Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Affairs’

North Korea: Meet the New Boss…

October 10th, 2010 No comments
Kim Jong Un with generals at Workers' Party's 65th Anniversary

Kim Jong Il's enigmatic youngest son, Kim Jong Un, will be the next leader of North Korea.

What has been rumored for months is now official: Kim Jong Un will be the next leader of North Korea. He is the third and youngest son of Kim Jong Il, and we know almost nothing about him. We don’t know whether he was born in 1983 or 1984. Until last June, we only had one confirmed photo of him, and until last month we weren’t even sure we had his name right.

We sure as heck don’t know how he will govern.

What we do know is based almost entirely on Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef, who escaped to Japan and lives in hiding. We know Jong Un studied at an international school in Switzerland and can speak English, along with some German and French. We know he likes skiing and basketball, and according to the sushi chef, “is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” His eldest brother was probably the favorite to succeed his father until he was caught trying to go to Tokyo Disneyland with a fake passport. His second brother was considered “too feminine” according to the sushi chef, and that left Kim Jong Un.

While this holds all of the fascination and intrigue of a petty spy novel, what most of the world wants to know is, how will this change anything politically, if at all, with North Korea? Once again, all we have to go on is that sushi chef, who described him as “exactly like his father.” But sons have a certain tendency to never turn out “exactly like their fathers,” so that leaves a lot of room for speculation. The bright unspoken hope is that North Korea could see a Juan Carlos moment, as in the hand-picked heir to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who pledged undying loyalty to the Franco military regime, only to then usher in a successful transition to democracy upon assuming power. The young Prince Juan Carlos however, unlike Kim Jong Un, was not the son of his predecessor, and secretly maintained ties to his more liberal father.

The more realistic hope is that Kim Jong Un cares about the people a little more than his father and/or is a little less paranoid of the rest of the world, considering his early exposure to it in Switzerland. This could lead to some small but positive reforms. Not everyone inside the military regime has been happy with the status quo under the senior Kim, so no doubt there will be some jockeying to see who can gain influence with the new young leader.

The way I see it, there are four basic ways that things can go:

1.) Things get a lot worse: Infighting between Kim Jong Un and other military heads leads to instability and chaos within the country. China feels a need to intervene in order to stem a flood of refugees across its border, while South Korea is paralyzed between trying to help the North Korean citizens and protecting its own people. Japan starts threatening China over fears that China is trying to extend its influence outward, and the United States cannot directly intercede without risking a conflict with China, therefore resorting to strong words and material support for South Korea. Meanwhile Kim Jong Un feels more and more pressure to set off a nuclear bomb in order to prove his strength.

2.) Things get a little bit worse: Kim Jong Un carves a path for himself almost exactly like his father’s, but proves either less adept at the diplomatic chess game or even more unpredictable than his father, leading to more arbitrary pain for the citizenry and tensions with the U.S. and neighbors.

3.) Things get a little bit better: Kim Jong Un, either convinced by advisors or through his own conviction, decides to follow the examples of China, Vietnam, and Cuba and begin a slow and controlled process of economic liberalization. Political control likely remains brutal, but citizens start to actually be able to live above subsistence levels and have a modicum of choice in how they live their lives.

4.) Things get a lot better: Over the objections of hardliners and the political old guard, Kim Jong Un forges a new course for the country that downplays military supremacy, opens the economy (at least partly) to foreign trade, allows for some level of domestic political dissent, and lets foreigners visit with greater autonomy. China appreciates the potential for trade and keeps a close alliance with Kim Jong Un government in an effort to maintain stability while he wrestles with critics inside the military. The United States and Japan welcome the change with skeptical optimism, but call for even more advances in politics and human rights, and reiterate their opposition to the nuclear weapons program. Political and economic cooperation between North and South Korea soar, leading to a new “Golden Age” in bilateral relations, and North Korea’s national soccer team makes it to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1966, with South Koreans screaming their support on the sidelines.

We won’t know exactly how things will turn out until they do, and while outcome #4 might seem like a bit of a long shot, I’m still gunning for possibility #3. Now we just have to hope and wait.

The US is not pulling its weight with the Iraqi refugee crisis

April 4th, 2010 No comments

Iraqis celebrate their homeland's soccer Asian Cup victory in downtown Stockholm. (Photo:

We could argue endlessly about how much the situation in Iraq has improved or worsened since the 2003 invasion. One thing should be made clear however: the Iraqi people are the best judges of the situation and the standard of living in Iraq. And we can easily measure their opinion through how they vote with their feet. Over 2 million Iraqis have been forced to internally migrate to safer areas, while another 2 million plus have left the country. The scale of this movement becomes apparent when one takes into account that Iraq has about 30 million people.

Unfortunately, most of the refugees have fled to neighboring countries in the Middle East that are poorly equipped to handle them. They are in desperate need of faltering aid as they are without adequate food, shelter, education, or a permanent place to call home. And few have returned to Iraq as very few can.

What about the United States? With millions of Iraqis having left the country, surely the leading juggernaut of the Coalition of the Willing must have been more than willing to accept many of these immigrants with open arms.

No. As of the summer of 2009, the United States has accepted about 30,000 immigrants since the invasion. That is equal to 0.01% of the total US population. Probably the most gracious western country to accept Iraqis so far has been Sweden, which currently has 49,000 recent Iraqi arrivals. Not only is this figure over 50% higher than for the US, but when you realize that Sweden’s population is a paltry 9,300,000—the sheer scale of Sweden’s help becomes apparent. That means that 0.5 percent of all people living in Sweden are recent Iraqi immigrants today. This would be the equivalent of the US having nearly 1,580,000 Iraqi immigrants—more people than who live in metropolitan New Orleans. Compare to the actual 30,000 figure, which is about the same number as the inhabitants of Kearney, Nebraska.

Funny, as Sweden was never in the Coalition of the Willing. In fact, it was deeply opposed to the invasion. But it’s liberal asylum laws and generous social welfare programs have made it attractive to Iraqis looking for a new home, while other European countries and the US maintain stricter controls on immigration.

The Swedish government is not amused at carrying much of a burden that they see others are not as willing to take on. The strain on social services is being felt, and apartments overloaded with over a dozen residents is not an uncommon sight. The small Swedish city of Sodertalje alone took in more Iraqi asylum seekers in 2007 than the US as a whole that year. Has the US made any efforts to increase the number of Iraqi immigrants into the country?

Sort of. For example in 2007 the US announced an increased target of 7000 Iraqi immigrants, but due to red tape only 1600 were admitted.

Iraqi refugees in Syria live in poor conditions awaiting to move on to a new life. (Photo:

Despite some improvements in the situation in Iraq, the millions in the refugee camps throughout the Middle East will not likely have a chance to return home. Many of them belong to religious minorities, such as the Christians, and would face discrimination, violence, or worse upon return. Thus many expect the number of asylum-applicants to continue to grow in 2010. The United States has a responsibility to further open its arms to these refugees. Not only because this refugee crisis would not exist if the US had not gone into Iraq, but because we went in with the pretense of liberating the country and giving Iraqis better lives, and we should take more concrete action for these people stuck in limbo to put our money where our mouth is. No one is advocating that we take in proportionally as many Iraqis as the Swedes, as there are limits to our resources, but would it be too much to ask to double, triple, or quadruple the current numbers we’ve let in?