Dispatches From The Edge: Of North Korea; Lebanon’s Vote; Irish Shame

By Conn Hallinan
Thursday July 02, 2009 - 09:55:00 AM

Most Americans think of North Korea as a nation of belligerent crazy people with a political succession system more akin to the 15th century than the 21st. Indeed, it is a repressive place, with a bizarre personality cult, but the United States, Japan, and South Korea share much of the blame for the current crisis over nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. 

A little history. 

In June of last year, North Korea dutifully carried out “Phase Two” of the 2007 Six-Party talks by giving China the details of its plutonium program. In a separate agreement with the United States, Pyongyang agreed to disclose its uranium enrichment program and any technology proliferation to other countries. In turn, the United States would take North Korea off its “state sponsor of terrorism” list.  

However, under pressure from the right-wing governments of Japan and South Korea, the Bush administration moved the goal posts and demanded strict verification procedures before it would fulfill its end of the bargain. Verification, however, was not part of Phase Two, as then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted in a speech to the Heritage Foundation last year. “What we’ve done, in a sense, is to move up issues that were to be taken up in Phase Three, like verification, like access to the reactor, into Phase Two.” 

North Korea responded by halting the dismantlement of its plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor.  

The United States then backed off and agreed to modify the verification procedures and, when North Korea accepted these, the White House took Pyongyang off the terror list. But when Japan and South Korea again protested, the Bush Administration reversed course and refused to take North Korea off the terrorism list unless it agreed to the new demands.  

If your foreign policy is schizoid you are liable to make people act crazy. And sure enough, North Korea began testing long-range missiles and carried out a nuclear explosion. 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is using the same carrot and stick approach that failed so dismally for the Bush administration. “I’m not sure who is giving the president his advice on North Korea, but it is all wrong,” says John Feffer, Korea expert and author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. Feffer says Obama’s “show of ‘resolve’ has only made matters worse.” 

When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Asia she met with relatives of Japanese civilians who have been kidnapped by North Korea. Japanese Prime Minster Taro Aso, a right-wing nationalist who has angered nations throughout Asia with his defense of Japanese behavior in World War II, has used the kidnappings as a way to derail any progress in the Six Party talks.  

While the kidnappings were horrendous, Japan can hardly claim the moral high ground in relations between the two nations. Japan’s colonial regime in Korea was especially brutal, a fact that the Aso government refuses to acknowledge. Indeed, Japan still claims several islands that it took from Korea during its 35-year occupation of the peninsula.  

Feffer argues that sharp condemnations, like the United Nations resolution that followed the April missile launch, are counterproductive. “We should have treated it [the missile launch] as a satellite launch and pressed forward with negotiations,” he said. Instead the UN passed an angry resolution, which Feffer compares to “hitting a problem with a baseball bat—except that the problem in this case was a hornet’s nest.”  

Feffer says the United States also exaggerates North Korea as a military threat. While Pyongyang has a large army, its yearly military budget is about $500 million, one fortieth of South Korea’s and pocket change compared to U.S. arms spending. 

According to Leon Siegel, author of Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, this “punishment approach has never worked in the past and it won’t work now.” Siegel, who also directs the Northeast Cooperative Security Project of the New York Social Science Research Council, says “Sustained diplomatic give-and-take is the only way to stop future North Korean nuclear and missile tests and convince it to halt its nuclear program.” 

In short, more sanctions, more threats, and searching ships on the high seas is likely to make the situation worse, not better. 


Lebanon’s June 7 election is being represented as a triumph for the Washington-backed coalition and a defeat for Hezbollah. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times even characterized it as a showdown between President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that the White House won. 

Not really.  

What happened was that the Lebanese voted for their respective communities, whose representation was constitutionally enshrined by a 1936 population survey that has very little to do with current reality. Under the survey, Christians are guaranteed 50 percent of the seats in parliament, even though today they constitute only about 36 percent of the population. Shiites—who are closely allied with Hezbollah—are allotted 20 percent of the seats, but make up about 40 percent of the population, a plurality of the electorate. 

Shiites voted for Hezbollah, Sunnis Muslims for their parties, and the Druze for Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. The Christians split between a party allied with Hezbollah led by Michel Aoun, and a pro-western party headed by Saad Harari, the son of former president Rafik-al-Hariri. The elder Hariri’s assassination in 2005 touched off the “Cedar Revolution” that swept his son and a pro-western, anti-Syrian coalition into power. 

Aoun’s Christian allies took a beating—voters were still upset over the thrashing that Hezbollah gave the Sunni militia in Beirut last spring—but his party emerged as the largest Christian party in the Parliament, and the pro-Hezbollah coalition took more votes than the anti-Hezbollah coalition. It was certainly a bare-knuckle affair. 

Saudi Arabia poured in vast amounts of money to back Harari and defeat Iran’s ally, Hezbollah. The United States also threatened to cutoff aid if the Hezbollah-Aoun coalition won, and Christian Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir said a Hezbollah victory would turn the country over to Iran and threaten Lebanon’s “Arab identity.” 

And then on the eve of the vote, Der Spiegel leaked a story that the United Nations Special Tribunal investigating the death of Rafik al-Hariri found that Hezbollah, not Syria, had committed the murder. Hezbollah vigorously denied the charge—and the story has since vanished—but it undoubtedly did some damage. 

So, things are about where they were before, except that the Hezbollah coalition can legitimately claim that they have the backing of a majority of Lebanon’s diverse population. 

An indication of that was a June 19 meeting between Jumblatt and Hezbollah General Secretary Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. The four hour get-together patched up a frosty relationship between the Progressive Socialist Party—part of the Harari coalition—and Hezbollah. According to the Daily Star, after the meeting Jumblatt condemned the “absolute extremism” of the Israeli government, and called on “all our people in Palestine to reject sectarian and non-sectarian violence” and to “confront Zionist projects that promise to be more dangerous and fiercer in the coming phase.”  


Racist criminals” was how Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness described gangs of thugs who attacked Romanians living in south Belfast. 

More than 100 Roma from 20 families were forced to take shelter in a church when gangs chanting racist slogans besieged their houses in a Protestant area called the “Village.” According to the Irish Republican News, “bigots scrawled slogans supporting the neo-Nazi group Combat 18 and the fascist British National Party.” The newspaper reports that, following the attacks on the Roma, Protestant gangs invaded a cemetery in West Belfast and “desecrated Republican graves.” 

“Republicans” are those who support a united Ireland and include much of the Catholic community. The Protestants who want to remain tied to Great Britain are called “Unionists” or “Loyalists.” 

Following the attack, Combat 18 distributed an email that read, in part, “Romanian Gypsies beware, beware. Loyalist C18 are coming to beat you.” 

According to witnesses, the newly formed Police Services of Northern Ireland (PSNI) did nothing to stop the assaults, but instead encouraged the Roma to leave their houses and take refuge in the church. 

The attacks were apparently a spin-off from an earlier confrontation between Protestant youth and Eastern Europeans following a soccer match that pitted a Polish team against a local Irish team. A polish family was recently driven out of County Tyrone. According to the Associated Press, Protestant gangs have also terrorized Chinese and Africans living in Belfast. 

In the Village incidents, gangs threw bottles and bricks at homes, smashed windows and threatened people with handguns. Roma Maria Fechete said a gang broke into her house and threatened to kill her two children. “They made signs like they wanted to cut my brother’s baby’s throat,” she said. 

Sinn Fein assembly member from West Belfast, Paul Maskey, said that “Racist attacks coming from the Unionist community in Belfast are not new and did not just start this week with attacks on the Romanians. This has been a long standing problem and one which clearly has not been properly addressed either by political representatives of that community or indeed by the PSNI, otherwise these attacks would have stopped years ago.”  

Sinn Fein is the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. 

The recently concluded European elections saw some dramatic gains for the right in Holland, Italy, Britain, and Eastern Europe. Europeans have long targeted the Roma population—thought to be between seven and nine million—and their communities have been attacked in Italy, Hungry, Slovakia and Romania.  

The Belfast riots suggest that when the authorities turn a blind eye to racist violence, it tends to escalate.