April 30, 2012

A glimpse into the North Korean gulag

While the diplomatic tug-of-war between North Korea and the Asia Allies makes for fascinating reading and intricate foreign relations study, the human rights situation on the ground is too often ignored.

Part of the problem is the black hole of information that is all of North Korea outside of Pyongyang. The countryside is locked down, spare with computers, cell phones, or even electricity. While many North Koreans flee extreme poverty every year (there are nearly 23,000 refugees living in Seoul), it's extremely rare to have such a personal, well-documented case of the North Korean gulag system make it to the outside world. 'Escape from Camp 14' is such a case.

Shin Dong-hyuk is even more of rarity because he was born into a hard labor camp, and spent his first twenty-three years surviving a man-made hell. Shin is the only known person who was born and raised in the gulags and is known to have escaped. The Economist:
As punishment for dropping a sewing machine, his finger was cut off. He was also suspended over a fire, and a hook was thrust through his belly, to make him “confess” to joining an escape supposedly being planned by his mother and brother. He was then made to witness their executions.

The Economist goes on to point out that the North Korean prison system has existed for twice as the Soviet gulags did. How does a tiny rogue state continue to operate places like Camp 14?

A fundamental part problem is the elephant in the room- the nuclear weapons and missile technology that pose a serious threat to South Korea, Japan, and the United States. It would be nothing short of insane to downplay the potential political, economic, and human costs of a nuclear attack in the Pacific. This distracts the democracies, rightly concerned about the well-being of their citizens. To take the pressure off the North Korean weapons program would surely be a mistake, and will allow the leadership in Pyongyang dig their heels even deeper into the ground.

However, the biggest obstacle to the human rights situation is China. While China craves international recognition as a major player, it refuses to place real sanctions that bite on North Korea. This serves China's self-interest as well, because a second conflict on the Korean Peninsula would probably end up a lot like the last one- drawing the reclusive China into a armed conflict that it wants nothing to do with.

What doesn't concern China are the human rights abuses. It puts Chinese reformists in a difficult situation; addressing the North Korean gulags means addressing the arcane Chinese prison/legal system. The recent escape of Chen Guangcheng, the blind attorney who fought for the rights of over 7,000 women who were forced to have abortions, is telling. The Chinese legal system is fraught with corruption and the prisons are full of political prisoners.

Nothing upsets the Chinese leadership like international attention on it's domestic affairs. And pointing out the torture in North Korea inevitably focuses the lens on the abuses in China. So the only solution is to continue to stay the course- deport North Korean refugees who face certain death back home, and to sit by as "hostile" Korean families are tortured until Pyongyang's violent paranoia is satisfied.

Even with the once in a generation political handover about to take place in Beijing, it's difficult to imagine any situation that places pressure on the rights abuses in North Korea. As long as China continues to act as a buffer between North Korea and it's foes, the cases like Shin Dong-Hyuk will continue unabated. If China truly seeks leadership on the world stage, protecting the worst human rights violators in Asia since the Khmer Rouge is no way to achieve it.

To hear an interview with the author of 'Camp 14', check out NPR.

February 11, 2012

US NRC Chairman Opposed New Nuke Plant Liscneses

The New York Times and NHK both reported that there was a single vote against the issuing of new nuclear power licenses in Georgia; the NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko.

The sole vote against approval was cast by the commission’s chairman, Gregory B. Jaczko. He said the license would not assure that all of the safety improvements sought by the agency in response to Japan’s Fukushima disaster would be accomplished before the reactors begin operating in 2016 and 2017. 
“I cannot support issuing this license as if Fukushima had never happened,” said Mr. Jaczko, who is frequently at odds with his fellow commissioners. (SOURCE: The New York Times)

Jaczko has traveled to Japan in the past and has been at odds with Republicans on The Hill as well as his colleagues at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about his views of the Japanese nuclear crisis.

SOURCE: Wikipedia

February 10, 2012

New Life for US Nuclear Industry

Despite the booming natural gas industry in North America, there is still hope for green(er) energy production in the US after the Fukushima Diachi incident.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved licenses to build two nuclear reactors on Thursday. They are being constructed at the Vogtle nuclear power plant complex in Georgia. These are the first licenses issued since the Three Mile Island Meltdown in 1978 and come less than a year after the Fukushima Diachi Incident.

CNN Also has a fun interactive feature where you can find out exactly how close your home is to a nuclear power plant.

While Europe and Japan pull back on their nuclear power industries, South Korea has been selling it's reactors and expertise in the Middle East. President Lee Myung-bak was recently in Turkey to discuss building a Korean reactor.

 Source: Yonhap

Lee also successfully sealed a March 2011 deal to build a Korean-designed reactor in the United Arab Emirates (yes, during the Fukushima crisis).

December 3, 2011

The Inconvenient Truth of Nuclear Power Under Fukashima's Shadow

Shunning nuclear power while embracing new oil and gas reserves in North America is an environmental disaster in the making.

The March disaster in Japan was, bar none, the biggest crisis that Japan faced since the Second World War. During the summer, people living in Japan turned down the air conditioning and stuck it out in the heat while the country faced energy shortages. Video on NHK News yesterday showed office workers in Tokyo covering themselves with blankets and drinking warm tea now that the energy crisis has found itself sticking around through the winter.

On Wednesday, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), revealed more disturbing information about the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Using a new simulation, TEPCO said overheated nuclear fuel may have eroded the thick concrete containment vessel, and came within 37 cm of melting through the surrounding steel layer. It's clear that the dark cloud of Fukashima still floats above Asia.

SOURCE: Kyodo/The Japan Times

The nuclear disaster in Japan has spurred a movement of rage that puts the future of nuclear power in question across the globe. On Sunday, 13,000 in Germany protested to prevent spent nuclear fuel from being repataited after reprocessing in France.


These protests come even after Chancellor Angela Merkel's pledge to shut down all of Germany's nuclear reactors by 2017. It goes to show how dedicated and well organized the anti-nuclear movement is in Europe.

It's also doubtful that Japan will ever embrace nuclear power again after the Fukashima disaster. In September, a rare mass protest by the usually stoic Japanese demonstrated their anger over the disaster and dissatifaction from the accident.


While popular anger pushes Germany and Japan, two of the world's biggest energy consumers per capita, there is an energy revolution happening in North America. New drilling technolagy and methods have turned the United States and Canada into gas and oil giants once again.

Some estimates set the United States to become an oil exporter by the end of the decade. Last week, Saudi Arabia's state energy chief said that it's position as the top oil producer was no longer certain.

As the human race hits the 7 billion mark, pouring more and more people into cities and elevating millions to the middle class, energy consumption on Earth is only going to rise. At the same time, the international community continues to fail at addressing key issues like applying a price to a critical mass of emissions or any real spending on carbon dioxide capture/storage technology. The UN Climate Change Conference in Durban will fail to make any real progress, much like the Copenhagen talks before it. Since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, countries both developed and developing continue to stall and take several steps backward on an issue regarded by many as a dangerous and real threat.

Even in a country as developed and educated as the United States, Americans feel that the concerns over climate change are being exaggerated.

SOURCE: Gallup

Perhaps even worse, Americans' doubt over the seriousness of climate change has been dropping for several years now.

SOURCE: Gallup

A 2003 MIT estimate projected that 40% of global greenhouse emissions would come from fossil fuel-based sources by 2020. The MIT paper goes on to say that "taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions."

The growing population of the world is going to need as much energy as it can get so people from California to China can live healthy, productive lives. If Europe and Japan are going to shun away from a clean(er) source of electricity, the newly energized gas and oil markets in North America will be happy to pick up the slack. The lack of consensus in the international community is only going to become more and more fragmented as the United States and Canada reevaluate their positions as possible oil and gas exporters in the near future.

All the while, the planet will be left in a distressed and unsustainable state for future generations. As the disastrous effects of climate change become more and more apparent in places like Thailand, still suffering from floods that devastated the country this past summer.

I don't expect the United States or Canada to stop drilling or fracking for shale gas anytime soon. But cutting the near emissionless nuclear power before more renewable energy sources likes solar have yet to take a serious hold a dangerous crutch to lean on.

Nuclear power has incredible benefits and shortfalls. I don't believe that it's a long term solution to the growing energy needs of the world's population. Poor oversight, regulation, and safety standards brought an awful burden on the people of Japan and will continue to challenge them for many years to come.

However, the consequences of cutting off an reliable energy source and re-embracing the slow ticking time bomb of gas and oil is a much poorer solution. The effects of climate change are serious, real, and costly.  Last week, a senior official in the Asian development bank said that the Thai floods may end up being worse than the March disaster in Japan in terms of life lost and economic cost. Have we come full circle yet?


September 2, 2011

How will North Korea respond to the fall of Libya? Reassessing the wisdom of Gaddafi's denuclearization.

Although pockets of resistance are still around, the story of the Libyan uprising and civil war has been extraordinary to watch and read about. Although this war is still not over, there is a lot of chatter about lessons the global community can learn from the conflict.

One event in particular caught my eye; pro-Gaddafi forces launched Scud rockets on occasion in the last few weeks. Scud missiles are a type of long range ballistic missiles that were originally developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. "Scud" is the call sign that NATO forces gave to identify the weapon. Just like another famous Soviet export, the AK-47, Scuds can be found across the world and in dozens of different designs.

The more infamous Scud designs of late are the Shahab Type 3 Missile used by Iran and the Taepodong Type 2 missile used by North Korea.

Iran's Shahab Type 3
via CNN

"대포동 2호" (Taepodong Type 2) missiles capable of hitting Tokyo and possibly Los Angeles
via CNN

I couldn't help but wonder what kind of capabilities those missiles would have if their payload were nuclear.

Six days after the capture of Saddam Hussein by American forces in Iraq- Col. Gaddafi "came in from the cold" so to speak. He promised to dismantle his nuclear weapons program and eventually gave some of his nuclear technology to the Americans. The Bush administration displayed Libyan uranium enrichment centrifuges casings to reporters at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a successful by-product of the Iraq invasion. In essence: when we stand up, others will back down.

However, that wasn't the case with a number of other rouge states in the 2000s. North Korea, in particular, went nuclear in 2006 and started pushing an even stronger hard line foreign policy.

Smaller, medium range North Korean Scuds capable of hitting Seoul
via Reuters

But enough about the past. How will a regime like the in North Korea respond after seeing what happens when societies open up and people demand more freedoms and liberties?

I imagine there are many in the North Korean leadership apparatus right now probably thinking something along the lines of: "no matter what they offer- never, ever give up your nukes."

This isn't to say that denuclearization can't work. Had Gaddafi truly embraced the uprising, perhaps stepping down and creating some kind of power sharing deal with the National Transition Council, this might have been a different (and much less violent) story. Gaddafi and his family might still be living comfortably in Tripoli instead of being on the run somewhere in North Africa. Since 2004, Gaddafi was sharing intelligence with the West, and according to a story in the New York Times this morning, might have even been helping out with the CIA's extraordinary rendition program.

However, if Col. Gaddafi, who flirted with a more open relationship Europe and the United States, was willing to embrace violence as a means of control, chances are North Korea will do the same.

While nuclear weapons might not be able to stop a domestic uprising, they will certainly make other states think twice about something even as limited as NATO's recent air campaign in Libya.

It will be interesting to see how willing North Korea will be to compromise on their nuclear program (if at all) in the restarted six-party talks after the Libyan conflict.

August 20, 2011

Robert Reich: "Why China Won't Save Us"

Since being back in the U.S., I've been hitting up the library and catching up on the books that have been released since I've been gone.

I just finished reading Robert Reich's "Aftershock" (2010). While it might not be brand new material, it was fitting to check it out just a series of events proves that the markets are still going through intense spasms. Just this morning, Morgan Stanley said the risks of a second recession are "clearly elevated".

Dow Jones Industrial Average
LAST UPDATED AT 19 AUG 2011, 13:01 ET via BBC World News

Reich, the former labor secretary under President Clinton, now teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Aside from "Aftershock" he has written eleven other books and is an outspoken Keynesian. The main argument in his book is that wealth inequality in the United States is largely to blame for the many of the problems leading up to, and including, the 2008 recession. He draws parallels to the high levels of wealth inequality (as well as finical deregulation) leading up to the Great Depression.

1930s Blues.

To Reich, the difference between two events is that the Great Depression rocked the country to the core and prepared the American public ready to accept the necessary medicine to remedy the solution (FDR/Keynesian style economic stimulus). The Recession of 2008 was initially attacked with a $700 billion stimulus package, but Reich asserts that this was not nearly enough to get the American economy off life support for very long. Reich's argument is that the problem is long term and structural. He points to a widening gap of wealth from the 1970s until present that leave the middle class unable to stimulate growth with declining purchasing power.

Share of wealth held by the Bottom 99% and Top 1% in theUnited States, 1922-2007.

Reich argues that unless the long term structural problems are resolved, the American economy will continue to go through wild swings and we will continue to live in the shadow of the 2008 Recession until they are solved. 

I want to focus on a chapter in the book, "Why China Won't Save Us" because Reich's ideas contradict other prominent economists and some of my own work on this website. Reich starts the chapter by referencing remarks by President Obama at the 2009 G20 meeting in Pittsburgh. "We cannot go back," said Obama, "to an era where the Chinese... just are selling everything to us, we're taking out a bunch of credit card debt or home equity leans, but we're not selling anything to them."

2009 G20 meeting, Pittsburgh

Reich accepts that a weak dollar will incentivise other countries to buy American goods, and this in turn could generate growth. But he argues that it's not a safe practice for any nation to use monetary policy as the primary method of job creation. This book was written and published before the now increasingly popular idea of implementing QE3.

I've touched on this concept in past posts. To sum it up, the emerging middle class in Asia (especially China) need or want products that the United States or West Europe can produce, and the West needs those orders to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. This is still the administration's official line of thinking, which was echoed by Vice President Biden in China.

However, Reich dismisses this as "wishful thinking" for several reasons. His main argument is that the Chinese have geared their economy toward production rather than consumption. Reich says that yes, the Chinese middle class has been growing rapidly, but their overall consumer spending does not reflect that rapid growth.

Beijing at night.

On the macro level, the Chinese are investing their money back into production. The 2009 Chinese stimulus package, which was equal to about $585 billion, was much larger than the United States' $787 billion in terms of proportion. But while $288 billion of the U.S. stimulus was tax cuts (aiming to stimulate consumption), the Chinese crafted their stimulus to "enlarge China's capacity to produce- railways, roads, power grids, sewers, and factories."

Reich compares the two countries in this regard by going on to say "China's capital spending is on the way to exceeding that of the United States. Its consumer spending is barely a sixth as large."

"Deep down inside the cerebral cortex of our national consciousness we assume that the basic purpose of an economy is to provide more opportunities to consume. We grudgingly support government efforts to rebuild infrastructure. We want our companies to invest in new equipment and technologies, but we also want them to pay generous dividends. We approve of governmental investments in basic research and development, but mainly for the purpose of making the nation more secure through advanced military technological. (We regard spillovers to the private sector as incidental.)"

A cold-war era military project designed to move tanks from coast to coast turned into one of the greatest economic drivers of the twentieth century. 

Dr. Reich does something not many other economists do well- factoring in the importance of culture. While Westerners, and Americans especially, might envision economic growth modeled on a Chinese middle class person picking up iPads as fast as humanly possible with his new paycheck (see below), Reich imagines a much more frugal consumer. Reich argues that many Chinese simply are not in a position to spend that much. Social safety nets in China are still very poor, and can't be relied on to cover the costs of health care, education, and retirement. Because of the disproportionate amount of young Chinese men to women, finding a partner takes longer and requires more resources. Also (and the big one) is an aging Chinese population that has to start putting money away for retirement. This is a trend that I saw in South Korea, too. Nursing homes- common in North America and West Europe, do not exist in East Asia. Typically, the burden falls on the grown children of the elderly. The reality of both the man and woman in a household working full time jobs might eventually force this to change, but it's not something I can see anytime in the near future. 

Reich says that this is the exception, rather than the rule in China.
Via CultOfMac

Reich does offer suggestions for stimulating the U.S. economy. While some of Reich's solutions have been debated for a long time, such as universal health care and higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy, other solutions are creative and fascinating to think about: A reverse income taxhigher marginal tax rates on the wealthyA reemployment system rather than an unemployment system, and (my favorite) college leans linked to subsequent earnings.

All in all, Reich proves that he is still one of the left's intellectual heavy weights. He blogs prolifically and also tweets several times a day. "Aftershock" proves to be extremely relevant, considering the jolts to the global economy these last two weeks. Also, as the Obama administration readies itself for a fight on a jobs bill, Reich is sure to produce fascinating commentary on the subject.

August 14, 2011

Saying farewell to Korea, my second home

I've finally returned to the United States after a year in South Korea. My contract has been completed, my work visa expired, and my little apartment now vacant and empty. Korea will always be my second home, and I hope to return to it in different roles and capacities throughout my life. Right now, I'm focused on developing my career in the United States.

Korea is a dynamic and beautiful place, but in my heart of hearts I know it's best days are ahead of it. While it's size will never match those of it's neighbors, it's that same size that makes Korea so nimble and adaptable to change.

If America's single superpower era is indeed ending, it's influence on South Korea is a fitting example of a region where peace and prosperity has triumphed over oppression and misery. These values will be tested again in the near future with eventual unification, but I'm positive that they will prevail.

South Korea developed a modern, diverse economy using a combination of private and public investments that were brilliantly executed in record time. These initial investments are now in full bloom and produce everything from tiny individual computer parts to some of the most massive tankers in the world. The standard of living progressed from wrenching poverty to a strong middle class that continues to grow. During the first Olympics that Korea hosted in 1988, the per capita income was $10,000 US. By 2018, it will be around $30,000.

The population is highly educated, hard working, and technologically advanced. Despite it's isolationist past, Korea continues to strive for a friendly, international image that is seen in everything from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games to Korean wave pop music.

But it's more than just economic growth and global influence. Korea is a hidden gem of world destinations, and I hope that my continued work on this site and Twitter will bring this to light. In his 1997 work "Beyond Self: 108 Korean Zen Poems", the Korean poet 고은 (Ko Un) wrote:

Where's the mountain I 've just come down? 
Where am I?