North Korea – 21st Century Missile Crisis

Workers in North Korea tending crops on Migok Farm, Sariwŏn. Photo by ‘Stephan’

If you’re old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis, you’re probably less inclined to see the North Korea/US standoff as a prelude to the End Time.

In October 1962 (I was 13), President John F Kennedy and his Russian counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, arm-wrestled over Soviet missile sites built on Cuban soil. Russia had taken steps to build missile silos on Cuba as a response to similar US installations in Turkey and other central Europe locations. As Cuba is just 90 nautical miles from Miami, Florida, this news prompted urgent meetings of defence and intelligence chiefs and then-POTUS John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In October 1962, an American spy plane spotted what looked like a missile site being built on the island of Cuba. Thus began a tense, 13-day stand-off, during which time many people genuinely believed the world was about to end. Wealthy Americans commissioned fallout shelters (some are still being used today to take refuge from hurricanes).

You can say this about the US defence apparatus, they keep detailed historical records. Whether it is the unexpurgated truth is another matter. As Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Nathan R Jessup in A Few Good Men famously says to prosecutor Lt Daniel Kaffee, who presses him for “the truth” – “You can’t handle the truth.”

In this instance, US intelligence agencies identified 15 SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites in Cuba.

The Soviets established a missile base on Cuba because they feared the US would invade Cuba, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 by a CIA-sponsored paramilitary group.

At the time, there was still a lot of angst about Cuba; members of the CIA-sponsored Brigade 2506 were still being held captive after the Bay of Pigs invasion.

President Kennedy needed to resolve this situation, quickly and peacefully. The crisis ended with the Kennedy-Khrushchev “agreement” of October 28, 1962. Less well-known was a dispute over Soviet IL-28 bombers based in Cuba. The US claimed they were “offensive weapons” under the October 28 agreement. Kennedy also made a (then) secret agreement to remove US missile sites from Turkey. These events ended the crisis but continued the “Cold War” (which ended in 1991) between Russia and the US.

So to 2017 and North Korea’s threat to target Washington or New York (or more likely Tokyo), with nuclear-tipped missiles.

You may have watched Monday’s Four Corners/BBC expose on the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam. This documentary was, I thought, a little bit too informed by ex-CIA sources, US think-tanks and North Korea-watchers. It would be good to sit down in a bar with a regular DPRK citizen to see if they really are oppressed.

“Howzit goin’ Choi? Gettin’ enough to eat? Been threatened or beaten up lately?” Mate, do you get Outback Truckers on DPRK TV?”

If reports about poverty, famines, repression, reprisals, executions and endemic surveillance are true, you could hardly blame a DPRK citizen for having a drink or four. Communist regimes commonly keep alcohol prices down and relax access to it as a means of helping citizens cope with a bleak lifestyle.

North Koreans predominantly drink hard liquor; Soju, a colourless spirit akin to vodka, taken neat. Its alcoholic content ranges from 17% to 60%.

“North Koreans’ main hobby is probably drinking,” said Simon Cockerell, a tour guide who has led more than 100 trips to the DPRK for foreigners.

But the World Health Organisation ranks North Korea below 128 countries whose alcohol consumption per capita is vastly more than the DPRK’s modest 3.7 litres (94.9% of which is spirits). Australians and New Zealanders drink four times as much.

If you want some raw insights into life in North Korea, cartoonist Guy Delisle’s 2001 graphic novel of his time in North Korea is a good start. The first part of Pyongyang – a journey in North Korea begins with a customs official in the dimly-lit airport terminal suspicious of Delisle’s tatty copy of 1984. “What kind of book is this?” The official relaxes when Delisle tells him he has a work visa arranged with a North Korean animation studio.

Once in country, Delisle kept a diary, illustrated with his drawings of Pyongyang and things that happened as he was chaperoned around by minders. I borrowed it from the local library a few years back and found it blackly fascinating and a little subversive.

A Hollywood movie was planned based on Delisle’s book starring Steve Carell. But the movie was cancelled, reportedly because of the kerfuffle over Sony’s film, The Interview.

Love, love, love is all you need

Last weekend, we spent four glorious days and nights away from the constant stream of doomsday news. About 1,000 people from a broad spectrum of society congregated at a bush campground on the fringes of the D’Aguilar National Park. When people ask me what a folk festival is like, I tell them it’s not so much about the music (often heartfelt songs of equality, justice and humanitarianism), but the harmonious atmosphere.

Many performers took time out between songs at the Neurum Creek Music Festival to observe how sweet it was to have some respite from the constant barrage of end-of-the-world scenarios.

Comedians and folksingers Martin Pearson and John Thompson, reunited as Never the Twain, took a moment from manic wisecracks and parodies to touch the collective soul. The Fred Small song Scott and Jamie is a five-minute story about a gay couple who adopt two boys and are living the dream until social services intervene. The refrain – ‘Love is love, no matter who, no matter where’ rippled out across the festival venue. A hush fell; dogs dialled it down to rapid panting. Even the bar staff fell under the spell.

Four people sitting in front of me rose to their feet at the song’s end, to applaud the splendidly rendered version and the sentiment. It may be a forlorn hope to think that we can cure the world by singing songs of love and peace like ‘Imagine’, ‘Redemption Song,’ or ‘All you Need is Love’. But what else can a pacifist do?

She Whose Family Immigrated from Canada in 1964 thinks her Dad picked this place on the map to escape proximity to a looming nuclear war between two super powers. It didn’t happen then, but there have been scary moments since – September 11, 2001 in particular.

What now? Will we see a new surge of refugees from Japan and the US testing Australia’s world-famous, inclusive asylum seeker policies? Perhaps, as the latest issue of Popular Mechanics suggests, people will invest in bomb shelters instead. Those with wealth enough can spend tens of millions on ‘Doomsday Condos’, shelters big enough to cater for the extended family, friends, pets, the family lawyer…

Or you could travel to a village in Ontario, contribute ‘sweat equity’ and join other idealists maintaining the world’s biggest nuclear shelter, Ark 2.

Sigh. Détente would be easier, and cheaper. You know – détente as in ‘a relaxing of tensions between nations through negotiations and agreements’. Or rapprochement, even. But this would require Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un to clasp hands across a table and sign an Accord.

We wish.

See more on this topic: ‘Surviving Armageddon’

One drink too many


The smell of Scotch makes me want to puke. That’s an astonishing thing for a Scot to say. Let’s call it a physical memory; traces of a bender with no recollections to go with the nauseating smell.

Our State of Origin friends gathered on Wednesday for food, wine, conviviality and (as it turned out), a fairly subdued evening as our team was soundly beaten. I’d forgotten to get some sparking mineral water or what we call “fake wine”. One of our guests brought a bottle of the latter and shared a glass. The alcohol-removed option is a rare treat because it is just as expensive as buying a bottle of wine.

It has been so long since alcohol touched my lips I rarely have to refuse alcohol when socialising.

“His is a ginger beer,” someone will say when we have choir wine nights. Most people just accept that I don’t drink. Years ago I went to lunch with a business contact who kept pressing me to drink, to the point where I said “Mate, you don’t need my approval. If you want another, have another.” We never went to lunch again.

Since I decided to stop drinking, circa 1984, I have never been tempted to start again. My (former) drinking mates would say “Oh well you obviously weren’t an alcoholic, then if you could just stop like that.” A couple of people I knew decided to quit around the same time. We never had the conversation because I rarely drank with those two. They had an enormous capacity while I was a two-pot screamer. If I started drinking wine or spirits after two or three beers, the night would be a write-off. As far as I’m aware, they did the 12 Steps and never fell off the wagon, which is universal parlance for starting to drink again.

I did go to an AA meeting once, in Auckland, circa something. The group comprised mostly rough-looking young men, a few teenage girls and a couple of middle-aged men and women you could pass in the supermarket and never think “Jeez, she looks like an alkie.”

One of the traits of a long-term alcoholic is to hide it from partners, children, extended family and friends. If friends and family enjoy a social drink, they will probably not notice you starting on the third bottle of wine.

AA impressed me because (a) it was anonymous (b) you could share your story and not feel as if you were being judged and (c) there was a cast-iron understanding that your story would not be told outside the room. I’d been an agnostic since my teenage years and decided that talking to God and following the 12 Steps was not going to work for me. I had a two-week break from drinking, decided to have a few at the weekly folk club and woke up next day not remembering anything from the night before. This was not a fuzzy, “Oh, now I remember” night. It was like someone had sliced a piece out of my brain and it never came back. Two weeks later (after another break) I got on another bender and the same thing happened. Next morning, the car was sitting in the driveway covered in mud.

It was so like the Paul Kelly song that emerged three or four years later:

“The sergeant asked me softly “Now do you recall?”
It all looked so familiar as though I’d dreamt it all;
I don’t remember a thing, I don’t remember a thing.”

(Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls – Under the Sun)

So I quit. She Who Likes a Social Drink was a bit pissed (sorry, annoyed), that I threw out the remains of a wine cask.

If I could recap the life I lived since that day 34 years ago, you could chart it on an Excel spreadsheet; my professional life, physical and mental health and creative life all on an upward trajectory. It was not, as I feared, that being sober would rob me of rich ideas for my songwriting and short fiction. The opposite occurred. I rediscovered the serenity which comes from long vigorous walks, during which I was writing things in my head. My performance as a husband, father and friend, however, was like Telstra shares, a good income provider, punctuated with periods of poor performance.

You may wonder what brought this on – it’s not an anniversary of anything, I’m not inclined to fall off the wagon, even though Queensland lost the State Of Origin and the Baby Broncos got thumped by The Warriors. Two things gave me pause to revisit my drinking days, where I’d get drunk quickly and cheaply, slowly beginning to understand (sometimes) that I was the only drunk person in the room and that my real friends were just putting up with me. A silly bore, but never obnoxious. We all know the obnoxious drunk; the kind who get in your face and insist that you (the sober one), must be some kind of wimp because you won’t take a drink.

The other triggering factor was a story in The Monthly which is ostensibly about AA (the organisation) but more about the author’s personal struggle with alcohol and how AA helps and maybe doesn’t help. The remarkable thing about Jenny Valentish’s story* is that it stands alone as critical essay about an 82-year-old organisation which is rarely scrutinised.

AA mean Alcoholics Anonymous, which means you can repent under a cloak of anonymity. You could be a big rock star or the chief executive of Very Big Inc and no-one knows or should know you are a recovering alcoholic. One of the precepts of AA is that you never ‘get over it’. You’re an alcoholic and one drink will bring you undone.

Valentish observes that AA has made no significant updates to its doctrine, despite “a growing mountain of evidence-based research”. AA won’t change its literature without the approval of 75% of members worldwide. Three addiction experts reviewed the Big Book in 1985. Psychologist Albert Ellis was concerned by the lack of emphasis on self-management.

“By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work or and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”

Valentish starts her essay by confessing to a relapse after seven years sober. She says AA helped her a lot when she stopped drinking the first time. But by AA’s rules, if you have a relapse, you have ‘failed’ and have to start the 12 Steps all over again.

The organisation holds the 12 Steps (based on Christian principles), to be sacrosanct and it seems to work for problem drinkers (if they are determined to stop).

So go ahead and have a drink while you watch the Roosters give the Baby Broncos a pasting. If you can stop at 2, jolly good luck. I never could.

*One Step Beyond by Jenny Valentish, page 46 The Monthly, June, 2017