The Most Intense Blockbuster You’ll Never See

REV_Kirkpatrick-designAmong the Kindle Daily Deals yesterday was a book entitled Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick. It was well-timed to a news story about a Korean War Veteran, Merrill Newman, whose video statement as a prisoner of the DPRK was released the same day. Anyway, I bought the book and I’m hooked. The stories it contains are a mix of chilling and thrilling.

As I began reading, I wondered why no one had made a major Hollywood blockbuster based on an escape from North Korea. It’s a journey fraught with peril. There’s so much to go wrong from being shot in the back crossing the Tumen River to being repatriated to being double-crossed by smugglers to falling into the hands of traffickers or other predators. Adding to the challenge is the fact that most North Koreans are severely undernourished, and each is on his or her own for the first part of the trip–getting across the border. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for North Koreans to stick out physically because they’re unusually small and, as pointed out by one of Kirkpatrick’s sources, prone to bad hair and split ends.

I know these are words that writers despise but the screenplay practically writes itself.

Then I remembered, oh yeah, this will never be a movie because China’s government would be one of the villains, and Hollywood isn’t in the business of making films that PO the Chinese any more. Why is China the villain? Well, it’s not the main villain. That distinction, of course, goes to the Kim dynasty, presently personified by Kim Jong Un–who has been the biggest bastard yet when it comes to escapees. China’s policy is one of repatriation. It would be kinder for China to just execute the North Koreans themselves. One of the stories early in the book is about an entire family that was to be sent back who–having eaten their first decent meal in a long time–decided to die full and committed suicide while in Chinese custody. Lest one think that this is a Communist thing, Kirkpatrick points to Vietnam as one of the countries that quietly helps North Korean escapees get to safety. Like the democracies that do so, Vietnam keeps this on the down-low to avoid cheesing off the Chinese, but at least they do it.

Why would such a movie be good? Because everybody needs to know what’s going on, and movies are the surest injection point into the public consciousness. There have been books and documentaries about this for years, but I don’t think most people realize how bad it is.

I should point out that there have been films on the subject. The Crossing, made in South Korea, is probably the most well-known feature film on the subject. It’s about a father who crosses the border to get medication for a wife, but ends up stuck on the other side of the border during which time his wife dies and his boy becomes–for all intents and purposes–an orphan. This film is apparently based on a true story.

And there have been a number of documentaries on the subject. The Defector: Escape from North Korea is one of the best.

This is the book trailer for the Kirkpatrick book.

Snowden’s Muddled Message

Also posted in my blog, Strategic Ramblings.

Edward Snowden is once again the headline leader. The man some consider a whistle-blower and others think a traitor is trying to gain temporary asylum in Russia. His U.S. passport having been suspended, Russian asylum seems to be his only immediate path out of the transit lounge of Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow. A few countries in Latin America have agreed to offer Snowden asylum and he has expressed interest in taking Venezuela up on the offer, but without a passport he is stuck like Tom Hanks’ character in Terminal Man.

The request for Russian asylum is problematic in that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that asylum wouldn’t be considered as long as Snowden was still leaking. While Snowden said he has no interest in hurting the U.S., he is still talking about U.S. intelligence activities and seems unlikely to give up giving up information.

When the revelations of this story initially broke in the Guardian, I was outraged by the allegations being put forth by Snowden. In essence, Snowden suggested that Americans’ electronic communications were being spied on without warrants and without specificity. While lawyers and politicians love to play word games, the Fourth Amendment is clear and concise. Where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, searches require a warrant that says who is involved and what’s being sought. In short, the Constitution doesn’t allow fishing expeditions.

The damage control by the Administration and the Intelligence Community in subsequent days was even more infuriating. The message seemed to be, “We want to have an open debate about all these nifty protections that are in place to make this all legal, but, alas, that’s all classified.I’m not saying you should just trust us, but–yeah–just trust us, ya-da-ya-da-ya-da.” I’m suspicious of a government attempting to expand its power; I abhor a government that tries to do it under the cover of darkness.

Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, had been asked the following question by a Senator during his testimony, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”

Clearly the answer to this question, in light of the Verizon revelation was, “yes.” However, Clapper answered in the negative, and then added a qualifier “not wittingly” that didn’t help improve the truthfulness of statement, but should have been a red flag that the Director was trying to play some type of semantic game. Clapper later went on a Nixon-esque / Clinton-esque defensive about how his answer was the “least untruthful.” Of course, to suggest that the Verizon data was “unwittingly collected” strains credulity.

When General Keith Alexander of the NSA (among others) testified, he said that he had three points. First, that the programs had yielded positive results, or–in other words–the ends justified the means. Second, that the programs in question were “limited, focused, and subject to rigorous oversight.” Third, privacy and civil liberties are protected by the programs. However, he seemed to only want to talk substance about the first point–that is, what ends justified these means. I found it disconcerting that Gen. Alexander could tell us something about which cases had positive outcomes as a result of these programs, but not about the processes and protections required to draw specific information from the vast pools of data being collected on Americans. The former being the kind of information that could have negative security ramifications, the latter could only embarrass politicians. Secrecy is needed to protect assets and methods, but shouldn’t be a tool of protecting dubious legal practices. Al Qaeda doesn’t get a leg up by knowing the legal process required to access data generically.

The testimony was full of what would be objected to as “leading questions” in a court of law. For example, Alexander was asked if there was “any switch that could be flipped to allow analysts to eavesdrop on communications.” This makes for nice ass-covering when it turns out that they, in fact, have to type a command into a command line. “No, we never lied. We were as truthy as can be, there is no switch– we had the switches replaced with buttons decades ago.” Alexander repeated the “flip a switch” phrase back in his reply so that they were all on the same page.

As sad as any comment made was when Alexander said, “Further, as the Deputy Attorney General noted, virtually all countries have lawful intercept programs under which they compel communications providers to share information about individuals they believe represent a threat to their societies.” At the risk of sounding nostalgic, I remember when America prided itself in being a leader in liberty rather than saying, “look we aren’t doing anything that Russia and China aren’t!”

Telling me that you had success due to these programs isn’t enough for me. If you said, “hey, we put everyone of a particular religious persuasion in jail, and we foiled x-number of plots,” should I be reassured or outraged. I would argue the latter.

Telling me that other countries have such programs doesn’t satisfy me. I think the U.S. should seek to be on the leading edge of freedom and not happy slouching around the middle of the pack.

Telling me that a given database has only phone numbers and metadata and no identifying information doesn’t really inspire confidence. It turns out that there’s this nifty thing called “the internet” that allows one to look up people’s names from a phone number. You’re going to tell me that no one is going to google the number they’re looking for information about?

If the government wants to reassure the public, they need to have transparency in legal processes and not hide behind a veil of classified information.

Of course, part of the disagreement is that the law as it now stands only suggests only the content of messages incurs a reasonable expectation of privacy. That Mr. A talked to his therapist for two hours one Sunday evening as (according to cell tower triangulation data) he was sitting in the parking lot of a hospital is–in the eyes of many–completely unprotected information that no one could reasonably expect to be their own damn business.

I’m not comfortable with the collection of vast stores of information on citizens. Even if there are some protections that are working for the moment, all that information will just be waiting for some moment of weakness, some rally-around-the-flag moment, during which people are willing to flush all they hold dear down the crapper in exchange for a promise of security.

Having said all this, I’ve had a bit of trouble retaining sympathy towards Snowden as he’s muddled his initial message about unconstitutional actions. When he started releasing information about how the U.S. was spying on China, his message became lost. Of course the U.S. is spying on China, and they upon us. That’s the nature of the game in an anarchic international system. Yes, it’s a political embarrassment; coming as it did when the President was attempting to give China “the old what for” over the issue, but spying on other countries in order to keep one safe is part of what is expected of a government. (Yes, even on allies. You can be certain Israel, Japan, and the United Kingdom are spying on the U.S.) I take as a given that other countries might try to read my email if they think it has any potential benefit to them. However, they haven’t been granted a monopoly on the legitimate use of force against me. I expect my government to serve to protect me from any dire consequences of other country’s snooping. In fact, I have held jobs where other countries may have eavesdropped on me (not because of the work I did, but because of with whom I was in contact.) The potential for nefarious activities by a foreign country are just not the same as they are for domestic shenanigans–for most of us at least. There is less incentive to try to manipulate a random Joe for political or material gain across borders than there is within.

If Snowden is driven by his love of freedom, why has he headed in the direction that he has. Even if everything he says is absolutely true, the U.S. is still vastly more free than either Russia or Venezuela (e.g.Freedom House ranks the former as “not free” and the latter as “partially free.”) (There is some doubt about whether what Snowden says is true, but as the government hasn’t really delved into details or engaged in any contradiction that is not riddled with carefully censored qualifying words, one cannot tell.)

The Snowden Dilemma

[This was previously posted in my blog, Strategic Ramblings.]

As I–and everyone else– follow the slew of articles on Edward Snowden, I saw the following quote from Lord Acton:

Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice; nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.

I agree wholeheartedly with Acton’s statement. The debate revolving around the former Booz Allen Hamilton contractor raises some intriguing questions. Once upon a time, I held a security clearance–not a particularly high one–but nonetheless a promise to keep the secrets I was exposed to in the process of my job. I took that clearance deadly serious and recognized its value and importance. However, I had it easy. I never faced any great moral dilemma over keeping my promise. Snowden’s situation was quite different.

What does one do when one sees one’s employer engaging in behavior that is illegal and/or unconstitutional under the normal definitions of words as we commonly use them. That is, the government has creatively taken words like “facility” and “targeting” and put an Orwellian twist on them to make a wild violation of U.S. citizens’ reasonable expectation of privacy in order to lawyer the program into one that some might define as “technically” legal. (e.g. the Washington Post article said that huge sets of information data were labeled “facilities” [suspected involved in terrorism] in order to justify all that information being handed to the government.) Of course, the national security leadership has been singing a refrain of “we don’t target U.S. citizens.” What is left unsaid is that while they don’t “target” U.S. citizens they come into a lot of information on citizens because: a.) they have a very low standard for determining likelihood of foreignness, and b.) they are collecting information on individuals regardless of whether they are suspected of anything.

So if you are Edward Snowden, you are a low-level employee. Your superiors don’t give a damn what you think about the legality of the program. You can’t complain to anyone because no one who cares is cleared to hear it, and those who are cleared to hear it have a vested interested in maintaining (if not expanding) the intrusions.  What would you tell Snowden if you were his friend, and not a complete stranger with your own feelings on the subject? That’s a tough one.

Secrecy may be necessary in some cases, but I’m uncomfortable writing the government a blank check. Officials will say, “it’s not a blank check, we have internal and external oversight.” First of all, the idea of “internal oversight” is not particularly confidence inspiring. That’s a little too much like “Otis” from the Andy Griffith Show letting himself in and out of the drunk tank as he saw fit for my taste. Second, how can any of us know that a judge acting on a FISA warrant treats it with the same seriousness as a case in which their decision will be open to public scrutiny? I don’t know, but I don’t hear of a lot of warrants in, say, bank robbery cases in which the phone records of millions of people unsuspected of a crime are to be handed over for a period of months.  Yes, finding and uncovering terrorists is more difficult than building a case against other criminals, but I remain skeptical because–as Lord Acton said, “Every thing secret degenerates, even the administration of justice…”

Was the Fukushima-Daiichi Incident the Final Nail in Nuclear Energy’s Coffin?

Today is the two-year anniversary of the tsunami that swamped parts of eastern Japan. Among the ongoing effects of this event was a re-chilling of attitudes toward nuclear energy–undoing a thaw that some swore was imminent. The tsunami hit the Fukushima-Daiichi plants and knocked out generators that were needed to run the coolant pumps with the power lines down. In the days after the disaster, the release of radioactivity and explosions of built up hydrogen presented some of the most prominent news stories.

Japan obtained about a third of its energy from nuclear prior to the event. All reactors were shut down in subsequent months, at no small cost to their economy. Eventually, a couple of plants were brought back on-line, providing only a fraction of the electricity of the country’s full fleet of 50+ nuclear plants.The Japanese had plans to add another 15 plants to their reactor fleet at that time, plans that have since vanished.

Even China, the world’s most prolific builder of nuclear plants as of late, had a brief moratorium on nuclear power plant (NPP) construction. However, China seems to have regained its ardor for nuclear power. France, of course, won’t be dissuaded either. However, for much of the rest of the world, doubts remain.

Pictures may be worth a thousand words.

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Power Reactor Information System (PRIS)

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS

Source: IAEA PRIS


The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security

Edited by Adam N. Stulberg and Matthew Fuhrmann

2013, Available Now

Buy this book

ONLINE RESOURCES
Contents

Contributors

Introduction

The Case of the Biggest Ego

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

I was reading an article in The Economist over the weekend about the sanctions against North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s “don’t mess with me, I’m CRAZY!” response.

The article featured the photo above. I was immediately struck by the fact that Kim Jong Un’s head is higher, despite the fact that Dennis Rodman is about six-and-a-half foot tall and Kim Jong Un is… well, let’s just say a dwarf.  I don’t know exactly how tall Kim is, and I’m sure nobody truly does. I tried to look up Kim’s height, but the figures ranged from 5’3″ to 5’9″. This isn’t surprising. The Kim family motto is, don’t let blatant facts to the contrary get in the way of a good lie; stick to your guns, execute people as necessary, and show your skeptics the crazy eyes. Kim Jong Il was believed to have worn six-inch lifts and a nine-inch pompadour to impress his underlings with his grand total 5’2″ physique. Of course, each successive generation of the Kim Dynasty has an easier time because the country’s citizenry is shrinking due to undernourishment, a fate that isn’t shared by the Kims. (Sadly, this isn’t a joke. North Korea is one of the few nations whose average height has been in decline over recent decades.)

It’s not really surprising that Kim insists on his head being higher than his guests. (I know what you’re asking. Whose set of phonebooks is he sitting on, because there sure as hell aren’t enough phones in North Korea for him to be sitting on the DPRK listings–which is more of a pamphlet?) Anyway, kings, emperors, and dictators have always required others to scrunch down so that the royal status will remain unquestioned.

However, if there is anyone who can match a dictator’s monumental ego ton for ton, it’s a professional athlete. Consider Lance Armstrong, he sued reporters for telling the truth about him. What kind of rarefied atmosphere does one have to live in to do that?  Then there are the many athlete-rapists whose defense was “Your Honor, I didn’t know I needed permission to have sex with that person. I think my lawyer may have failed to make you aware that I’m this year’s MVP… Even an MVP needs permission? That’s some crazy shit.”

As a society, we nurture the notion that the dictates of polite society don’t apply to those who are skilled at winning games. Coaches have been known to be fired mid-season for losing, but Bobby Knight beat the hell out of kids for decades before he got fired. We deify athletes just like the people of North Korea, who can’t afford leisure activities of any kind, deify their dictator.

So this photo answers for me an intriguing question, who’s more narcissistic: a professional athlete or a professional dictator. Seeing Dennis Rodman peering at the game over the twin humps of his knees answers the question nicely.

To be fair, Rodman did get a subtle dig in with his Team USA cap;  subdued as it may have been, that must have gotten Kim’s goat. Rodman also got in a nice Coca-Cola product placement. Fun fact: I was once told by a Coke employee that there were only two countries in which Coke was not sold. Everybody guessed that North Korea was one of them, but that’s not correct. It was Burma and Cuba (don’t ask me how the latter has been making Cuba Libres all this time.) Given Burma’s reforms, I wouldn’t be surprised if today it was down to one (or none.)  [World dominance… check.]

TODAY’S RANT: Punked by NPR

Sleeping CatsI’m driving along, my mind roving, the droning radio only faintly registering in my subconscious, and suddenly I’m ripped from my reverie by a shrieking siren. I punch the brakes, slowing from a present speed that, unbeknownst to me, is two miles an hour below the limit to an octogenarian crawl. I hear the screech, and look into my rear-view mirror to see the black behemoth, an  SUV, becoming ever bigger. The driver’s solitary finger pressed up against the window, not pointing  at me accusingly, but rather straight up in the air. The SUV slows just enough to not ram me. We travel onward in our respective soiled underwear, I not looking back, her boiling rage now just a flush face and a fading headache (or at least that’s what I expect from my vast experience in her shoes.)

I’ve been punked by a stranger, an audio tech who likes to put background noises into every news story or ad spot to gain the attention of an ADD -riddled populace. Yes, I should have been more in the moment; that’s how they get you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t act as a mouthpiece for another individual wronged by similar antics. I have a cat that only gets about 20.5 hours of sleep per day, and he’s inevitably robbed of precious slumber whenever he hears a “BING-BONG.”  This is another much beloved sound effect for the wicked curs in radio. This particular cat can comfortably ignore any other sound in the universe–including my high-volume rants about use of various personal possessions as a scratching post. I don’t know why our cat knows what a doorbell is. Does he get lots of visitors when we are not there? Who is he expecting? These are questions that I cannot answer.

I Always See the Wrong Movies: or, Post-Oscars Watcher’s Remorse

The one Oscar-Winner I saw

The one Oscar winner I saw

I only watched part of the Oscars last night. At some point I realized it wasn’t worth continuing. I see about three movies in the theater per year, and rarely are any of them Oscar material. At 10:00 pm all I had to show for watching was the chorus of the ditty “We Saw Your Boobs” echoing through my brain.  (Damn you, Seth MacFarlane, for that catchy, clever, melodic jingle that still runs like a gerbil in the rodent-wheel of my mind.)

The three movies I saw in the theaters last year were: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and This is 40. The first two will no doubt convince you that I am a 12-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, and the last will convince you that I have poor judgement. (This is 40 had its humorous moments, but there was far too much screaming for my taste, although we did see Leslie Mann’s boobs– damn you, again, Seth MacFarlane.) I saw another half-dozen 2012 films on long Korean Air flights, but these were equally lowbrow titles (Men in Black 3, Prometheus, and Brave– the latter at least won an Oscar during the hour and a half I was watching, I think it was for Best Animated Makeup Artistry.)

I’m not altogether lowbrow. I will see most of the big winners eventually, when they finally make it to basic cable. For example, I watched The Hurt Locker on Saturday, just one day before the Oscars. So I am only three or four  or five years out of synch.  The Hurt Locker is a particularly fine example of going the other way because I understand its distinction is being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever.

This year’s Best Picture Argo is definitely a film that I will see in the next five years–barring Zombies, the apocalypse, or a Zombie Pandemic Apocalypse. So there’s a 60% chance that I’ll see it. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first historical events that I remember seeing on the news first-hand. Had I been in the country when Argo came out–I might have seen it in the theaters, but probably not.

Part of me thinks that I should grow up and start watching the “right” movies.  However, part of me says, “wait, there’s this one day a year when everybody is talking about these movies, and the other 364 days  they are talking about Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers  So in some sense, I already am watching the “right” movies.

5 Minefields of Armageddon for 2013

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

1.) Ever heard of the Senkakus? What about Diaoyus? If not, you should look them up. When you’ve been wearing a gas mask for the 33rd day straight, you may want to know about the chunks of rock in the East China Sea that we tripped into nuclear winter over. Simmering tensions between Japan and China have been flaring up over these islands of late. So you’re probably wondering who lives there who’s so important that it’s worth wandering through a minefield that could trigger World War III. If you answered, “absolutely no one,” give yourself a prize.  They’re uninhabited. It’s not the islands themselves that anyone gives a rat’s as about, it’s the ramification they have for underwater drilling rights.

The reader may accuse me of hyperbole. (Shh! Dont tell anyone, but– of course– that’s what I do.) After all, China has a boldly stated “No First Use” policy. That is, they claim they will not use nukes in a first strike. Given that Japan isn’t a nuclear weapons state (NWS), there doesn’t seem to be much risk. Except that a.) Japan lives under the U.S. nuclear umbrella;  b.) Japan is the non-NWS that could develop nuclear weapons in the shortest time imaginable — they have the material, infrastructure, and technical know-how (okay, Germany is in the same bag); and c.) see #2

KimJongUn3

2.) North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. This presents a risk because: a.) it provides an incentive for Japan to build its own nukes (particularly if faith in the US umbrella wanes.) b.) [and more importantly] Kim Jong Un has too many yes-men, and no one to slap him in his chubby face and say, “are you smoking powdered unicorn horn?” In other words, he doesn’t have a good idea of what he can get away with before the world unleashes a crate of whoop-ass on his sad country. So he wanders in the minefield.

3.) Europe is getting depressed. Fat and happy Europeans are productive and polite. Downtrodden Europeans have been known to swallow some pretty despicable narratives, and– in doing so– drag the world into war. At the moment this seems really far-fetched. These political movements are at best in the political fringe of countries on Europe’s fringe, right? Maybe so. Time will tell.

4.) If America’s economy is crash-landed, everyone is going to be hit by the debris. This will be depressing, see #3 and then multiply globally. Times like these  echo Churchill’s comment, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Any person, company, or government that sees the train coming in the distance but can’t find its way off the tracks can’t be expected to thrive for long.

5.) India and Pakistan, enough said…

TODAY’S RANT: Pudgy Dictators, Ugggh

This is my iron hand for which to rule you.

This is my iron hand for which to rule you.

Well, the new Kim on the block is about to pop his first nuke. This will be the third test for the PAB* Dynasty over all. Of course, as an AP article today indicates, we won’t necessarily know whether they succeed because any seismic event emanating from the country might just be a perfectly choreographed simultaneous jump by all citizens.

News reports suggest that Kim is upset about the latest sanctions. While sanctions generally don’t succeed (see Iran), we have hit the DPRK leadership where they live by restricting the flow of commemorative NBA bobble-head dolls– preventing the new Dear Leader from finishing his collection. This has led to veiled threats that he might, “Stop lavishing on the world glorious views of national splendor and brilliance… or bust a nuke up in America’s grill.'”

We need a better class of dictatorial villain. North Korea’s one success has been in killing the new Red Dawn movie by providing such an improbable nemesis. (They almost killed James Bond in the same manner.) Don’t let them kill again.

* PAB = Pudgy Ass Bastard

If you like dark DPRK humor, their state news service is hilarious.

P.S. I had real trouble deciding on which caption to use for the photo. Please let me know which caption you prefer [write-ins enabled.]

KimJongUn3