North Korean Bomb Tilts Asian Balance of Power

This a guest post by Ray Hunt…

The balance of power throughout Asia is rapidly changing.

China and India are industrialising and accumulating wealth at break-neck speed.

Indonesia is morphing, Viet Nam is successfully forging a socialist development path different to China’s, while South Korea and Malaysia are becoming affluent middle-class societies.

In the past three years, North Korea has detonated two nuclear weapons and fired missiles over Tokyo, and the main Japanese island, Honshu.

North Korea’s big bangs are a frightening development for a country that had two cities destroyed by nuclear weapons.

But China’s growing economic and political strength, the historical grudges and Chinese maritime disputes with Tokyo and every Asian neighbour with an adjacent coastline, are much bigger Foreign Affairs problems for the clumsy Japanese Government to manage going forward.

Some informed sources say China’s military build-up and increasingly assertive foreign policy are primary reasons why Japan could change direction.

In the Sea of Japan Chinese submarines have been playing Art of War style games with the Japanese navy for the past four years. There are hotly contested claims over various bird-shit covered islands and potentially oil-rich waters. And, of course, there’s a hateful history of hundreds of years of bad relations between Japan and China.

From 1945 until recently, Japan was happy to shelter beneath America’s nuclear “umbrella.” A subservient defence alliance with the US minimised diplomatic friction with the neighbours and allowed Japan to invest more in productive economic infrastructure and building the world’s second largest economy.

However, given shifty behaviour by Cheney and Bush, US forces stretched by two slow-burn wars, America’s economic problems and a relative decline in its regional capacity to project power – coupled with China openly flexing its muscles – Japan is not longer so sure about the validity of its military insurance policy from “Uncle Sam.”

For these reasons Japan – which has everything it needs to assemble accurate nuclear warheads in months – could may deploy nuclear weapons in the next few years.

If this happened, South Korea would also acquire nuclear weapons, that’s assuming they aren’t already motivated by the Dear Leader’s fireworks to be quietly manufacturing deployable warheads now.

A number of other major Asian countries would then follow suit. China would build more nukes. Then the wheel would turn again.

So what can we do to prevent the region’s two superpowers assuming a nightmarish “mutually assured destruction” nuclear posture?

Step one, sort North Korea. Easier said than done but there are some available levers. Without Chinese energy supplies, the Dear Leader’s regime has no future.

What specific role might Australia play in helping our neighbourhood peacefully chart the stormy seas that lie ahead?

Well, we could employ some enlightened self-interest and push for increased regional political interaction. At an institutional level.

The Asia Pacific Economic (Community), among other established Asian institutions, could help. The Hawke-Keating government, supported by quiet Japanese diplomacy, built APEC from the ground-up.

Maybe now is the right time to update APEC’s 20 year-old institutional mandate? Consider making APEC a diplomatic talk shop?

A place where serious Asian disagreements could be sorted behind closed doors without anyone losing ‘face?’

We should explore all plausible options. Looming on the horizon is the ominous spectre of mushroom clouds and Australian officials who know the APEC fine-print back to front.

Ray Hunt

51 Responses

  1. Excellent post Ray!

  2. Good stuff Ray and what do you think of Rudd’s attempts to get up an Asia Leaque for just this type of regional response to potential problems and disasters?

  3. Mobius Ecko, on May 31st, 2009 at 9:59 am Said:

    Sorry to butt in on your question for Ray.
    I think it has already been indicated to Rudd that the Asian nations would prefer to rely on the associations already in place with neighbours looking out for each other. They place us as more South Pacific where we can be the big brother. In Asia we are more the little boy, and despite our own opinion of our standing, we really don’t have a lot of weight there.
    The US have worn out their welcome and most Asian nations take pains to avoid looking as if they are acting on behalf of the US.
    Nixon had the right idea on making his historic visit to China as a first step to finding a solution to Vietnam. Putting his hand out first was not a sign of weakness as many who saw China as the enemy would see it, but he understand how the Chinese would perceive such a gesture.

  4. Yes, thoughtful stuff, Ray.

    Its disappointing to see these old rivalries resurfacing and driving so much of the region’s politics and foreign policy: China/India, China/Japan, Vietnam/China. NK/Everyone Else.

    (OK, the last is a new one -Post WW2 only- but the others have been around since the days of sodding Confucius).

    Asia has definitely gotta get its act together and maybe you’re right about APEC providing a talking-shop for the purpose. I hope so. They’e sure gotta start cutting deals.

    People sometimes talk about the Asian concept of “face” and all that crap, but it’s just a form of arrogance. And nothing beats the Frogs for that.

    So, if the Germans and French can kiss, make-up and work closely together for their mutual advantage in the EU, surely the above traditional enemies can sort something-out.

    They’d better, or chances are we’ll all end-up needing those lead-lined Levis if everyone goes nuclear.

  5. Evan, on May 31st, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I think we need to avoid stereotyping. Whilst various groups do have certain characteristics, what behaviour they exhibited in the past is no guide to how they might behave in the future, unless circumstances remain the same.
    I believe it is all about prosperity. Those who have something to lose, do not generally behave like those who have nothing to lose.
    A prosperous China will have different priorities to an impoverished China, who may have more in common with an impoverished USA when it comes to trying to improve their own circumstances in the world.
    There are only 52 cards in the deck, and if anyone wants the game to continue, then either they have stop playing with some players being dealt 5 cards and others only 2. The game will change, the question is will those holding 5 cards recognise that the game is up, or do the cards have to be taken by force?

  6. My point is not that Asia will or will not form a league in the form Rudd wants, they are extremely reluctant to do that, but I believe it will be inevitable that some form of Asia Union (AU) will eventually come about.

    I was asking what people thought of the idea. The Asian associations already in place are deficient in so many ways and are mostly self serving for a select few in deference to the region as a whole. Nothing illustrates this deficiency more than the disjointed action against North Korea and to a lesser extend Burma.

    I believe Rudd is on the right track just as APEC was the right thing for the times much to the chagrin of the Right at the time. The problem I see is not the idea but the fact it is Australia (or more accurately a Western nation) proposing it. If this had been an Asian idea then it would be well advanced by now. This is a Rudd failure in that he wanted his name on the proposal whereas he would have been better off diplomatically dropping hints about it around the area and then giving praise to whoever took it up.

  7. “Whilst various groups do have certain characteristics, what behaviour they exhibited in the past is no guide to how they might behave in the future….”

    Hmmmm. Let’s test this, shall we. By reference to the USA.

    I seem to recall something called the Monroe Doctrine being kicked-about there in the mid-19th Century. The idea was that all of the Americas were part of the US’s legitimate sphere of influence and that as a consequence, they claimed the right -the right, mind you- to interfere in the affairs of any nation south of the border as they saw fit to ensure that their interests were preserved.

    So far as I can see, they’ve been applying that doctrine ever since.

    I could give you a chronological list of countries they’ve invaded, suborned, sponsored coups-in and otherwise buggered-up in the name of American interests, but what would be the point?

    They’re still doing it now.

    And if you think that that particular Leopard is likely to change its spots anytime soon, you’re dreamin’.

    I say past conduct is and remains a pretty-good guide to how any particular nation will conduct itself in the future. The Yanks will keep buggering-up South America and we’ll keep licking their boots.

  8. I’d have to agree with you there, Adrian/Mobius. I think Rudd’s strong feelings of self-importance have killed the idea in it’s infancy. Were this to have come from, say, China or Japan (or perhaps both around the same time) – this would have had legs from the first week. It would have freaked the living daylights out of the US and, as such, there’d be pressure for us to weaken it; but in the end it would have gotten built.

    The simple fact that “we” (i.e. a Western country) have come up with the idea poisons the concept for being sold to the Asian public. They REALLY have had enough of Western countries meddling (for the most part) and you can just imagine Japan’s reaction to us telling them what they should do in their own waters (so to speak).

    Shame really. An “Asian Union” (along similar lines to the EU) could have restored a bit of balance to global politics & economy.

  9. I could give you a chronological list of countries they’ve invaded, suborned, sponsored coups-in and otherwise buggered-up in the name of American interests, but what would be the point?

    The excellent book by Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.

    Back on topic though, I believe as you say Evan that if long feuding European nations can make at least a token appearance of getting along for the economic gain then so can some of Asia, even though they’re culturally vastly different from the Europeans with a completely different mindset. In Asia there is enough commonality to overcome the differences, just as there was with the Europeans.

  10. Cue realpolitik. ASEAN+2 is the emerging forum. Why? Because it is Asian. Calling APEC or Rudd’s proposed new institutional detente of an Asia+Clingons is to obscure that the horse had bolted ever since Washington Consensus nations and their IMF-World Bank instruments screwed Asia over (per Asian sentiments) in their time of crisis. Rudd’s attempts to forestall a purely Asian bloc emerging were and are doomed to fail whilesoever the extra-Asian meddlings in regional Asian politics, economics, and military manoeuvres continues; which is why the Asian bloc continues apace and any such detente has been located elsewhere in one-off pacts (like the G6 for North Korea) and more broadly, the G20.

  11. Yes, well the Europeans have been knocking each-other on the head pretty-well continuously since the days of Charlemagne.

    As for the French and Germans, The Hun did ’em in 1860, did them again in 1914 and again in 1940. Since that time, however, they seem to have come to a mutual understanding that their best interests are served by co-operating and working together.

    I wouldn’t exactly say that the European Leopard has changes its spots, rather that its just moved-on to a different diet. (Ask any Frenchman what he thinks of The Bosche, and it’s not likely to draw a complimentary response. And vice-versa with The Heer).

    Still, now they team-up to present a (reasonably) united front to the rest of the world. It’s not a complete picture of harmony and co-operation, of course (you gotta remember, we’re talking about the French and Germans here), but it’s pretty good in the circumstances.

    Maybe the nations of Asia can come to a similar arrangement. I don’t know. I sure hope so, as it would certainly be in everyone’s interests, including their own.

    So far, however, the portents are not so good. China keeps flexing its new-found muscles and still hates both Vietnam and (particularly) Japan, with a vengeance. And, I suppose, for good reason.

    Let’s face it, the Japanese haven’t exactly conducted themselves well over the last 100 years or so. There have been quite a few, **ahem, episodes of piss-poor conduct towards the Chinese and its only in the last 50 years or so that they’ve stopped lopping-off Chinese heads and started getting rich making cars and electronic yin-yangs for the global instead. Before that it was all chest-beating bushido and banzai.

    But this thing with Vietnam is ancestral: Its Wars of the Roses, blood-enemies stuff and goes back to when Europeans were still painting themselves blue and throwing rocks at the Romans.

    Maybe they’ll get over it, maybe not.

    But if I had to bet on what’s likely to happen in the foresseable, I’d bet on things continuing more or less as they have been: NK nuclear tests and missiles flying over Japan; Chinese Gunboats seeing Viet and Fillipino fisherman off the premises on those crappy tidal rocks in the South China Sea; And a whole lot of aggro over Taiwan shoud anyone there mention the word “independence”.

  12. Evan, on May 31st, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    My observation was about changing circumstances, mainly prosperity.
    The US circumstances are changing, for the worse. I agree with you regarding their previous behaviour, I think it may deteriorate further.
    On the other hand as can be observed in Asia post WW2, increased prosperity firstly alleviates any internal or domestic pressures, and then creates a desire for the nation to interact with those around them rather than confronting them. The politics is only a small part of it, it is the businessmen and traders who really open up and want to keep the doors open.

  13. Legion, on May 31st, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Just an addendum, Ray. In the politics of M.A.D.-ness, one dilemma seems to exist in any one nation having ‘the bomb’ where any one nation might use ‘the bomb’. At a global scale, that there are nations who have ‘the bomb’, some of whom like to leave ‘the bomb’ on the table when ‘negotiating’ and who take pride in leaving ambiguous the ifs and whens of their might use for ‘the bomb’ as an express feature of their ‘negotiation’ styles has implications for a conceptualisation of nuclear non-proliferation (see eg the Non-Aligned Movement’s stance at the UN). Until that deeper rift in thoughts had about the issue of NNPT are addressed, that will, arguably, continue to affect any and all discussions about regional arms races and anti-proliferation pacts, and thoughts had about ‘the bomb’ by those who would engage in M.A.D.-ness.

  14. B.Tolputt, on May 31st, 2009 at 12:45 pm Said:
    “Were this to have come from, say, China or Japan (or perhaps both around the same time) – this would have had legs from the first week.”

    I agree with you that Asia doesn’t like others telling them what to do.
    I don’t agree with you that this would idea have had legs. That is assuming that the idea has merit, but that is only from the western perspective.
    From the Asian perspective they already have the mechanisms available and are perfectly capable of adjusting to suit changing circumstances.
    Take ASEAN, it grew out of a need to nuture greater co-operation in all fields, and partly because of the fear of the direction Indonesia was taking at that time. The men behind it’s formation were clear thinkers with a solid understanding of not only their own region, but the ways of the world, and a vison as to the direction they had to move it.
    We should not under rate the capabilities of the leaders of the region.

  15. We should not understand estimate the leaders of the region, agreed johnd, but we should not underestimate regional domestic political pressures or the larger geo-political picture either.

    Taiwan, for example, is a strong grass-root issues, that evokes the passionate anger of many non-political Chinese people who wish to remove the memories of the historical humiliation of the Middle Kingdom by the West. The Chinese Government has done a professional job of keeping a lid on these widespread feelings – they do not play zenephobic games for their main constituency, even though this would be the easy path for them to walk politically.

    But the geo-political question here is what would happen if domestic Chinese political circumstances changed for the worst?

    Look at the map.

    Global warming, population and economic growth is placing huge a strain on Asia environmentally. Fresh water supplies are already tight. And a number of major South East Asian and Indian rivers are fed from the Tibetan plateau.

    A major war over water is at least as likely as one fought over oil.

    India and China, who fought a border war in the early 1960s, don’t trust each other. Not at all. Both countries are rising global economic and military powers, both countries were, in their eyes, humiliated by US naval power in the past 50 years. Both countries have publicly stated that they are building enough naval capacity to ensure that the US fleet cannot, for example, blockade the Bay of Bengal or Taiwan Straight again.

    It’s game changing stuff. A process that will change the political dynamics of the world’s new economic powerhouse in ways as yet unforseen.

    Agree with posters about Asia having had enough of Western interference and finger-pointing. In my experience, that does not mean our neighbours are not open to good ideas from humble and sincere friends.

    Which brings us back to a forum for proactive confidence-building among the disparate nations of Asia. It does not matter which body performs the Asian Union function as long as it happens. Asian powers need a place to get together behind closed doors and have “robust” discussions with their peers. On a regular and as-needed basis.

    For example, there are important trade and geo-political reasons why China needs a stronger navy, the reasons are compelling when examined from Chinese perspective. But neighbouring countries need to be reading from the same page to understand and accept. the practical implications of the massive regional geo-political realignment. that has only just begun

    One of diplomacies’ most important functions is to prevent misunderstandings and poor communication growing into conflicts. Another is building trusting personal relationships between individual leaders.

    These important functions and outcomes are much more important, ultimately, than what colour signage is placed outside an Institutional Asian Union building in, say, Singapore.

  16. Hi Evan, the Europeans fought for hundreds of years before realising there are better conflict resolution methods available.

    Asia is culturally a much more diverse region. Chinese, Indian and Indonesian people don’t have a lot of common experiences. I believe it’s a larger bridge building exercise that the European Union project ….

    And Face? Face is incredibly important driver of patriarchal Asian societies. It’s inescapable politically. More so than in Australia or France or the USA.

    That’s why more inclusive Asian diplomacy is so crucial. The alternative, crudely trying to corner Asian political leaders who do care about public face, would be a catastrophic miscalculation …

  17. And Ray, will the Australian flag be one of those flying outside the Asian Union building and should it, or will we remain a large dag hanging at the bottom of the arse of Asia?

    Then back to the title and guts of your topic, North Korea not only having nuclear weapons but being close to delivering them.

    China has them and ICBMs. Japan can have them and MRBMs within months if it had the will. India and Pakistan we know about and we are actively fuelling India’s weaponry (no matter the talk of our uranium only being used for energy). Most of the other Asian nations are a long way from being able to mount a credible nuclear arms program, but I have no doubt if North Korea expands it’s capability and miniaturises its nukes then many would be desperately seeking nuclear armament.

    The U.S. has already stated it won’t allow North Korea to reach that point and with good reason, but then the U.S. has to tread more gingerly than ever in the area, for the moment it is seen to favour one Asian nation over another then trouble could ensue. This is the cost to America of Asian nations being more close knit than they once were.

    So it is not far fetched to imagine a nuclear arms race taking place over our heads, and I wonder if this was one of the reasons Howard was so keen on starting a nuclear industry in this country.

  18. Ray Hunt, on May 31st, 2009 at 6:14 pm Said:

    “Which brings us back to a forum for proactive confidence-building among the disparate nations of Asia”

    One of the great things about the emergence of ASEAN was that it was the initative of regional leaders who saw the need to reform the region by mutual co-operation, all this at a time whilst the US was busily trying to reform part of it by force, or all of it had they felt it neccessary. They were certainly working hard behind the scenes in most countries there.
    I feel that reflects to a degree the different nature, and perspective of each. Because of that I am generally more confident of how problems will be addressed by the regional leaders, especially as new generations emerge, and less so of the US.
    But whether prosperity takes hold or not, as you indicated there are some very big problems looming.

  19. Hi Mobius, in my opinion Australia should be one of the founding members of an Asian Union. It’s our neighbourhood. Our security and economy depend on the region. China, Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia are crucial to our future.

    South Korea could also develop nuclear weapons at relatively short notice.
    Like Howard’s nuclear power plan, many Asian countries have nuclear power plants, are building them or talking about a future nuclear “electricity” option.

    While global warming provides a plausible alternate rationale, strategic security considerations are the main attraction of going down the nuclear path. When has anyone invaded a country known to have nuclear weapons?

    The nuclear genie is out of the bottle and, sadly, I cannot see how anyone can undo this. Nuclear proliferation has to be factored-in and systematically managed.

    If Asian countries feel less nervous about the unstoppable rise of China and India, they will see more of the economic upside and be less concerned about past bad blood.

    But closer personal and political relations need to be built incrementally. In untroubled times. Expecting countries with serious historic hangovers to be able to deal with all their toxic baggage during a time of crisis is really asking for trouble.

  20. Hi Johnd, more than happy if ASEAN can do the job. But when I look at Burma – and the less than honourable role that China and members of ASEAN like Thailand have played in this miserable place – I’m not so sure.

    East Asian and South Asian powers are not effectively represented in ASEAN as it functions today. The institutional framework would need a lot of work. But if it can be done, our world and our neighbourhood would be a better place.

    I think we can agree that regional interaction and cooperation is important. Human history supports my belief that across Asia “closer personal and political relations need to be built incrementally. Proactively. In untroubled times. Expecting countries with serious historic hangovers to be able to deal with all their toxic baggage during a time of crisis is really asking for trouble.”

  21. Congratulations on this post, Ray. It adds a new dimension to this Blog and while I have some difficulty with certain ‘concepts’ and the meaning given to same, I suspect this is not the time or place.

    Again, I offer my congratulations and hope your contributions continue. Indeed I hope they ‘grow and prosper’ – as I suspect do reb and joni who, without assistance, will exhaust.

  22. “The Chinese Government has done a professional job of keeping a lid on these widespread feelings – they do not play xenophobic games for their main constituency, even though this would be the easy path for them to walk politically…”

    I’m not so sure about that Ray.

    Remember the large counter-demos by the Chinese Students here in Australia when a handfull of Pro-Tibet people were interrupting the Olympic Torch relay? Organised by the Chinese Secret Service, of course (who do you think paid for the Buses). All to protect the “sacred flame of the Nation” (as they called it).

    What a load of bollocks.

    Regrettably the Chinese, like our American friends, have a simplistic and quite muscular view of their national identity and place in the world. Their patriotism is of the sort you used to find in Europe prior to WW1. It’s xenophobic and assertive as Hell.

    Luckily WW1 bled Europe white and that sort of thinking died on the Western Front so far as the Brits and Frogs were concerned. With The Heer, of course, it was another matter. All WW1 did was give them something to avenge. And it wasn’t until they were bled-out in WW2 that they gave-away The Master Race gig.

    While the Chinese Government keeps a close rein on its propaganda, its quite capable of letting the old Nationalist beast off the leash whenever it suits their purpose. Like with Tibet. Like with Taiwan. Like with it’s Islamic minorities. Hell, like in Korea when the US was kicking Kim’s dad’s ass too hard in the ’50’s. A million or so “volunteers” trooping over the Yalu, eh? Riiiiight.

    Nope, I’m afraid the Asian powers right now remind me uncomfortably of the European Powers, circa 1910.

    I’d very much like to be proven wrong, but I fear there’s quite a storm coming in this part of the world.

  23. While one, with some confidence, can speak of ‘Australia’ as though it is a unit, tis a grave mistake to speak of China, Vietnam and the like in similar terms.

    At a (relatively) micro level, Vietnam. for example, has fifty plus different ‘ethnic’ groups, many or perhaps most of whom have no concept of being ‘Vietnamese’.

    At a more macro level, China houses at least seven different language groups (there is a need to understand that English, Spanish, French, German et al are, by and large, part of the same (one) language group), which demonstrates the futility of simplistic answers when it comes to regarding China as a unit. Put simply – it ain’t.

    While macro theories re Asia are necessary and important, they must be regarded as ‘tentative’ at best.

  24. Nice post Ray. An interesting thread.

  25. Ray Hunt, on May 31st, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Ray, I wasn’t neccessarily suggesting that ASEAN was the answer, but rather how it sets a very good example of how neighbours in the region are capable of taking the initative and creating these forums for mutual and regional benefit on their own.
    It may or may not be the right vehicle. I think ASEAN leaders do see that the requirements of their neighbours to their north may differ somewhat to their own, but then trade and natural resources do tie them together.
    The situation with Burma can’t be dealt with any other way because of their policy of non-interference. To violate that would weaken the alliance. They do engage with Burma through trade and investment, and would be looking for change from within when a new generation emerges. As you observed, relations need to be built incrementally, and that may mean generation by generation, which in many cases also helps to resolve the matter of face.
    Doing things that way however, generally tests the patience of many westerners who want action now.
    I spent many years in the region, and can confidently say that I always got things done, and done my way. I might have had to wait a year or two, and then find someone proposing something that was suspiciously like an idea I may have ran up the flagpole some time back, but that was never an issue for me.
    Thats something else thats important there, ownership. People must be allowed face and ownership.

  26. A well constructed argument Ray. Would like to know what your background is?

  27. Don’t even think of getting me started on the Chinese Government’s cruel treatment of Tibetans and systematic persecution of the Buddhist faith Evan.

    Am I the only woman posting on this thread?

  28. I’m from the ‘countries don’t have permanent friends or permanent enemies just permanent interests’ school of Foreign Affairs, Mark.

    In earlier life, I was the features editor for the Dowadomei Shimbun, a Tokyo-based foreign affairs journal, and the Australasian correspondent for a London broadsheet. I’m reasonably well travelled and have worked in advertising in a number of Asian countries, including Japan.

    Finally, my dear-departed Grandfather was a senior British Diplomat. Growing up with an eclectic bunch of diplomatic, military and spooky dinner guests seemed normal.

  29. Can’t help wondering Ray, was he Creighton-Browne of the FO, by any chance?

    Sorry, mate. It just slipped-out. Too many ports.

    The British Foerign Office was quite a menagerie between the wars. They definitely had a number of people who were, well, somewhat eccentric by modern standards. I’m sure your grand-dad was one of the more sober and respectable ones.

    As for some of the pre-war equivalent of MI-6 and (later) OSS types who would have turned-up for dinner, that’s another matter. That lot weren’t house-trained too well at all. Get ’em pissed and they’d happily demonstrate 25 different ways of killing some poor slob with one’s bare hands without making a sound. It was war-time, I suppose, but still……..

  30. Hi Evan, unfortunately, I was “compelled” to sign an eternally binding non-disclosure agreement. LOL. So all I can lawfully say is that my Grandfather was upstanding, until the gin kicked in.

    Re your run-up-to World War One analogy, I’ve had similar feelings for years. I’d suggest 1908 is a better comparative marker, a year after Churchill dropped his “we will not allow any country to obtain military parity with Britain” clanger. (The Bush defence paper post Sept 11 eerily repeated his delusional position and was about as off-target too).

    I’d say ground hog day, 1910, will arrive when the Chinese start launching aircraft carriers – up to half a dozen are reportedly under construction today – and deploying a genuine ‘blue water’ fleet capable of sustaining combat operations off, for example, the Californian Coast .

    The Europeans made lots of ultimately fatal strategic miscalculations in the first decade of the 20th Century. It’s up to people of good-will to help our neighbours avoid similar behavioural traps and reactionary policies.

  31. How to ‘gently’ squeeze North Korea, an opinion piece from yesterday’s Japan Times:

  32. Yeah, well Ray, let’s hope the Asians do a better job of it.

    As for spooks and what-not, before he retired my old man worked for several decades for a big privately-owned US construction outfit in various countries all over the world. He was quite senior, usually Project Manager on the jobs toward the end and he sure got to some interestuing places: Saudi and the Gulf States, Iran (pre-Revolution) Nigeria, Sth Africa (in the old days), Germany, NZ etc etc. He used to say the place was used from time to time as a cover for the CIA, who’d always make sure there was an agent or two on the payroll when the job was anywhere interesting from a US intelligence standpoint.

    He reckons you could always pick ’em. They were the dudes with the crew-cuts from personnel who never seemed to do any project-related work and who spent all their time requisitioning motor-pool vehicles so they could go swanning-off trying to cultivate the local honchos, even if they couldn’t speak the local lingo.

    Complete tossers each and every-one of them. The interpreters they used probably worked for the opposition anyway. There was only one Yank he ever met who could speak Arabic. And he was an Engineer, not a spook.

  33. Evan, on June 2nd, 2009 at 1:01 am Said:
    “a big privately-owned US construction outfit”

    Though given your description of the blokes it could be every US construction outfit.
    They were the blokes always checking in at the offices of US Inc.

  34. Erm..ah, johnd. I see you know your way around. Perhaps I’d better not say, but you’re pretty warm there old son.

    One of the party games amongst the Project Management-wives crowd when everyone had a few on-board at the monthly knees-up was to see if they could correctly identify the spook or spooks on the project. As I say, it usually wasn’t too hard. Everyone knew everyone else and I’m told even the girls got it right in the main.

    In case anyone in Langley is reading this, lose the crew-cuts, fellas, it’s a dead give-away. And Steve Junior is a good bloke for helping-out Uncle Sam in his hour of need. You oughta give him a medal.

  35. Evan, on June 2nd, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Evan, the Yanks you’re referring to came in many shapes and form, sometimes independent of any large organisation. One such Yank spent years in SE Asia/Indo China selling powdered milk, beginning in the 60’s. I knew of him, but first met with him in Singapore in ’75, just a couple of hours after Phonm Phen fell. He’d had to call in a chopper to get out, it took him directly to Bangkok where he jumped a flight straight to Singapore and came directly from the airport to the original “Jack’s Place”, a place old hands would be familar with.
    He started briefing us about the situation earlier that morning, then broke down. He then began condemning the US who he felt had spent years assuring the locals that the US was going to stand by them whatever it takes, then abandoned them right when they needed the US the most.
    I don’t know what eventually happened to him, but I doubt that he would have returned to the US.
    Some didn’t and were left floating around the region for various reasons, even after WW2, we loosely termed them “SE Asian rejects”, blokes who felt more in tune there than in their home country in the west, or felt some obligation to stay, some Australians being amongst them.

  36. Why don’t yer give yer mouth a go Ray, OK?

  37. The human ghosts of Viet Nam are still floating around South East Asia, johnd. Like you note, many people, haunted by what they were involved in, were not able to reconnect with the place they used to call home. I’ve met plenty of American and Australians who fit this category.

    Many many more vets spend the dry season in South East Asia and the summer at ‘home.’

    Bangkok, in particular, is like spook-central. Seems like half the people you meet at the Foreign Correspondents Club are agents doing a poor journlistic impersonation. The concept of using journalists as ‘cover’ might have merit – hardly anyone pays attention to a drunk, after all – but the execution usually lets them down. Yes the haircuts are a giveaway but so is the humourless ra-ra routine.

    Besides, in places like Viet Nam and Laos, working journalists are not welcome, not the faintest idea why … But just to be on the safe side, I usually put something like “musician” on the customs forms.

    In my experience, French DGSE and British MI6 agents are a lot harder to pick.

  38. From yesterday’s AFP’s news feed:

    SKorea ‘not ruling out’ island raid by North: Yonhap

    Staff Writers
    Seoul (AFP)

    North Korea is stepping up naval landing exercises amid growing tensions with South Korea, which is not ruling out an attack on one of its islands, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Monday.
    The North has conducted shooting drills or used high-speed boats for landing exercises and has banned ships from some areas of the Yellow Sea until the end of July, Yonhap reported.

    “North Korea has increased exercises using high-speed amphibious boats. We are not ruling out the possibility that North Korea may try to raid one of the islands,” it quoted an unidentified defence source as saying.

    Tensions have been running high for the past week after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb for the second time, launched a series of short-range missiles and warned that it could launch an attack on the South.

    South Korea is on heightened alert for a possible repeat of the deadly naval clashes seen in 1999 and 2002 near the tense maritime border area.

    A South Korean defence ministry spokesman told AFP on Monday that North Korea had stepped up military activities following its threat of a possible attack on the South.

    “North Korean troops have been conducting more drills, especially along the west coast,” the spokesman said.

    He declined to confirm a Yonhap report that the North had doubled the storage of ammunition for artillery units and patrol boats along the west coast.

    Pyongyang has warned it would take “additional self-defence measures” in response to any tougher international sanctions and South Korea said Monday that the North may be preparing another long-range missile test.

    SKorea sends missile-equipped patrol ship to border area

    South Korea has deployed its most sophisticated high-speed patrol boat armed with ship-to-ship missiles to near the tense western sea border with North Korea, the defence ministry said Tuesday. “The navy’s cutting-edge high-speed missile patrol boat, the Yoon Young-Ha, is being deployed in the Yellow Sea today,” a navy spokesman told reporters. The move comes amid high tensions with the North, which has threatened attacks on South Korea and is reported to have stepped up military drills near the western border.US sees ‘progress’ toward UN sanctions on NKorea

    US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice on Monday reported progress in efforts by seven major powers to agree a draft resolution for tougher UN sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear defiance. “I think we are making progress and I am hopeful that in due course we will be producing a very worthy and strong resolution,” Rice told reporters after emerging from closed-door bargaining with envoys from Britain, China, France, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The US envoy said the talks were continuing and a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the seven were hoping that, after consultations with their respective capitals, they would be able to present a compromise text to the full 15-member Security Council on Tuesday.

    Last week, the seven powers unveiled a tentative draft that would condemn “in the strongest terms” North Korea’s test underground nuclear test last Monday which violated UN resolutions. Diplomats said there was a consensus on broadening the sanctions against Pyongyang, but the text left out details of a key paragraph on possible, additional sanctions that would be slapped on the Stalinist state. A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that under consideration was extending the list of entities targeted for travel bans or financial sanctions. In addition, a broader arms embargo, tougher inspections of cargo, a freeze on North Korean assets abroad and denial of access to the international banking and financial services were also being mulled, the diplomat said.

    The North Korean foreign ministry has meanwhile warned that “any hostile acts by the UN Security Council will be tantamount to the demolition of the armistice,” referring to the truce which ended fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War. It did not elaborate on what it would do but reiterated that Monday’s test was a “self-defense measure.”

    South Korea has deployed its most sophisticated high-speed patrol boat armed with ship-to-ship missiles to near the tense western sea border with North Korea, the defence ministry said Tuesday. “The navy’s cutting-edge high-speed missile patrol boat, the Yoon Young-Ha, is being deployed in the Yellow Sea today,” a navy spokesman told reporters. The move comes amid high tensions with the North, which has threatened attacks on South Korea and is reported to have stepped up military drills near the western

  39. ASEAN Leaders Focus On North Korean Behaviour

    (Also from the AFP news feed)

    Seoul wins Southeast Asia support on NKorea as summit starts
    South Korea won Southeast Asian backing for efforts to rein in nuclear-armed North Korea as it began a special summit with the region’s leaders Monday amid tight security.

    Seoul planned the summit to strengthen economic, political and cultural links with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), correcting what analysts said had been an excessive diplomatic focus on Northeast Asia.

    But North Korea has moved high up the agenda after it tested a nuclear bomb on May 25. It followed up by renouncing the armistice on the Korean peninsula and launching six short-range missiles, further increasing regional tensions.

    South Korea says the North also appears to be readying a long-range missile test.

    Leaders at the summit starting Monday afternoon and ending Tuesday will describe the test as “a provocative act” which “seriously undermines” regional and world peace, according to a press release from South Korea’s presidential office.

    The Thai, Indonesian and Laotian leaders have all criticised the test in bilateral meetings with host President Lee Myung-Bak, the office said.

    Under the slogan “Partnership for real, friendship for good,” South Korea has spared no effort to promote the event in the southern resort island of Jeju and ensure security for the 10 visiting leaders.

    A surface-to-air missile unit has been set up next to the convention centre, 5,000 police have been deployed in Jeju and navy ships are patrolling the coast.

    South Korea sees ASEAN’s almost 600 million people as a market for its export-dominated economy that can offset the recession in developed countries.

    Panitan Wattayanagorn, spokesman for Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, told AFP the two sides need each other.

    “Time is critical as ASEAN needs a close partner, and vice versa, to be able to deal effectively with the impact of the economic crisis,” Panitan said.

    Resource-poor South Korea is also eyeing the bloc’s abundant raw materials.

    ASEAN is already South Korea’s third-largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth around 90 billion dollars last year, and its second-largest destination for overseas investment.

    Korean investment in the region was worth 5.86 billion dollars last year.

    The figures will rise further when the two sides on Tuesday sign an investment pact, completing negotiations on a free trade agreement which began in 2005.

    “South Korea’s Asian diplomacy has focused too much on Northeast Asia, largely Japan and China. It has actually paid too little attention to Southeast Asia despite its huge potential,” said Cho Hung-Guk, a Southeast Asia expert at Pusan National University.

    The issue of ASEAN’s most troublesome member Myanmar is also likely to be aired.

    Abhisit, the current ASEAN chair, is trying to convene a meeting of its leaders later Monday on the sidelines of the summit, diplomatic sources say.

    The Thai prime minister said in Bangkok Sunday that Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial, which has drawn strong international condemnation, would be discussed.

    Myanmar’s junta has charged the pro-democracy leader with violating the terms of her house arrest after an uninvited American swam to her lakeside home.

    ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. This week’s summit marks the 20th anniversary of a formal dialogue between the bloc and South Korea.

  40. “In my experience, French DGSE and British MI6 agents are a lot harder to pick…”

    They could possibly be a bit more competent too. Lets see.

    Let’s test the proposition with Rainbow Warrior Scenario.

    As we know, the Frogs plant a bomb and blow it-up. Then get caught. Quelle Horreur. Result of operation: Disaster.

    Now inagine if it had fallen to MI6 to get-rid of the ship.

    I doubt the Brits would have used explosives at all. They’re cunning and devious and are rather more likely have gone for something a bit more subtle, like contaminating the fuel or lubrication oil so that the next time our intrepid Planet Warriors put to sea, the engine would seize-up after a couple of hours, leaving them out of the game for several months while their ship was in dry-dock getting its engine stripped and overhauled. Result of operation: High probability of success with little risk of exposure. (After all, who’s gonna finger the dude on the bunkering-tender, unless of course, he speaks like Lord Haw-Haw?)

    If the job had fallen to the Yanks, of course, they would likely have called-in a UCAV airstrike, which would duly miss the ship and blow the crap out of the adjacent warehouse, killing the security gaurd asleep inside. The NZ Plod would then eventually recover bits of Hellfire from the rubble, marked, you guessed-it ,”made in Crapperville, Alabama” and “property of the US Airforce” Result of operation: Complete and utter disaster.

  41. Enjoyed your sketch, Evan.

    Look at what happened to the poor British sod who did the right thing, pre-invasion, and told the truth about Iraq having already been de-fanged.
    Blair set MI6 onto him and Mossad probably went along for the ride too … Poor bastard had no chance.

    Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Dr Strangelove was selling nuclear weapons technology to Syria, North Korea, Libya and … who knows who else?

  42. And we had that Wilkie fella here, too. At least he didn’t end-up dead, I suppose.

    As for that Paki Dr Strangelove you mention, AQ Khan, how the Hell can he be considered a National Hero there?

    As you say, the guy was flogging nuclear technology to every wacko on the face of the Planet. Talk about Bombs R Us. And he was doing it all for no greater reason than love of filthy lucre.

    That bastard makes Oppenheimer and Teller look like saints.

  43. Last thing i heard about Andrew Wilkie was his political candidacy for … was it the Greens?

    Any ideas about where he ended up?

  44. More nuclear news, courtesy of AFP:

    Kazakhstan’s Nuke Boss Stole Thousands of Tonnes of Uranium

    by Staff Writers
    Astana (AFP) June 1, 2009

    The recently imprisoned former head of Kazakhstan’s state nuclear power agency stole the majority of the Central Asian nation’s uranium deposits, security officials alleged on Monday.

    Former Kazatomprom head Mukhtar Dzhakishev and other company officials illegally shifted ownership of uranium mines worth tens of billions of dollars through a network of offshore companies, the KNB security service said.

    “Our information confirms the illegal tranfer of more than 60 percent of the state’s uranium deposits into the property of Dzhakishev and the companies he owned,” a KNB spokesman told reporters in the capital Astana.

    The announcement by the KNB — the successor to the Soviet-era KGB — raises the pressure on Dzhakishev and other Kazatomprom executives, less than two weeks after he was stripped of his title and imprisoned.

    Authorities did not explain how Dzhakishev managed to steal more than half of the country’s uranium deposits out from under the government’s nose. All uranium deals in Kazakhstan are heavily monitored and audited by the state.

    Kazakhstan, an ex-Soviet republic bordering Russia and China, holds almost 20 percent of the world’s uranium reserves and aims to be the number one producer by 2010, overtaking Australia and Canada.

    The country is keen to be seen as a global player in issues of nuclear security. Last year, Kazakhstan mined around 8,500 tonnes of uranium and plans to extract 11,900 tonnes in 2009, according to Kazatomprom.

  45. Ray Hunt, on June 2nd, 2009 at 8:54 pm Said:
    “Bangkok, in particular, is like spook-central. Seems like half the people you meet at the Foreign Correspondents Club”

    Ray, did you ever get to the “George and The Dragon” in Jakarta?
    Many years ago I was there talking to a Brit doing some freelance work for us. He had been longtime Malaya, a left over from the British Army. He only had one arm, he said he lost the other in a mining related explosion. During our conversation, he spotted someone he needed to talk to. When he came back he explained the bloke was from the Russian embassy and they had a common interest in model aeroplanes. mmm. When I asked him how he got on flying them with one arm, he explained they didn’t fly them, just talked about them.

    Not long after there was a big article in one of the local papers noting that there seemed to be a lot staff from the various embassies in Jakarta that frequented the place. I don’t know if it was the journalists favourite spot, but quite a few used to get there also.

  46. The thought of all those poor messed-up dudes wandering Asia looking for some sort of redemption is a bit sad. Oh well, c’est la guerre, I suppose.

    The place, after all, has been a dumping-ground for Eurpoean military miss-fits, fuck-ups, cast-offs and the general riff-raff of Empire since the days of Joseph Conrad. You lot oughta re-read Lord Jim.

    I guess the poor sods hang around bars, getting pissed and talking about the old days when they counted for something, while listening to Barnsey belting-out Khe Sahn or maybe Warren Zevon’s Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner on the juke-box.

    Here’s the latter for your enjoyment (and its a great old song too, best enjoyed with a half-bottle of Gin on the table in front of ya and a tear in the eye).

  47. Seriously though, Ray, how on Earth can anyone nick and entire Industry?

    Only in the Former Russian Republics, I suppose.

    Plus that Dzhakishev dude sounds Georgian to me. And as we all know, the Ivans have had a pretty-long history fo trouble with Georgians. There was old Joe Stalin hisself and, more recently, that fulminating unpleasantness over Ossetia.

    And didn’t Uncle Sam get his interfering fingers burnt there? He’s really gotta learn not to try and bite-off more than he can chew.

  48. I’ve not been to Indonesia yet, johnd, but it’s high on the list. One of the joy of travelling is you always want to do more, it’s also the worst thing about travelling. Next on my ‘to do’ list a three month Indian sojurn, meeting European friends in the middle …

    Throughout out neighbourhood, there are usually expat watering-holes like The George and Dragon that offer the spooks and military attaches the opportunity to compare notes and checkout who is new in town. Weird scenes inside the gold mine are the speicality of such establishments .

    Yes Evan there are lots of very strange displaced people living in the past in South East Asia – I once watched the Brisbane Lions win a grand final in an Aussie Pub in Bangkok, the crowd was as entertaining as the game and, yes, there was lots of Barnsie and Rose Tattoo at half time.

    But, increasingly, you meet lots of foot-loose bright young things on working holidays or grey-backpackers, travelling slow. And people who work in South East Asia professionally. I’ve met high quality Australian journalists, including The Age’s Lindsay Murdoch and increasing numbers of inspiring people doing volunteer work, helping the Thais clean-up after the Tsunami for example, or a stint with NGOs like medicines sans frontiers.

    There are very different types of people visiting Asia at any given time, the sort of people you hook up with is strongly influenced by which country you are in and the season. There’s a huge difference in the demography of people who you might meet in, say, India, Viet Nam and Japan. People who’ve experienced the monsoon once, often try and avoid the deluge. I certainly do.

    When I first started working in Japan a colleague told me “after six weeks you will think you are an expert and after six months you realise you know nothing at all.” He was right.

    I’ve found this insight applicable across Asia. Life is an adventure. All your preconceptions are constantly challenged and you never know what might happen when you step outside the door in the morning. Rarely a dull moment. And most places you go have beach restaurants serving delicious seafood into the small hours, not much surf but lots of great coastline.

    And the locals? From my experience, mostly friendly people coping with tough lives, very low incomes and poor to non-existent health care. It’s too easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a rich country that affords us legal rights and provides the services and infrastructure for an incredibly broad material lifestyle.

  49. Ray Hunt, on June 3rd, 2009 at 7:58 pm Said:
    ““after six weeks you will think you are an expert and after six months you realise you know nothing at all.” He was right.”

    Ray I agree entirely with you, especially the above observation.
    I always felt someone brand new to the region, especially from Australia, only started to get everything into perspective after about 12 months. I think that everything they experienced was constantly being benchmarked against what they knew back home and not being judged on it’s own merits. I likened it to someone who only knew aussie rules football being dissappointed with soccer because there was no high flying marks and the scores were always so low.

    “It’s too easy to forget how lucky we are to live in a rich country that affords us legal rights and provides the services and infrastructure for an incredibly broad material lifestyle.”

    Sometimes I wonder whether regarding ourselves as being the “lucky country” is a positive, or actually a negative.
    I, and I’m sure you have also, have seen the rapid improvements that have occurred in the lives of many of the people of the region in the post colonial era. Certainly there have been a few potholes in the road, and it’s not entirely smooth yet, but I don’t see anyone thinking that what they have gained so far is due to luck, and certainly not expecting that good luck is going to carry them the rest of the way.
    I see this evidenced in the kids that are so keen to get to school and learn, even if the schools sometimes only has a dirt floor and no windows, and certainly few of the teaching aids our schools seem to have;
    and evidenced also in the parents whose first priority after putting food on the table, is to make sure that their kids are dressed nice and neatly and have all the books and pencils they need to make the most of their education, because they know that this is the key to their future, and that their kids are on track to make the most of it, and they are prepared to back them all the way, to university if neccessary.
    I feel sometimes that they are the lucky ones because they have such a great opportunity to extend themselves and grasp the door handles of the train rapidly pulling out, no sure where it is going, but it certainly is going somewhere fast. I think when new to the region I might have even grabbed ahold of the same train for the same reasons.
    Now the train I’m on has settled down and is going along at a nice safe pace, we on board certainly lucky to have all the amenities you mentioned available to them, but it doesn’t seem to be able to accelerate up the hills so well anymore, and I think we might have to have a look through the baggage car and see if we really need to carry all those shiny bits and pieces we accumulated along the way.
    They say that everybody should move house every 10 years or so, just to have a clean out. Whole countries can’t move house, but I see recessions and economic crisis as offering the equivalent opportunity. But it seems that not enough people now want to risk moving house because they are locked in with a 25 year mortgage. But one day they hope their tattslotto ticket going to come up a winner, then they’ll move.

  50. Hi johnd,

    sorry, been having a busy busy week and missed your last post.

    I know what you mean about the potential traps of living in a rich and lucky land. agree it’s rather easy to get into a routine.

    travel, as you know, really blows the cobwebs away. Living in South East has so many things going for it – I still sometimes wake up in the morning and wish I could pack-up and jump on a plane. Friends who do live permanently in South East Asia are a little shocked when they return to oz and find that most of their friends are doing the same things they were three years ago.

    agree. materialism is not all it’s cracked up to be. loving relationships with the people you care about, a healthy body and mind, being conscious of – and hopefully grateful for – all the opportunities, rights and priveleges we rich white people take for granted in this life. These are the things that, to my way of thinking, make for a ‘rich’ life. They are profound. More important than the latest mass-produced widget.

    have you been to Laos? Can highly recommend the dreamy old-Royal-capital of Luang Prabang as a destination. Beautiful scenery and architecture. Friendly humble people. Still mostly unspolit. Lots of boutique hotels along the Mekong. Twilight cocktails. Fine French food. Interesting bunch of travellers to meet. Lots of temples, Monks receiving alms everywhere each morning. A cycle friendly place with easy access to the surrounding countryside … I spent close to a year in Luang Prabang and miss the people and place as the free advert above hints at.

    thanks you for your thoughtful input to this thread john and the excellent posts from everyone else too. Well, everyone but BWOOCE, OK?

    sadly I’m on deadline. again. gotta go. enjoy the long weekend.

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