North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Thursday, December 29, 2011

As 2011 concludes, one country decides 364 days is enough

There is so much violent "news," which is in one sense newsworthy, yet after a while, more numbingly routine. Perhaps we can join in with Samoa which decided to skip Friday this year ... (story below).

But first:

Arab monitors are in Syria now, but the Syrian government continues to kill protestors regularly, it seems a dozen or more at a time.

"Professional" photos out of Syria are rare, pics and video clips from cameras are more available. This one purportedly show Arab monitors on the streets of some Syrian city.

The pressure on Syria's Bashad continues to grow, Arab League monitors are now in the country to observe the violence - which ultimately puts pressure on the Arab League itself whether the monitors will declare this to be much less than the reporting implies, or if they see violence first hand, what then is the League's next step.

Nigeria continues to cope with an extremist Islamist group. Boko Haram burned down churches in the north of the country on Christmas Day.

More than 40 people were killed by Boko Haram on Christmas Day. Since then, more than 90,000 people have fled their homes amid clashes between Boko Haram and police in Damaturu.

Nigeria's north south divide between Islamic culture in the north and Christian/animist in the south continues to boil. One extremist group, the Boko Haram, plagues the government, the peace, and Nigerian citizens. Christian church leaders are banding together to defend their buildings and people.

Turkey ends the year snarling on several fronts.

Just yesterday, Turkish warplanes mistakenly killed 35 or more citizens in the east of the country, assuming they were Kurdish separatists while they may just have been cigarette smugglers. The Turkey government is vigilant and uncompromisingly strident over the destructive behavior of Syria, its neighbor the south and one-time ally. Turkey is concerned over a new natural gas find on the island of Cyprus by the Houston-based, Noble Energy Company. Turkey doesn’t recognize the Greek Cypriot government and in September sent an exploration vessel accompanied by warships and fighter jets to the area after Noble started drilling.

France's lower house of Parliament passes law that results in Turkey recalling its ambassador to France.

And finally, the government is incensed at the moment with France, whose lower house of parliament just passed a law declaring it illegal in France to deny the Armenian genocide by Turkey from 1915-1918 during World War I. Turkey maintains the numbers are overblown, and it should be characterized as military conflict during a civil war including dislocations and starvation. The UN recognizes the genocide as such, and historians continue to debate it. There were mass protests in the streets of Ankara, and Turkey's Ambassador to France has been recalled - a heavy duty statement in the world of diplomacy.

Bethlehem the scene of fighting between Christian denominations of holy men

We even have Christian priests clashing with each other in Jerusalem around Christmas time over who has control over one of the tourist sites! Inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, “God’s people” – coming from Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches – were screaming out loud and beating one another with broomsticks, fiercely protecting their territory from the competing community’s invasion. The row broke out when the clergymen were cleaning up the church ahead of Orthodox Christmas celebrations. As agreed, each of the two denominations controls a particular section of the church located right on the “border” between their zones of influence.

One more thing for Israeli police to have to sort out.

And so we end in Samoa

Samoa's beautiful landscape.

From Time Magazine,
"The island nation in the South Pacific had announced earlier this year that it would switch from being on one side of the International Dateline to the other, putting itself in the world’s earliest time zone instead of the latest.

To achieve this change, Samoa has to lose a day. So even though today is Thursday, tomorrow won’t be Friday. Sorry, Rebecca Black! Friday is canceled, as is the date of Dec. 30, 2011. According to the Guardian, being on the east side of the date line for over a century helped Samoa do business with the U.S. But it is now more convenient for the small country to be on the other side of the line for its trading with New Zealand and Australia."

And so ends another revolution around the sun. Teatree will post again in 2012

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve reflection on Norway's shooting tragedy

In late July this summer, a lone gunman bombed a building in Norway's capitol Oslo, killing seven, then drove to an island where over 500 youth were attending a low key political youth wing rally for the nation's labor party. There, 23-year-old Anders Breivik systematically shot and killed nearly 70 individuals - most of them teenagers - many in the water trying to swim to safety.

Norway sits on the western edge of the Scandinavian peninsula

Come to be called the Utoeya massacre, the event rocked the normally quiet affluent nation of just five million, priding itself for a sophisticated, tolerant society. Questions and criticisms quickly surfaced regarding overlooked pockets of right wing extremists, a woefully slow and sparse police response that allowed the shooting to continue for over an hour, and whether lenient criminal laws would find the shooter eligible for release far sooner than the public mood would accept.

All of these introspections and debates are to be expected and needed as one aspect of a society's grief and recovery over such a violent loss. A followup article in the BBC today, however, is hopeful, in describing the healing during the past five months.

"Few here forget the sense of sadness and unity in the immediate aftermath: a pastoral service at Oslo's Domkirke cathedral attracted thousands; a rose parade in Oslo attended by so many that the scent of pink and red petals lingered in the air for days.

An overwhelming remembrance of roses in front of the Domkirke cathedral in the days after summer shooting

Cathedral clergy say during the first two or three weeks after the attacks more than one million people came inside the church, while between two and three million congregated outside. All this in a country where it is estimated that only 10% of all baptized Lutherans attend church regularly.

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For many secular Norwegians, roses in memorials were their way of expressing grief

The BBC article notes one personal interview, "The rose is a symbol of love," says Lisbeth Royneland whose 18-year-old daughter, Synne, died in the massacre. As an atheist Lisbeth found the rose parades more helpful than anything related to the church, but was glad of its support. How had she come to terms with grief of such epic proportions. Did she need to pray? "Not really. I was hoping to find her alive. It was so enormous, and so terrible an act that I didn't pray. I didn't. I wish I could."

On the other hand, Kristin Moen Saxegaard, a pastor from Ringerike, a county near Utoeya, was called to the Sundvolden hotel to counsel those who were waiting for news of their children. "The parents often asked 'where was my daughter?' and 'was she alone at that time?'. And then I could say, as the pastor, that she was not alone when all this happened." She said that many of them wanted her to pray on their behalf, wanting God to be with their children, whether they were alive or dead.

As Christmas is upon the world, and especially so in societies with a Judeo-Christian heritage, Norwegian believers find solace in the church and with others of faith. One teenager who was on the island but escaped the shooting, Marte Fjermestad, related how her faith kept her calm. Marte scrambled, then waited with a small group of other teenagers hiding in the woods until they were sure that the gunman had gone, in which time she says she felt a connection with God. "I'm a Christian, so I prayed a lot. At one point I was praying to God and Jesus and I just looked up and saw some branch on a tree and it was shaped like a heart. It felt like God was saying: 'calm down'."

16 year old Marte lighting a candle in a December service

Today, a simple stone memorial stands at the end of the dock leading to Utoyea island. There is a small brass heart attached to the stone with an engraved reflection, "If one man can show so much hate, just imagine how much love we can all show together."

Once again, Teatree's favorite Christmas hymn may be appropriate for this time of year,

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The passing of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il

Over the past weekend, the world has witnessed the passing of two national leaders. One deserved respect and honor for living as a resisting conscience in his native Czechoslovakia during the decades of Communism. The other was a leader who betrayed his citizens for a grasp on power, sending nearly a million to their deaths and that by starvation and want.

Excerpts follow from an article by Nicholas Eberstadt in the LA Times, December 21:

The career of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," was marked by a series of historical firsts ... He was, to begin, the first ruler of a Marxist-Leninist state to inherit absolute power through hereditary succession from his father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

He was the first ruler of an urbanized, literate society to preside over a mass famine in peacetime: The Great North Korean Famine of the 1990s, which ... is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of his subjects.

A striking picture showing the lack of electricity in North Korea, in contrast to mainland China, South Korea, and Japan

A more conventional view of North Korea

Since the very late 1990s, when North Korea's famine apparently subsided, the food situation in the country has remained desperately precarious: Resumption of famine has been forestalled only by humanitarian food aid, Western economic assistance and Chinese largesse. Thus Kim Jong Il also earned the lifetime achievement award for overseeing the first industrialized economy ever to lose the capacity to feed itself. ....

... North Korea's economy was actually ahead of South Korea's in the 1960s and early 1970s. ... By the early 1980s, the Dear Leader ... was in charge of day-to-day domestic policy. By then, it was already painfully obvious that the North was lagging badly behind the South, with the gap widening with every passing year.

With the death of his father in 1994, Kim Jong Il assumed total control. In 1995, as South Korea was getting ready to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — the exclusive club of aid-giving industrial democracies — North Korea joined the club of Fourth World countries issuing emergency appeals for famine aid.

Kim Jong Il did not immiserate his country in a fit of absent-mindedness ...[rather] It was a direct but incidental consequence of a grand strategy he relentlessly pursued.

Kim Jong Il - gone at 69 - leaving behind a legacy of misery and death

His father, the Great Leader, may have been a monster — it was he who launched the Korean War and perfected the North Korean police-terror state — but he nevertheless retained a measure of peasant cunning and pragmatism: Kim Il Sung recognized that people would work harder and better if you paid them more, for example, and he wrote as much in his collected "Works."

The Dear Leader, by contrast, would have none of this. In his ideologized worldview, granting North Korean workers material incentives and blandishments would risk fueling "egotism" and "bourgeois thinking." From Kim Jong Il's standpoint, the survival of the ... state depended on ... completely preventing any such noxious attitudes in the population under his command. "Reform" and "opening," he proclaimed, were regime slayers for socialist states.

North Korean's publicly expressing grief at the passing of their "Dear Leader"

This is the vaunted "strong and prosperous nation" that the Dear Leader bequeathed to his legatees: a ruined country, an enslaved and degraded populace, a corrupted and parasitic elite, a bankrupt ideology and an atomic weapons program.

North Korea - with the technological capability to build a nuclear weapon, but unable or unwilling to feed itself. Here is a collective farm

The heir apparent to this family enterprise, "Young General" Kim Jong Un, is a four-star general with no previous military experience, appointed in haste to a pantheon of lofty positions before his father died but after the Dear Leader was stricken, reportedly by a massive stroke. There is every reason, unfortunately, to fear that the Young General will not be up to the multiple critical challenges he now faces." (End of excerpts)

The new North Korean leader, 20-something Kim Jong Un.

From North Korea to the Czech Republic.

Vaclav Havel was a Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee, he was the tenth and last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He wrote over 20 plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally.

A world statesman. In his role as the Czech President, the one-time political prisoner Vaclav Havel spoke often at the UN in favor of the marginalized and oppressed

Havel was a founding signatory of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, that proposed the establishment of the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. He also received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, the freedom medal of the Four Freedoms Award, the Ambassador of Conscience Award and several other distinctions.

Havel inspired millions with his simple approach to resistance - live in truth

In his 30s, after the brief "Prague Spring" - from which we now have the term "Arab Spring" - Havel became active in the politics of Czechoslovakia, as much as one can living in a satellite nation of the USSR. In 1977, he co-authored the Human Rights charter called Charter 77, which brought him an international recognition as the leader of opposition in Czechoslovakia. Consequently, this led to his persecution by the communist regime, and repeated imprisonment. Arguably his most powerful essay was "The Power of the Powerless" where he distilled one avenue of resistance for ordinary citizens - live within the truth. In the face of a police state, a citizen could “ridicule a whole edifice of totalitarianism” simply “by folding his arms and putting a smile, a knowing smile, on his face”, as the late Christopher Hitchens once wrote of Havel.

Young Havel during the 1968 Czechoslavakian "Prague Spring"

In 1989, Czechoslavakia's Velvet Revolution brought Havel into the presidency literally just months after being freed as a political prisoner. He oversaw a peaceful separation of his country into Slovakia and The Czech Republic when a public referendum wanted it so, though he himself was against the split. He then led the smaller Czech Republic into NATO and saw to the start of the negotiations for membership in the European Union (attained in 2004).

The Czech Republic in the middle of Europe

Two lives of leadership - what a contrast.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

US combat troop withdrawal from Iraq also signals immediate 9-11 era at an end

The worlds' headlines today are providing uniform coverage to the formal end of US combat presence in Iraq. While 15,000 to 17,000 American security-oriented contractors and trainers are still in the country, a sizable diplomatic corps along its Marine guard contingent, and a beefed up US military force now stationed just across the Iraqi border in Kuwait, the withdrawal is truly newsworthy.

US soldiers strike the colors at a ceremony in Baghdad

Iraqis have widely varied opinions on what the American war has accomplished. It certainly removed an oppressive ruler who had gassed his citizens, was notorious for savagery, and for playing ethnic, religious, and tribal groups off one another to the loss of them all. On the other hand, the sheer violence amidst the 2003 invasion and the ensuing violence brought about by the letting loose of old ethnic tensions, resulted about a five-year blood-letting no less traumatic than Saddam Hussein's actions had during his own rule. Now, even 8 years after the American-led invasion and occupation, fears remain over a return to widespread violence among factions, as well as what Iran - an historic enemy - may have in mind.

Many of the IED's used with deadly results during the 8 years in Iraq came from Iran

The US occupation of Iraq cost over $900 billion dollars in the 9 years of buildup and withdrawal. The US lost 4,484 military personnel since 2003 - the vast majority of the 4,802 coalition casualties, and another nearly 32,000 wounded. Americans and the whole world are left with the memories of searing events at Fallujah, distressing scenes from Abu Graib prison, a horror show of beheadings by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, hot debates between allies before the invasion, and at home, continuing posturing and preposterous debates within a polarized US Congress and political parties.

Crowds in restive Fallujah demonstrate with pleasure at the departure of American troops

If there must be one overarching characterization of the Iraq war, it must be that weapons of mass destruction were never found. As the respected former Secretary of Defense Donald Gates said (serving both Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama), "The problem with this war for, I think, many Americans is that the premise on which we justified going to war proved not to be valid, that is Saddam having weapons of mass destruction. So when you start from that standpoint, then figuring out in retrospect how you deal with the war — even if the outcome is a good one from the standpoint of the United States — it will always be clouded by how it began."

After the occupation, US searchers found many secrets in Iraq, dozens of mass graves, this Cold War MIG 25 jet buried in the sand, but no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

From that fundamental lapse (though never as clear as the manipulated Gulf of Tonkin incident that led to the major escalation of the Vietnam War), one can only imagine the different trajectory the conflict would have taken if major WMD stockpiles had been found. Would more allies have poured in to maintain security and order while rebuilding? Would Iran still have been emboldened to so directly involve itself by using Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs killed more servicemen and women than any other type of weapon)? Would the world itself have been shaken sufficiently, and thus taken more seriously the nuclear weapons buildup in North Korea, not to mention Iran's aspirations?

The huge new US Embassy in Iraq - a testimony to much bigger plans America once had ...

The "what if"s will remain, perhaps what has more clearly passed with the withdrawal from Iraq is a chapter in American history that could be termed the response to 9-11. Absent that event, it is hard to imagine any President gathering enough support from Congress or allies to pre-emptively invade another country. And while the war in Afghanistan continues, the direction of that war is to disengage with as favorable outcome as possible.

If we could consider the immediate post 9-11 chapter concluding, the next chapter may be emerging as a serious, if more covert array of actions against groups of extremists. The Obama administration's significantly expanded use of drones without hardly a peep of dissent by the media, those on the left, or his party base, is a prime example of what is the new "acceptable."

In any regard, as the US troop footprint in Iraq ended, it was left to the Obama administration to provide some healing language to the effort extended. US President Obama, a fierce critic of the war, spoke to troops returning home to their base in North Carolina and sought to pronounce a noble end to the fight. "The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages," he said, applauding their "extraordinary achievement."

US President Obama meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the White House last week, pledging his support to the liberated Iraq

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, the most senior U.S. official at the formal closure ceremony in Baghdad told those who attended "that America’s role in Iraq is by no means over." He referred to a $6 billion effort being undertaken by the State Department to sustain U.S. influence ... “Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation,” he told the gathering.

Ending conflicts is a challenge and responsibility of rulers everywhere. General Eisenhower entered the White House in 1952 with the explicit promise to go to the Korean peninsula and end the Korean war. After bitter negotiations, he did bring about a truce in 1953 (leaving behind tens of thousands of troops along a demilitarized zone). President Nixon was elected in 1968 with a pledge to end the Vietnam War, but it took four years, and secret bombing campaigns before negotiations began and concluded in 1973. And, within two years, South Vietnam was over-run by the North.

Iraq with the opportunity to chart its own course in a very tough neighborhood

It will now remain to be seen whether Iraq on its own can move forward on a more constructive path, led for the first time by the Shia majority of the country. Prime Minister Maliki's immediate challenges are to further reconcile with the Sunni and Kurd populations, seek some sort of balance with its aggressive Iranian neighbor, rein in anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and oh, rebuild a still crumbling infrastructure for the Iraqi people. If the outcome in South Korea is a possibility, which has become a strong, prosperous democracy, then perhaps the loss of so many lives in Iraq, both nationals and foreigners, will have been given a reason.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russia's own "back to the future"

The many themes of the former Soviet Union are vaguely being played out once again in Russia itself.

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Russia still a dominant country spanning both European and Asian continents, after an 80-year span of controlling the United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

The time honored photo of people - in this case Russians - placing their ballots in the voting box, meant to give the stamp of approval for all democracies to see.

An election meant to promote and highlight Prime Minister Putin's plans to return to the office of Russian President suddenly took a left turn. Instead of paving the way for moving from the relatively mundane role of Prime Minister to the more powerful and internationally visible Presidency, the election resulted in significant losses for his party, ironically named "United Russia". If that setback wasn't enough, the results then touched off protests of fraud on the street.

After the elections, street protests have erupted in anger, and swelled in numbers over perceived fraud in the process

To top it off today, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Mr Gorbachev (harking all the way back to the days of US President Ronald Reagan) came out with a public statement, calling for the results of increasingly disputed parliamentary elections last weekend to be scrapped. Quoted in a New York Times article, Mr. Gorbachev said “With every passing day, more and more Russians are ceasing to believe that the results of the elections were honest."

Mikhail Gorbachev, older now, was the first President of Russia, but is still not well liked by Russians. He is largely blamed for throwing the country into chaos as the USSR collapsed (though others ask whether that was inevitable). Nor did his winning the Nobel Peace Prize gain him stature in his homeland.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago (1991), Russia has experienced tumult in social and economic terms. From Wikipedia, "Russia has undergone significant changes since the collapse of the Soviet Union, moving from a centrally planned economy to a more market-based and globally integrated economy. ... Economic reforms in the 1990s privatized most industry, with notable exceptions in the energy and defense-related sectors. ... [But] the rapid privatization process included much criticized "loans-for-shares" schemes that turned over major state-owned firms to politically connected "oligarchs,"and has left equity ownership highly concentrated. As of 2011, Russia's capital, Moscow, now has the highest billionaire population of any city in the world."

A shopping dilemma for Russia's new wealthy

Despite the "newly monied" gaining much more than the average Russian, the country nonetheless has gained economic power. With an abundance of natural gas, oil, coal, and precious metals, the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen, and even today the country has only 6.7% unemployment, much better than many Western nations. (Of course, don't look too closely at how statistics are put together ...)

Russia's public numbers hold up well in comparison to most other nations.

Much of the stability and growth during the past 12 years has been under the governance of Putin (eight as President, and the most recent four as Prime Minister), so why is he suddenly embarrassed and on the defensive with his citizens?

Dmitry Medvedev in the background, Vladimir Putin in the foreground. Putin as President governed Russia for two four-year terms but was constitutionally barred from a third. Instead, he maneuvered his handpicked colleague Medvedev into the Presidency for a four-year term, while he became Prime Minister in the meantime.. Despite the unexpected election setback this week, Putin is still working to return to the Presidency..

The answer apparently is that democracy or power held by the people has indeed taken root to at least some depth in this former Communist country. People, while patriotic to their homeland, and enjoying some signs of economic stability, nonetheless resent corruption, a measure of censorship of the press and opposition, and they are making their discontent heard.

Just 20 years have past since the collapse of the USSR, with crowds of impassioned Russians on the street wanting to participate meaningfully in their country's government. We shall see whether a "Moscow spring" is again in the air.