Friday, June 14, 2002

Why North Korea is Such a Mess
A Brief History of Korea's Problems

North Korea is a hot topic, with numerous reports on the plight of starving North Koreans trying to get out of the country. Here's some some basic historical background so readers can understand why North Korea is such a mess.

Korea is a fairly small country, and perhaps for this reason, few Americans know much about it. Many have no idea where it is located – it’s a peninsula that juts off from southern Siberia, where the Asian mainland come closest to Japan.

For many centuries, Korea was part of the Chinese empire, and relations with China were generally quite good. However, Japan, limited to a string of fairly small islands, wanted territory for expansion. Intense rivalry developed between Japan and China over Korea. Koreans desperately wanted the wars to stop – Koreans’ desire to be left alone led Korea to be nicknamed “the Hermit Kingdom.”

In 1895, Japan won a major war with China and got control of Korea. (Japan also took Taiwan from China during this war, leading to another set of continuing problems in the Far East, but that’s a different topic.) During the first half of the 20th century, Korea became a colony of Japan. Korean culture was suppressed, and substantial portions of the Korean population were enslaved, including large numbers of women who were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.

When Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea was freed by the Allies from Japanese colonial rule. But, Korea’s problems were far from over. The Soviets insisted that Korea be part of their sphere of influence; the US wanted Korea as part of our sphere of influence. Each took half of the country, with the Soviets installing a Communist government in the North, and the US installing a pro-western government in the South. This division of Korea into two countries, imposed by the outside world, has continued ever since.

In 1950, North Korea (presumably prompted by the Soviets) invaded the South to try to reunite Korea by force. The US was taken by surprise, and US and South Korean forces were initially driven into retreat. However, the US turned the tide with a skillful amphibious assault, driving the communist North Koreans far back into their own territory.

For a while, it seemed that the US would successfully reunite Korea under a US-backed government. Unfortunately, General Douglas McArthur, the US Commander, wasn’t content with just reuniting Korea. He repeatedly and publicly announced his plans – which were opposed by President Truman -- to invade China as soon as the North Koreans were defeated. Since Korea shares a major border with China, close to Beijing, this was no idle threat. China, which previously had avoided involvement in this war, sent over a million troops to aid the North Koreans. President Truman fired General McArthur for insubordination, but by that time, the war had escalated into a major conflict between the US and China. [Technically, the troops aiding South Korea were under United Nations control, but most were in fact Americans.]

The results of this conflict between the US and China were tragic. The Koreans were devastated, with approximately 4 million Koreans killed -- more than one-tenth of their total population. Two-thirds of Koreans killed were civilians. Perhaps as many as one million Chinese soldiers were also killed. The United States lost about 37,000 soldiers, and other UN nations fighting on the US side lost an additional 3,300.

The Korean war dragged on until 1953, eventually ending in a division between North and South that was almost exactly the same as when the war started. A cease-fire was declared, but no peace treaty was ever signed. A massive fortified border (the ironically named “Demilitarized Zone”) separates the two Koreas. Tens of thousands of US troops are still stationed on the Korean peninsula to ensure that the North doesn’t invade the South again.

In the subsequent decades after the Korean War, South Korea received massive aid from the United States, its economy expanded, and it eventually became quite democratic by Asian standards. (In other words, its leaders are now elected by popular vote, but there isn’t the level of free speech found in the west.) North Korea became a totalitarian communist state under “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. The violence of the Korean War increased North Koreans’ fear of the outside world, and North Korea became one of the most isolated countries on earth. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea lost its source of outside aid. In the 1990’s, years of bad weather lead to a major famine, which is still continuing.

Kim Il-sung’s son Kim Jong-il (a.k.a. “Dear Leader”) now rules North Korea. (The elder Kim died in 1994.) North Korea is still an intensely repressive, totalitarian society, and people who attempt to flee the famine are regarded as traitors. There have been some signs of opening up, especially a meeting in which Kim Jong-il actually shook hands with South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung. (Yes, that’s right: North Korea’s leader and South Korea’s leader have almost identical names. It could have been even more confusing; South Korea also has a prominent politician named Kim Jong-pil. If he were elected, we'd have Kim Jong-il meeting with Kim Jong-pil.) However, many in the United States fear that North Korea is simply giving lip service to the idea of reform, in order to get international aid.

It’s almost impossible for Americans to travel to North Korea, so I can’t give you any first-hand impressions of what is going on there. I did have an interesting conversation last year with a Chinese diplomat while I was in Beijing last year, however. She said that Kim Jong-il is interested in opening up to the outside world, but that his officials, and the North Korean people, are so afraid of the outside world that he can’t move quickly.

Regardless of whether this assessment of Kim Jong-il is accurate or not, there is no question in my mind that the North Koreans are terrified of the outside world in general, and of the United States in particular. I believe that we have always had the best of intentions regarding North Korea. However, many North Koreans don’t realize this. Their perceptions of Americans are shaped by the violence of the Korean War, including at least one substantial massacre of Korean civilians by US troops.

So, how can the US best end the problems with North Korea? Well, perhaps we can answer that question by asking why North Korea is today so tragically different from South Korea. Initially, they were part of one country, with no major distinctions between them. The only reason for their divergent paths is that South Korea got aid from the US, while North Korea got a failed ideology from the Soviets. We can’t wave a magic wand and transform the North Koreans’ way of thinking, but we can give them aid and show that our intervention on the Korean peninsula was never meant to cause them suffering. With the Soviets gone, there is nothing to stop us from "adopting" the north of Korea like we did the south. This is our best hope for reuniting the two Koreas, and it would be cheaper in the long run than keeping tens of thousands of US troops on the Korean Peninsula.
On other sites:
Al Qaeda as Cult

Interesting idea over at group-blog Silflay Hraka: Al Qaeda can be thought of a sort of cult. In particular, it has these three hallmarks of a cult: "Intensely shared and bonding beliefs; religious expectations about a dramatic world change; [and] high degree of group cohesiveness and social regimentation within an authoritarian structure..."

I would add that Al Qaeda members are (or were, since presumably many of them are now dead) completely isolated from the rest of the world. This sort of isolation tends to cause "group polarization," a tendancy for beliefs to become increasingly extreme due to lack of exposure to opposing views.

In case thinking about this has depressed you, scroll down the page on Silfay Hraka to read How to know when we've won the war on terrorism. (Way #14: The number one rated show on Al-Jazeera is "Queer as Folk".)
Timing is wrong for Palestinian Statehood
Statehood now would reward suicide bombings

President Bush is considering pushing for a Palestinian state. While I think a Palestinian state is desirable in the long run, and may be essential to a permanent solution in the Mideast, this is clearly the wrong time to push for Palestinian statehood. If statehood was granted now, terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade would feel that the suicide bombings had worked. It would send a message that terrorism is effective, and encourage future terrorist attacks. It's simple operant conditioning -- if a behavior brings rewards, that behavior will be repeated.

I don't know why President Bush is considering this plan. Perhaps he is in fact trying to appease the suicide bombers, or perhaps he wants Arab support prior to launching an attack on Iraq. In either case, it's a bad idea. Even just publicly announcing that the President may push for Palestinian statehood is likely to encourage the terrorists. "We're almost there," terrorists will think. "Just a few more buses and ice cream parlors destroyed, and the President will give in!"

A much better approach would be an offer to create a Palestinian state, on at least some of the disputed land, if a certain amount of time passes with no more suicide bombings. I discuss such a plan in two of my essays below. Peace first, then statehood.

Thursday, June 13, 2002

On other sites:
US News says many nurses leave because of arrogant doctors

Gee, I thought doctors only acted like that towards their patients.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Why Fencing off the West Bank is a Good Idea

Last week’s car bombing that killed 17 Israelis was the final straw – Israel is starting to fence off the West Bank. A fence already separates the Gaza Strip from Israel and has been largely successful; no suicide bombers have entered Israel from Gaza during the current uprising.

The new fence may not be as successful as the one around Gaza – current plans have it running only along the northern part of the West Bank. Furthermore, Israelis and Palestinians live so close together that at several points there is simply no room to put the fence (which is 130 feet wide) between them. Therefore, the current plan leaves three Palestinian towns on the Israeli side of the fence. Still, based on the experience in Gaza, this new fence will likely reduce the number of attacks.

Why didn’t Israel put up a fence earlier? Many Israeli settlers oppose the fence ; by necessity, their West Bank settlements will be on the Palestinian side. The settlers see the fence as a precursor to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, and they are probably right. What some people will find more surprising is that the fence is also opposed by many Palestinians. One would expect Palestinians to welcome this sign of Israeli retreat from the West Bank – if the Palestinians’ real goal was an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza. However, many Palestinians still cling to (the unrealistic) hope of completely destroying the state of Israel. For them, a step towards separation into two states is a step in the wrong direction.

One thing Israel must avoid is making the Palestinians feel rewarded for terrorism. If building a fence was followed by a immediate withdrawal from the West Bank, Palestinians would feel that the suicide bombings had gained them territory. However, there is no need for Israel to withdraw from fenced areas; Gaza has been fenced for years, and is still under Israeli control. As I detailed in an earlier essay, Israel should make the following offer to the Palestinian Authority: "If one year passes with no Palestinians attacks on Israeli civilians, Israel will permanently give the Gaza Strip to the Palestinians.” I am aware that the Palestinians are likely to reject this offer, and continue the violence. However, I feel this offer is a no-risk proposition for Israelis that support the creation of a Palestinians state. If the Palestinians accept the offer, the violence would stop. If the Palestinians refuse the offer, Israel would have lost nothing, and would have shown the world that Israel truly wants peace. Some readers may ask: “Is there anyone on the Palestinian side that has the ability to accept this offer, and order the suicide bombings to stop?” The answer to that is clearly yes; the terrorist attacks in Israel stopped for about six months after 9/11, because the Palestinian leadership knew world opinion would be against them is they attacked. Clearly, Palestinian leadership can stop the suicide bombings if they want to.

Either way, whether the Palestinians are willing to stop the violence or not, the fence will be useful. If the Palestinians do stop the attacks, the fence can serve as the basis for a border between the two states. If the Palestinians try to continue the attacks, the fence should stop at least some of them. I am thrilled that Israel is building this barrier. The current intifada has shown that the Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza do not want to coexist peacefully with Israelis, leaving Israel with no option but to carry on without them.

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Collection Agency Scam Targets Child Support
What will agency demand next - maybe 34% of any candy given to a baby?

In addition to deadbeat non-custodial parents and support amounts that are set too low, single parents now have a new obstacle to face when trying to get money for their kids. According to a lawsuit filed by single mother Patricia Zipperer, a private collection agency named Supportkids offered to try to collect the $7,000 in past due child support that she was owed, in exchange for a 34% cut of any money received. However, according to the suit, Supportkids never made any attempt to collect the past due balance, and instead insisted that they were entitled to 34% of all current and future child support payments. When Zipperer complained, Supportkids claimed their contract entitled them to a cut of all future child support payments, whether they collected any of the past due balance or not. According to Supportkids, Zipperer was entitled to back out of the agreement only if the father of her son went a full year without paying any child support at all.

I realize that collection agencies are entitled to their fee if they actually collect overdue debt. If states fail to enforce child support, that is their fault, not the fault of a collection agency. But, this is not a case of a collection agency wanting payment for work done; this is a case of a collection agency taking money without doing any work. Zipperer says Supportkids never even contacted her son’s father. Furthermore, it is highly irregular for a collection agency to demand a percentage of current or future payments that are made on a timely basis. The industry standard is that collection agencies only receive a percentage of past due balances collected.

Supportkids says that clients were told that Supportkids would take 34% of any child support paid in the future. Zipperer says she was never told this and was promised she would risk nothing by trying Supportkids. I have no access to the actual contract Zipperer signed, but I did go to Supportkids’ website. Their website says in large letters: “We collect unpaid child support.” [Emphasis mine.] The site repeatedly makes reference to unpaid, past due support owed, with no mention at all of any current or future child support payments. Furthermore, the site clearly states “Our service is risk free: It costs you nothing unless you receive your unpaid child support.”

I read several of the testimonial letters posted on their site; they all mentioned successful collection of past due child support, with no mention of losing a share of future child support. They did do a good job of guilt-tripping parents who didn’t want to sign up with Supportkids, however. One letter prominently states, “You are silently telling your children that they are not worth fighting for,” if you don’t sign up with Supportkids. Another letter mentions the risk-free nature of Supportkids’ services.

I’m not a lawyer, but I think Zipperer has a strong case. Even if a court finds that the misleading statements on the website don’t invalidate the contract, there is still the issue of “neglect of consideration.” In other words, for a contract to be valid, both parties must receive something of benefit. Since Supportkids did not provide a service (they apparently didn’t try to collect the past due child support), it’s hard to see how they could be entitled to payment.

Monday, June 10, 2002

Skakel Convicted of 1975 Murder
Brother denounces trial as “witch hunt”

I was away for the weekend and had problems getting on the Internet, so this is my first update since Thursday. Therefore my post on the Martha Moxley case is rather belated. (Although not nearly as belated as the verdict in this 27-year-old murder case.)

If you haven’t been following the case, Moxley was bludgeoned to death in 1975, at the age of 15. A man who was her neighbor at the time, Michael Skakel, was convinced of the murder last Thursday. Skakel was also 15 at the time of the murder. Media attention has focused on the case because Skakel is the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, widow of Robert Kennedy.

There are many aspects of this case that deserve comment, but this statement by Skakel's brother David caught my attention: "For us this trial has felt like a witch hunt. Our family remains more resolute than ever." Of course, I have no way to tell how the case felt to the Skakel family. However, there is a big difference between this case and a witch hunt. Unless witchcraft is real, and I don’t believe it is, then there were no real witches. Therefore, the people who were tried (and often executed) for witchcraft were in fact being tried for nonexistent crimes; no actual witchcraft had taken place. In the Martha Moxley case, however, there is no question that the crime really happened; Martha was murdered. Given that her body was found at the edge of the Skakel property, that the murder weapon was an unusual item (an expensive golf club) known to be possessed by the Skakels, and that Martha was last seen with a member of the Skakel family, it’s no surprise that suspicion has focused on the Skakels. I can’t see this case as a witch hunt.

So, is Michael Skakel really the murderer? I think he probably is, but I was surprised that he was convicted. I didn’t think there was enough evidence to convince a jury, particular since the case was not investigated properly back in 1975. However, I don’t see how the jury can be faulted in this case; they clearly took the case very seriously, deliberating for several days.

An appeal is expected. The defense has several possible grounds for an appeal, including that Skakel was tried as an adult for a crime that took place when he was a juvenile, and that Connecticut had a statute of limitations for non-capital murder cases at the time of Moxley’s death.