Focal Points Blog

Mass Killing: a Higher Calling?

In Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) Timothy Snyder writes of the years 1933 and 1945, during which the “bloodlands” — Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkan states — were alternately occupied by Russia and Germany.

Fourteen million [yes, 14 – RW] is the approximate number of people killed by purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the bloodlands.

The difficulty contemplating barbarity of that magnitude prompts us to simply write Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union off as pure evil. However, writes Snyder

To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them. Heinrich Himmler said that it was good to see a hundred, or five hundred, or a thousand corpses lying side by side. [Emphasis added.]

In what world does Himmler’s declaration make a shred of sense? Snyder suspects that what Himmler meant was

… that to kill another person is a sacrifice of the purity of one’s own soul, and that making this sacrifice elevated the killer to a higher moral level. This was an expression of a certain kind of devotion.

Paralleling this, heads of state also relinquish control of the fate of their own souls. When they make the decision to take their countries to war, they’re well aware that atrocities will ensue on both sides. In keeping with what Himmler called for, they’re jeopardizing their own salvations for the good of the state. Still, unless the leaders are pathological (many, of course, are), they no doubt hold out hope, however unconsciously, that their higher power will understand and cut them some slack.

At Foreign Policy in Focus, John Feffer writes:

We make a bargain with our governments. … we delegate the responsibility to declare and prosecute war to our legislative and executive branches. … Governments, in other words, kill on our behalf. This arrangement is a form of social contract, which means that governments are basically contract killers.

Contract killers, of course, don’t go to heaven. But this may help explain why much of the public is loath to bring the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to justice for prosecuting an illegal war. Again, however unconsciously, they’re forever in debt to their leaders for shouldering the karmic debt, if you will, accrued by killing.

Did Nuclear Weapons Tests Tear Holes in the Sky?

If you’ve ever watched any of the numerous videos available on the web of nuclear-weapons tests perhaps you experienced one of more of these reactions, especially with the big ones —hydrogen bombs:

Don’t those tests do permanent damage to the earth? Don’t they, I don’t know, scar it or something? If the government had to develop nuclear weapons, couldn’t they have been tested in outer space?

Of course, at the time that nuclear weapons were developed, the capability to launch missiles into space didn’t exist. Even if it did, space tests were of limited use to nuclear scientists because nuclear weapons behave differently in space than on earth where, of course, they would be used.

Eventually, though, before the Partial Test Ban Treaty ended them in 1963, the United States and Russia each tested a series of nuclear weapons outside the atmosphere — one, by the United States, 335 miles from earth. Besides the difference in appearance, such as an aurora-like effect in space as opposed to the earth’s mushroom cloud, the electromagnetic pulse that the nuclear weapons emitted were hard to control and endangered satellites orbiting the earth at that time.

Meanwhile, when nuclear weapons were first tested, scientists — some, anyway — must have swallowed their gut feelings that the planet was being irretrievably damaged by the tests in ways that were difficult to quantify. But, if, like me, you can’t help suspecting that the atmosphere was seriously seared, the following will reinforce your fears.

While in the navy in 1956, Robert Osborn, who maintains the website Words from the Wildernesse, witnessed the hydrogen bomb tests in Bikini Atoll. He describes the aftermath of one of them.

The cloud was sharply defined, like a thunderhead, and had a fluorescent, amethyst colored glow, which tinged toward a dark red. It is impossible to communicate the scale of the cloud. . . . We stood there in silence, looking at the cloud and quietly commenting on the colors. On the right side, close to the cloud, we could see two bright, stationary lights. They were visible for a short while, then they faded. . . . We were quite curious about the mysterious lights we saw beside the cloud. About a week or so after the shot, I was speaking to one of the scientists that had been aboard. He said they also had been puzzled by the appearance of the lights. They finally concluded that what we saw were two bright stars, essentially as we would have seen them from outer space. Apparently, the heat of the explosion was so great that it literally burned away the atmosphere around the fireball.

Call it what you will — a hole in the sky, a rent in the very fabric of existence — a nuclear war could leave the heavens in tatters like a flag that’s been through a battle.

UN Origins Project Series, Part 4: In WWII, It Took Teamwork to Defeat Not Only Germany, But Japan

UNIOHistory tends to remember the defeat of Japan as a purely American victory. It is unlike the allied victory over Hitler in Europe that was the result of the combined efforts of the United States, Britain, the USSR, the Canadians, Free French and countless others. History remembers victory in Europe as a triumph of the Allies.

The Pacific War is different. In the minds of most Americans, the Pacific War was a one-on-one fight with Imperial Japan, and it was America alone that prevailed. It was American forces that turned the tide against the Japanese at Midway, Americans who carried out the costly strategy of Island-hopping, it was Americans who took the fight to mainland Japan and it was America that broke the back of the Empire by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, the American victory in the Pacific, and in particular, certain battles such as Pearl Harbor, Midway and Iwo Jima have become important to the American identity and continue to attract great interest nearly seven decades later.

The United States did achieve a great victory over Imperial Japan, and that accomplishment should be recognized; however, it did not achieve that victory alone. The United States did not have large and powerful allies in the Pacific War as it did in Europe, however, despite this, its Pacific allies played an integral part in achieving victory over Japan.

Australia offered U.S. forces strategic depth within the Pacific theater. Throughout the Pacific war, Australia acted as a sanctuary outside of Japanese reach where battle-weary troops could be rotated away from the front and given the chance to recuperate. Australia also provided invaluable logistical support as U.S. forces began its counter-offensive to retake territory occupied by the Japanese.

The Philippines. a U.S. possession at the time of the war, housed a large contingent of combined U.S. and Filipino forces, including the U.S. Asiatic fleet and was the headquarters of the US Army Far Eastern Command. Thousands of Filipino and American soldiers fought and died alongside one another in a heroic yet doomed attempt to stem the initial Japanese onslaught; many later suffered untold horrors on the infamous ‘Bataan Death March,’ or in Japanese prison camps. Those that escaped formed a guerrilla network to resist the Japanese occupation. Aided by many local villages, Filipino and American soldiers were able to continue to fight the Japanese, and importantly, provide intelligence that proved invaluable to the liberation of the Philippines in 1944, itself a hugely important step towards bringing about the Japanese defeat.

China, one of the original ‘big four’ signatories of the 1942 Declaration by United Nations, was another vital ally in the struggle to liberate Asia and the Pacific. Japan seized on the internal turmoil caused by years of civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang by invading and conquering Manchuria in 1931. Japanese forces pressed onward into China following the orchestrated attack at the Marco Polo Bridge. The Japanese quickly captured Peking, Shanghai and Nanjing, at which time hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians were killed in some of the worst atrocities of the war. By the time Europe became engulfed in war, the Chinese had been fighting against the Japanese occupation for nearly a decade, in what many would later term, “the forgotten war.” Estimates of Chinese casualties during the war range from 10 to 20 million as the result of enemy action or from widespread famine and illness resulting from the war.

The tenacity exhibited by Chinese forces to continue fighting despite suffering such horrendous losses stretched the Japanese war machine to its breaking point, as the Japanese were required to direct increasingly scarce resources to the Chinese front, thereby hastening their own defeat.

Finally, in what was to prove the war’s final act, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an important detail is often left out in many historical accounts. On August 8th 1945, two days after the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the USSR entered the war against Japan and advanced troops into Manchuria early in the morning of August 9th. Shortly after, the second bomb fell on Nagasaki. Emperor Hirohito announced Japan would surrender 6 days later on August 15th.

In his August 15th radio address, Emperor Hirohito cited the use of a “new and most cruel bomb,” as the reason for Japan’s capitulation. However it is nearly impossible to conclude that a stark appraisal of the power now arrayed against it upon the Soviet entry into the war was not a significant factor in Tokyo’s decision to surrender.

The United States did do a great deal of the heavy lifting in beating back the Japanese. However, these advances could not have been made without the vital help of its Pacific allies. In many cases, the sacrifices that enabled an Allied victory in the Pacific War have gone unnoticed or unmentioned. As in Europe, victory was only achieved through the collective efforts of nations and peoples united, fighting towards victory.

Greg Chaffin is a research assistant for the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London.

Western Multinationals Enabled Qaddafi’s Suppression of Libyans

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Reporting from Tripoli, The Wall Street Journal’s Paul Sonne and Margaret Coker reveal the depths of collusion between Colonel Qaddafi’s spooks and their foreign tech support:

The recently abandoned room is lined with posters and English-language training manuals stamped with the name Amesys, a unit of French technology firm Bull SA, which installed the monitoring center. A warning by the door bears the Amesys logo. The sign reads: “Help keep our classified business secret. Don’t discuss classified information out of the HQ.”

Amesys of Bull SA was just one of those whose wares were on display. Narus, a subsidiary of Boeing, the ZTE Corporation of China and a small (but apparently important) South African firm called VASTech SA (Pty) were all represented. Other names will likely follow. But so far, they all are following the warning on the Amesys sign, offering limp responses to the WSJ’s inquiries, or just declining to comment.

But the HQ records speak for themselves: the government recorded thousands of online conversations, phone calls and web histories, from regular citizens to human rights activists (those who had overseas contacts were priority targets, of course).

In the end, Colonel Qaddafi’s tech support was a waste of money, even after his government killed the internet in March to try and cut off Libyans from each other and the outside world. Libya’s uprising has apparently succeeded in toppling Qaddafi’s government, and his IT department is nowhere to be found.

Even the building’s architecture speaks for itself, according to the WSJ. The reporters who entered the place say that in addition to the communications section, the place also has “a windowless detention center.”

As the WSJ points out, none of this is especially shocking. Foreign companies and their products have been involved in suppressing the Arab Spring, and from the Middle East to East Asia, multinationals have made hefty profits from providing surveillance capacity, security contracting and arms sales to repressive regimes. ThisSIGINT Road, if you will, is the e-version of the old Silk Road running from Beijing to Tunis with many stops along the way.

Libya is a good example of the political dealings that are so common when multinational corporate interests stand to gain. When Qaddafi extended an olive branch as the Second Gulf War began, Western (and non-Western) governments and firms leaped at the chance to do business with a seemingly older and wiser dictator.

International trade and arms sanctions were imposed on Libya between 1988 and 1992 due to the country’s support for terrorist organizations. These sanctions were lifted from Libya starting in 2003 because Qaddafi agreed to disclose and dismantle its nuclear program, help track down Libya’s international nuclear black market contacts and started “cooperating” with the UK’s Lockerbie bombing investigation.

Qaddafi made a shrewd choice when he decided to cooperate with the U.S., the UK and the IAEA. Having seen where the WMD “smoking gun” justification had led the U.S. in Iraq, he had no desire to give the Marine Corps cause to pay a visit to “the shores of Tripoli” once again. A grateful West began restoring diplomatic niceties.

But there were tangible benefits as well: diplomatic niceties paved that way for what the Libyan government really wanted: new technology and new money. Qaddafi looked at Western arms manufacturers, investors, security-surveillance providers and oil majors in the same way that a tech junkie would salivate over an Apple Store’s fancy gadgets and efficient tech support.

Big EU arms manufacturers like BAE Systems and the Finmeccania Group basically just picked up where they left off in 1992, selling everything from surveillance networks, firearms, and aircraft. Oil majors, discouraged from going into Libya during the Cold War due to nationalization efforts and Libya’s late pariah status started negotiating contracts.

If there was one sector of Libya’s economy that Qaddafi believed benefited from free enterprise and globalization, it was the surveillance market. The aforementioned Finmeccania Group, (although not mentioned in the article) also helped the Libyans with surveillance work, according to a report put out a few years ago by the partly-government owned Italian multinational.

One hopes the new government will make a conference center available ASAP to host an open house for Qaddafi’s old business partners. Some are already dipping their toes into post-Qaddafi waters to keep or expand these contracts – joined by security contractors who hope to do a brisk business protecting VIPs and pricey machines.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

Pakistan: Tragic Trendsetter for Religious, Political, and Ethnic Violence

Karachi“The bloodbath in Karachi continues,” blogs Murtaza Haider at Pakistan’s Dawn.

The death toll in the last week alone has reached over 100. … in Pakistan’s largest city. The citizens appear helpless, the government looks impotent, and the future looks grimmer by the day. While the resurgence of violence in Karachi is a recent phenomenon, the rest of Pakistan had been engulfed in senseless violence since 2003. No fewer than 36,000 Pakistanis have died in violent deaths in the past eight years, making Pakistan the hotbed of religious, political, and ethnic violence.

Haider links to this mind-numbing 2011 timeline of militant activity in Pakistan, with all the killing that implies. What’s the answer? In a subsequent blog post at Dawn, Ahmad Ali Khalid writes:

Today as we look at the tragic situation in Karachi an attitude has come to the fore. … ‘We need a strong man’ is a common plea by ordinary Pakistanis.

Nor are they kidding around.

To sort out the bloodbath in Karachi some would have us believe that more spilling of blood is necessary by calling in the Army. A popular call has been one of mass execution of politicians [yikes! – RW] by the Army and then a messianic ushering in of a glorious leader who can quash any sort of dissent.

Khalid understands “the call for a ‘strongman’ – it is only natural when jungle law is the norm in a city like Karachi.” But

The ‘strongman syndrome’ is an insidious threat to Pakistan’s already fragile if not dysfunctional quasi democratic system. It is what paves the way for autocrats and ensures their survival. The ‘strongman syndrome’ is the glue for the social contract between a dictator and his peoples – it is a deadly rot that crushes the democratic spirit.

Khalid gets off a good one with that last line. Then he concludes that Karachi’s

… deliverance will only come about with more democracy and more dialogue – it will only come about when political parties are held to account and the rule of law established.

Nevertheless, there’s no end in sight to the violence. Hamza Ameer reports at Asia Times Online:

Al-Qaeda-linked 313 Brigade has appointed a new chief, Shah Sahib, following the death of its commander Ilyas Kashmiri in a United States-operated drone attack in the South Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan in June.

And he’s wasting no time picking up where Kashmiri left off.

… Sahib, a well-known Taliban commander, has been selected to initiate major alliances and finalize consultations ahead of Eid – the end of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan – to launch fresh assaults against the Pakistan security forces. … a major assault is now expected to be launched immediately after Eid. … As Pakistan reels from floods, political paralysis, unrest in the major city port of Karachi and sectarian violence in Balochistan province, militants are preparing to escalate their activities on both sides of the border.

“War Follows Child Abuse as Night Day”

Why a war? Because leaders expect it to be of significant benefit to their state, right? Perhaps it’s not as cut and dried as that. Try this on for size.

Historians and political scientists agree that war is a realistic, rational, utilitarian activity ]and] “that states are rational actors, carefully calculating costs of alternative courses of action and seeking to maximize their expected utility.”Rationality is simply assumed by Realists … Irrational, self-destructive motives are unthinkable. That would be “doing psychology”—a forbidden activity.

Realists therefore tend to accept the statements of war leaders when they claim to start wars for rational economic reasons. … The emotional meaning of these statements is never investigated by Realists [who] simply don’t recognize the pathological portions of the right hemisphere.

The above is extracted from a forthcoming book, The Origins of War in Child Abuse, by Lloyd deMause, the dean of psychohistory. Incorporating elements of psychoanalysis and the social sciences, psychohistory maintains that the course of history is determined by the quality of child-rearing around the world. In fact, deMause continues

… Realists routinely overlook all the suicidal imagery that leaders voice as they actually make their decision to go to war. In the over a hundred wars I have researched in the past four decades, not one began by political or military leaders actually ever sitting down and adding up the economic costs and benefits of the war they are about to begin. More typically they voice suicidal, sacrificial motivations.

DeMause sums up how that works in an article. Here’s the general idea.

A new psychoclass comes of age, and introduces new inventions, new social arrangements and new prosperity, producing a Belle Epoque, with warmer personal relationships and less scapegoating of women and minorities.

The older psychoclasses become depressed by guilt over the prosperity and anxiety from the new social arrangements. The world seems out of control, as childhood traumas press for repetition [key to psychohistory – RW], and the nation regresses, goes on Purity Crusades and fears of women, and creates an economic depression. … When a cooperative Enemy is found … the nation sends its youth to be killed. … Images of restored virility and rebirth of the world predominate, and [the cycle begins all over again – RW].

In the summer issue of the Journal of Psychohistory (print only), deMause’s psychohistory colleague Robin Grille responds eloquently to an excerpt of The Origins of War in Child Abuse that the journal ran.

War follows from collective child abuse as night follows day. This psychohistorical finding is so consistent, it is so well explained by neuro-psychological, developmental and social sciences that child abuse and war should almost always be mentioned in the same sentence. … The hope for world peace is grounded in realism [take that, IR realists. – RW] when we see the efficacy of interventions that assure emotionally healthy beginnings for children, and compassionately address the post-traumatic emotional wounds for warmongers. [Emphasis added.]

In today’s globalized reality, every child is our child. When a boy is beaten in Balochistan, his pain will, with chilling velocity, impact our personal lives in the West. … When a school child’s buttocks are paddled in a Texas classroom, the bruises will manifests as far as Iraq.

In other words, Grille writes

The child is the key.

Islamophobia’s Poisoned Wellsprings

How, you may wonder, does a national political figure such as Newt Gingrich get away with defaming Islam in public like he recently did at the American Enterprise Institute? Sharia (the religious law of Islam), he stated, is “a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.”

The freedom Gingrich and others feel to defame Islam, as well as to claim “Sharia in its natural form has principles and punishments totally abhorrent to the Western world,” shows you the extent to which Islamophobia has become mainstreamed in the West.

It’s been a long time since slandering a major religion has been acceptable public discourse in the United States. How did we, as a nation, regress that far? The above quotes were excerpted by Wajahat Ali in the introduction to Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, a report by the Center for American Progress for which he served as lead writer and researcher. It turns out writes Ali, that “7 funders have given $43 million over 10 years to a small, inter-connected group of individuals and organizations responsible for mainstreaming fear, bigotry and hate against Muslims and Islam in America.”

The recipients of the funds include the usual suspects from Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch to the infamous Pamela Geller, both favorites of Anders Breivik whom he cited in his writings.

Courtesy War in Context.

Courtesy War in Context.

Ali writes:

Geller and Spencer co-founded the organization Stop Islamization of America, a group whose actions and rhetoric the Anti-Defamation League concluded “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam. The group seeks to rouse public fears by consistently vilifying the Islamic faith and asserting the existence of an Islamic conspiracy to destroy “American values.”

The only way that ideas this preposterous could gain currency in American culture is via, well, currency – in fistfuls. This is where the likes of Richard Mellon Scaife and his foundations come in. To find out who else funds Islamophobia, read the report (or its “executive summary“).

Note: Visit our sister publication Right Web for profiles of Newt Gingrich, Steven Emerson, Frank Gaffney, David Yerushalmi, Daniel Pipes, Richard Mellon Scaife, and others mentioned in “Fear Inc.”

Treatment of Russian POWs in WWII Paved the Way for Holocaust

I just finished reading Timothy Snyder’s instant classic Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books, 2010) in which he chronicles the suffering of countries that were alternately occupied by Russia and Germany: Poland, the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Balkan states. In the course of looking art World War II through this prism, he dispenses much little-known history.

For instance, along with the POW camps, where Soviet prisoners were sometimes held in open, “The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed almost 2.6 million more. All in all, perhaps 3.1 million Soviet prisoners of war were killed.”

In fact

The German prisoner-of-war camps in the East were far deadlier than the German concentration camps. Indeed, the existing concentration camps changed their character upon contact with prisoners of war. Dachau … became … killing facilities. … At Auschwitz in early September 1941, hundreds of Soviet prisoners were gassed with hydrogen cyanide, a pesticide (trade name Zyklon B) that had been used previously the fumigate the barracks of the Polish prisoners in the camp. Later, about a million Jews would be asphyxiated by Zyklon B at Auschwitz.

Hiroshima, Mon Ami: “History’s Most Awkward Handshake”

In August of last year, the blog Conelrad Adjacent, which traffics in what it calls “Cold War strangeness,” posted a story that attracted much well-deserved attention.* It described a 1955 episode of the infamous TV show This Is Your Life, hosted by Ralph Edwards. For those too young to remember, the show, Conelrad Adjacent explains

. . . would flabbergast an ordinary citizen or a celebrity by telling him or her that they were on live, national TV. From the stage of the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, the genial emcee would then proceed to reveal the subject’s biography with the help of the This Is Your Life scrapbook. The most emotionally resonant component of the show was when Edwards would dramatically unveil the identity of a mystery guest who had some deep sentimental connection to the subject.

Believe it or not, This Is Your Life actually based an episode on the Hiroshima bomb, which

. . . focused on Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a Japanese-born, American-educated Methodist minister who had a parish in the doomed target city. Fate spared Tanimoto on that August 6, 1945 morning [and he was] able to bear witness to the hideous aftermath. John Hersey’s landmark 1946 book, Hiroshima, documents how Tanimoto, without regard to his personal safety, aided his wounded and dying countrymen in the hours and days following the bombing [and] large portion of the updated version of Hersey’s book concerns Tanimoto’s life-long mission to promote peace and help the hibakusha (the Japanese term for survivors of the atomic bomb).

How exactly, you may be wondering, did This Is Your Life imagine it could pull off showing sympathy for survivors without incurring the wrath of much of America? Then, even more than today, many Americans believed that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the bow that tied the gift of Japanese surrender in World War II. In fact, This Is Your Life basically let the chips fall where they may. Conelrad Adjacent explains.

After the minister recounted how he and his friend had disregarded the commonplace air raid signals . . . a loud, disembodied Brooklyn-accented voice was heard from offstage: “At zero six hundred on the morning of August 6, 1945, I was in a B-29 flying over the Pacific. Destination, Hiroshima.” . . . Edwards explained to his confused guest . . . that what he had just heard was “A voice of a man whose life is destined to be woven up in the threads of your own, Reverend Tanimoto. We’ll meet him later in your story.” Tanimoto still looked confused and . . . worried.

After the commercial, with

. . . a harp flourish, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay walked out from behind the sliding door and shared history’s most awkward handshake with Tanimoto. The audience applauded this unprecedented meeting.

Perhaps mindful of his fund-raising tour and, as a man of the cloth disposed to forgiveness, Reverend Tanimoto was gracious enough. Meanwhile, turns out that, perhaps unique among the Enola Gay crew, Robert Lewis was a tormented soul. Later, fellow crew members accused him of selling them out, not only in regards to their shared mission, but financially because Lewis sought to profit from his story. For instance, according to Conelrad Adjacent, he nearly cancelled his appearance on This Is Your Life because it refused to pay him a fee.

Makes today’s reality TV, however over-the-top, seem tame in comparison, doesn’t it?

*The term Conelrad was taken from an emergency broadcasting system deployed in the United States during the Cold War.

Kim Jong Il’s Visit to Russia: Just More Mixed Messages?

Kim Jong Il visits Russia.

Kim Jong Il visits Russia.

Historical partners North Korea and Russia held a bilateral summit on August 24th for the first time in a decade. According to a Russian spokeswoman, Kim Jong Il “made known his position that North Korea is ready to return to the six party talks without preconditions, and also ready to impose a moratorium on tests of weapons of mass destruction.”

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said after the meeting that he “had a candid and substantive conversation with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il” and was “overwhelmed with a sense of positivity.” He also estimated that prospects for a pipeline project, which is to be stretched from Russia through North Korea and down to South Korea, are highly promising after Kim Jong Il expressed his support for it.

The two leaders are more or less satisfied with the outcome out of the generally friendly, two-hour meeting. Compared to the rather discrete media coverage of Kim Jong Il’s visit to China this May, the North Korean media’s daily coverage of his visit to Russia shows how much import the meeting with Russia carried. It is said that the “special nature of the relations between North Korea and Russia” makes this difference.

Despite the promising progress both in economic cooperation and nuclear talks, it seems that North Korea’s neighbors in South Korea and Japan still hold on to their initial attitude toward North Korea’s recent gestures. Both countries have experienced first hand North Korea’s volatile behavior in the past. It seem unlikely that the six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program will resume unless North Korea at least shows its sincerity by implementing a tangible action that other participating countries could build trust upon.

Moreover, the pipeline project, which needs multilateral cooperation among Russia, North Korea, and South Korea, is facing challenges of its own. The substance of this project is to lay a thousand-kilometer-long pipeline through the entire Korean peninsula, enabling Russia to sell its natural gas to South Korea and even Japan. However, enthusiasm for the agreement cannot be conjured overnight, especially because South Korea did not participate in the meeting. On top of that, there are also concerns over the pipeline project in Russia. “The idea is preposterous because [Kim] has shown that he is not a reliable partner,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst in Moscow. “They could steal gas, play with the pipeline any way they like,” he said of the North Koreans.

It is still too early to conclude definitively whether North Korea truly wants to sit and talk about its thorny problems or is only seeking a way to realize its ultimate goal for 2012. However, what can be clearly seen through North Korea’s recent gestures is that, according to a South Korean government official, “there was uncertainty over the situation of the Korean peninsula while Kim Jong Il visited China. Whereas, after the recent meeting between the U.S. and North Korea, the North’s major future steps have been more or less decided.”

North Korea has been sending out mixed messages to the outside world — from knocking on the door to negotiate to attacking Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. Now it seems that it is up to both those who participate in the six-party talks and the international community as a whole to make sense of the country’s intentions.

Ikhwan Kim is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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