Sri Lanka soldier

Tamils can have Scouting events again… but ONLY with armed guards there. Image source: National Geographic

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island just off the southeastern coast of India, occupies a peculiar place in the global imagination. For the most part, it evokes positive images: lush jungle, frolicking elephants, picturesque hills covered in tea plantations, glorious beaches, peaceful Buddhist temples, and a laid-back lifestyle. And indeed, it’s thrived as an international tourist hotspot, offering visitors a culture similar to India’s without the crowds, hassles and abject poverty that besmirches its neighbor’s reputation.

But there’s another side to Sri Lanka, and it’s almost as well-known: the terrible civil war that gripped the island for 26 years. This was a large-scale, serious conflict with heavy weaponry and lots of civilian casualties. Although tourism has certainly picked up since the end of the war in 2009, Sri Lanka remained a tourist destination for most of the war, and dire reports of terrorist attacks and fierce battles didn’t do much to dent its image.

The war may be over now, but it’s left a lasting legacy of ethnic estrangement and damage. This blog post will delve into how the war started, how it ended, and where the ethnic politics of Sri Lanka stands now.

Like oh so many wars in the postcolonial world, Sri Lanka’s civil war was an ethnic conflict. Most of Sri Lanka’s people — 75% — are Sinhalas, a Buddhist ethnicity unique to the island. The rest are almost all Tamils, an ethnic group based in the far south of India — unsurprisingly, the part that’s next to Sri Lanka. They are based in the north and along the east coast.

Sri Lanka has an ancient history, but modern conflict has shrouded its nature in some degree of mystery. Both Sinhalas and Tamils originally came from somewhere else: the Tamils, obviously, from neighboring Tamil Nadu, but the Sinhalas from somewhere in north India — they are racially Aryan like the people of north India. Buddhism thrived in India in ancient times (especially under the Maurya dynasty of the 200s BCE), but diminished in popularity during the Middle Ages, so the Sinhalas’ fervent Buddhism points to a migration sometime before then. Whether the Sinhalas were there first, or whether they were mainly responsible for the impressive civilization whose monuments dominate the island’s central plain, is a contentious debate. Suffice it to say that for most of Lanka’s* history, the two ethnic groups coexisted.

Sri Lanka has a strategic location next to India and along the trade route that spans the Indian Ocean, connecting Arabia and Persia in the west with the Malay archipelago (modern Malaysia and Indonesia) in the east. This meant that various foreigners stopped by throughout its history, including possibly Greeks and Romans. Arabs introduced Islam and converted many Tamils, but most of the population stayed Buddhist or Hindu. In modern times, the Portuguese, Dutch and British each conquered part or all of the island (which they called “Ceylon”), with the latter making the deepest, most permanent inroads, seduced by its ideal climate for growing their all-important tea. Ceylon became a colony where Britishers could get a taste of India without having to deal with its complicated religious conflicts, huge population and political unrest.

That’s not to say that Ceylon didn’t have these things, of course. Like their counterparts in India, British colonists in Ceylon sponsored a minority group in the civil service — in this case, the Tamils — to create a loyal cadre of locals to help stymie native opposition to their rule. Thousands of Tamils were also brought in from India to help pick the tea too, creating a pocket of Tamils in the south (today called “Indian Tamils”). Tamils were better-educated and more likely to speak English than the Sinhalas, further creating the sense of a gulf between them and a connection with their masters.

As a result, when a Ceylonese nationalist movement did emerge in the 1920s, it was mostly Sinhala-led. Sinhalas formed the first government of an independent Ceylon in 1948. In 1956, faced with Sinhalas disgruntled that 2/3 of the civil service was represented by Tamils, the prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, introduced a “Sinhalese-only” policy: Sinhalese, and only Sinhalese, was to be Ceylon’s official language. Tamils, who rarely speak Sinhalese, protested, and Bandaranaike tried to conciliate them at first, but when Ceylon’s revered Buddhist monks protested in force in favor of the law, Bandaranaike backed down, which incited riots.

The situation continued to deteriorate into the ’60s and ’70s. Politicians found that discriminatory policies played well with Sinhalas, and since they make up such a big proportion of the country their votes were enough to carry elections. So curbs on civil rights continued. Tamils found themselves passed over for university admissions. The army became Sinhala-dominated. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship and encouraged to head back to India. Links with India — student exchanges, media, trade — were severed on socialist grounds, which hurt Tamils disproportionately due to their cross-strait links. Tamils were marginalized economically. The government encouraged Sinhala migration to Tamil areas.

This all contributed to a tense and edgy atmosphere. Parties were split along ethnic lines, and the main issue for Tamil ones was how to cope with the discrimination. Some wanted to work within the system, others argued for a federal system to protect Tamil autonomy, and by the late ’70s an independence movement had emerged. The burning of a library in Jaffna, the largest Tamil city, in 1981 was provocative, but what really pushed Sri Lanka (which had been renamed in 1972) over the edge was a riot in Colombo, its biggest city, in 1983. Provoked by the massacre of a military patrol, Sinhalas took out their anger on ordinary Tamils all over the city by beating, burning, raping and murdering them. The government turned a blind eye to it and never punished anyone for it. To Tamils, the message was clear — they were not welcome in the country any longer.

Some Tamils reacted by emigrating, but the immediate result was civil war. The group that had carried out the ambush in the first place muscled rival parties out of the political arena, sometimes bloodily. The Tamil regions of Sri Lanka were reorganized as an independent country, Tamil Eelam. It had its own flag, government, courts, bank, radio and TV stations, and most of all, military. This military dominated the ersatz country and shaped its life for the next few decades, and although it was called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the world knew of them as the “Tamil Tigers.”

Tamil Tigers

The Tamil Tigers’ flag made it clear they weren’t anyone to f*** with.

The Tamil Tigers were hardcore. Led by an intense guy called Velupillai Prabhakaran, they knew there was no way of achieving their objectives by being nice. They perfected the art of guerrilla warfare, living in the jungle and pouncing on their prey at opportune moments, only to melt away again before reinforcements arrived. They recruited soldiers from throughout Tamil Eelam and focused on children to indoctrinate them at an early phase. They learned to survive in rough conditions on basic food and to absorb devastating attacks. They targeted Sinhala civilians far away from the war zone with suicide bombs — back in the ’80s, before anyone else did. They tunneled deep underground to withstand air raids. They even developed their own little air force and navy, complete with a homemade submarine. They exulted in a cult of martyrdom, self-sacrifice and martial heroics.

The war raged on, mostly monotonously, for 2 decades. The Tigers were never powerful enough to pose much of a threat to the Sinhalas, but they were too tenacious to be defeated, either. India, eager to play a role as regional hegemon, intervened in 1987 with a peacekeeping force meant to separate the 2 sides long enough for talks to be held. It didn’t work: the Tigers saw the Indians as uninvited interlopers and attacked them, while Sri Lanka stood back and let them die, anxious for their departure as well. After only 3 years and no progress with those talks, the Indians left, and Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi paid for the whole episode with his life (he was assassinated in 1991 by a Tiger agent).

The Tigers put up a good fight, and gained fame/infamy internationally for their intensity/cruelty, but they were always on the defensive. Sri Lanka simply had too many resources. After 2005, when a hardline president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected, their fate was sealed. He bulked up the army with a massive recruitment drive until Sri Lanka had a military 30 times bigger than it was in 1983. He attracted military aid from a random mix of friends (China, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia) tired of the fighting and waiting to invest in Sri Lanka’s development. He stocked up on ammo, vehicles, and new weapons like multi-barrel rocket launchers.

Norway and Sweden had negotiated a ceasefire in 2002, but it was tense and no one really wanted to stop fighting yet. By 2006, the war was back on, and reached its final phase. The army was ruthless and held the territory it reclaimed from the rebels. Aid from sympathetic Tamils in India was interdicted. Since Sri Lanka is an island, the Tigers had nowhere left to escape. By May 2009, they were cornered on a beach in the northeast with no hope of a comeback. Prabhakaran and his remaining groupies died in a blaze of glory, or after surrendering, or while trying to escape by sea — journalists were barred from the war zone, so once again the true story is unknown. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and many of them died. But with a finality rare among long-running guerrilla wars like this, the Sri Lankan Civil War was over. The Tamil Tigers and their regime passed into the history books.

Tamil Eelam

The territory of Tamil Eelam at its maximum extent.

There was some disgruntlement among the Tamil community about their government’s ignominious trampling, but for the most part the war really did end suddenly. After 26 years of mostly continuous fighting, Tamils were exhausted, and Sri Lanka has undergone a demographic shift that favored more sober 30-somethings and not fiery, violent 20-somethings. Northern Sri Lanka went through the process of rebuilding. Landmines are gradually being removed. IDP (internally displaced persons) camps are being emptied. Shattered infrastructure is being mended or rebuilt.

Peace, and all its attendant blessings, has dawned on Sri Lanka. Tourism has always favored the south, but links with the former Tamil Eelam are now rebuilt. Foreign investment is pouring into the Tamil cities of Jaffna and Trincomalee. Kids are going back to school instead of boot camps in the jungle.

But there’s still an air of disquiet and sadness in the Tamil lands. The war grew out of Tamil disenfranchisement, after all, and little has been done to reverse this since the war ended. The government is still Sinhala-dominated. Sri Lankan society still promotes a Sinhala-dominated national discourse that dismisses minorities and crows over the Sinhalese victory. Buddhist monks, like their counterparts in Myanmar, stoke a siege mentality and a chauvinistic interpretation of Buddhism. The military is still thick on the ground in the north, and valuable properties expropriated from Tamils during the war remain in its hands. The language barrier is still high, and since the government, police, military and courts are so Sinhala-dominated, many Tamils can’t even understand them unless both sides speak English.

The most obvious positive step in terms of reconciliation so far was the 2015 election of Maithripala Sirisena, mostly because Rajapaksa and his brothers were behind the most egregious policies. The military presence in the north has become less stifling, and thousands of Tamils are no longer abducted in the middle of the night. Sri Lanka’s constant denial and protests over any international criticism of its conduct of the war, which by most accounts involved torture, massacres of civilians, bombings of hospitals and rape, have abated, and Sirisena has promised to allow a more impartial accounting of war crimes. Tamils are allowed to talk openly about their problems, and a Tamil press has revived.

But the fundamental problems remain. Sinhalas continue to see Tamils as foreigners and cling to their own self-congratulatory narrative. Riots in March between Sinhalas and Muslim Tamils show that religion remains a flashpoint and source of distrust. Tamils traumatized by years of carnage find it hard to see their southern neighbors as friends. The military still occupies the north, jails dissidents without charges, and gets subsidies in its businesses there that crowd out locals. Sirisena shielded a popular general, Jagath Jayasuriya, from war crimes charges to cater to his Sinhala base. For now, Tamils are too worn out and beaten to raise much protest, but if their grievances are not heard, political conflict and war might erupt again.

Two very different perspectives on the war.





Image source: Corbis

Iran has been a focus of global attention for many years, and once again it ranks at or near the top of diplomatic agendas. After more than a year of uncertainty and procrastination, America has finally decided to renege on the nuclear deal that has so far kept Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s an important and troubling issue, and I have already discussed it in 2 older articles. But let’s step aside from the fixation with nukes for a bit and discuss something more fundamental: the ongoing contradiction between Iran’s government and society. It underlies a great deal of Iranian policy (and foreign policy toward Iran), even when it’s not immediately apparent.

As usual, a bit of historical background is necessary. Iran (Persia) is an ancient land with a coherent national identity and culture dating back to the 500s BCE. For most of that time, it was ruled by an emperor (or “shah”) with few limits on his power. Although Iran was modernized in the early 1900s by Reza Shah Pahlavi, the shah’s power was still pretty much absolute. A constitutional movement at the beginning of the century gave the country a legislature, the Majlis, but it was subordinated to the shah.

This continued under Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah (who is almost invariably referred to as just “the shah”). He offered very generous terms to foreign investors and suppressed opposition parties, enforcing his rule with a sinister secret police force, SAVAK. By 1978, a cycle had developed of anti-monarchist protests that were put down violently, thereby provoking even bigger protests, and so on. With even the legal political parties turning against him and military units switching sides, the shah’s power was untenable, and in early 1979 he left Iran for medical care, never to return.

This pattern of events is not unusual in revolutions, but what happened next in Iran is unique. Without the shah, politics in Iran dissolved into a messy struggle between factions with wildly different visions of Iran’s future (much like what happened in the Arab world in 2011) — and the Islamic Republican Party had the most public support. It wiped out its opponents and created a theocracy, or rule by religion. Muslims in many countries pine for a strong(er) role for their religion in government; in Iran the religious establishment actually took over.

In a system called vilayat-e faqih (“rule by jurist”), a Supreme Leader replaced the shah as the head of Iran’s government. This Supreme Leader was originally Ruhollah Khomeini, an ayatollah (a high-ranking cleric within Iran’s Shi’ite sect of Islam); he has since been replaced by Ali Khamenei (not the same guy). Khomeini attained the position mostly by his charisma and fame and legitimized it by his knowledge of Muslim law and jurisprudence. The Supreme Leader has the final say in government policy, oversees judicial and military appointments, and interprets the constitution. Beneath him is the president, who is elected every four years by the people — the catch is that candidates must first be vetted by the Supreme Leader and Council of Guardians, which is entirely made up of clerics. The Majlis persists, and like the president its members are also popularly elected; also like the president, they are vetted by the Council. There is a Supreme Court and a Special Clerical Court (the latter of which watches the watchmen), and they are also composed entirely of mullahs.

دیدار رئیس‌جمهور و اعضای هیأت دولت

Iran’s government. Khamenei is in the middle, beneath a portrait of Khomeini, with Rouhani to his left. Image source: Financial Tribune

There are also the Revolutionary Guards. This corps was created during the revolution to “protect” (enforce) it by rooting out monarchist or secularist elements and jailing them. They are the regime’s enforcers and spy and crack down on protests or political dissent, not unlike their monarchist predecessors. Since students in particular are trouble, they are regularly hounded by the Basij, one of the Guards’ arms; another arm, the Quds Force, intervenes in wars in West Asia (Syria, Iraq, Yemen) to coordinate militias and advance Iranian foreign policy there. Analysts debate whether the Guards are controlled by the president or the Supreme Leader; in reality, they probably compose their own power center, and even if they enforce Islamic law, they act more like the paramilitary they are. They are definitely the single biggest economic force in Iran today after a major expansion under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-13), and own powerful companies in the oil, telecoms, car and construction sectors.

Iran has a rich stew of political parties, but politics there normally fragments into two factions. The “reformists” want Iran to lighten up: lift government controls of the economy, trim clerical control of the government, court foreigners more, and allow more freedom of expression. The “hardliners,” well, want the opposite. They defend the status quo and the spirit of the Iranian Revolution and rail against reform as backtracking and dangerous. They taunt reformers as gharbzadegi (corrupted by the West) and either call for continued focus on Shi’ite principles and austere piety or defend government domination of the economy as necessary for protecting the Iranian people, depending on their background and emphasis.

That being said, Iranian politics can be bewildering and complex, and it gives foreign analysts much to do to track the shifting fortunes and positions of its main figures. Ahmadinejad, for instance, was a bit of a rogue who challenged the elite and promoted populist economic policies while championing Islam, demonizing Israel and the West, and alienating the young. He was ultimately distrusted by the Supreme Leader and Council for being a wild card who relied too much on the Guards, but during the “Green Movement” of 2009, when protesters railed against his reelection, Khamenei sided with him and squelched the movement, reasoning that he was the lesser of two evils. Khamenei has given his presidents substantial latitude, especially compared to Khomeini, but he is as hardline as they come and is not above making subtle digs at them in sermons to keep them nervous and in line. President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (1989-97) was somewhere in the middle, trying to open up Iranian society after Khomeini’s harsh austerity but without betraying the revolution; as usual for moderates, this just meant that both sides ended up angry with him.

In general, though, the central dynamic in Iranian politics is that the ayatollah is hardline and the president (including the current one, Hassan Rouhani) is reformist. This is no accident, since the president is popularly elected.

The Iranian Revolution was a grassroots movement. Tired of being oppressed, tortured and patronized for as long as anyone could remember, Iran’s masses poured into the streets in 1979 to demand change and a government ruled by mullahs. The ’80s were years of religious zeal in Iran, as women were forced to cover up and everyone was forced to abandon overt signs of Western influence.

But Iran hasn’t historically been a closed, suspicious society. Sitting astride the old trade routes between Europe and China known as the Silk Road, it absorbed foreign influences and the people who brought them while influencing outsiders too (see this article for some of the ways it influenced South Asia, for example). It is widely acknowledged as an extremely hospitable and generous country with a tradition of respecting guests. In the decades before the revolution, Western influences were widespread and tacitly encouraged by the shah — Western fashions in dress and hair, Western literature, European languages, and Western pastimes were trendy and tolerated by most Iranians.

This trend away from revolutionary fervor has been accelerated by demographics. The 2011 census revealed that 56% of the country is under 30. The 20-30 age cohort is easily the biggest (23% of the population). Most people do not remember the revolution and do not hold Khomeini in great reverence. Due in part to weariness at Islam’s relentless intolerance and conservatism (or at least, those of its followers), the young are increasingly turning away from the faith; details are murky, but there seems to be a thriving underground Christian community. While Iran’s great religious centers like Mashhad and Qom still attract crowds during holidays and pilgrimages (as do Iraq’s Shi’ite holy cities, Najaf and Karbala), many mosques are relatively empty during weekly services. Even many clerics only go through the motions, and there are plenty who are blatantly hypocritical in their own observance of Islamic law.

As a result, it is fair to say that contemporary Iranian society is fairly open and secular. As in many other Muslim countries, alcohol is freely sold and consumed despite Islam’s ban on it; a lot of people even struggle with alcoholism, catching the government off guard with how to cope with it. Teens feast on pizza, visit bowling alleys, and show off their skateboard tricks and souped-up cars. Strict censorship of un-Islamic entertainment is usually flouted; satellite dishes dot urban rooftops, and hit American movies and TV shows are downloaded off the Internet. Social codes are clearly sexist, but women have more freedom of action than in most Arab or African countries, outnumber men in universities, and mingle freely with men in public. Islam’s strict dress codes are followed, but with as much leeway as possible — women wear tight-fitting clothes, makeup, and hijab with their hair showing. Some have even taken the daring step of not wearing hijab altogether, which is liable to get you arrested.

The Basij take a nuanced approach to this. Accepting reality, for the most part they let the people do as they want, especially if they are rich or well-connected. But stepping too far will still land you in jail, and Iranians are skilled at knowing where the red lines are. Political debate is tolerated — presidential candidates hold debates around election time — but if the core precepts of Islam, the revolution or the government are challenged, authorities swoop in. Travelers are nominally welcome in Iran and are certainly greeted with open arms by ordinary people, but they are still liable to be watched, detained and questioned by the police. Journalists and unfortunate souls like hikers who stray across the Iraqi border or scholars studying the Qajar dynasty are jailed without cause or on trumped-up charges. Listening to foreign music is O.K., but uploading a video of a dance to Pharrell Williams is going too far.

In general, Iranians are used to this and take it as a fact of life or a quirk of their country. But it grates on them just the same. Being treated as a rogue state or part of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is frustrating, and most Iranians want more freedom. That is why they continually elect reformist presidents, from Mohammad Khatami in 1997 to Rouhani in 2013. That is why the reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009 sparked a massive uprising in Tehran in support of his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, that was ultimately put down violently. That is why more protests burst out around (Western) New Year’s 2018, which originated from economic grievances (mainly high food prices) but soon escalated into demonstrations against the regime in general, and in cities across the country.

How will these contradictions and internal tensions be resolved? As in many things in Iran, it is unclear. Some analysts argue that the violent suppression of protests and continued sidelining of reformists will continue and ultimately reveal Iran’s democratic process for what it really is: a facade for military dictatorship with religious overtones. Others are more optimistic and see Iran’s government as a spent force, with the youth representing the new vanguard that will someday produce an Iran less hostile to its neighbors and more tolerant of social expression.  Given Iran’s ongoing relevance on the international stage as it bids for regional domination, outside interference and influence is another complicating factor. But it is unfair and overly simplistic to see Iran as simply another grouchy, zealous Islamic dictatorship determined to slaughter infidels and torture its people. There are a variety of political, economic and social opinions circulating in Iran, and although there are significant restrictions, Khamenei and his Guards let them circulate.


There are plenty of good books on Iran, but it’s hard to imagine any of them besting Marjane Satrapi’s comic memoir of growing up in the Iranian Revolution, Persepolis. (The animated version is masterful too.) Image source: Pinterest


Mushroom cloud

Image source:


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.