Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hey everybody! Nobody's guarding the southern border anymore!

Maybe this is old news to some people, but I was impressed by an article on Ju Sung Ha's blog last week in which he made the rather startling observation that North Korea has de-prioritized the guarding of its southern border to the point that the only real obstacle to southward-bound defection may be on the South Korean side.

In the old days, patrolling the southern border was considered one of the most vital military tasks, so only soldiers from the most trustworthy classes were posted there, and they were well-supplied and compensated. But as northward defections into China have become more of a problem, it seems that the regime has shifted most of those elite troops to the north, leaving the southern border in the hands of the least favored military units, composed mostly of starving kids in ill-fitting uniforms.

Ju's blog and other defector sources have reported much in recent years about the sorry state of the majority of the North's troops, who frequently steal food from civilians and in some cases are reportedly so malnourished they no longer have the strength to control their bowels and have taken to wearing diapers. These half-starved soldiers who stare across the border all day, collecting South Korean propaganda fliers for disposal and illicitly listening to South Korean radio, could be prime candidates for defection.

As a policy suggestion, Mr. Ju proposes that South Korea clear "defection paths" through the minefields on its side of the border, leaving the anti-tank mines and barbed wire fences in place but removing the anti-personnel mines and posting signs to show the northerners where it is safe to cross. The soldiers on the northern side would presumably know or be able to find out where their own landmines are. He astutely anticipates that the strongest objections to this plan would probably come from South Koreans afraid of the social disruption caused by waves of refugee soldiers. To these naysayers, he advises growing some balls:
As a reporter who has experienced life in both North and South, I have observed that the northern side seems to always reach for the sky with nothing but bluff and bluster, while the South has actual capability but no confidence.

If only they knew the reality; the South with its tremendous degree of openness can afford to be shaken 10 meters from side to side without collapsing, but the North is so extremely isolated that it cannot stand to wobble even one meter.

If the landmines are removed from the DMZ, it is the North that will really be in an uproar.
Of course, the removal of landmines in the South is nothing new. South Korea has periodically removed swathes of them in the past, not to encourage defection but to protect its own citizens and soldiers from stray mines that get washed away from their original positions due to flooding. Clearly both Koreas long ago stopped worrying about the possibility of an infantry invasion from across the border. But if this new development reported by Mr. Ju is true, it adds an interesting new element to the equation.

The obvious question which Mr. Ju does not address is how the North Korean authorities might react to such a move. Clearing defection paths and posting signs would certainly not go unnoticed, and the North would use any means at its disposal to shut them down. Even if the vast majority of soldiers want to defect, all it takes is one brown-nose standing in a tower with a machine gun to dissuade them.

They would also probably not let the South Koreans off easily, although their official response might be interesting. After all, it's not the same as the South's loudspeakers, which the North could condemn as psychological warfare and threaten to use for artillery target practice. It's hard to think of a persuasive argument for how the removal of landmines constitutes a "dastardly plot to disrupt peace on the peninsula."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

World's Most Precious Kitty Coming to America!

It's official! Greta and I are moving to LA in August. I will be starting my PhD in Polisci/IR, and Greta will be continuing her goodwill mission to promote Japanese feline culture and refinement around the world.

Greta flew in an airplane once before, in 2009 when we moved to Korea, but that was only a two hour flight and I doubt she remembers it now. I sat down with her and patiently explained everything was going to happen, and answered her questions.

If the pilots are not kitties, how can we be sure we'll land on our feet?
And I'm not allowed to pee the whole time?
Greta understandably has some anxieties about moving to another country. The last move was hard on her at first, but she eventually embraced her new home. She is studying up to learn everything she can about her mommy's homeland.
This is where we're going to live? How will we both fit in such
a small two-dimensional space?
What's this about tired, poor, huddled masses? I am a Kamogawa princess
from an ancient bloodline. I do not huddle with the masses.
If we move to America, can I get a handgun?
America, prepare yourselves for a major cuteness injection this August!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Wedding Crashers

One of the most special experiences we had in Cambodia was when we were spontaneously invited to join in some random strangers' wedding reception.

We were on our way back from Tonle Sap when we spotted a big wedding pavilion in front of a road-side restaurant.

We asked the driver of our minibus to stop, and Jongshil found a boy who could speak English and asked him if it would be okay for us to take some pictures. The next thing we knew we were being ushered into the pavilion and invited to join the feast.

I was seated next to Professor Lee. The music was playing too loudly for us to understand each other, but Professor Lee snatched up a menu and scribbled notes to me when he had something to say. "I feel like crying," he wrote, and "I can see these people's happiness," and "A magnificent rooster has appeared."

I don't know how long this party had been going on, but no one was dancing when we first got there. I saw this as an opportunity for us to earn our invitation. Kanjangnim must have had the same idea, and after a couple of beers he got up and started dancing by himself. I immediately joined in, and several other wedding guests soon followed our lead. Before long we had a little scrum of people dancing around and around in a circle in front of the speakers.

Unni recorded some low-res video of the scene on her smartphone.

 By the time we left an hour later, our little circle of dancers had grown to about 20 people and an auxiliary dance circle had formed halfway across the room. Party mission accomplished, we took our leave, but not before handing over a little Korean-style wedding gift.

A few weeks later, after we had all returned to our normal lives back in Seoul, Unni and I received another unexpected wedding invitation - to the nuptuals of Professor Lee's son. The ceremony was held at a very tasteful "house wedding" hall in the Kangnam district of Seoul.

Like most Korean weddings, the ceremony and the reception were both extremely brief, although this one was fancier than most and included a proper multi-course meal instead of a buffet. The posh surroundings and the fact that most of us had never met the bride or the groom did not stop our gang from being our usual rambunctious selves. We were easily the most demanding guests at the reception. We continuously harassed the wait staff to bring us more booze, Jongshil redistributed the items on our plates to match our body types, and as we were leaving we scooped up as many flower arrangements as we could carry.

I continue to marvel at this little group of friends we have assembled. They are like the fanciest group of overgrown children I've ever encountered. Half the time I can't decide whether to feel honored to be included or embarrassed to be seen with them. I look forward to our next adventure.