Kim Jong-il is dead

Plan now for Korean unification.

Kim Jong-il, erratic playboy and hereditary divine monarch of North Korea, is dead. The successor to the throne is his third son Kim Jong-un, an unknown quantity not yet thirty.
Everybody in the region is very nervous – leave cancelled sort of nervous. The predictable collapse of this cruel despotism has been brought forward, though nobody can guess by how much.

As the resident RBC expert on Korea (qualifications: one ten-day holiday visiting my son Jonathan teaching there) I should have thoughts on the crisis but I´ll pass. North Korea has taken to heart the ¨mad negotiator¨ theory and the unpredictability of its policy is a feature not a bug. One of the payoffs is to keep the diplomatic and public focus on the succession of staged immediate crises and not on the long term. Korean experts don´t know what´s going to happen next, and I am certainly not going to guess.

So I´ll content myself with repeating my sound unsolicited advice of a year ago to South Korea and its friends: start planning urgently for the aftermath of the inevitable reunification. Many of the problems that are bound to crop up are qualitatively independent of the path there, whether this is violent or peaceful – though their scale may not be. They can and should be discussed openly, drawing on a lot of precedents elsewhere, starting but not ending with German reunification. How soon for instance can North Koreans be granted freedom of movement wihout creating a tidal wave of refugees to South Korean cities?

Open thread on the temporarily divided Korea.

Update: Matt Yglesias posts a great satellite image of East Asia at night. North Korean children can at least see the stars.

Afghan poppies flower again for pain?

A public health expert raises again the plan to divert Afghan opium into worlwide pain relief.

Amir Attaran, a professor of public health at Ottawa, has just published an article in a reputable epidemiology journal in support of licit opium production in Afghanistan. Short version:

  • There’s a huge unmet need worldwide for pain relief from morphine;
  • So let’s shift Afghan opium production into licit channels, rather than vainly trying to destroy it.

Basically, he makes the same case I did here two years ago (here and here), though with proper references and all. References and peer review are powerful medicine – fair enough – and this time the topic’s been picked up in the high-frequency blogosphere by Charli Carpenter and Matt Yglesias.

Attaran doesn’t cite the 2009 paper by Greenfield, Paoli, and Reuter (GPR below), criticising a similar scheme, and published in another proper academic journal edited by our own Mark Kleiman. So I’ll have a go here at a rejoinder.

From the GPR abstract (footnote):

Legal medicinal opium production is an improbable answer for at least five reasons (their numbering, my reformatting):
1. illegal production will continue;
2. diversion from the legal market to the illegal market is inevitable;
3. diversion will involve further corruption;
4. there may not be a market;
5. Afghanistan lacks the institutional capacity to support a legal pharmaceutical industry.

I have two issues with this: the framing, and a straw man fallacy under point 2 over diversion. Let’s start with the straw man (the variant is attacking a weak version of the opposing case rather than the strongest).

Continue reading “Afghan poppies flower again for pain?”

Fall of a hedgehog

Mohammed Yunus, a great man, goes down to a temporary defeat by the small-minded.

Professor Mohammed Yunus, founder of the microfinance Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, has just been evicted from managing it by the government. The pretext is that he is too old and should have retired ten years ago at 60. Pretty obviously, this is simply a pretext: it’s an act of revenge by the government.of Sheikh Hasina for Yunus’ ill-advised entry into politics in 2007, when he set up his own political party soon after winning the Nobel Peace prize. By the standards of Bangladeshi politics he got off lightly; politicians there, including Hasina, are regularly charged with murder (here and here).

Yunus is a great man and thoroughly deserves the Nobel awarded jointly to him and the institution he founded. His major insight was an economic discovery: the very poor – and particularly poor women – are at least as honest as the conventionally creditworthy, and conventional collateral can be replaced by community social pressures (if you don’t repay, your neighbours won’t get loans). Carefully designed, a portfolio of microloans to the very poor is just as safe as conservative conventional banking, and much safer than the Liars’ Poker sort. The institutional model of microlending Yunus created has since been replicated in a variety of settings, including rich countries like Britain. A startup loan from the British Princes’ Trust is more likely to be £4,000 for a second-hand van than Grameen’s £40 for a wheelbarrow or a mobile phone for renting, but the principle is the same.

But why did it have to be the peace prize not the economics one? Ah, you and you get the economics prize for proving that if you start with ridiculous microeconomic assumptions about human behaviour, you can rigorously and elegantly deduce ridiculous conclusions without looking out of the window. (Update: Roughly Larry Summers’ take.)

Isaiah Berlin turned a lapidary phrase of Archilochus’ – “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” – into a sparkling dichotomy of types of intellectuals. Yunus is a paradigm hedgehog. His Big Idea was true and he turned it into massive good. Even if Bangadeshi politicians now trash the great institution he built, he will be remembered, and his insight will keep lifting millions out of misery, long after his mean-spirited enemies slide into well-deserved obscurity.
Picture credit: National Geographic

The Korean reunification taboo

South Korea and its allies should started thinking seriously about the problems of sudden reunification.

Korean cherry blosssom near Yangpyeong, photo by me

Compare two rogue states:

* Nuclear weapons: Iran – none, but trying; North Korea – yes
* Belligerency: Iran – verbally hostile to Israel, supports Hezbollah militia, funds Hamas; North Korea – pattern of regular provocations, sank South Korean corvette in March with torpedo, killing 48
* Governmental system: Iran – unique hybrid theocracy/democracy; North Korea – post-Marxist hereditary divine monarchy held by unstable ageing playboy
* Repression: Iran – vigorous partial repression by theocrats, vigorous pushback from civil society; North Korea – totalitarian silence of the grave
* Economy: Iran – diversified, open, middle-income petrostate; North Korea – failed Stalinist autarky near starvation level.

It’s worrying then how little attention the world gives to North Korea. However, earlier this month Matt Yglesias and Robert Farley picked up a good piece by academic Minxin Pei on the prospects for an early collapse of the North Korean régime, and the ensuing security nightmare:

These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty.

It’s a cop-out to write off the North Korean government as crazy. In fact, they have played the United States pretty well over the nuclear issue and have got away with their bombs. North Korea doesn’t have missiles or bombers, but it does have submarines to deliver its handful of weapons. Not that it should make us sleep much sounder if we see the régime as rational and amoral rather than irrational and amoral: it might after all calculate, Dr. Strangelove-style, that using the bombs was the least bad option to keep itself in power. It’s the amorality that creates the danger.

The way I read the North Korean sabre-rattling (and use) is that it is designed to keep the South Koreans and their allies off balance, focussing on crisis management and preventing war, and not – for instance – planning coherently for the probable collapse of their régime. After all, if there was a good reunification plan, it would become more likely. It’s only anecdotal evidence, but my son, teaching in a small town near the DMZ, warned me that the topic is too sensitive for casual conversation. So Pyongyang may have spooked the South Korean public into treating the whole subject as unthinkable, because of its one unthinkable component, a nuclear conflict.

The monstrous North Korean régime should not be granted victory in this mind game. Here’s my suggestion to break the taboo: split the question. Reunification will have two phases:
A Рcollapse of the North Korean r̩gime and takeover of the territory by South Korea
B – political, social, cultural and economic integration of the two Koreas.

The problems you have with B are more or less the same regardless of how A goes.

Continue reading “The Korean reunification taboo”


On naming K2.

While everybody’s waiting for the Pennsylvania primary results, let me fill the time by continuing my Clever Plan to destabilise the illegitimate Chinese government with symbolic pinpricks.

Jonathan Kulick reminded us in March of the peculiarly unimpressive name of the world’s second highest mountain : K2. It’s 8,611 metres high in the Karakorum range of the western Himalayas, and is far harder to climb than the 8,848m Everest. K2 has killed 66 mountaineers against 277 who have made it to the summit (1:4), Everest 210 against 2,436 (1:12).


© the late Klaus Dierks, used by permission

When European explorers and mountaineers first penetrated this desolate region, they claimed that the local Baltis had no name for the mountain, and adopted the provisional K2 (Karakorum peak 2). Later they invented a Balti name, Chogori (“big mountain”), now taken up by the recent Chinese owners as Qogori. The Baltis, says Wikipedia, have never used this name and have localised K2 into Ketu. The late Raj’s Mount Godwin Austen has mercifully fallen into disuse. So what should we call this Very Big Mountain?

Continue reading “Ketu”

A postcard from Arbil

Arbil for tourists: don’t rush

The old walled city is not really amazing but I did get to meet a few interesting characters.

Family anecdotes are rarely of wider interest, but an eyewitness report from a real live tourist in Iraqi Kurdistan is out of the ordinary. The laid-back Lonely Planet guidebooks, which give advice on trekking on Tajikistan, avoiding warlords, jihadists, and opium growers, are short on solo travel to Iraq:

You would have to be mad.

My imprudent son has done it, and his account on his pseudonymous travel blog is here.

The bottom line is that Arbil is an unsafe and lifeless dump by the standards of the places “Arabin” has spent the last six months in: of Urumqi, Osh, Khiva, and Batumi. Independently, we know Kurdistan has a unusual degree of political freedom, against which it is exceptionally corrupt. By itself, we would see it as just another of the flyblown Stans. It is only a beacon of order and civility by the crazed standards of the horror into which we – the USA and its British accomplice – have sunk the rest of Iraq.

Bodacious Tata

AFP reports that India’s Tata Group, its largest conglomerate, is set not only to buy out Ford’s Land Rover and Jaguar divisions, but also to produce the world’s cheapest car, which at $2,500 “could revolutionise car costs worldwide.”

Two points should be made here.

The New York Times piece on the same subject,mentions the Jaguar buyout and Tata’s CEO’s taste for luxury goods, but nothing about the inexpensive car. What this says about the priorities and interests of the American press is an exercise left to the reader.

Second, it heralds the growing Indianization of world business and culture. Everyone and his brother-in-law is talking about China, but in my view, the growth of India might be a more important global development. In terms of culture and business, Indian firms are better run and managed, and with 350 million English speakers, India stands to be a generator of content for the rest of the English-speaking world. This is particularly so because of India’s well-developed entertainment industry. Bollywood might soon take over Hollywood.

We assume that the growth of India means that it will be become more “westernized” or “Americanized.” but as Tata’s purchase suggests, perhaps the shoe is on the other foot, and we will become more Indianized. I don’t know precisely what that will mean, but at the very least, it should make biryanis easier to get. And not a moment too soon!

Gandhi in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gandhian politics of non-violence.

The protests in Burma are not getting enough support from the blogosphere. We tend to ignore black-and-white issues where there’s nothing clever to say. So let’s be boring: the junta are pigs, the protesting monks are right, and Aung San Suu Kyi is a hero.

Let’s just call her “the Daw” (honorific meaning aunt). Remember her party won the last elections in 1990. For seventeen years the Daw, the rightfully elected leader of the country, has been kept under house arrest by a bunch of military thugs. She has had a lot of sympathy over the years from overseas, the Nobel Peace prize etc etc, but not much actual help in the form of pressure on the junta.

BTW, it’s Burma not Myanmar because she says it is.

The Daw is a consistent follower of Gandhian principles of non-violence.

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