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Sunday, December 5, 2010

THE SOUND OF OLIGARCHS SCREAMING

My blog has featured link boycotts and blogroll burns. I regularly use link condoms. So with all the hoopla surrounding WikiLeaks, you'll excuse me if I indulge in a brief, strange-but-true story about North Korea and off-limits websites. Lots of readers have been asking me to say something about that situation as well as the leaked cables, so here go two birds with one stone.
North Korea has an official website. I don't advise you visit it, as there are probably malicious scripts on the page. North Korea has quite an advanced cyberwarfare department, and that website was declared off-limits to me in 1998 during an afternoon formation at Fort Hood. A strange order came down from unnamed levels of the intelligence bureaucracy -- "JCS level," they announced. Stay off that website, I was warned, or you will risk your security clearance. As we were a military intelligence unit, this meant we might find ourselves working the motor pool and pulling casual duties for the rest of our enlistment instead of practicing our $250,000 training.North Korea had already been "on the brink of war" ever since the cease-fire. By the late 1990s, there had been some fifty thousand recorded violations of that cease-fire by North Korea. It is a country kept perpetually frightened and comforted with propaganda. Mixed signals are a strategy. Orwell wrote about this, and as we've examined in this blog it is a characteristic of the oligarchy's war on reason. A state of continual fear and privation keeps the inner party -- in this case, the North Korean regime -- in its rarefied privileges.During the 1960s, North Korea made a series of cross-border incursions as American forces ramped up in Vietnam. 1968 saw the greatest number of what GlobalSecurity.org calls "serious incidents." Even in the early nineties, my drill sergeants (all RIFs from the 7th ID, a unit lost to the peace dividend) told tales of fire on the DMZ. They were Orwell's grim men writ as life; their lessons on Claymore and bayonet were serious and earnest, as such lessons will be from those who have sen the stakes.
Shelling a civilian area is just a new atrocity. Benefiting from the restraints of Cold War politics and Asian power-games, North Korea has gotten habituated to getting away with things like torpedoing ships and shelling ROK posts in civilian areas. The regime has tried beheadings, for goodness' sake. Naval engagements and commando raids through the 1990s kept North Korean society "on the brink of war" the entire time I served in uniform. Wiki:
  • May 1992: Three Northern soldiers in South Korean uniforms are killed in Cheolwon, Gangwon-do; three South Korean soldiers are wounded.
  • May 1995: North Korean forces fire on a South Korean fishing boat, killing three.
  • October 1995: Two armed North Koreans are discovered at the Imjin River; one is killed.
  • April 1996: Several hundred armed North Korean troops cross repeatedly into the Demilitarized Zone.
  • May 1996: Seven Northern soldiers cross south of the Demilitarized Zone, but withdraw after warning shots are fired.
  • May & June 1996: North Korean vessels twice cross the Northern Limit Line and have a several-hour standoff with the South Korean navy.
  • April 1997: Five North Korean soldiers cross the Demilitarized Zone in Cheolwon, Gangwon-do, and fire on South Korean positions.
  • June 1997: Three North Korean vessels cross the Northern Limit Line and attack South Korean vessels two miles (3 km) south of the line. On land, fourteen North Korean soldiers cross 70 m south of the center of the DMZ, leading to a 23-minute exchange of fire.
I have studied a bit about North Korean capabilities. To be sure, North Korea has a large military; it is heavy on artillery and mass infantry movement exercises. Were the balloon to go up, though, it is doubtful the DPRK could sustain mechanized operations for a protracted conflict. There is no upside to a North Korean offensive, and lots of downside to a determined allied counteroffensive.
For the most part, the North Korean army is a population control method. Young men taken away from the opportunity to reproduce in their most active sexual years are also turned into citizens of the regime and raise an indoctrinated generation. There is a middle class in North Korea; its name is military-industrial-communications-administration-security-complex, or what Orwell called the outer party.
If North Korea attacked South Korea in force, it would be bloody. It would also be tragic. But rest assured the DPRK military is not advanced or strong enough to win an actual resumption of war -- and that is the point. Continuous war creates continuous fear. Fear makes us child-like. So does a parental relationship with an authority figure. Who's your daddy?
The regime inhabits the cities, where the elderly are removed from view and monolithic architecture dominates. It operates the only means of communication, administration, news, and entertainment. The inner party -- that group of rarefied North Koreans who make Kim Jong-il's continued reign possible -- controls all means of production. North Korea is one giant puppet show for totalitarianism. But even totalitarianism has its limiters; they are called veterans.
While the top special operations units are still well cared for, more and more reports come out of the north about many less skilled special operations troops complaining about less, or at least lower quality, food and other benefits (like access to electricity year round, and heat during the Winter.) More of these troops are deserting and heading for China, where they can be more easily interviewed. Some have made it all the way to South Korea, where the extent of their numbers and preparations has pushed South Korean commanders to increase their security preparations, and train more troops to deal with all these commandos in war time.
While the North Korean special operations troops are grumbling, and not getting all the training resources (ammo and fuel) they need, they remain a highly motivated, and generally loyal, force. The government uses these troops to insure the loyalty of the other 85 percent of the military, and more and more elite troops are being used to assist the secret police in going after dissidents and corrupt officials. This is probably hurting the North Korean special operations forces more than anything else. The troops are getting a close look at the corruption and contradictions in North Korea. The troops generally lived in closed bases and don't get out much. But now that they do, they see a North Korea that is unpleasant, and not as swell as their commanders told them it was. It turns out those letters they were getting from home were not exaggerating how bad things were. And the trend has been down for so long, it's hard to assure the troops that there's any way up.
The trend is two million dead North Koreans eating ground-up twigs and bark to survive, but the trend is also an established commissariat. There will be no regime change; the regime is all that is left to fail, though it is not too big. Actual war would not serve the regime's terms at all. If there will be no rebellion from the ranks without a military disaster, why risk actual military disaster?
I should point out that North Korea's website is really not all that enlightening about North Korea, and not all of it makes sense. The society is somewhat inscrutable. The hermit kingdom's public image is massive formations of young people performing to martial music in ginormous stadiums. (The young women, too, are removed from possible breeding and kept pure while serving in this capacity.) There is no profanity. There are government instructions to maintain chastity while communist planning continues to fail. And always, there is infantilism. As The Economist observes in a book review, the bulk of North Korean propaganda actually encourages childlike attitudes:
A new book*, by Brian Myers at South Korea’s Dongseo University, shows just how wishful such thinking is. Dismissing what the North Korean regime tells the outside world, the author looks instead at North Korea’s domestic propaganda, the Kim family cult and the country’s official myths. From these he pieces together what North Koreans are supposed to believe. He concludes that Mr Kim’s power is based not just on surveillance and repression. Nor can its survival be ascribed simply to the effective brainwashing of the population. Rather, the personality cult proceeds from powerful myths about race and history.
Ideas of racial purity lie at the heart of North Koreans’ self-image. Since the regime’s founding, they have been taught to think that they are a unique race, incapable of evil. Virtue, in turn, has made Koreans as vulnerable as children. Korea’s history, the regime insists, is the history of a child-race abused by adults—Chinese, Japanese and American. Pure, spontaneous and naive, Koreans need a caring, protective leader. The upshot is the Kims’ peculiar cult of state-sponsored infantilism.
You see no chin-thrusting depictions of father or son on the monumental streets of Pyongyang. In art as in life, both Kims are effeminate and podgy. Warnings against fleeing to China are conveyed as directed at a squirrel who wanders too far. In paintings, Kim Il Sung tucks children into bed. The nation lies at the “breast” of Kim Jong Il and his party. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Mr Kim is even called “Mother General”. (Emphasis mine)
By the end of the Cold War, the North Korean regime faced starvation even within its inner ranks. This was the era of nuclear confrontation with Clinton; the Bush years saw further starvation and failure, with concurrent nuclear confrontation. Now that King Il-Jung has suffered an apparent stroke, the tension is almost certainly about keeping the ranks busy -- deployed in the field, on alert, practicing maximum security -- while he engineers a transfer of power. Exhibit A is heir apparent Kim Jon-Un watching one of those parades:
If the number of costumed teenagers parading with streamers in perfect synchronicity seems to grow every year, it is probably because fewer and fewer North Korean tanks have the spare parts to drive in a parade. North Korea is a failed state in the largest sense of the term. Kim Jong-Il is the mother of all dictators, but his breast is dry. The son has had privileges (milk, for instance) and has grown taller than his father, but he has probably endured a selection process from among dozens, even scores or centurions of half-brothers. Like some sick rewrite of Boys From Brazil, his life has been directed for the greater glory of the regime. He is a maxi-me, a clone of his father -- including that chubby face. His emergence has been as highly-choreographed as the Queen's Guard.
But the last place any sane web user -- especially a notional North Korean web user -- would go for information on his background is North Korea's official website. Jong-Un (and let's get used to these names) was a celebrity in the Asian press long before he was ever introduced to North Koreans. That's what total information control looks like.
These United States, on the other hand, can in no way resemble North Korea anytime soon. Like Orwell's fictive world, the DPRK has only one TV channel and one radio station. Any newspapers, books, etc. are government approved. There is one website in North Korea versus umpteen bazillion of them here.
Which brings me to WikiLeaks and the Obama administration's hostilities: (A) they won't work, and (B) they only make Assange more credible. Nothing in the latest WikiLeaks dump is classified higher than SECRET NOFORN, which is exactly as exciting as beer bottles in a bar. In service, I had the ability to notify the president within ten minutes of anything that needed his attention; there's none of that in this Wiki dump. Diplomatic cables would be open to FOIA anyway, for instance. Nor does the content shock me. Diplomatic correspondence is in fact the world's oldest form of intelligence gathering; spying on the UN, maintaining judicial sovereignty, and tabloid-esque attention to Qaddafi's female entourage are all in a tradition older than Queen Elizabeth. What's not easy to overstate is how much credibility INTERPOL warrants, strange sexual charges, and web purges give to the upcoming release of Bank of America correspondence. Bottom line: short BOA, not WikiLeaks.
This information war seems bizarrely off-key. Amazon announced it would no longer donate server space. Let me assure the reader that server space is not a big problem for Julian Assange. PayPal is no longer accepting donations? Gosh, I can still send a check or money order. The WikiLeaks site isn't going down, and everything on it is already mirrored. Results still show in Google, even if a domain is blocked. There is no possible way to make WikiLeaks disappear. If Assange is arrested and extradited, the plot only sickens like a certain Dragon Tattoo series.
It's almost as though the placid Obama (he refuses to show emotion when called a liar, doesn't flip out when elbowed in the face, and lets Brett Baier badger him for a half-hour without losing his cool) picked his first real, public fight with the strangest of foes under the most tabloid-like conditions imaginable.
The information war on North Korea's website actually makes sense. It wasn't that the JCS thought the site's weird propaganda would hypnotize us, after all. Upon leaving the uniform behind, I took a look at the forbidden fruit (with script blockers a-gogo): there isn't that much to see, and the truth is more awful than we probably care to deal with.
With WikiLeaks, the truth is that Assange is about to force Obama to confront the banks. With North Korea, the truth is that Kim Jong-Il will never risk an all-out confrontation. This reflects two key ideas that have been developing in my writing over the years: (A) the truth is outsourced, and (B) we are past Oceanea. As the internet made secrecy obsolete, an age of outsourced accountability -- legal dodges to get away with crimes planned in advance -- is screaming no. That is the sound of oligarchs squealing. Isn't it a sweet sound?
The internet is not going anywhere. It is impossible to keep anything secret outside of a secure network, which is why North Korea has no internet to speak of. Meanwhile, during the season of Facebook deletions I lost exactly one friend and gained perhaps a few dozen; web 2.0 isn't going anywhere, either. Sharing is such a basic part of the online world that you are literally one click away from having a problem. Not only do employers look for marijuana posts on your account, they also check for WikiLeaks:
Students who will be applying for jobs in the federal government could jeopardize their prospects by posting links to WikiLeaks online, or even by discussing the leaked documents on social networking sites, the official was quoted as saying.

"[The alumnus] recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter," the Office of Career Services advised students. "Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government." (Emphasis mine)
I understand that; and the State Department has denied the story. But it is disturbing, isn't it? Retweeting, say, a Huffington Post link about WikiLeaks might be enough to bar me from service in the diplomatic corps: an immediate and total infringement of speech that only makes sense in the age of idiocracy ascendant (we can't have these future diplomats reading diplomatic correspondence, after all). The concern over WikiLeaks linkage is arbitrary, silly, and misplaced, yes, but it isn't anything new.
It also strikes me as off-key. Obama wages "open war" on a dynamic website that's about to dump Wall Street in his lap while the sick man of Asia changes leadership behind a fake crisis and a static website. My sense is that both stories are more kabuki than substance, more bark than bite, more rumors of war than actual wars. Everyone's interests are well-served by the tension.
The internet will not be changed by a war on WikiLeaks any more than it can be altered by an official DPRK web page. The outcome may damage oligarchy; I doubt it will leave any marks on a free society.

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