Best of the week, September 19-24, 2016

mail-9_400x400UNLESS your personal interests or job requirements compelled you (fortunately, mine did not) to pay attention to the embarrassing and metastasizing scandal former Justice Secretary and current Senator and drama queen Leila DeLima has gotten herself embroiled in, bringing almost all other work in both houses of the legislature to a halt, it was a deceptively quiet news week. It’s not that things aren’t happening, but more a sense that they’re happening just beyond our peripheral vision. And that may lead to a few nasty surprises in the coming months; there are signs that the global economy is again heading for serious trouble, there are quietly spreading epidemics of both the biological and ideological sort, and there are troubling signs that the Duterte administration may already be bumping against the ceiling of its competence to deal with what’s coming. Time will tell; whether the obvious fact that it will tell us very soon, probably within the next six months, is encouraging or not is for you to decide.

zika‘PH among countries at greatest risk of Zika virus’ (Tuesday, September 20): This should not really come as a surprise to anyone, but the Philippines has joined China, India, Indonesia, and Thailand among the top five countries in the world at greatest risk for Zika infection.


maersk-laid-upThe global economic crisis no one sees (Tuesday, September 20): This is going to be ugly.



kuligligErap’s tricycle canard (Thursday, September 22): This week’s Phrase That Pays is “mechanical pestilence.”




rcbc-0315AMLC’s frustrating foot-dragging in RCBC case (Saturday, September 24): “Enforcement” is a legal concept that doesn’t seem to have caught on in the Philippines, despite there being something like 12,000 laws on the books.

Best of the week, September 11-18, 2016

mail-9_400x400HARD to believe, perhaps, but there is actually more going on in the world than the stupidity that saturates the front pages of newspapers and the first 10 minutes of the nightly news. Here are the best stories I encountered this week while everyone else was debating whether an obnoxious moron or career student council president will be the next leader of the US, whether civilization would collapse if schools and business establishments don’t provide gender-neutral restrooms, and wondering who the hell actually voted for any of those ill-mannered yahoos in the Philippine Senate:

bacteriaResearchers find new way to stop bacteria (Tuesday, September 13).



ewastePhilippines a legal dumpsite for imported e-waste (Thursday, September 15).

But for almost every question there is a possible answer, and so Australia develops solution for e-waste.

shipyardNew ship orders sink on slow trade, overcapacity (Saturday, September 18).

Most people are blissfully unaware that there is another global economic crisis brewing right under our noses. But at least one artist from the UK is not:

rebecca-mossBritish filmmaker stranded on Hanjin ‘ghost ship’ (Saturday, September 18). It is “a dumb situation,” she says.

Bloody Confusion

drug-dealer-philippinesTO characterize President Rodrigo Duterte’s savage campaign against the people who use, distribute, manufacture, and profit from illegal drugs as a source of national discomfort sounds like a tremendous understatement, but it really is not.

The number of people who are unequivocally convinced it is completely wrong, should be stopped at once, and the country returned to something resembling the status quo before May 9 of this year is actually quite small. And for many of those people, their dissent is less about morality and more about their disappointment at having their preferred political order dismissed with prejudice at the polls, and quickly mocked and forgotten in the aftermath of the election.

For everyone else, even those who are otherwise properly horrified by what is going on – as of now, about 1,900 people have been killed in Duterte’s “war on drugs” – the national atmosphere is contradictory and confusing. No decent person wants the drug trade to continue to flourish, and continue to contribute to the general lawlessness and corruption that afflicts the country. No decent person wants the sun to rise on 10, 20, 30 freshly bullet-riddled corpses every day, either.

Especially not when some of those corpses are tragic collateral damage – a 5-year-old girl killed when the ubiquitous “unknown assailants” targeted her grandfather, who was on a drug “watch list,” a 15-year-old girl killed when her companion at the mall, the attorney of a wanted “drug lord,” was also targeted by hit men – and not when the campaign is recklessly pursued on the basis of flimsy evidence. A word by a disgruntled personal rival to the local barangay captain or police is enough to get one put on a “watch list,” and that’s enough to get one killed. How many of the victims 1,067 “unexplained” killings – the figure given by National Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa in Senate hearings this week, describing deaths not attributable to police action – were not actually “drug personalities” but people on the wrong side of a personal dispute will probably never be known, as all but a handful of the drug-related killings have involved the faceless masses, people for whom the story, and any available evidence to support it, tends to die with them.

One gets a sense of the contradiction when talking to business people or the more objective members of the media community. The general perspective seems to be an inclination to look at Duterte through binoculars, with one eye shut: On one side is the whole drug “thing,” and that’s a mess, so let’s disregard it for the time being at least, and focus instead on the other things that are happening under his nascent reign, all of which is interesting, and some of which shows a lot of positive potential. But in every conversation like that, there is an undercurrent of discomfort – the “drug thing” is the elephant in the room and everyone knows it, and there is an unspoken recognition that sooner or later, it’s going to become too big to ignore.

Duterte himself encouraged this kind of bifurcated thinking by presenting his critics with a rhetorical choice: Which should he defend, the peace and safety of communities, or the lives of criminals? That may be melodramatic, but it is not quite the false dichotomy Duterte’s detractors make it out to be. The vast majority of the population (present company included) that finds unrestrained killing and uncontrolled drug trafficking equally distasteful, or nearly so, realizes that on some level, and finds it difficult to either condemn or reject completely. And so the elephant in the room continues to sit there, quietly growing fatter.

Ideally, none of the 1,900 or so who have been killed so far should have died. The government ought to have been able to aggressively investigate, pursue, and capture “drug lords,” their networks of corrupt officials and police who cover for their activities and profit by doing so, the local pushers, and the irredeemable users who commit petty crimes to support their habits. For the redeemable ones who fell into the habit through bad luck or poor choices but have harmed no one but themselves, the government ideally ought to be able to provide effective intervention and care for what is, in those cases, a public health problem and not a criminal one.

Things don’t go ideally in the Philippines.

The menace of methamphetamine hydrochloride – what we call crystal meth in the US and what is commonly referred to as “shabu” here – in the Philippines is hard to overstate. Cheap and relatively easy to produce in quantity from readily-available materials, it is a perfect drug for a market like the Philippines, which has a vast impoverished population – the target market for almost any sort of drug trade, human nature being what it is – because it is powerful and addicting even in small amounts. It is everywhere in the Philippines, has been for years, and anyone who has even the vaguest awareness of what goes on in the world beyond his front door knows it.

No one can really “handle” shabu; if it doesn’t kill you immediately because it’s poison – manufacturing skill and quality control are not big priorities in shabu production – it is incredibly destructive to the human body and mind, and addiction is financially and socially ruinous as well. The great tragedy of the shabu epidemic here in the Philippines is that it preys on the least healthy and poorest part of the population; that is not a unique situation, but because that part of the population is proportionally so much bigger here, so is the problem.

In a sense, then, there is an effective rationale behind the strategy being employed by Duterte, brutal though it may be. The lower reaches of society are the least able to defend themselves against the campaign, and are the easiest targets; by swinging at the lowest-hanging fruit, Duterte is cutting off the market for the vast network of profiteers above it – the “drug lords” and those who protect and even actively participate in their trade, and who have always been much tougher to bring to heel.

It’s almost brilliant, and maybe the only way to handle a situation that has gotten completely out of control. For all the ululations against extrajudicial action, one inconvenient truth cannot really be avoided: Sometimes, circumstances grow to become so unmanageable that they transcend legality. A friend and mentor who works with me at The Manila Timesand who happens to be one of the most peaceful men I know, and finds the killing morally objectionable – gave a thought-provoking analogy: The murder of Osama bin Laden was, by definition, an extrajudicial killing. Yet very few if any complaints were made about it for that reason, because Osama bin Laden was a universally-acknowledged evil and enemy of mankind. While he believes the killings are wrong, the intent behind the anti-drug crusade is sound; given that pervasive impunity and corruption of every sort are the biggest obstacles to the country’s development, destroying one of if not the largest single sources of that impunity and corruption is entirely rational.

Be that as it may, the anti-drug campaign does not necessarily require that people die, and the fact that so many have is a bitter indictment of its one glaring flaw: The instrument Duterte must use to carry out his campaign is its own enemy. There are far too many police involved in the drug trade for that force to be trusted to carry out the strategy faithfully and efficiently. It is, to use another, duller analogy, much the same as giving the accountant who has been embezzling for years the job of auditing the company’s books; his priority is not going to be conducting an honest audit, but covering his tracks.

And so it is with the police: The ones who have the ‘intelligence’ on who the drug traffickers are and where they can be found are most likely those who are involved in some fashion. To be fair to the PNP, they represent a tiny minority of the whole force; but that tiny minority is the one the rest must rely on to tell them where to go and who to look for. PNP Chief Bato Dela Rosa has made a great show of arresting a few officers on the wrong side of the law, and few have even gotten themselves killed after being cornered and fighting back; several hundred others whose reliability is suspect have been reassigned, usually to terrifying areas in the Muslim parts of Mindanao; and in his typically colorful fashion, Bato has sworn that the “unexplained” killings – many supposedly carried out by police-directed assassins, as this recent BBC article suggested – will be investigated and appropriate consequences meted out.

And yet the killings continue – according to my news feed, in the time I’ve taken to write this, four more have died, including one not far from where I live. It has to end; at some point Mr. Duterte will have to decide that he has delivered the message he intended, and put a stop to the mayhem. He can serve both purposes by cleaning the PNP’s house, because the efforts that are being made now are clearly not enough.


Cut the crap, Grace

grace poeIT says something about Filipinos’ extraordinary tolerance for bullshit from their supposed betters that Grace Poe-Llamanzares and her “adoptive mother” Susan Roces have been able to maintain the pretentious Little Orphan Annie drama for so long. How a middle-class American housewife with no particular political credentials could completely hijack the early stages of a national election campaign, and do it with a personal backstory that on its face is less convincing than an alibi given by a drunk 15-year-old who’s just been caught sneaking back into the house at 3 am, is one for the sociologists to try to figure out.

If recent opinion polls are to be believed – something I realize is highly questionable – roughly three-quarters of the voting population does not blindly accept Grace’s claims about her provenance or qualifications for the highest office of the land. However big that statistical population actually is, if you talk to anyone who fits into it, you find they have two basic beliefs about the Lady Senator:

  1. That the long-established, persistent rumor that she is actually the illegitimate daughter of Ferdinand Marcos and Susan Roces’ sister Rosemarie Sonora is true, and the “foundling” yarn is just a quaint cover story, and
  2. Steering the legal case about her eligibility for office to questions about her “foundling” status is a smokescreen to cover issues where she clearly doesn’t have a leg to stand on, i.e., her apparent lack of legal residency and her use of her American passport after her reacquisition of Philippine citizen (an act which, by the way, has gotten two mayors thrown out of office in recent months).

As people who are quicker to put two and two together than most of us in the media are have pointed out, avoiding the simplest resolution to the rumor about her parentage tends to increase suspicion it is in fact true, and, if she is successful in her bid for higher office, will continue to hound her until she puts it to rest. While Mrs. Llamanzares may be legally right to handle the issue by insisting that those making that claim prove it, legal right and political reality are two different things, especially in this country – she cannot command the rumor to simply go away.

What confounds most casual observers of Grace’s little drama is that disproving the rumor – or put another way, backing up her denial of the rumor (which has been echoed by her adoptive mother and the Marcos children) with definitive evidence – would seem to have nothing but advantages for her. The rumor is, after all, potentially gravely slanderous; she might not be able to figure out who to take to task for it, but she could certainly portray herself as the innocent victim of ill intent, a role that is certainly appreciated by the average Filipino voter. Disproving the rumor and by implication proving that she is indeed a “foundling” reinforces her legal strategy of throwing up the big red herring of the rights of foundlings to distract from other legal questions she may find much more difficult to answer satisfactorily.

Bear in mind all Ms. Llamanzares needs to do is stall the Supreme Court decision on her disqualification case for a little more than a week; if February 1 comes and goes with no decision, her name is on the ballot and her candidacy becomes a fait accompli. By disproving the rumor – which can be done in one step, a DNA test that compares her DNA with that of any of the Marcos offspring, her adoptive mother (or actual aunt) Susan Roces, or, if she is available, her rumored mother Rosemarie – and in a sense legally endorsing her strategy of making the disqualification case all about “rights of foundlings” and not black-and-white eligibility rules, she very likely will obviate any other issue of her eligibility for office ever being brought up in the future. She will have been deemed to have a right to run for office, and that will be as far as the shallow thought processes of the public and its media will go.

By the same token, avoiding the question makes it almost inevitable that it will be raised later, and that in turn raises the nightmarish prospect, if she wins, of throwing a sitting president out of office for lying on the paperwork. So why doesn’t she deal with it? There are two possibilities: The first and the simplest is that she has no expectation or intention of winning the election, for reasons we can only speculate about at this point. The second possibility is that she is displaying a level of hubris the would-be drooling emperor who presently occupies Malacañang could only dream about deploying, and believes that she can cover either being the bastard child of a former dictator, or being completely ineligible to hold public office, or both, not only for the six years she would be in office, but for the thirty-odd years she can statistically expect to be alive.

Either way, she is holding an entire country hostage to her whims. Cut the crap, Grace. The country has just been through six years of someone like you, and that’s six too many. Clarify the questions about you once and for all, or get out of the country’s way.

A Hole in Humanity

bowieDESCRIBING David Bowie as an “artist” would be like calling the Sun a water heater; it would be literally correct, but so woefully inadequate.

When news of his death flashed across the news wires Monday, I felt as though I had been punched in the chest; again, words like “shock,” “dismay,” and “sadness” are accurate, but insufficient. That reaction surprised me. I am not a sentimental person, and before Monday I couldn’t honestly say when the last time I heard anything about David Bowie or otherwise given him any conscious thought might have been.

After I thought about it for a little while, the realization of why I felt the loss so acutely was startling. David Bowie began his career about the time I was born, and because he was who he was, he is necessarily inseparable from the perceptions of art and culture I have been ingrained with for my entire life. He was a constant: From the time I was old enough to perceive and understand it, music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm have always existed as “music, style, storytelling, and the various other parts of the artistic realm, and David Bowie.”

It didn’t matter if one was a “fan” in the conventional sense or not, because he transcended that with his permanence. To this day I cannot remember my grade-school years in the latter part of the 70’s without a soundtrack consisting of “Suffragette City,” “Young Americans,” and “Golden Years” running through the back of my mind. He was always there, always doing something new and different, and it was always something that influenced a great deal of the rest of the artistic atmosphere and stuck with you, whether you actually realized it or not. And he was good at it: I came of age in the 80’s, an era of both goofy post-disco stylish excess and Cold War spookiness, and while there were a lot of artists who could capture one mood or the other, nobody but David Bowie could completely, seamlessly nail them both (this and this were both released in the same year, 1984).

And he kept it up for half a century. His last album, Blackstar, was released on his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, and is as bold and original as anything Bowie ever created. We just didn’t realize he was saying goodbye.

David Bowie’s passing was like waking up one morning and discovering there are no paved roads anymore, because his entire career was a lesson – this is how you do art. There will never be another like him, and it is hard not to feel that we are diminished, that there is now a hole in our humanity, because of it.

Making sense of those Krazy Koreans

NorthKoreaTHE impression I get from the kilometric volume of analysis and commentary that followed the latest apparent nuclear test by North Korea last Thursday is that the entire world is once again completely flummoxed about how it should react this time to the misbehavior of the bizarre little hermit kingdom.

Up until now, the pattern in these kinds of episodes has always been consistent: North Korea does a provocative thing. The enlightened world led by the US imposes or at least threatens some kind of “sanctions” as punishment for the provocative thing. After a suitable interval, North Korea agrees to stop doing the provocative thing and not do it again in exchange for some small concessions, such as food aid, or having South Korea stop blaring K-pop songs and propaganda across the border with giant loudspeakers, and the situation returns to a more or less normal state. Until North Korea decides to do some other provocative thing, and then the whole cycle repeats itself.

The only difference this time is that China, who is North Korea’s only ally of any consequence, seems extraordinarily annoyed at its wayward client state. In the past, China has worked to moderate the punitive actions taken against North Korea, something it has for the most part been able to accomplish because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This time, however, China’s rhetoric about the nuclear test was unusually harsh, and following as it does a strange incident a few weeks ago in which North Korea’s all-girl “Moranbong Band” abruptly canceled a performance in China and returned home (reportedly because their Chinese hosts were offended by a video display the band uses which feature footage of North Korean missiles), the sense is China has lost patience with its neighbor.

All that will accomplish is to make the imposition of sanctions a little smoother; unless there is a drastic change in policy on the part of China on the one hand or the US, South Korea, and their UN colleagues on the other, the pattern as it has played out in years past will simply be repeated. One would think that at some point, the unresolved state of affairs would become intolerable. It has persisted, however, for more than 60 years – ever since the Korean War ended in a stalemate – and by all appearances a solution will continue to elude political minds on both sides of the conflict for another generation or more.

In order to try to sort things out, or at least understand what is happening and why, we need to make a few assumptions that may run against the grain of conventional diplomatic thought:

  1. Kim Jong-Un knows precisely what he is doing.

One of the common viewpoints towards North Korea’s leading Kim dynasty, especially in the case of Kim Jong-Il and his son, current leader Kim Jong-Un, is that they are reckless, crazy, or both (North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung was also thought to be a dangerous nut, but not quite to the same degree as his son and grandson). That is almost certainly not the case, which becomes apparent when we consider a couple obvious factors.

First of all, North Korea is essentially a monarchy, one whose existence is justified by the complicated (and actually rather clever) political philosophy of Juche, or in very simple terms “self-reliance,” which was developed by Kim Il-Sung in the years after the foundation of North Korea, formally adopted as national policy in the mid-1950s as the country worked to recover from the devastation of the Korean War, and intensely strengthened as a set of guiding principles in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s-early 1990s. At the core of Juche thought is a rejection of Marxist-Leninist relations of production in favor of the primacy of the people’s will; this permits, or rather requires, the emergence of a “great leader” to organize and guide the people.

Since the Juche philosophy has become an actual political and legal framework, the major objective for the leader is to justify his place. One of the easiest ways to do that is to maintain a constant state of tension with real or perceived external enemies. It is no accident that the Korean War never actually ended, because it was not in Kim Il-Sung’s best interests that it should; so long as he had the lingering threat of America and its South Korean puppet state (and to a lesser extent, those other US puppets, the hated Japanese) that he could ‘lead a defense’ against, his position was that much more secure. Likewise, it is no accident that every move towards an easing of tensions between the two Koreas is shortly followed by some provocation by the North that causes the situation to deteriorate again.

To the Kim way of thinking – and there is some validity to the perspective – there is no greater defense, no greater deterrent to an external threat, than nuclear weapons, the more powerful the better. By maintaining a strong military presence surrounding North Korea, the US and its South Korean and Japanese allies are playing right into Kim’s hands.

The best evidence of who the ‘message’ of the “hydrogen bomb” (it probably wasn’t one, but we’ll get to that in a moment) was really intended for – i.e., the North Korean people, and especially the military and bureaucratic establishment whose cooperation is vital to Kim’s retaining his position – was his comments linking the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi to the thwarting of Iraq’s and Libya’s nuclear ambitions. Kim is not so stupid as to be unaware that his key officers and ministers understand what a dictatorship is and realize they are serving one, and so the message is, “The strong leader who gives up his nuclear goals is weakened, and will eventually be overthrown, but I have successfully pursued that goal, and so what befell Saddam and Gaddafi won’t happen to me. So don’t screw with me.”

  1. North Korea presents virtually no significant military threat to South Korea, the US, or Japan.

A prospect that gives Western policymakers and military planners the heebie-jeebies is that North Korea, if not held in check, will escalate its actions from the long-running low-intensity conflict that it has perpetuated since the end of the Korean War to a major attack – something like an invasion in force across the border into the South, a missile attack against Japan, or a strike with either conventional or nuclear weapons against Hawaii or Alaska, which are plausibly reachable with North Korea’s current missile technology (and a lot of luck, presumably).

Although North Korean aggression has been frequent and sometimes quite serious – incidents like the seizure of the USS Pueblo in 1968, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, and the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan in 2010 are among the worst – Pyongyang seems to have mastered the art of pushing its enemies to the limits of their patience without going too far. Despite having one of the world’s largest armies, the Kim regime realizes that its comparatively unsophisticated forces would not last long in the face of American firepower; the Korean War was a painful object lesson for Kim Il-Sung, and it is a lesson that his son and grandson clearly took to heart. A massive attack across the border might spring enough of a surprise to wreck Seoul and cause a huge amount of damage, but would result in the utter destruction of North Korean forces – and in any case, North Korea is watched so closely by the nervous South that any attempt to amass the forces necessary to carry out such an attack would set off alarms long before it was prepared to strike. Likewise, a stand-off attack against Japan or the United States would almost certainly provoke a brutal response that the regime might not survive.

The constant aggression carried out by North Korea is simply part of the policy of maintaining a constant state of tension in order to keep the ruling order intact; and in order for the tension to be maintained, some aggressive reaction from the other side is necessary – when it is not forthcoming on its own, North Korea simply provokes it. The aggression also serves as a sort of safety valve. The country cannot maintain such a large military and keep it inactive indefinitely, and so it occasionally allows it to see some action. But only enough to maintain a proper level of alertness and discipline – the myth of “defending the country” would be shattered and the Kim dynasty would come to a quick and unpleasant end if the military was ever put in a position to be defeated and weakened.

  1. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hydrogen bomb (and there’s still a possibility that it was).

The assumption that North Korea’s latest nuclear test was not the explosion of a hydrogen bomb seems to be accurate; seismic data indicated an explosion with a yield of 6-9 kilotons (some estimates say 6-15 KT), which is only one or two percent of the power of even a modest thermonuclear weapon (the common US W88 warhead, which is about as small as a legitimate hydrogen bomb can be made, has a yield of about 475 KT). Yet the North Korean announcement of the test and Kim Jong-Un’s later statement made a point of referring to it as “a hydrogen bomb.” So what’s the real story?

There are three possibilities. The first, and the easiest to believe, is that the North Koreans are simply lying, and that the bomb tested was a regular fission weapon, similar to the three previous weapons the country has tested. If that was the case, it would be a bit smaller in terms of yield than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (which had estimated yields of 15 and 20 KT, respectively), and given what is known or surmised about North Korean technical capabilities, would probably be a fairly large, unwieldy weapon – manageable perhaps as an air-dropped bomb, but almost certainly too large and heavy to mount on a missile.

The second possibility, which is much more alarming, is that it was a boosted fission weapon. In a ‘normal’ atomic bomb, the fissile material (usually plutonium) is in the form of a hollow sphere – the shape keeps it from going critical before it’s supposed to – with a “neutron reflector” (usually a sphere of beryllium, although some other materials can work) suspended in the void at the sphere’s center. High explosives surrounding the plutonium core uniformly compress the sphere, releasing neutrons to begin the chain reaction; some of the neutrons are reflected back by the beryllium pit at the center, increasing the speed of the reaction. However, the reaction can only last while the compressed core is at critical mass; once it explosively flies apart – which takes only milliseconds – the nuclear chain reaction is ended. Thus the fission efficiency of early atomic bombs was rather low, something on the order of 20 percent or less (meaning only 20% of the core material actually underwent fission, the rest being blown away in the resulting explosion).

In a boosted weapon, a small amount of fusion fuel – typically tritium and deuterium, isotopes of hydrogen, in a gaseous form, which could account for North Korea referring to it as a “hydrogen” bomb – is placed in the void at the center of the core, replacing the “reflector.” When the implosion occurs, the early stage of fission in the plutonium core exerts enough pressure on the gaseous fuel to cause a fusion reaction, which releases a large amount of fast neutrons, speeding up the fission process and consuming the fuel much more efficiently. The fusion reaction is so small that it doesn’t really contribute much to the overall power of the bomb, but it can improve the fission efficiency by a great deal, raising it to perhaps 50%, which results in a larger explosion. The benefit of a boosted fission weapon is that a higher explosive yield can be obtained from a smaller amount of fission fuel, which means the bomb can be made smaller – small enough, perhaps, to fit on a rocket or be configured as an artillery shell. It is also not quite the large technological leap from conventional fission bombs that a true H-bomb is, requiring only the additional ability to produce and handle tritium and deuterium.

The third possibility is that it was an actual hydrogen bomb, a true thermonuclear device, which simply failed to explode properly. A hydrogen bomb is actually two bombs in one: A fission bomb (the ‘primary’), the explosion of which compresses a second bomb consisting of a heavy casing (usually of uranium, which can be made to fission, or sometimes an inert material such as lead, which reduces the yield and is a cheaper option for testing) containing the fusion fuel (usually lithium deuteride) and a hollow plutonium rod (the ‘sparkplug’). Radiation pressure from the exploding primary compresses and then heats the fuel of the secondary stage, which begins a fusion reaction that releases an enormous amount of energy.

The basic concept of a hydrogen bomb is not terribly complicated, but actually building one that works requires a degree of engineering capability and precision that most observers doubt North Korea has. Nevertheless, since the basic design is not a mystery (the configuration is called Teller-Ulam after its first inventors, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam working in the US, but it was eventually independently worked out by scientists in the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China), it is at least remotely possible North Korea attempted to build one, but that it simply “fizzled” – i.e., the atomic primary stage of the bomb, a powerful weapon of several kilotons’ yield in its own right, exploded, but failed to ignite the secondary fusion stage.

The assertion that it was a “hydrogen bomb” seems likely to be intended for the North Korean people and the military establishment, an assurance that efforts are being made to increase the strength of the country’s defenses. Whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not doesn’t really matter to the outside world – the real point is that any remaining mystery about whether or not North Korea has or is capable of producing functioning nuclear weapons is now resolved. Even if the country’s capabilities have only risen to the point of being able to manufacture relatively simple atomic bombs, a 6 to 9 KT explosion could level a medium-sized city (for reference, that explosion would be three or four times the power of the second and larger of the two explosions in this video). Whether or North Korea has tried to advance beyond that level of technology or is simply aspiring to, they have apparently gotten basic atomic weapons pretty much figured out. That presents a challenge to the US and its allies, and even China, a challenge which is much more complicated than that posed by Iraq’s or Libya’s abortive attempts to get a nuclear program off the ground, or even Iran’s much more advanced program: None of those potential ‘nuclear threats’ ever resulted in actual weapons, and as the history of disarmament efforts has demonstrated so far, it is far easier to compel a country to stop trying to build a bomb (those efforts have so far all been successful) than it is to force a country to give it up once it has actually produced it (the only country that has obliged was South Africa).

  1. China doesn’t want a collapse of the Kim regime or a unified Korea that would potentially put US troops on its border.

That first assumption is probably true – keeping in mind, of course, that trying to figure out the subtle contradictions of the Chinese mind is tricky at best – because a disorderly collapse of the Kim regime would result in an as-yet unknown outcome. As far as the worry about “millions of refugees” crossing into China, as many analysts have suggested, that concern might be overblown; one should probably presume it would be a bigger problem for South Korea than it would be for China.

The other assumption, that China would not want a US-allied, unified Korea on its border, is true so long as one presupposes that a unified Korea would look exactly like South Korea, and that China would not be able to exercise any sort of positive influence on it at a level that at least fairly matches US influence. There is no reason that any of that would necessarily be the case. For one thing, the reunification of Korea, which would spell the definitive end of the Korean War, removes the reason for the US being there.

Unlike Japan, where the continuing US military presence is ultimately the result – many generations removed – of an original US occupation, South Korea did not start out under US administration; the US presence there is a result of the war, and, it is important to remember, began under sanction of the UN. Once that sanction ends – and bear in mind, China is a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power – the US cannot unilaterally justify its continued presence; at least not at the level it is now present in South Korea. Any agreement to unify Korea would probably involve Chinese participation anyway – which it rightfully should, since the country borders China – and would almost certainly stipulate a US withdrawal. The political and economic relationship would certainly continue, but that wouldn’t present any more of a problem for the Chinese than the US relationship with any other country in the region.

All of this, however, is a moot point: Unless the US and its allies take the virtually unthinkable step to actually reach into North Korea and remove Kim Jong-Un, the Kim regime – and as a result, the current, unsatisfying status quo – will exist for at least as long as he does.




The short, weird insurrection of Yokel Haram

Y’all Qaeda (Getty Images)

BY now most people, even in this relatively self-distracted part of the world, have heard the news of the standoff taking place in rural Oregon between a self-styled “citizen’s militia” and government authorities.

Over the weekend, the armed group of about two dozen people led by Nevada rancher Ammon Bundy (more on him and his family in a bit) and calling itself the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, ostensibly to protest the prison sentences imposed on a father-and-son pair of local ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who had been convicted in Federal court on arson charges three years ago for a fire that burned 139 acres of Federal land.

The group had initially participated in a peaceful street protest in the nearby city of Burns in support of the Hammonds, before taking over the closed-for-the-season refuge headquarters, where the protest became less about the Hammonds in particular and more about what the group (mostly ranchers like Bundy) says is a persistent, heavy-handed effort by the Federal government to force ranchers off their lands. Although the occupation understandably caused a great deal of alarm at first – schools were closed in the area, and Federal law enforcement assets quickly arrived to reinforce the local police – tensions have subsided a bit as the standoff wears on and it becomes clear that the “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom” are not really much of a threat despite having apparently brought more guns than food with them, and swearing that they will remain at the refuge “for years, if that’s what it takes” until their demands – which are more than a little vague, but at a minimum include a call for an investigation into Federal land management policy and practices – are met.

Vanilla ISIS

Although the group should have tapped into some fairly strong public currents – the present atmosphere of growing right-wing populism throughout the country in general, and in the West specifically, the long-simmering animosity between the people of the western states and the Federal government over land use and property rights – the widespread support they were hoping for has not materialized. Very few if any additional sympathizers have answered the call to travel to Oregon to join the rebellion (despite assurances that there is plenty of parking), and Bundy’s appeal to the local residents was pointedly rebuffed; in a town meeting in which Harney County Sheriff David Ward briefed residents on the situation, an impromptu vote of the townspeople was almost unanimous in favor of asking the “militiamen” to please leave peacefully; while many people in Burns and the surrounding area said they sympathized with the grievances of the Bundy group against the government, they would rather the ranchers go home and find some other way to air their complaints. It also did very little to help the protestors’ cause that the Hammond men, the original catalyst for the standoff, quietly reported to prison as ordered by a Federal judge, and made it a point to inform the public that “the occupation is in no way connected with the Hammond family.”

Much of the distinct lack of seriousness with which the Oregon standoff is being regarded can be attributed to the group’s distinctly bumpkin-esque character. Early on in the drama, some observers decried the apparent double standard with which the media was treating the group; had they been Arab or African-Americans, some commentators observed, they would have been branded terrorists, and not mere “militiamen.” It very quickly became apparent, however, that a more appropriate description might be “idiots”:

This happened. Under the tarp is a rancher from Arizona, a 55-year-old grandfather, armed with a rifle. He told MSNBC (this picture is a screengrab from the interview) that there is a warrant out for his arrest, and so he is hiding to prevent being served with it.

Apart from the group’s comical nature, its inability to gain public sympathy is at least partly due to the reputation of its erstwhile leader, Ammon Bundy. Bundy is the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who in April 2014 led a similar standoff with Federal authorities that came to be known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” That particular situation was the result of a years-long feud between the elder Bundy and the government, stemming from Bundy’s refusal to pay fees for grazing his cattle on public land. Although Bundy tried to turn his dispute into a populist revolt against an overbearing government, as details emerged he rather quickly began to look less like an oppressed farmer and more like a rich, white landowner being a greedy asshole; the matter, while never resolved – something political analysts say was an error on the government’s part, because it only encouraged more such tomfoolery like the current Oregon situation – was allowed to quietly fade.

Although the sheriff of Harney County, Oregon and the people he serves are anxious to be rid of their unwelcome visitors, every indication now is that the Federal authorities intend to let the current standoff run out of steam in similar fashion. While that may appropriately avoid making martyrs of a bunch of overgrown adolescents, it does little to address a couple of real issues the Oregon standoff actually has raised, something that must be maddeningly frustrating to others who have a serious stake in them.

Government inflexibility and overreach

The first issue is the rather disturbing sloppiness with which the Federal courts have handled the Hammond case. The father-and-son pair were accused of arson, and finally sentenced for it in October last year. The fire which burned 139 acres of Federal land bordering their own property was the result of an accident, they said; while clearing brush on their land, the fire they had set simply got out of control. A witness testified, however, that they had intentionally set the fire to cover up illegal hunting, something the pair steadfastly denies. Whatever the case may be, they were sentenced in Federal court to less than a year in prison (the elder Hammond was sentenced to three months, his son to one year), with the judge in the case deeming the five-year minimum sentence prescribed for arson on Federal property unnecessarily harsh. He was overruled, however, by an appeals court, who ordered the already-released Hammonds back to prison to serve the balance of the five-year required sentence.

Like the Bundy family, the Hammonds had a long history of conflict with the Federal government over land management, and probably have a case to be made that Federal laws – in this instance, mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines, which have come under fire for years in all manner of cases (particularly for drug-related offenses) as being inflexible and counterproductive – are being used to persecute them. Unlike the Bundys, however, the Hammonds have made it a point to pursue legal action, letting the outcomes of procedure reveal their own shortcomings.

The larger issue of Federal land policy, which the Bundy-led buffoonery in Oregon does little to highlight in any productive way, has pitted the West against the Federal government for decades. In the 11 Western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), about 47.2% of the land is under Federal control, administered by a collection of agencies – the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Defense Department, and others – who often work at cross-purposes and with little regard to the sensibilities and needs of parties with an interest in the land, whether ranchers, miners, loggers, sportsmen, environmentalists, Native American communities, or state governments.

A map of land owned or controlled by the Federal government in the US (from Wikipedia).

Certainly, it is no easy task to fairly balance all those competing interests for the land in a way that is sustainable, but the widespread agreement among people in the West is that layers of bureaucracy managed from faraway Washington is demonstrably about the worst way to go about trying to accomplish that task.

None of which makes the actions of misguided “patriots” like Ammon Bundy and his retinue of rednecks the least bit sensible or acceptable, because the topic is no longer the serious issue of equitable and sustainable land management, but simply the mere fact that a bunch of armed yahoos occupied a bird sanctuary. That they are being treated as a joke is probably the best reaction Bundy and his companions could have hoped for, because it shows that people with serious concerns are restraining themselves from the fury they must feel at being made to look foolish.