.

One of 2017’s ongoing themes has been sexual harassment and assault, especially after the revelation of movie producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual predation in October. The torrent of accusations and revelations is unprecedented, and it’s no surprise that TIME would choose to recognize this. Yet I disagree with its choice to deem victims of sexual harassment who have come forward with their stories (“the Silence Breakers”) as People of the Year. For 1 thing, I dislike TIME‘s occasional trend of giving the honor to nebulous groups rather than a single person. Choosing a journalist who broke the story (like Ronan Farrow, who wrote a lengthy expose in The New Yorker despite much opposition) or a victim (like Ashley Judd, the 1st actress to come forward) would have been better. For another thing, it’s still too soon to tell whether these revelations will have a real impact. The story really only began in October (despite a few earlier scandals involving Fox News) — although I personally suspect that the MeToo movement is too far advanced and women are too fed up with sexual abuse for the proverbial genie to be put back into the bottle. Patty Jenkins, the director of this year’s hit movie Wonder Woman, is an interesting choice, but other movies outgrossed hers, and it seems like she was chosen mostly to continue the feminist theme. (In general, arts and culture is very diffuse and it’s hard to pinpoint 1 figure there to have significant global influence in 1 particular year.)

Now for some submissions of my own:

Qasem Soleimani probably deserves recognition. The head of Iran’s Quds Force, which directs foreign military operations, he is the mastermind behind many of Iran’s maneuverings in West Asia. This year, the Islamic State’s back was finally broken, enabling Syria and Iraq to take back control of their former territory — and for Iran to extend its own influence there. Iranian-backed militias were instrumental in defeating the Islamic State — along with Kurdistan, which doesn’t wield nearly the same kind of geopolitical influence as Iran.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, shaped much of the news in Europe this year. He stood up to both America and Russia (an important aspiration for the French, and some Europeans in general) and carried out important labor reform, always a tricky issue in France and a major stumbling block in economic reform in general. But most importantly, he not only defeated the National Front — apparently putting an end, or at least a long pause, to the xenophobic conservative surge in Europe — but ushered a new political party into power in France, La République En Marche! But it’s also a little early to deem him 1 of the world’s most consequential figures.

And now for my top 3:


This is the most conspicuous omission from TIME‘s list, despite his coming out on top in a reader poll. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince has been pushing through real change and is making his mark in numerous areas. The most important reform in the long term is a reorientation of the Saudi economy away from its dependence on oil, which is necessary as the oil price falls and global reliance on fossil fuels recedes. He is consolidating power by purging his opponents and older aristocrats resistant to change. He is realigning Saudi society to be more in tune with the younger generation that dominates it demographically, allowing women to drive, concerts to be held, and movies to be screened. He is also making a concerted push to challenge Iran and keep Saudi Arabia ascendant in its region by blockading his recalcitrant neighbor, Qatar, and battering Iran’s proxy militia, the Huthis, in Yemen (at the expense of Yemen itself). His belligerent foreign policy and reckless purge of Saudi Arabia’s elite has attracted a lot of criticism, but Saudi Arabia was long due for a shakeup, and he is providing one.


China’s dictator usually shapes the world as much as anyone else in any given year, and it can be hard to determine when he’s actually the “Man of the Year.” 2017 seems like a good year for Xi. In October, he consolidated his already formidable power at home at the 19th Communist Party Congress, where his failure to designate a successor prompted speculation that he intends to be dictator-for-life. In a 3½-hour speech, he emphasized the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” effectively announcing China’s intent to become the next superpower. China’s military is undergoing rapid modernization and expansion, and a border dispute with India, ongoing island-building and militarization in the South China Sea, and an economic boycott of South Korea has demonstrated to the world China’s newfound strength. But Xi has put a lot of energy into diplomacy too: China’s diplomats are active and numerous at international conferences and forums, Chinese infrastructure plans in Africa and Asia are ambitious and generous, and Xi himself gave a very well-received speech at Davos (where the world’s economic elite gather each January) on free trade and economic openness. In issue after issue — climate change, reining in North Korea, global trade — China is central. And Xi’s personal power is also very significant; he doesn’t act as merely a member of a committee of oligarchs like his predecessors did. No wonder The Economist deemed him “the world’s most powerful man” earlier in the year.

But once again, I wouldn’t say it was Xi Jinping’s year juuuust yet. For 1 thing, the Party Congress was more about putting on a grand show and celebrating the Party’s achievements than an achievement in and of itself. It provided a nice opportunity for the media to talk about China and Xi in particular, but most of what was said there has already been articulated before, and should have been pretty obvious to China-watchers. In addition, the main dynamic feeding China’s rise is really America’s decline, which is abetted by…


I am not surprised TIME did not choose to name Trump Man of the Year again. Besides his public show of disinterest in the honor this year, TIME rarely chooses the same person twice. Trump’s 1st year in office has been shaped mostly by petty quarrels, minor issues and media hype. Some say that he lets Congress or cabinet departments handle the details. Some of his biggest promises, like repealing Obamacare and building a border wall, have gone nowhere. The so-called “alt right” movement that he energized is very minor. The backlash against his presidency is more prominent and will probably propel Democrats into Congress next year. His much yearned-for rapprochement with Russia has stalled, thanks to the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s collusion with it, and instead America is continuing sanctions against it and arming Ukraine. There is a sense, sometimes articulated clearly, that Trump is just a big baby and “underlings” like Rex Tillerson (his foreign minister), James Mattis (his defense minister) and H.R. McMaster (national security advisor) are the “adults” that actually run the show.

But overseas, I think Trump’s influence is more obvious. As I’ve written before, he is withdrawing America from the world stage. His worldview is almost relentlessly negative, pessimistic, cynical and narrow-minded; other countries are seen in terms of what they can offer America and how they can threaten it. Since the world is still partly organized in terms of the American alliance system, this undermines it. Europe in particular is struggling to come to terms with a new America reluctant to support it unconditionally. The American president’s traditional support for democracy, human rights and free trade is gone (unless it suits his purposes). Speeches given by Trump this year at the UN and APEC (an Asian international forum) promoted his “America First” ideology, even though it was designed to appeal to cranky American voters who see the outside world as a problem. International trade architecture in particular is in turmoil because of Trump’s personal interest in the issue and his questioning of all kinds of trading relationships, from China’s to allies’ like Canada’s and Germany’s. Even South Korea has been blindsided with a Trump threat to pull out of its free trade agreement — while he menaces the country by making empty threats at North Korea over Twitter and in his “fire and fury” statement this summer. His hostility to immigrants inspires xenophobic populists in Europe; his hostility to the media validates repressive tactics in dictatorships. The tax reform passed recently starves the American government of much-needed revenue, which will hobble America’s ability to project its power and maintain its competitive edge in the near future. His State Department (foreign ministry) is being gutted of career diplomats. (Admittedly, this is mostly Tillerson’s doing.) In the turbulent politics of West Asia — basically the part of the world America is most concerned about — policy is increasingly in Saudi, Iranian and Russian control. (Admittedly, this began under Obama.)

Some say that Trump is just making foreign policy more realistic and that it’s naive to think of the world in emotional terms like “buddies” and “enemies.” I’m not entirely convinced that the shift in American foreign policy will outlast Trump, or that he’ll be reelected. But in the narrow terms of just this year, he was the primary factor driving global events.


South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.