North Korea – 21st Century Missile Crisis

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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’

A backwards step for world peace

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A backwards step to make a point about world peace

In 2009, Greens candidate Peter Bell walked several kilometres backwards from a Mackay fast food franchise to the office of the National member for Dawson, De-Anne Kelly.

He told ABC radio at the time he did this to highlight the backwards nature of the Howard Coalition’s policies on industrial relations and climate. Despite making headlines with this stunt, Bell polled only 3,489 votes (4.4% of the Dawson ballot). But he made his point, in public.

 

There was a time when if someone said you’d taken a step backwards, they meant a return to older and less effective ways of doing things. The Cambridge Dictionary’s example: “The breakdown in negotiations will be seen as a step backwards.”

You could argue the ‘step backwards’ is in vogue here and around the world; for example the public re-emergence of white supremacists in the USA. President Trump set the mood for this, with florid statements about expelling Muslims and building a wall to keep Mexicans out.

Now Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are trading threats about the latter’s reported development of missiles capable of delivering nuclear war heads. One of Trump’s responses, tweeted in the early hours, was to bring down ‘fire and fury’ on North Korea. Does that not seem like a backward step for world peace?

Australia’s non-compulsory, non-binding postal vote about a simple social justice issue is also a step backwards. The Australian government’s stubborn commitment to this $122 million folly could have been avoided if PM Malcolm Turnbull had called a free vote for all federal politicians.

There’s a backwards look too about the kerfuffle over whether you can be a politician in Australia while also a citizen of another country − even when you didn’t know you were a dual citizen. I seem to recall the media making much of Julia Gillard’s Welsh background and Tony Abbot’s British roots. So what? We all came from somewhere else, didn’t we?

“Whatever”, as the Gen Xers used to say, one should never say rash things in print like “if anyone can hum a few bars of Song of Australia I’ll walk backwards to Conondale.”  Several readers challenged me about their memories of Song of Australia, the fourth choice when Australia last held a plebiscite in 1977. Regular FOMM reader Elaine Beller wrote to say that in the years leading up to the plebiscite, she was a teenager living in Townsville, and a member of the local youth choral society.

Just wanted you to know that I really enjoy reading FOMM each week,’ she wrote. “However, I also wanted to let you know that walking backwards to Conondale is on!”

“We had to learn all the patriotic songs for a public performance on The Strand, so the citizens of Townsville could make an educated choice,” she said. “So, I can sing/hum more than a few bars of Song for Australia! The lyrics had us kids in fits of laughter (‘gushing out with purple wine’ being a particular favourite).”

Caroline Carleton wrote the poem (later set to music by Carl Linger) in 1859, her winning entry for a competition held by the Gawler Institute.

I still can’t believe I walked backwards to Conondale on the strength of such purple prose as:

There is a land where honey flows
Where laughing corn luxuriant grows;
Land of the myrtle and the rose.
On hill and plain the clustering vine
Is gushing out with purple wine,
And cups are quaffed to thee and thine – Australia.

So, while I was steeling myself for the backwards trek to Conondale (note how I carefully did not specify from where), I did a little research on the art of backwards perambulation.

Shannon Molloy writing in The Courier-Mail about colourful Qld political characters, found an endearing photo of former Industrial Relations minister Vince Lester walking backwards.

“The intriguing figure of 1980s politics was famed for his hobby of walking backwards, often for hours at a time. He would complete trips in the name of charity, once rear wandering for several hours between two regional towns.”

Colourful Queensland MP Bob Katter once promised to “walk to (or from, according to some reports) Bourke backwards if the gay population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001%”. Despite his half-brother since coming out as gay and Katter being (often) reminded about this loose remark (there was a rainbow protest outside his Mt Isa offices in 2011), he maintains that gay marriage isn’t an issue in his electorate. It appears he never did take up the threat to walk frontwards or backwards to or from Bourke in Western NSW (about 1,600 kilometres to his Mt Isa electoral office).

Sometimes known as ‘retro walking,’ the seemingly unusual habit of walking (or running) backwards is widely recommended for fitness.

You will find many health and fitness links on the Internet which suggest walking backwards strengthens little-used muscles, improves balance and is good for people with knee, hip and back problems.

Some people even do it for a living.

Seaman Nathan Winn is a tour guide for the Pentagon, and routinely walks up to eight kilometres backward per day (including escalators)

Whatever you do, don’t try walking down stairs, steps or steep bush tracks backwards (or backward as they say in the US). As Seaman Mann found, when he tried going down the up-escalator, it’s embarrassing and definitely not funny.

I walk every day but if you want to have some idea how far you’re walking and set some goals to increase the tempo and distance, a pedometer is useful.

It is said that for maximum fitness from walking you need to chalk up 10,000 steps a day. That’s about eight kilometres, the same as that logged by Seaman Winn, but in a forwards direction.

If you fell asleep in your recliner while reading this on your IPad, you may want to do something about your general level of inertia.

Here’s a suggestion: Sign up for Steptember (a fund-raiser for Cerebral Palsy), where you pledge to walk 10,000 steps on each of 28 days during September.

Or you could just donate money and loaf in the recliner and watch old movies on SBS on Demand, Stan or Netflix. I’ve been looking but have not yet found the critically panned 2008 remake of The 39 Steps, a spy thriller starring Rupert Penry-Jones (Silk and Spooks). I’m curious, having seen the 1959 remake starring Kenneth More (which was spiffing). Never did see the original (Hitchcock, 1935).

UK author John Buchan wrote the book at a clifftop nursing home in Broadstairs while recovering from illness. A set of wooden steps which led from the garden to the beach are thought to have inspired the title. In the book these steps become the escape route (frontwards) down to a quay where the villains’ vessel, Ariadne, is waiting to speed them away.

 

 

Happiness, harmony and Central Africa

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Melbourne harmony singers Co-Cheol

A musician friend alerted me on Monday that not only was it his birthday, it was also International Day of Happiness. Once I’d finished doing cartwheels around the room in response to this spiffing news, I wished the dear boy a very happy birthday. As if that was not enough to get the cockles of the heart percolating, the next day She Who’ll Sing at the Drop of a Hat went down town to celebrate World Harmony Day.

Continue reading “Happiness, harmony and Central Africa”

Great wall of Mexico

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South Australia dog fence Photo by Bob Wilson

There are precedents for President Donald Trump’s plan to build, or complete a 3,208 kilometre wall between Mexico and the US. The Australian outback features not one but two barrier fences, sprawling the length and breadth of the country.

A tour guide took us on a sunset tour out to the ‘dog fence’ near Coober Pedy in 2014. The South Australian section of the 5,531km fence which runs from the SA border to Queensland is 2,250 kms long.  Built in the 1880s, it’s the longest fence in the world and keeps wild dogs out (or in).

In Western Australia there’s also the 3,256 kms long Rabbit Proof Fence. Possibly because there’s a movie by that name, it is now known as the State Barrier Fence of Western Australia. Having done our share of outback travel, we can tell you that rabbits are still breeding away and undermining parts of Australia, despite myxomatosis, 1080 poison and vermin proof fences. Western Australia’s fence was completed in three stages in the early 1900s as an attempt to isolate the west from the national rabbit plague.

Just so you all know, dingoes and rabbits were not asked to pay for the construction of these fences.

Yes, it makes you think.

There’s no doubt that well-built vermin fences, extending a long way into the ground, have been successful at keeping rabbits and other pests from undermining Australia and also prevent dingoes from savaging livestock. So the cost is defendable, as is the ongoing expense of sending out boundary riders on weekly repair patrols. Feral camels do the most damage, so not surprisingly; there are plans for a taller (electrified) fence.

So what about President Trump’s wall between Mexico and the US? Despite the fact that a 1000 kilometre stretch was completed by George W Bush’s government, this is still going to be a $20 billion exercise. Crikey, that’s about 30% of the US education budget, right there.

And speaking of education, a Pew Research survey found that 61% of Americans think a wall between the US and Mexico is a dumb idea.

Our Albuquerque correspondent, despite living 693 kilometres from the New Mexico border at Juarez, thinks the wall is ‘insulting, a blight and really bad foreign policy.”

Thanks to Bloomberg and heavyweight sources like the Department of Homeland Security, here’s what we know about the challenges facing President Trump’s wall. The notoriously porous border between the US and Mexico is almost 3,208 kilometres long, two-thirds of it tracking the Rio Grande River. The border passes through cities including San Ysidro (California) and El Paso (Texas), rural farmland, desert, mountains and wildlife reserves. The border features 30+ patrol stations and 25 ports of entry.

Barriers already extend along a third of the border, giving President Trump’s contractors something of a head-start. Most of the California, Arizona and New Mexico borders have existing barriers. These range from 5.5m high iron and corrugated metal fences to what our Albuquerque correspondent calls “pedestrian fencing.’

Bloomberg reports that in 2015, the Customs and Border Patrol claimed an 81% strike rate for apprehending and turning back Mexicans attempting to cross illegally (or should that be irregularly).

No-one really knows how many undocumented Mexicans are living in the US but informed estimates figure around 11 million. There have been amnesties in the past, but that does not appear to be an option under a Trump administration.

A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in 2015 found that 72% of Americans (including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans), thought undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay “if they meet certain requirements.

Most of the existing border fence was built after 2006, when President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fences Act. I hate to be pedantic, but the act specifically says “Fences” not walls. When President Trump talks about his vision, most of us imagine a Great Wall of China or the 8m high sections of the West Bank edifice.

Al Jazeera reports that the West Bank security fence is the largest infrastructure project in Israel’s history. Nearly 15 years old, the 706km long fence costs Israel $260 million a year to maintain.

The ‘separation barrier” as it is coyly known, comprises mostly 2m high, electrified barbed-wire fences with vehicle-barrier trenches and a 60m exclusion zone on the Palestinian side. But in densely populated urban areas with space limitations, the Israelis built an 8m concrete wall.

Walls built between countries or within countries are always controversial, and, well, brutally divisive.

There’s no space at this time to delve into the tragedies of the Berlin Wall, which divided East and West Berlin for 27 years, for reasons which now seem specious. History shows that barrier walls built for whatever reason are destined to become decaying tourist attractions,

Visitors to Britain often schedule a visit to Hadrian’s Wall, a fascinating relic of 122AD when the emperor Hadrian demanded a wall be built east from Wallsend on the River Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Hadrian’s Wall was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years, built by the Roman army (to separate the barbarians from the Romans). Hadrian’s Wall was made a World Heritage Site in 1987.

In 2010 English folksingers Julie Matthews and Chris While joined a group of songwriters to write songs inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Their song which emerged from the All Along the Wall project, Rock of Gelt, imagines a bored centurion who has been dragooned, if that is the appropriate word, into “building the Empire’s last frontier.”

There are only a handful of inscriptions to be found along the remains of the stone wall, including a piece of graffiti found in the Gelt Valley. It translates to: “Daminius didn’t want to do it,” which becomes the repeated refrain at the end of the song.

So will Donald Trump persist with a plan to build/complete a wall that 61% of Americans do not want? No doubt the 39% who want it would argue it will employ large numbers of people, through the building phase, then on maintenance and security.

Maintenance of walls and fences is an ongoing issue – just ask a fencing contractor called in to repair or replace fences wrecked or washed away in floods. The annual maintenance bill to keep the Dingo Fence in sound repair is around $10 million, according to an article in The Conversation. The authors argue for a re-think of the country’s vermin fence policies, including a plan to move a section of the fence to test whether the now endangered dingo can help restore degraded rangelands.

The humanitarian question is, if you must build a barrier wall or fence, surely you should have to justify the exclusion of a species?

As poet Elvis McGonnagal wrote, inspired by the Along the Wall project:

“Walls entomb, walls divide

Walls barricade the unknown

Berlin, Belfast, Gaza

Walls set difference in stone

 But the same sun that sets on the west bank

Rises up on the eastern wall

A man’s a man in Mesapotamia

A man’s a man in Gaul.”

*thanks to Julie Matthews for the insights