Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il: Crazy like a Fox!

  2011 has been a pretty shitty year for dictators who like holding on to power and not dying.

  Dictator expiration dates this year started in Ivory Coast and spread to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. That left Laurent Gbagbo and Mubarak locked up awaiting war crimes trials, Abidine Ben Ali and Saleh looking for beach front property in Saudi Arabia and Gadaffi dead. Assad is barely holding on in Syria and that is probably why it's the only civil uprising I haven't written about this year. Probably because it's been the least likely to succeed.

   The death of Kim Jong Il on Sunday at the age of 69 means he's the only dictator to lose power this year due to "natural causes". That's pretty funny when you think about it. But seeing all these tongue in cheek obituaries of the Korean leader on the likes of CNN or Fox News, hinting at the fact that he was a crazy mother fucker, mental or certifiably insane, well, that kind of bullshit wasn't so funny to me and did bother me a little more than watching any US news network usually bothers me.

   Why? Because Kim Jong IL was crazy like a fox.

   Sure, Kim Jong Il had a fucked up hairdo and got wasted on Hennessy XO and ate caviar while his country starved but that's not really how you judge a dictator these days. Most men have foibles and eccentricities, hell, I'm a walking nightmare myself and wouldn't stand up to too much scrutiny if some media outfit stuck cameras in my face but that's not how you judge dictators in our current sci-fi dystopia. No, these days, and probably always, at least going back as far as the Greek city-states and their occasional 'tyrant' rulers, the general rule is that bat shit insane rulers get judged on one thing and one thing only.

   How long do they manage to stay in power?

   Thing is, crazy people don't stay in power very long. Just like Roman emperor Caligula, it doesn't take more than a few years of crazy shit (making your horse a general, constantly banging your sister) before the army gets sick enough of your shit to stab you to death in your sleep. By this logic alone, the only thing that really matters when you talk about dictatorships is longevity and by this accounting we can say one thing about Kim Jong Il...

   He was not fucking crazy.

   In fact, from a maintaining power perspective, the guy was smart as hell.

   From the moment his bigger and greater and much beloved daddy (the father of modern North Korea) Kim Il Sung died in 1994, people wondered if Kim Jong JR could pull off his father's job and fill daddy's shoes. That's never been an easy job for less gifted sons and in 1994 that job was getting even more difficult for North Korea and Kim Jong JR in particular.

   A lot of people don't realize that North Korea wasn't always totally screwed up.

   In fact, during the Cold War and in the years after the Korean War, the North was actually more prosperous than the South. Not because they were churning out cool stuff or selling anything on the world market but simply because they had a superpower friend in the Soviet Union who supplied them with mega tonnages of grain from the Ukrainian steppe and filled out the North's army with the latest Warsaw Pact military equipment. China too, with their baby brother commie neighbor next door still hadn't turned into the hyper capitalist police state it is today. They too had a policy of making sure that their  commie Southern neighbor had enough food to feed everybody and nothing tarnished communism's "good name" around the world.  Kim Jong's daddy presided over all this while experimenting with his very own little Orwellian pocket country and cast himself as the cult leader of his own totalitarian police state. Seems he read Nineteen-Eighty Four as an operational tech manual and missed the idea that it was supposed to be fiction.

Kim Il Sung: Still worshipped by everyone.

   But this free ride was dying by the time Kim Jong Il got his chance to lead North Korea in 1994.

   The Soviet Union was gone now along with all that free food and monetary aid. China was turning free market and their sickly neighbor to the south was being seen as more and more of an embarrassment and liability. China to this day views NK like some famous movie star might view an awkward retarded brother who has a habit of masturbating in public and ruining famous older brother's PR. Sure, you can slap him around for doing it but that'll just draw more attention and get you in  trouble for child abuse. Your only choice is to sit there and enjoy your prosperity and fame while accepting the fact that your awkward brother occasionally jizzes on your leg.

   And that's been Kim Jong JR's leadership plan since the day he took power.

   Pretending he's crazy and jizzing on people.

   Kim Jong Il took power with a pretty shitty hand and managed to play bluff poker with it for 17 years. He threatened the South Korean capital with thousands of artillery pieces and pretended everyday he was just crazy enough to use them. The South responded with a policy of "Sunshine Diplomacy" which was basically a policy of giving Kim Jong lots of cash in return for him keeping his dick in his pants.

   To get his hands on some American dollars, Junior started work on a nuke and even played crazy enough to get the Americans, the Japanese and the South to help build him a $4.6 billion light water nuclear reactor in Kumho in 1994. This was seen by the West as a better deal than continuing to have the North  operating its two  existing gas-graphite reactors which were unstable but easier to breed plutonium from. Kim Jong IL played crazy and bagged the cash.

   Every time Kim Jong felt the Japanese were getting too big for their britches, he'd rustle up a missile 'Test" over the Sea of Japan and pretend it was 'necessary' which invariably made the Japs go screaming to the Yanks looking for them to do something about the crazy person next door. Usually, this meant another few million tonnes of food aid, energy supplies and a wagging finger hoping the crazy guy doesn't do it again. If the West didn't have such corporate controlled media, this whole strategy would be labeled 'appeasement' by Fox News. But instead the likes of CNN and Fox called Kim Jong Il crazy and threw their hands in the air and accepted the politician's line that there were no better options.

   Kim Jong Il played bluff and if he played crazy enough, there was always, from a Western point of view, the chance he might deliver in spades and press the big red button of win on Seoul. That'd be a lot of Star Craft games interrupted. For all his rich neighbors, it was easier to just pay the 'protection' money the 'crazy' guy demanded.

   Where things got interesting was when North Korea went through with an actual nuke test in 2006. They finally broke into the fission club even though Kim Jong had signed the NPT. Sure, seismic readings indicated the underground test was a failure on the Richter Scale and the expected kilo tonnage was below yield and only a partial chain reaction. But it still made everyone in the region shudder and food and monetary aid finally dried up. It was a bridge too far. Carrots weren't worth it anymore for his neighbors. Kim Jong Il knew his country was dying and he needed more aid and cash if he wanted to pass off the goodies to his son. At home, he was forced now to rely on the cult of personality state he'd inherited from his father and total lock down of information from the outside was key. The huge Army and security apparatus meant that information on the State was in lock down even when the people starved.

   Sure Kim Jong would up the stakes every now and again and sink a SK Destroyer, shell a disputed SK Island and threaten madness on Seoul but Kim Jong always had survival in mind and was never interested in an actual shooting war. An Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula was never his goal. It was a war he knew he could never win.

   Despite the mega casualties, he knew South Korea would always win a war with the North. The US and SK would lay waste the North in a month. And that's where China would come in. That's why they never wanted this war to happen either and preferred North Korea as some kind of metaphorical buffer zone against the West. After the initial flurry of steel rain on Seoul, the usual disruption and loss of life  would ensue. There would be street battles in Seoul between SK troops and the North's special forces who might infiltrate the capital through tunnel networks under the DMZ. Still, without modern armor this force would always be a symbolic force so Kim Jong could feel good about being the mighty leader of his brainwashed zombie population in Pyongyang. The battle of 1970s Warsaw Pact equipment versus modern laser guided and night vision equipment would stand no chance and the counter attack would be merciless.

   Kim Jong Il never had any illusions he could win this war.

  The US and South Koreans would begin a co ordinated air campaign after the initial NK artillery barrage on Seoul, targeting North Korean radar sites initially and also going after as much of that arty North of Seoul as they could. I can see that being a turkey shoot of epic proportions for the US and South Korean pilots. That along with counter battery fire from the US and SK in the South would lay waste the North's artillery to a manageable level (mobile potshots from self propelled arty hiding under bridges and in tunnels excepted). Interestingly, this might be the time North Korea decides to break out the chemical or biological weaponry and lay down a plague on Seoul.

    You see how the crazy never ends?

   Any actual shooting war on the Korean peninsula would lead to regime change and if the current elite in Pyongyang are interested in anything, it is self preservation. That's why the political elite will probably go along with this power transition to Kim Jong -un. At least for the time being. They'll wait and see if he's their kind of crazy. The kind that can maintain the status quo and power structure in North Korea for another 30 years. In many ways, that's a special kind of calculated crazy that keeps the elite in power, the people starved, afraid, dependent and the state itself in control of all information.

   Shit's so scary these days, the real crazy question in all of this is if North Korea is the past or the future of our crazy species.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Drone Warfare: How UAVs are changing the 'rules' of 21st century conflict.

    Warfare is taking a new turn in the 21st Century.

    If there's one weapon that proves we're living today in some kind of dystopian future sci fi novel it must be the existence and increasing capabilities of unmanned attack drones. The deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers at the hands of NATO last week and the resulting diplomatic shitstorm shines a big fat xenon flashlight on how future proxy resource wars are going to play out.

    The future will be war by remote control.

    All those drones you read about hitting targets in Pakistan or Yemen or whatever other strategic desert the US gets interested in these days are piloted remotely by US Air Force personnel operating from air conditioned rooms on the far side of the planet from the target zone. How sci fi is that? The base of operations is Creech Air Force base just outside Las Vegas in the Nevadan desert. From here pilot commands get relayed around the globe by a network of military satellites and deliver precision death from the sky on the cheap. Drones can deliver a Hellfire missile for far less cost than a $350 million F-22 Raptor can. And target damage is the same no matter how that ordinance gets delivered. Pilot training is cheaper too with the added caveat of not risking a pilot's life in the process and, let's face it, with a whole generation of unsupervised 12 year old Xbox Live kids sitting home alone with an overworked mom and a dad who bailed to Reno with the babysitter, the US Air Force already has a built in supply of semi trained potential pilots on standby. That is, of course, if the Air Force brass don't mind their com channels filled with terms like homo, faggot and fuck this lag.

    But the real question posed by unrestricted drone warfare is how drones change and re write the rulebook and ethics of modern warfare itself. Brookings Institution policy wonk PW Singer makes a chilling observation:
  • IF armed unmanned drones are used against legitimate military targets in, say, Pakistan
  • AND these drones are piloted out of the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada
  • THEN is a Pakistani 'radical' car bomb in the Walmart parking lot outside that Air Force base in Las Vegas an act of terrorism... or a legitimate act of military retaliation?

        That right there my friends is one of the most interesting military questions of our time.

        Is the 'War on Terror' justifiable if you can remotely deal death from the skies on the other side of the planet and call it 'military action'? By that very logic, a Pakistani or Yemeni national chucking a grenade into an American Mall food court during the Christmas shopping season is a military strike and not terrorism. The only difference between terrorism and legitimate military action here seems to be the intended target. The brass at the Pentagon will say drone strikes only reign down on the bad guys and they're ever so sorry if their wives and children get vaporized because they were sitting next to them when the Hellfire missile 'eliminated their mountain dwelling'. By the same logic, any pissed off Pashtun with a beef against the US who plants a pipe bomb at a strip mall outside Creech AFB can say the target was USAF personnel and he's ever so sorry the blast took out some women and children shopping next door at JC Penney.

       Same difference morality wise, right?

       That's how drone warfare looses you the moral high ground. The new paradigm of 21st century US drone warfare makes all civilians targets and covert operations 'outside theater' on US soil by Middle East nationals legitimate acts of war.

       The other interesting thing about drone warfare is that it pits high tech versus low tech.

       High tech industrial economies versus low tech desert strongmen sitting on the oil everybody wants. Those on desert sands who don't play ball in the global energy chess game get called 'terrorists'. Those who go along with the program get called 'allies'. It's a global petro dollar game of Risk and it sure is fun to watch if you're a fan of how 21st century proxy resource wars are going to play out.

      Drone warfare offers high tech societies a future where they can minimize casualties by using machines. It's easy to see why Western war planners like the concept. In Western countries human casualties still matter. Volunteer armies are not easy to recruit. Sure, the current state of Western economies makes recruiting easier simply because there are a whole lot more people in search of a paycheck. But in the US right now the Army still buys air time on TV and runs commercials showing how cool it is to run around in foreign deserts dressed as a soldier and shoot 'enemies' while omitting the unfortunate fact that you might die while doing it. Not dying in a war has always been a key goal for every soldier. It's kind of important. Bodies coming home pine boxed from foreign shores always put a dent in the war aspirations of politicians. Kitchener's WWI "I Want You" posters were similar beguiling motifs back in 1914 but that was a different time, when throwing generations of young men onto the Somme didn't lose you street cred. Today, shit's different. Casualties matter more than ever in our corpo sci fi dystopia because everybody wants to live forever so they can continue buying cool new TVs.

        Let's face it, we're living in Blade Runner.

       The US is way ahead in drone technology but that doesn't mean there are not a whole bunch of other nations fast tracking their own remote machines to give their generals something new to play around with on their war planning desks. Drones are such a hot commodity right now and their worth so precious that the US won't sell them except to "trusted partners" (code speak for the UK and Israel). And even those sales are only previous generation stuff (unarmed Predator recon types) while the US keeps all the serious stuff (armed stealth drones) for themselves. When the US restricts arms sales, you know they're pretty serious about drone warfare and future tech.

         The standard vanilla US drone is the Predator MQ-1.

        Designed in the early nineties as an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, it didn't take the Air Force brass or the CIA long to figure out that fitting some AGM-114 Hellfire's on that baby could make it a pretty potent interdiction craft. The Predator family soon expanded into four variants, all rear prop driven and they've been used all over Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Iran though the US government refuses to acknowledge their attack role even though you can read about it in every newspaper every day.

        The fun part of this story is that the US just lost one of their top secret RQ-170 Stealth Drones over Iran this week. That sure must have pissed the CIA off and earned some X-Box kid at Creech AFB a sizable pay cut. I mean, that wreckage is liable to wind up in some Chinese science lab pretty soon just like the wreckage of the F-117 Stealth fighter that was shot down during the Kosovo War did, downed by the Serbs with a shitty Soviet SA-3 system that proved awesome back in 1999. The US responded by "accidentally" dropping five 2000lb JDAMS on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade two months later but it still wasn't enough to prevent the wreckage boarding the fast train to China. The RQ-170 'wreckage' in Iran is probably bound for the same fate. [UPDATE] Iran just displayed the captured drone and it looks perfectly intact!

        The Iranians are claiming they jammed it and hacked the controls by way of a 'cyber attack' and I, like everyone else, thought that a bit of a stretch considering their whole nuke program got grounded last summer by a computer virus. But that intact drone footage sure seems like a 'controlled' landing to me. I'm sure the CIA are having a shit fit behind the scenes. They barely even acknowledge the existence of the RQ-170 Stealth Drone in the first place. To have one on display in Tehran and picked over by Iranian tech crews has fail written all over it from a US point of view.

     An RQ-170 was spotted in 2009 at a remote airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan which is funny when you consider the Taliban have no radar to track it in the first place and rely on good old goat panic as an enemy early warning system. The RQ-170 was stationed in Afghanistan but obviously had bigger prey in mind. That Stealth Drone is the system that kept an eye in the sky on Bin Laden's house in next door Pakistan while the SEAL Team raided it and, incidently, where the US lost that 'Stealth Helicopter' that nobody even knew existed.

    Iran's new perfectly intact wreckage!

        These latest developments in classified robotic warfare, projects like the RQ-170, are developed at the famed Skunk Works facility in the Californian desert. That top secret tech development center and the experimental aircraft rolling out of there bring up another fun question in all of this and that is the very nature of Air Power itself. The US Air Force branched out of the Army in 1947 after the strategic bombing program over the Reich proved so successful if you didn't give a shit about civilians. Hell, Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that in spades when civilians were the actual target.

       However, in our current logic, this does tend to cause problems. Especially when you're fighting the smaller proxy resource wars the US finds itself engaged in on multiple fronts today. There was even one fun report by way of Wikileaks a while back, that revealed that British forces in Afghanistan had actually put in a request for the US to stop bombing by drone because they were missing their targets too often and killing civilians; acts which made the whole ground war over there more difficult since landing a bomb on a goat herder's mud shack and wiping out his whole family is likely to turn that goat herder into a fully committed IED laying enemy combatant pretty fast.

    UPDATE 2013: Check out ARGUS. If they're showing you this on Nova (a PBS documentary), that means it's already old technology. With these drones now flying over US cities, say goodbye to that quaint idea known as privacy.

        The truth is, there is no stopping the robot future. No US politician and no sleazy defense contractor is going to sit back and let the Chinese or Russians catch up. We're on the fast track to robotic war. The scope and theater of this war is unlimited when you consider the retaliatory strike options on US soil from low tech guys with no access to RQ-170 stealth aircraft of their own but plenty of access to U-Haul trucks and fertilizer. No one knows what UAVs will unleash in the future.

        Only one thing is for sure about the future when it comes to us humans.

        There will be warfare there.