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April Diary
On "the Irish of Asia," premature technology, making friends with the family gun, and more.


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John Derbyshire

Skies darken over Korea     North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, 69 years old and in poor health, is trying to position his youngest son as successor. He goes into the succession chess game in a weak position, though, having botched an economic reform last year and met stiffening resolve on the part of the U.N., the U.S., and South Korea to the shakedown rackets he thought he’d perfected.

Kim’s powerful, pampered military chiefs likely have their own ideas about the succession. They certainly seem to be getting fidgety. By increasing tension in the region via a staged incident or two, they can signal their independence and win concessions both at home and abroad. This is probably the reason for the March 26 sinking of a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan. The South’s defense minister has declared a torpedo the most likely cause of the sinking.

The South’s government, wary of anything that might impinge upon its economy ahead of the G-20 summit in Seoul this November, is treading cautiously, but faces widespread public outrage at the sinking. The Chinese are non-committal, though the incident occurred in key shipping lanes at the north of the Yellow Sea, and they have likely expressed anger in private.

There will be more chess moves yet as the succession struggle approaches endgame, when things will get really fraught. The other day I was talking to a Korea expert – a national-security academic who’s made a lifetime study of the Norks. He said the community of Pyongyang-watchers “is more worried than I’ve ever seen them.” Nobody thinks this succession will go well. He said he thinks even the Chinese are worried about it, for more than the usual reason. (The usual reason being, they don’t want a flood of Nork refugees into their northeastern provinces.)

The Irish of Asia     In the half-hour briefing that New Asia Hands used to get from Old Asia Hands, Koreans were tagged as “the Irish of Asia” – the experience of being a small, poor ethny living in the shadow of a big, rich one having turned them into fighters, drinkers, and prickly nationalists.

This Irish analogy actually underestimates the prickliness. The Koreans are Irish squared, living in the shadow of not just one bigger, richer nation, but two – China and Japan. It makes for a very distinctive national psychology. B. R. Myers captures some of it in this interview.

I don’t subscribe to the view that North Korea would never dream of invading South Korea. I think it’s crazy enough to try it, and we need to be better prepared for that.

My national-security academic said exactly the same thing.

If you want to look on the bright side (why on earth would anyone want to do that? but let’s suppose), Asia specialists were having much the same conversations 20 years ago, when Kim Il-sung was grooming Kim Jong-il for the succession. Would the generals accept Kim Jr.? everyone was asking. In the event, they did. Perhaps the Kims will get lucky again.

Great modern inventions     Cruise control. Tooling down through the Catskills on Route 17 from Binghamton on a bright spring afternoon, alone in my car with some small pleasant thoughts, I entered a mild dream-state of elevated consciousness, just being carried effortlessly along through that marvelous scenery.

Fortunately, I remembered to steer. And they say those defensive-driving courses are a waste of time!


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