Take me to your Dear Leader….

Last September, after visiting the DPRK for their 60th Anniversary extravaganza, I made a covert landing on DPRK soil from the Chinese side of the Yalu River.

We were outside Dandong, on the Yalu. We boarded a rickety, old Chinese tour boat for a short ride to view the Great Wall from the river.

The photos look very far away because I had to take them from seat level. We were told not to take photos. I have authority issues….

In both the photos below you will see a DPRK border soldier. He clearly was not supervised very often. He was shirtless, and appeared very hungry.

We actaully landed on DPRK soil. The soldier boarded the small vessel and looked us over. He was interested in making this transaction as quick as possible.

We gave him a carton of Chinese cigarettes, and some yuan. He smiled, shook our hands and jumped off the boat. We shoved off and went about our tour.

 

North Korea - China Border - Yalu River - September 2008

North Korea - China Border - Yalu River - September 2008

In this photo we are approaching the DPRK shoreline. You can see the soldier in the left – middle of the photo.

Landing in DPRK - Sept. 2008

Landing in DPRK - Sept. 2008

In this photo he is crouching down, preparing to grab hold of our small boat as it approached the shore.

Each time you interact with someone from there, and they realize we aren’t the monsters they’ve been taught; you are changing a mindset. Diplomacy one person at a time…

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Complex and Beautiful

Complex an Beautiful

Complex and Beautiful

 GlobalWonk came upon this tree in the Emperor’s Garden in the Forbidden City. It’s gnarled branches analogous to the complex relationship between the United States and China. There will be twists and turns. It will not always be pretty. But, if the roots are solid, and it is nurtured properly, it will live on for generations to come.

As China’s wealth and influence grow, our interests will collide. Now is the time to nurture, and strengthen the roots of our relationship. To accomplish this we must promote understanding and exchange between our people.

What will you do to make this happen in your community? Reach out to your local members of Congress. Tell them your thoughts on these issues. Get with the school board. Does a local university have a China program you can tap into for content, or volunteers, for developing a cultural awareness program in your primary schools?

In a decade it could be your child manning battle stations on a warship. Loading armaments onto fighter planes, or aligning the sites of their rifle center mass on the silhouette of a counterpart from China. If we choose to do nothing, ten years hence we will wonder what could have been.

Phenom Obama

America's New First Family

America's New First Family

When I first became aware of Barack Obama he reminded me of Bobby Kennedy. Young, energetic, very bright. More than that, they both seem to me to have been men supremely suited to their times. The assassination of RFK robbed us of the man with the best opportunity to bridge the racial divide in 1968. His impassioned speech to the crowd in Indianapolis on the night Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated cemented his singular ability to bring us together. He shared the pain of losing a brother to a white assassin’s bullet. He urged the crowd not to give in to revenge and hatred. In just two months, he himself would lie mortally wounded in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. His life’s blood flowing from a gun shot wound to the head.

President-Elect Barack Obama is a man suited for his time. He has always superbly handled opportunity. When given one he has consistently knocked it out of the park. He has done so at Harvard, in the race for the Senate, his 2004 convention speech, the presidential election, and as a father (his daughters are by all accounts little gems).

It would be a tragedy of incomprehensible proportions for the United States were something to happen to this man before he has the chance to apply his many talents to the troubles we face domestically and abroad. Knowing the training and professionalism of the United States Secret Service personnel charged with his safety; I rest easier, knowing how hard they will work to ensure he has the opportunity to do so.

I began to think about the 2008 election. How historic it was. Hillary, Barack, and Sarah. All firsts of one sort or another. How in the hell did a black man with the name Barack Hussein Obama not only obtain his party’s nomination, but actually get elected to the highest office in the land? Some say the most powerful office in the world.

Now, I don’t profess to have insider information. There will be books written for years on this election. On Obama’s campaign. I would like to point out my thoughts on why, in 2008, Barack Obama was deemed electable by a majority of American voters.

First some background. I was born on the South Side of Chicago. The “South Side Irish” from a neighborhood called Roseland. It lies more than one hundred city blocks south of The Loop, or downtown Chicago. In 1970, when black people began moving into Roseland, my parents, and their parents, moved from the city to the south suburbs of Chicago.

Blacks brought crime and drugs, we were told. Black kids beat up my brother and stole his bicycle, I was told. Blacks meant our home would sell for less if we waited too long, we were told.

The N-word was not something we thought about much. It was used all the time. From my earliest memories that is how people in my life described black people to me. That N-word at work. The N-word on the corner. Those N-words on welfare…. I truly believed all black people were on welfare when I was a child.

These migrations, or emigrations from the city to the suburbs became known as “White Flight”. When the first black family bought a home in the neighborhood the stampede began. You didn’t want to be the last person to sell your house. It was kind of like being the one left without a chair when the music stopped. My parents would take flight again just thirteen years later. Relocating from the South Suburbs to the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago.

This is the background in which I developed. When I went to high school black kids were bussed from other towns into our school. White kids from our school were sent out of town to their school. Neither wanted to be relocated. Being at the sharp end of a social experiment created friction. Friction led to fighting. These situations played out across many suburbs of America in the late seventies and early eighties.

I graduated High School and joined the United States Army. I was immediately thrown into a world where black and white blurred. You didn’t care what color the guy was that had your back, as long as he was Army green. I was led by black soldiers, and I was given the opportunity to lead. In short, I was freed from the ignorance of the environment I was brought up in.

I had children very young. I consciously brought them up not to see color. They lived in multi-cultural environments with military families of all types. They had white friends, black friends, and Hispanic friends. The N-word was not used in our home.

How did Barack become electable? He became electable because people in America changed their mindset. Over a period of a generation or so, Gen X’ers became educated and rejected the institutional racism of previous generations. They also raised their children, who became of voting age in the 2008 election, not to see color first. We did not indoctrinate our children into a culture of racial distrust or hatred.

So the question becomes; How in the hell does this apply to China? Well, I believe it does in a very big way. I believe we need to change the mindset of the American public on their views on China. I believe we need to do this quickly before the United States and China get themselves on a collision course with destiny.

So how do we change this mindset? We do it in the same way we did it on race. Expose your children to Chinese people and culture. Replace stereotypes with positive experiences. Teach your children not to distrust. GlobalWonk will be focusing on opportunities to educate Chinese and American people, particularly our youth, on the many positive aspects of our respective cultures.

You can start today with your own family. Read your child a book about China. Take them on a trip to Chinatown in a city near you. Introduce them to Chinese friends and associates. Get involved with their school and get culture on the curriculum. Talk to your local representatives of government and share your concerns with them.

The opportunity to prevent these same children, our children, from fighting a war with the Chinese twenty years from now, presents itself now. What are you going to do to make a difference?

The Dear Leader and I…..

 

GlobalWonk arrives in the Hermit Kingdom - 9.9.2008

GlobalWonk arrives in the Hermit Kingdom - 9.9.2008

 

Reports out of Japan indicate North Korea intends to make an “important announcement” on October 20th, 2008. Many believe it may be related to Kim Jong IL’s health, or some type of change in the government.

GlobalWonkwas in the DPRK for their 60th anniversary in September. The only word that accurately describes the experience is surreal. The government is a thugocracy. The only people with a decent standard of living are the Dear Leader and his lackeys. Everyone else lives in the 17th century.

The entire society is based upon a cult of personality created by Kim IL Song (with help from his Stalinist Soviet sponsors) after World War II. They completely manufactured heroic deeds the Great Leader performed in his nearly single-handed routing of the Imperialist Japanese. If you don’t believe it, just check out the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. It is larger than the one in Paris, France, and is dedicated to Kim IL Song’s victory in defeating the Japanese. When you ask your guide/agents when and where the Japanese surrendered to Kim IL Song, they have no answer. I asked if they ever heard about the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I asked them if they ever heard that the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Powers on the U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Bay. They simply look at you in disbelief. The North Koreans have their own version of history.

The government is paranoid. Your passport is confiscated the moment you step foot in the country. All cell phones are collected at the airport and kept until you depart. You are not allowed to bring GPS equipment into the country.

I had two guides/agents that followed me everywhere. They told you what you could/could not take pictures of. You could only take photos at the designated tourist sites, all homages to the Great Leader, President Kim IL Song. They arranged your meals. They booked your hotel room and checked you into your room. They are the first people you see each morning and the last each night. They followed you everywhere. The hotel for outsiders is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River to help segregate you from the populace. You could not leave the hotel on your own. You were advised not to talk to any citizens.

The most stark contrast was drawn while visiting Dandong, China. Dandong is situated just north of the DPRK on the Yalu River. I was there during the Harvest Moon Festival. China and North Korea used to be connected by a bridge, built by the Japanese durring their occupation of Manchuria and Korea. The United States bombed the bridge during the Korean War (1951 I believe) and dropped the south side into the Yalu.

Today the north side of the bridge has been repainted by the Chinese. It is covered in neon and other bright lights and has become a tourist attraction. I believe they call it the “bridge to nowhere”. You pay a few Yuan and can walk to the southern end of the bridge to look at the concrete platforms/pilings that used to support the bridge on it’s path into Korea. The steel is long gone.

The contrast between the bustling, frenetic Chinese society and that of the DPRK is most distinct at night. The northern, Chinese city of Dandong is brilliantly lit and vibrant. The other side of the river lays dark. In supposedly the fourth largest city in North Korea, scarcely a single light is lit. It is surreal.

We know from the example of their bretheren in the south that the Korean people are industrious and intelligent. I personally witnessed how hard they work day-to-day to survive in the north. The fact they do in spite of governmental neglect is testament to their aheer will and tenacity.

For the sake of these poor souls I sincerely hope we get some good news on Monday. Let’s hope it leads to the opening of their society. Let’s hope it leads to direct foreign investment that will help them modernize and bring the collective standard of living to acceptable twenty-first century levels.

More DPRK reflections coming soon….

Perspective

Is perception reality?

 

Each of us have a lense through which we view our world. We each have a filter that outside information must pass through as we process, and attempt to understand it. These lenses and filters are the product of our experience. I have become very interested in understanding the perspective of the “other guy” as it pertains to U.S. foreign policy.

One of the most cherished ideals of the collective American psyche is revering freedom. We champion it at every opportunity. It is a founding tenet of our representative democracy.

Do others, in different societies, with disparate experiences, crave our definition of freedom? Is it fair to project our perspective onto others?

How does the average Chinese person feel about democracy? Freedom? Do they crave stability over freedom? Even if that means an autocratic government? A prominent University of Chicago scholar, and a Dean at a major University, both Chinese, expressed this very notion to me. It is hard for someone that grew up in America to wrap our mind around that. Give me Liberty, or give me Death! Remember?

Do we really expect Russia not to be concerned when NATO is knocking on it’s doorstep? How about putting a missile shield in former satellite countries? Wouldn’t we be concerned if Russia were doing the same?

How are our actions perceived by others in the world? Extending a missile defense system into Eastern Europe makes sense to us. It keeps us safe by extending a protective shield further, and further out from our shores. Distance equals reaction time. Pretty simple stuff, right?

Well, what if you are Russian? Your empire imploded back in 1991. You are still licking your wounds from that one. The United States has not exactly been humble in it’s triumph over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Most of your former satellites aspire to membership in NATO, or are on friendly terms with the U.S. Some are even talking about allowing U.S. missile defense technology on their territory. How would you perceive these actions? Would you be concerned about U.S. unilateralism?

I plan to spend some time researching these issues in the coming months. Understanding each other’s perspective is key to developing win-win propositions. If we are going to prevent future conflict, we need to fully understand how other countries perceive themselves, and how they interpret our actions.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled broadcast to bring you this bulletin….

President Bush Aboard Air Force One on 9/11/2001. 

Think back for a moment to what you were doing the morning of September 11th, 2001. So much has happened since that fateful day, we tend to forget some of the details. I was in the suburbs of Chicago. It was one of those gorgeous September mornings. As my friend Dominic in Ireland would say; the sky was a “Big Blue Dome”.

As the tragic events unfolded, and it appeared we were under attack, the whereabouts of the President became a source of concern in the media. I can recall network anchors beginning to question where he was. Why wasn’t he reaching out to the American people to reassure us at this time of fear and confusion?

While I experienced the same emotions everyone did that day. I had one advantage. As a former member of the White House Communication’s Agency (WHCA), I had a pretty good idea where the President was, and what he was doing.

While I am prohibited from revealing any real information, I can say that we practiced relocating the President from the White House, or a trip site, continuously while I served there. As part of what Richard Clarke made public on Nightline after September 11th, the United States government has continuity of government plans to ensure the survival of the national command authority in the event of an attack on the nation.

The original Internet, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was part of these plans. Having been developed as a redundant, survivable, military communications network, it was to operate in the event the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure was attacked.

These doomsday plans were products of the Cold War. They were designed with deterrence in mind. We needed to convince the Soviet leadership that we could absorb an initial attack and retaliate effectively, and unforgivingly. So we practiced. A lot.

As we conducted our drills, and the military circled the wagons around it’s Commander-in-Chief, I would always wonder. How would a democracy react to it’s Chief Executive being whisked away by the military in a time of crisis? Well, we saw it on September 11th, 2001. The press made it appear the President was out of the loop when nothing could have been further from the truth.

To the Beat of a Different Drummer…

Drum Circle

I approached from the north. It squatted low on the horizon as it came into view, nearly disappearing against the gray November sky. It is not a friendly looking building. Lots of concrete, very few windows.

I parked in an adjacent multi-level concrete parking garage and walked across the street into the hardened facility. After walking through a metal detector, and presenting my identification, I was introduced to my host. He was a tall, thin man. Aged about forty-five years. He greeted me with a broad smile and a firm handshake. We began our journey by navigating through a man-trap. Two secured doors monitored by armed men. You pass through one at a time. The first door fully secures behind you before the second is opened.

As the second door opened a strong odor of industrial strength ammonia invaded my sinuses. The familiar military-issue looking green tile, florescent lighting, and white concrete block walls screamed; INSTITUTION. You could practically feel the bureaucracy choking you. Things did not happen fast in here.

We walked through the empty corridors. Not passing another soul. We entered what looked like a public school classroom. There were about twenty-five classroom chairs arranged in a circle. Large drums, and other percussion instruments were stacked in the middle of the circle. We took our seats spaced evenly around the circle.

We started to hear a commotion in the hallway. It grew louder as it came closer to our room. It sounded similar to troops marching around an Army base in formation. They entered our room quickly. I was taken aback by how young they looked. These were kids! I immediately noticed something else. They were all Hispanic or African-American. There was not a white face among them.

They were horsing around with each other, as boys will do, as they took their chairs. They kept their heads down. Careful not to make eye contact with us. They were clearly familiar with, and very respectful of, our host. Each had a hardened look on their face. A shield used to help them survive their ordeal here.

Our host introduced us to the young men. They in turn told us their names. If you’ve never been in a drumming circle, or a circle of any type, there are rules you must follow. There is traditionally a talking stick, or rock, or something the speaker holds while it is their turn to talk. You can only talk when you have the talking stick. You must listen intently when it is not your turn to talk. You speak your mind, then pass the talking stick to the next person.

After introductions, our host asked us to each respond to a serious question. We went around the room taking turns answering it. These were deep questions. About love, fear, and death. Pride, loyalty, respect, and family. What it meant to be a man.

We would go around the circle to share our feelings about the question asked. Then our leader asked everyone to pick up a drum, or other percussion instrument. We began to play our drums. We started softly at first. Feeling each other out a bit. As we became more comfortable and our guard came down, the noise grew louder.

As we pounded the taught skins of the drums harder you could see the kid coming out in these guys. Big, broad smiles broke out. We laughed. You could feel the entire room synching into a rhythm. One person would lead the group in a beat, then someone across the room would pick up the tempo and lead for a period of time. We went back and forth like that for some time. We soaked up the fellowship of the music. It was very uplifting.

We went back and forth. Talking and sharing, then drumming. It was quite an experience. I was surprised how emotional they got so quickly. Almost as if they yearned for any emotional intimacy with another human being. We told each other things I haven’t shared with the closest of friends or family members. There was a sense of urgency in our communications. I had a strange feeling of wanting to impart whatever wisdom I could in this small window of opportunity. I wanted to give them another chance at their childhood. I wanted to tell them not to give up on life. They could be redeemed. Life was not over for them….

They shared a perspective on life that most Americans can not understand. These kids thought about their mortality every single day. When you were nine, or ten years old, how often did you think about your own death? These kids lived with death every day. Close friends gunned down on the street. Brothers murdered. They knew where to go in their neighborhood to find a drop gun to take care of business if someone threatened them.

This is going to sound like a stereotype, but it what these young men communicated to me. Nearly to a man, they did not know their fathers. Most of their mothers were addicts or had checked out of their lives. They had no good roles models. These boys, as early as eight years old, and sometimes younger, felt they needed to turn to street crime to provide for their families. They had to be the man of the house.

While your average American pre-teen was having a sleep over with his buddies, these kids were deciding what to steal so they had something to bring home to their siblings to eat for the night. This breakdown in our society was breeding a class of young predators.

By now you have to be asking yourself; what the hell does this have to do with foreign policy? When is he going to bring this around to China? Well, we ended our evening with these kids and said our goodbyes. I had spent several hours at the juvenile detention center in a major American city. I spent that time with twenty-one boys between the ages of nine and sixteen. Half of them were murderers. The remainder had attempted murder.

This was a paradigm shift for me. I am certainly not some kumbaya singing, hemp clothing enthusiast that always sees the glass half-full. I am a realist. But seeing these young kids locked up for the rest of their lives really affected me. I immediately asked myself; how do we fix this? Should a child groomed for failure not be given a second chance? The average American only sees the crime side of this equation. The simple answer is to “lock them up and throw away the key”. This experience made me question some of my fundamental beliefs.

I tell this story here because I think it is analogous to the misunderstandings between the people of China and the United States. We think very differently about some things. We approach issues from different directions, and from different perspectives, and experiences than each other. We have vastly different histories. China is one of the oldest, greatest civilizations on earth. We are relative upstarts, that came into greatness at a very early age.

China is a great nation where many of her citizens have lived in abject poverty for over a century. It would be foolish for us not to believe that some Chinese might be jealous of our standard of living, and wish for the same for their family. Why should we not want that for them as well? Do we have to live life as a zero sum game?

At the same time there are aspects of our society that probably offend, or frighten the hell out of an average Chinese citizen. There are certainly parts of their culture we would find unusual. However, we all need to reach out and try to understand each others perspective and appreciate each others culture. Knowing, or thinking you know, only one side of an issue is a very dangerous thing. It makes it supremely easy to influence you. To make you think a certain way.

Now I’m not suggesting we all fly to Beijing with a snare drum and a set of bongos. But I do think we need to look for ways to break down the barriers that make it easy to misunderstand true intentions or motivations. As China continues to grow over the next ten years, it will become increasingly likely that our strategic interests will collide. How well we understand each other, how adept we are at reading each others signals, could be crucial. Most importantly, it is my hope, that by looking for these opportunities to communicate cross-culturally we will prevent these collisions from happening in the first place.

So let’s begin the discussion on how we can break down these barriers. Please click on the ‘Comment’ button below this post and let GlobalWonk know what your thoughts and ideas are.