A War of Position? The Regionalism of LGBTQ Rights in South Korea

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Autumn is always the season of protest. Winter is understandably too cold for street marches, and the new warmth of Spring comes as such a happy relief that people take well-deserved mental vacations from their social activism. Summer is naturally too hot, but with people clamouring into sweaty public spaces it does reawaken the mind to long-felt injustices.

From here it is a waiting game – counting the days until the heat falls away just enough to make street protests bearable. So with the season now firmly upon us, there is a question that needs asking – what has happened to Korea’s gay pride movement? Of course, I am not talking about Seoul here – their annual Queer Festival came like clockwork, but in some ways that is just the point. Seoul have been doing this for 20 years – and it is now less of a protest than a celebration.  

If the feeling inside Seoul is one of increasing inevitability – a matter of keeping up momentum and rolling over the enemy’s battlelines with less-and-less resistance – outside the capital things seem to be going the other way, with LBGTQ communities in open retreat.

Korea still ranks painfully low on all international metrics of LGBTQ ‘acceptance’, same sex marriage is not legal and neither are same sex civil unions, there are very few protections against work place discrimination, the military code criminalises homosexual behaviour, there is a near-complete absence of media representation, and no major political party supports an increase in gay rights.

It is under this shadow, that Busan held its first Pride Festival in 2017 (18 years after Seoul had theirs), and in 2018 the port city organised their first International Day Against Homophobia. And yet it feels like the counter protests – well organised conglomerations of evangelical Christians who regularly outnumber and drown out the marchers in these events – have started to have an effect, because this year the pinnacle of Busan’s Pride movement appears to be a closed-door brunch at a parochial bar.

I suppose this could be narrow-minded – that movements like these might be playing a longer term game that requires patience, planning and the occasional hiatus. But it doesn’t feel this way, and the gulf between LGBTQ communities in Seoul and other urban areas seems to be growing.

Joe Phillips, a Professor at Busan National University, explains this in terms of: 1. A lack of fealty and sense of community, with very little cross-dialogue, 2. The same type of centre-periphery split that tends to happen when so much money, talent and resources becomes centralised in large cities, 3. Most interestingly, within these smaller, fringe communities is a more gradualist outlook toward equality that seeks to first change social attitudes before seeking protections in law.

Then why the soft tones and the stepping away from the light? This appears to play directly into the hands of current Korean attitudes, which is largely one of indifference rather than open hostility (evangelical Christians are only 18% of the Korean population, and very few of them join in the counter protests), and yet this seems bad enough.

When someone hates you, they are also acknowledging that you matter in some way – through their disgust and animosity they are saying ‘I wish I could control you, influence you in a different direction, and make you see what I see’. The other end of this spectrum is invisibility – the people around you don’t know, nor care, that you are even there.

And yet there could be a subtlety here on the ground, something that is being missed from the outside. The goal of the LGBTQ movement shouldn’t be to simply highlight injustice, but rather to correct it – and this requires persuasion. It may be intolerably slow for those people, suffering and diminished by their lack of basic rights, but the only other option is force, coercion and imposition. Democracies can’t work like this, and totalitarianisms are never too friendly to minority groups.

It seems unlikely that the stubborn, rigid and deeply held beliefs of people are ever going to change by way of noisy protest, in-your-face spectacle, or blunt-force instrument. The more people feel under attack, the more likely they are to bunker-down and resist change.

As Joe Phillips points out, there might be a better way to go about this. Instead of stepping into identity politics and drawing firm, public battle-lines, advocates of LGBTQ rights could focus on building social ties and working relationships with the non-LGBTQ community; and to do so through non-political organisations. This is what Antonio Gramsci labelled a ‘War of Position’ – rather than embracing open conflict, influence and power might be better achieved quietly behind the scenes.

If indeed, regional Pride movements – abandoned by their partners in Seoul – are making this shift, then that is a positive. But the vacuum screams loudly, and the empty streets still feel like symbols of failure and defeat.

*** The related interview with Joe Phillips on LGBTQ rights in South Korea can be found here.

North Korean Cognitive Dissonance

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It is easy to get lost in hope. This becomes ever truer as circumstances slip further out of our control – and so North Korea deranges people in a way that little else can.

Listening to Harvard University’s, William Overholt, speak at The Korea Society this past week was a bludgeoning, blinded and unthinking example of this. All the slips were there, across questions of strategic interest, nuclear development and models for normalisation – all with the same depth of interest that can only come from thinking North Korea, and North Koreans, are no different to anyone else. And yet the book Overholt was launching, ‘North Korea: Peace? Nuclear War?’, was written with the self-professed purpose of avoiding just this type of unfamiliarity.  

Moments like these are not uncommon, Brian Myers has sadly had much of his career defined by people reading his work, claiming its importance, and then continuing to speak and act as if they never encountered it at all. ‘The Cleanest Race’ should have changed the game, it should have opened people’s eyes to the most important thing that could ever be known about any foreign country, let alone one as inaccessible as North Korea. That is, what the people living there actually believe, and how they see themselves. It didn’t!

With “the realisation that I was making not the slightest bit of headway”, Myers felt the need to write a follow-up book ‘The Juche Myth’. It was a reasonable expectation that some form of clarity might be needed. In a community of academics and policy professionals – people who should ordinarily be champions of truth and accuracy – what else could explain this phenomena of both open and tacit acceptance, followed immediately by near-complete intellectual amnesia?

Again, it didn’t work! Neither have a myriad of blog posts by Myers countering, and personally responding to, the various misconceptions, false attributions or simple inattentiveness that keeps emerging. There is something about North Korea that makes people approach the country as if their propaganda is impotent, their ideology superficial, and their agency purely reactive.

Confident in his authority, William Overholt, took his queues from those less informed than himself, rather than those more so. The clumsy language (though even this is questionable) of United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and the cavalier attitude of the American military command during the Korean War becomes enough to build a three step understanding toward a permanent end to the crisis.

According to Overholt, North Korea wants nuclear weapons to: 1. Add stature and legitimacy to Kim Jong-un, 2. To get the world to pay attention to them, and 3. Because nuclear weapons are their only defence against foreign invasions and limited military strikes. Other than adding to Brian Myers’ frustrations, this kind of stencilled-on strategy does the opposite to what the author is hoping; it is just as neglectful and disconnected as those Korean War Generals were, but from a different direction. Instead of inferring the worst about North Koreans based on absent information, Overholt – and those in his mould – infer only the best intentions in spite of what North Koreans actually say and do.

Any understanding of Songun – North Korea’s ‘Military First’ policy – or the famine conditions that brought about its creation, should be the antidote to this kind of mistake. Overholt blames America for not fulfilling its side of the 1994 Agreed Framework, so forcing North Korea down the path to nuclear development. But he makes no mention of the nationwide starvation at the time, the leadership transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il, the fact that the regime was in very real risk of collapse, nor that only six weeks after the Agreed Framework was signed, when American aid was flowing into the country, North Korea – without warning – labelled America ‘the Great Enemy’ and launched Songun in response.

William Overholt made a point of assuring his audience that he had taken stock of all the ‘technical details’. They were just the wrong ones! Understanding North Korea has a lot less to do with questions of launch pads, nuclear sites and missile trajectories, than it does with ideology. And you can only get to such a place through the challenging and laborious task of analysing the different streams of propaganda, as Myers does, or through – with even more difficulty – personal interactions with the country and its people.

Speaking with Edward Reed, a firmer picture of reality begins to emerge. Visiting North Korea as part of various aid programs and initiatives, he witnessed first-hand the country in its lowest – most insecure – moment with the famine, and through the twenty five years since. Working to save a failing agricultural sector, and entering the country by desperate invitation, aid workers like Reed understandably thought that they were walking into just another humanitarian crisis.

Where it would be typical to expect a collapsed state, without any real central authority, instead they found a largely undiminished, and unreformed regime. A regime that, despite their call for open help, were also strangely selective in what help they actually accepted. From the outset, there was a hierarchy of risk/reward placed on aid partners and NGO’s – those from America and South Korea were at the bottom.

When finally allowed in, regardless of their nationality or affiliation, there was no sense of gratitude or relief. Instead they were treated as reptiles in the nest: watched and restricted in their travels and human contact in the same way that tourists to the country are still today.

The state was intact, and so were the institutions. The public Distribution System survived, removing all incentives for farmers to seek sustainable practices. Visits to the countryside (the intended sites for direct aid) by NGO’s or foreign officials were tied to financial or material commitments, all aid was controlled and filtered through Pyongyang, any agricultural success on any particular farm would never spread beyond the fence line without the approval of then-leader Kim Jong-il (which rarely came), and central officials were quick to make nonsensical demands on donors that belied the crisis around them, such as the importation of Australian emu birds.

Dealing with North Korea requires navigating their domestic and ideological worldview. The risk presented by aid agencies – and today by talks of denuclearisation – is one that is limited, personal, and felt only by the regime in Pyongyang.

After a quarter of a century, North Korea still hasn’t returned to its pre-famine levels of food production, and are still locked into the same agricultural cycles of boom-and-bust. This has a lot to do with the regime’s heavily propagandised hope of achieving ‘self-reliance’. Due to its geography, Edward Reed recommends just the opposite – North Korea is a country that can never, based on current technology, accomplish this. It is only ideology, and not practical considerations, that demands they do.

From a different direction again, Victor Cha has often spoken of the moment when he crashed unexpectedly into this same barrier. As part of the American delegation during the Six Party Talks, Cha was doing exactly what William Overholt is hoping for today: offering North Korea a security guarantee. “For years” the North Korean delegations had been pushing for America to sign on to an agreement, written by themselves, and with language that was “basically the equivalence of a negative security assurance”.

This seemed an impossible, and unreasonable, stretch. So much so, that Cha was packing his bags for home as Washington looked over the draft. When the American administration did the unthinkable and approved the language, that should have been – by any reasonable account – the permanent end to the nuclear issue. But just as with the Agreed Framework before it, North Korea simply “put it in their pocket and moved on to the next thing…”

With lessons like these, it is hard to know why the same mistakes keep getting made in such confident yet clumsy ways. North Korea sees the world as leering enemies itching to conquer them only because this narrative serves an internal propaganda purpose. To speak about North Korea’s nuclear program in terms of ‘building a defensive capability’ is ahistorical, disregards the presence of propaganda and ideology, and ignores the experiences of those few people who have actually interacted with the country, its people, and – by proxy – the regime.

If all this type of shallow, groping approach to North Korea ever did, was muddy the waters of academia and policy, then that would be bad enough. But what people like William Overholt are missing when they speak in this way, is that they have inadvertently become mouth pieces for the North Korean regime – spreading just the type of misinformation that they are hoping for back in Pyongyang, but with an authority and reach that they could never achieve by themselves.

*** The related interview with Edward Reed on North Korean agricultural failures can be found here.

In Praise of John Bolton

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The delegation was having a face lift. Most people were keeping their titles, but most people were also paying a price – shuffled, relegated and transferred to quieter pastures. Eventually everything finds its limit, and the administration under George W. Bush had found theirs. Years of circular negotiations, and recent stuttering months – despite renewed vigour – meant an end to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In his place was a grizzled and stoically unpleasant ‘diplomat’, a different breed, with different eyes-on-the-world, and someone whose frustration at that point was impossible to conceal.

John Sawers, Political Director for the U.K. Foreign Office, had been working closely (from the European side) with John Bolton to achieve a nuclear/denuclearisation agreement with Iran. Head of Arms Control at the U.S. State Department, Bolton had been forced to follow the company line, pushed by Armitage, and beyond him National Security Advisor, Colin Powell. Sitting in the background of meetings, Bolton watched as his administration debated the nature and size of “even more carrots” that might coax Iran into abandoning its nuclear enrichment program.

Sawers, now facing Bolton as an equal partner, and the new head of the American delegation, “leaned over” during their first European-American meeting and said “let me know if I can help, in terms of achieving a common outcome to this”. From across the table, came an embittered, contempt raising, “frosty glare”. The crown had changed hands, and the new king was none-too-happy with how things had gone before him. After a few minutes, Bolton called the room to attention, “right, has everyone spoken?” In numbed silence, the European delegations watched as Bolton read from a single sheet of paper, and with it changed the entire course of negotiations.

It felt like a unique moment of affirmation. Bolton had seen – or at least he had believed – his worst intuitions about international relations play out. Iran, and nations like it, would never be “rational partner[s]” in his estimation, any declarations from them to the contrary would be deceptive, and administrations like his own – the rational partners – were naïve about this, to the point of pathology. The world was full of unreformable monsters. Unreformable because ideology is in many cases the most significant barrier that can be drawn between people, and because the rational partners of the world had lost their will – or even desire – to do the one thing they could to halt these monsters: enforce regime change.

When John Bolton re-entered the US administration under President Trump, he was the same person. Filling-out his resume between appointments, Bolton had established himself as a foreign policy wonk for the Republican Party and Fox News. Buoyed by Trump’s original bellicose approach to North Korea – “fire and fury”, “Little Rocket Man” – Bolton was soon dismayed by the haste and open-armed willingness to offer concessions, starting with the propaganda fumble that was the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony in South Korea.

Instincts purring again, Bolton saw this as North Korea “divert[ing] attention from its nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs”, and being allowed to do so by weak minded, and appeasement-focussed officials. The same officials, repeating the same tactics, that he believed had allowed Iran to both maintain its nuclear program and avoid internal collapse. Speaking endlessly about the need for pre-emptive war, and ‘the imminent threat’ from Pyongyang, when ordered back to the White House Bolton could have only assumed that this was a vindication of his world view.

It wouldn’t have taken him long to recognise his mistake. Arriving for work with the hopes of adding flesh to “Maximum Pressure” through tough new sanctions and the closing threat of war, the new U.S. National Security Advisor found a changing sentiment in the air. There might have been hopes that – as Dick Cheney did under George Bush – he could fill an outsized role in government, taking the reins where an under-educated, impulsive, and above-all-else disinterested, President would happily give them up; insisting only that credit returns without question, while failure stays delegated.

Bolton walked onto the job and found his staff hurriedly at work trying to organise the Singapore Summit. The detail was missing, the background work never done, but this wasn’t the problem that it might have been for previous National Security Advisors. Long tired of diplomatic procedure, this was an opportunity to cut through the mess, the soft tones and childlike hopefulness (throughout his decades working in federal bureaucracies, Bolton seemed to only grow less confident in the abilities of those around him). Face-to-face the American President could explain clearly the cliff edge that Kim Jong-un was on, and just how convincingly the North Koreans would have to work to avoid being pushed off.

Instead the meeting went ahead without concessions from Pyongyang and, inside the talks, when things did get face-to-face, vague Iran-esque commitments to denuclearisation were tentatively offered. Donald Trump walked out of this meeting speaking not of vindication and a return to pain and pressure, fire and fury, but of a successful summit; of an end to the North Korean nuclear threat, and even that “we fell in love”. Different motivations aside, Bolton was now looking at a Presidency that represented the same gullibility and lack of conviction that he previously only recognised in lower officials.

One of the forces pushing along those original negotiations with Iran was the belief that, with then-Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, the Western allies had a unique and fleeting opportunity: Khatami was not just seen as a moderate political mind, but also a reformer. Being missed here through the smiles, handshakes and gestures of kinship, was the ideology. Iran is not run from the Presidency, but from the Supreme Leader; and it is not a democracy, but an Islamic Republic. Social change doesn’t cascade downward from electoral change, nor upward from popular sentiment. Iranians are a people trapped by ideas (central to their national identity) that are not open for error-correction.

Cosmetic change and the promise of new figure heads, are as little cause for optimism as shifts in the reverse direction. After Khatami, the Iranian public elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a student leader of the 1979 hostage crisis, a man who would openly talk about the need to destroy Israel, and someone who occasionally abandoned his own country’s diplomatic rhetoric by linking the Iranian nuclear and missile programs together. Given this, is it any wonder that Barrack Obama’s agreement with Iran was so widely criticised when it allowed for the free continuation of the latter half of this self-professed joint-program.

The mistake, that many people have read into the mind of John Bolton, is believing that he sees things through a text-book realist lens. Under this view, the world is a dangerous place because all states will inevitably act in their own self-interest. Part of this self-interest involves achieving ever-greater power in relation to other states, and even when allies or agreements might be found, the true intentions of those other states can never be known. And so the only rational way to treat the outside world is as hostile, even when it doesn’t appear to be so.

The Bolton school of international relations doesn’t do this! It looks more fundamentally at what states and their leaders actually think. This doesn’t get us to a more pleasant world, or even one less inclined to conflict, but it is an important layer of nuance; however slight it might seem.

As an Islamic Republic, Iran is a country in need of enemies. They are simply promising something that is beyond all human knowledge – the construction of a perfect society, free from unease, difficulty, and future problems. When the regime in Tehran inevitably fails to do this – as it, of course, already has – it is left with a simple choice: collapse under its failure to achieve this central promise, or find someone to blame, preferably beyond its borders (internal enemies have more chance of convincing people of their innocence). America fits the bill due to its strength, Israel due to scripture.

All irrational memes – ideas that resist change and can only survive through stasis – have this feature in common. They need protecting from their own deterioration, so higher-and-higher walls are built around them; walls that soon become a self-imposed prison for the people inside. 

When the Korean peninsula was first divided, it inadvertently separated the core centres of agriculture (South) and manufacturing (North). More socially cohesive as well as piggy-backing off China and the Soviet Union, North Korea under Kim Il-sung closed this gap more successfully. And he needed to: the national ideology that brought him to, and kept him in, power, centred on outcompeting the South; his was the better of the two Koreas, and so from him reunification would soon flow downward.

As things twisted in the other direction, Kim Il-sung introduced Juche thought. Sure, their South Korean brothers and sisters were increasingly better off than them, but that was only if you judged ‘better off’ in material terms. North Korea had what the South didn’t – or so the propaganda read – ‘self-reliance’, a ‘unique Korean identity’ and a ‘motherly leadership that would always provide for them’. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and North Korean agriculture – suddenly unable to import at discounted rates – collapsed with it. In 1994, the ‘Great Famine’ started just as the ‘Great Leader’ – Kim Il-sung – died.

His son, Kim Jong-il, soon to be the ‘Dear Leader’, needed to quickly explain away the nationwide suffering and his inability to remedy it; his inability to live up to his father’s ideological claim to rule. So ‘Songun’ — or ‘military first’ — was born. The new leader was under attack from the outside world – predominantly America – and the risk was so great that he would not be able to properly take care of his people as a result. A fake existential threat to excuse a real one.

It worked, but it came at a cost. The act needed actors, costumes, sets, and above all else, to continue. The only way to pull it off was to actually militarise the society, down to the last citizen. Kim Jong-il became the ‘Head of the Army’, enlisted soldiers were politically retrained, all citizens were required to do ten years of military service, cities became fortified, propaganda talked endlessly about leering enemies, and military equipment was hastily modernised. The most significant and easily understandable symbol of this was the reanimation of a nuclear weapons program.

This is what Kim Jong-un inherited, a country that accepts him as leader because they accept the idea that he is protecting them from outside enemies; and when his ‘final victory’ comes, it will also bring about the reunification of their nation. Just like the Iranians, North Koreans are trapped by their own ideology. Sure they can stop stoking conflict, stop launching missiles, stop testing nuclear weapons, stop threatening war, but with this normalisation also comes an end to the leadership’s legitimacy.

Kim Jong-un cannot step down from the nuclear ledge he is on, but not because he feels at risk from external attack. There is nothing in what John Bolton has ever said that would make someone believe that he understands this background, or has ever looked into the different tracks of North Korean propaganda. And yet his instinct on North Korea was right. They are not serious about denuclearisation, and never could be without precipitating their own collapse. With Bolton gone, the American administration likely misunderstands – dangerously so – North Korea more than it did with him there.

It appears that John Bolton rarely let a day go by without telling people that North Korea could not be dealt with through negotiation, trust-building or trade-off. At the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, Bolton’s sceptical eyes shone through his President’s. Despite explicitly warning Kim Jong-un beforehand that another closure of the Yongbyon enrichment facility would not come close to satisfying his previous commitments, that was all he ended up offering. The sight of Donald Trump walking away from the chance to claim another superficial ‘victory’, was Bolton’s doing. And once again a vindication of everything Bolton already believed. North Korea was one of the monsters he saw in the world, and when you meet such a creature there are only two choices: “live with a North Korea with nuclear weapons, or look at military force”.

It’s when things get prescriptive that the Bolton mindset most palpably fails, doesn’t check its speed, refuses to break, and careens out-of-control around a much-too-sharp bend in the road. Not one to scoff at the value of sanctions, during his brief recess appointment as Ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton convinced the Security Council (for the first time) to begin economic restrictions on North Korea specifically for its nuclear weapons programs. But ideally, things should be a lot more hands-on. Bolton saw an international landscape that could, and should, be sculpted to measurement; even to the point of ignoring the expressed wills of the parties involved and instead personally devising a “three-state solution” for the Palestinian territories (under which, inexplicably, there was still no room for a Palestinian state).

This is where most of the recent unease around John Bolton seems to have come from. If he was capable of turning Trump’s back – if only briefly – on North Korea, then what else could he do? How much war, conflict and regime change would he commit America to if only he was given rein to do so by a delinquent president? (The only war that Bolton seems to have not approved of was the one he avoided serving in, despite being drafted: “I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy… I considered the war in Vietnam already lost”).

Yet, without the breakdown of normal order, the John Bolton’s of this world have their place. It is uncertain what new-National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, will do, nor the influence that he will have. However, we do know what he is unlikely not to be – headstrong, principled and defiant (the things that seemed to have brought about Bolton’s forced resignation). This is a loss to the administration and to the country. Bolton’s was a voice that deserved to be in the discussion – because, if for nothing else, he occasionally got things right in moments when everyone else was wrong.

When Bolton faced-down his European counterparts during the Iranian nuclear negotiations – “right, has everyone spoken?” – the sheet of paper that he read from outlined a simple new strategy: Iran would need to suspend all of its uranium enrichment, come into line with all of its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations, and until this happened nothing would even be considered in return.

At the time, new, advanced, and previously undisclosed centrifuges were being discovered in secret sites across Iran almost by the month – as were the numerous ways that Iran had been cheating on their safeguard obligations. Contrary to John Bolton, the Europeans however still saw Iran as a rational actor that was genuinely interested in re-entering the international community.

Soon, however, coalition troops across the border in Iraq were being killed by new, sophisticated, Iranian manufactured, improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Political Director for the U.K. Foreign Office, and the man that Bolton had butted heads most significantly with over Iran, John Sawers, then received a phone call from Tehran with a revised negotiating position. In Sawers’ words: “the Iranians wanted to be able to strike a deal whereby they stop killing our forces in Iraq, in return for them being allowed to carry on with their nuclear program”.

The Japan-Korea Trade War – An Analogy

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Growing up he torments you, as older brothers tend to do. He is bigger, stronger, and he feels entitled. The bullying becomes violence, and then brutality. You complain, you plead, and you ask for help from family, neighbours, friends; anyone who might listen. They ignore you – they have other things to worry about. These are, after all, different times; pain and suffering is everywhere.

The years stretch-on, and buoyed by his own strength, your brother’s cruelty escalates. Soon he goes seeking new victims, and soon he overreaches. He bumps into someone more powerful, with more resources, and with the will to stand-up to him.

Defeated, beaten and on his knees, your brother begs for forgiveness. And to your horror, he is granted it. The man that stepped-up to conquer your brother – and so freeing you from his tyranny – is also the man that picks your brother out of the dirt, pulls him back to his feet, brushes off his clothes, and treats his wounds immediately after the fight.

You are liberated, but you are angry.

Years later you are in a bar, enjoying a night out with friends, and your brother walks in, happy, confident, and the life of the party. He looks different, older, changed. He speaks in softer tones, and with different language; he seems happy.

After a few minutes, he sees you from across the room, notably lowers his tone, and smiles through calm eyes and pursed lips. Conscious of your past, and of the pain he once inflicted upon you, he is now – as he has been in previous encounters – trying to come across as respectful, humble, even meek. It’s not enough! It never has been.

Occasionally you can forget, but the trauma always bounces back, and always feels fresh. He has apologised to you more than once over the years, sitting down, listening to your grief, revisiting the past, and even once handing over money for those “lost years”.

Looking at him now, that familiar anger grows inside you, the feeling that he got off too lightly. You notice that he is wearing nicer clothes than you, his friends appear more interesting than yours, and you know already that he has a better job. Seeing him like this makes you feel small again, his strength a memory of a weakened version of yourself.

Now in a rage, you slam down your drink and walk over to confront your brother. You loudly demand another apology, and that he write you another cheque on the spot. He stares back at you sedately, and says “no”. He has reformed himself, he says, never relapsing into the aggressive man that he once was, and has prostrated himself on too many occasions; always to be asked to do so again only a few years later.

Besides”, he continues, “what is the point in an apology if it never ‘actually’ changes anything, if it doesn’t improve things between us?

Comfortable in your moral claim, and familiar with him yielding to your righteousness, you are taken aback by this change. You fumble over your words and what to do next. But you have made a scene, and now everyone in the bar is watching you. Feeling that you can’t back down without losing something important about yourself, without again becoming that bullied little boy, you challenge him to a fight. Surprising you again, he accepts!

Scared, but committed, you shove him. He shoves you back a little harder. You punch him, and he punches you back just a little harder. You are slowly getting beat up. A panicked realisation builds-up inside you – you are in over your head! Your brother is still bigger than you, and undeniably stronger. Sure, you can now hurt him, but not to the extent that he can hurt you. You can’t win this fight!

Through the blood and the bruises you try to keep up a confident act, but your poise is fading. It dawns on you rapidly that the only way out of this is to walk away, and to hope that you don’t look too sheepish while doing so.

The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 5: David Deutsch, the Future and Infinity

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The problem of how knowledge accumulates in the world – of how it is that we can know anything at all – is the most important lesson that our species could ever learn. The implications of this understanding reach into every field of study, into every improvement, into everything we do or could ever possibly do. And so understandably – for most of our history – it was also the philosophical problem that attracted the sharpest minds, the most intellectual energy, and which nagged most heavily upon us by our consistent failure to solve it.

And yet when Karl Popper did so, very few people paid any attention, and those who did showed a remarkable ability – despite the simplicity of his answer – to misunderstand him. Before Popper – despite the gap in our knowledge – everything felt a little more elegant, neat and high minded. It was all completely wrong, but it was also, quite consciously, a race to the top; or the bottom depending on your metaphor. People were searching for a foundation, the bedrock of who we are, and a place from where we could build ourselves up into giants. The impulse was noble, and yet entirely misguided – the only thing they were right about was the ‘giant’ part.

Instead of seeking to understand the foundation of knowledge, Popper showed instead that knowledge can’t possibly have one. A foundation to knowledge, is a claim that something is so incontrovertible that it cannot be challenged, because the very question ‘why is that the foundation and not something else?’ is a state of doubt, and a foundation is, by definition, an obvious truth. And it is only once you are certain about a foundation that you can then be certain about the truths you build upon it. Something that can be questioned, is something that isn’t certain.

This is a clean, neat and reductionary way of thinking about the problem of knowledge – it is also totalitarian, and doesn’t take into account the place in which we actually find ourselves, and what is actually available to us. Popper solved this problem by asking a different question – the correct question – and so showed that our interactions with the world, and even ourselves, is a theory-laden process; we never perceive anything as it actually is. Our senses and instincts always lead us astray, because unseen theories about reality (knowledge) don’t resemble what we see. We only come to true theories through long chains of conjecture. If knowledge came to us directly from the senses, then our theory about stars for example would still hold that they are small, cold, twinkling objects; rather than massive, hot spheres of nuclear explosions.

This difficult relationship that we have with reality, means that the natural state of things is error. We are wrong about everything, all the time. And when we do believe that something is true, it can never be said to be for certain; only that it is the best available theory that we currently have. Rather than a hierarchical order, where truth builds upon truth like bricks upon a steady and unchanging foundation, the process of knowledge creation is like being dropped blindfolded, in the middle of the night, into a vast and unfamiliar swamp. The mud immediately reaches your waist, and you have no idea what is the best direction to head for dry land. All you can do is take a tentative step forward in any one direction (conjecture), and once there make a judgement as to whether it feels better or worse than where you started from. If you judge it to be worse (refutation) – the water is deeper or the mud thicker – you don’t necessarily move back to where you began, but perhaps in a completely different direction that you feel (again conjecture) might be better than both. And so on.

Most unsettling about this, is the realisation that when you finally, and painstakingly, crisscross your way – after countless corrections – toward a path that feels like progress, you can still never be sure that you are actually heading in the right direction. The water may be getting shallower, the ground under your feet feeling more solid, the swarms of mosquitoes less thick and less aggressive, but that steady incline you are on might just be a small sandbar in an otherwise deeper and more inhospitable part of the swamp. Your next step takes you over its edge, and now with water above your head you are swimming desperately back the way you came (again refutation).

When your solution to a problem sounds like this, is it any wonder that people instinctively turn away? But this is the same instinct that causes people to turn away from democracy in favour of authoritarianism, to prefer the status quo to social progress, and to fear technology and the future – worst of all, to not appreciate the infinite reach of human beings.

David Deutsch – an Oxford physicist and the father of quantum computation – came to Karl Popper in the tragic way that most people do – by chance and accident. It was an off-hand comment by a university professor who, despite not quite understanding Popper, was aware that Popper had solved the problem of how knowledge accumulates in the world. Immediately recognising that he was dealing with a higher level of argument than what he had encountered before, that small poke sent Deutsch off in new directions. There were no fudges, no strains of reasoning; the world Popper drew a light on was messy, but his theory was clean-edged and exact.

Everything that Deutsch would do from this moment had the unmistakable echoes of Karl Popper behind it. And though Popper embraced the mess and grind because it was true, Deutsch also saw something beyond this. There was suddenly unique reason to be optimistic, not simply because progress could be made, but that we – if we play our cards right – will be able to understand and control the universe without limit; that progress could be literally infinite.

It is a broad and expansive line that takes us back to the birth of our species in the Great Rift Valley. Evolving as we did in that eastern corner of Africa, things appeared perfect by most metrics that we use today – the skies were clear, the rivers clean, and the surrounding environment as untouched by our footprint as by that of any other animal. Of course, it was also a situation for which we were genetically well suited. And yet we never had it so bad – stalked by predators, constantly on the edge of starvation, and with no protection from extreme weather, every moment was one of suffering and fear. We know now from the fossil record – just as has been the case with all other species that have ever existed – that this same environment in which we evolved, almost killed us.

It all comes down to the limitations of genetic knowledge. Relying upon undirected mutations, the constant improvements needed to keep ahead of natural changes in the environment, are just not something that evolution is capable of doing; at least not at the speed required. But even if it were able to do so, then those benefits would also apply to other animals (including our predators), and we would still have to suffer the same horrors and constant risk of extinction by virtue of the ensuing evolutionary arms race (micro-organisms and bacteria such as cholera bacillus evolved in this way specifically to kill human beings).

The only way that we ever managed to keep our heads above water, was with a new type of knowledge altogether – ‘explanatory knowledge’. No longer relying on the information in our genes, we could suddenly create knowledge ourselves. The process behind this remained a mystery until Karl Popper came along, but nonetheless it pulled us slightly out of the mud, and gave us the ability to dramatically change the world around us… if we chose to. The trouble was, people rarely ever did.

The immediate descendants of those people in the Great Rift Valley, despite migrating to new territory, and spreading out across the world, continued to live lives of incredible misery and desperation – the threat of death and extinction always biting at their heels. They had brains identical to our own, and so they also had the capacity to improve things exponentially. Yet – again from the archaeological and anthropological records – we know that from the standing point of any individual, nothing ever improved; the world that people were born into was also the world they died in (the artefacts – technology – we find from these periods can only be measured to an accuracy of about 10,000 years). The natural state of things was complete-and-utter stasis. This is hard to imagine based on how fast technology is improving today, and even harder to imagine when we realise that these people desired change just as much as we currently do.

Whether it was better hunting methods, better shelter, better clothing or better ways to protect themselves, our ancestors were constantly aware of how they wanted to improve their lives – they just didn’t know how to. And following this pattern, the vast majority of human history became one of unimaginable suffering, terror and extinction – right up until the Enlightenment

What changed at this moment, and what hadn’t existed until then (or at least hadn’t survived its early moments), was the establishment of what Deutsch calls a “tradition of criticism”. It came about largely through accident, and largely without people understanding its significance, but they had stumbled onto – in part – Karl Popper’s breakthrough long before he was born. Before this, all ‘traditions’ did just the opposite – they sought to avoid criticism, to avoid change, and to maintain stasis. The importance of this moment isn’t properly appreciated, because neither are the horrors of the static societies that came before it.

Unwilling to allow criticism, and therefore unable to make progress, we just don’t have any real record for most of these unchanging civilizations. They just didn’t survive long enough to etch themselves too deeply into history. Unable to innovate and correct errors, the first major, unexpected problem that came their way invariably wiped them out.

It was only by rejecting so-called authorities, and being free to question and criticise the world around us, that we began making rapid progress. And yet this still felt to many as cold comfort. We were improving our lives in remarkable ways, and yet for every problem we solved, new unforeseen problems were created (the industrial revolution was a solution to poverty, only for the by-product of those improved living standards – carbon – to become an existential threat of its own).

It still felt like we were only just a step or two ahead of death. That sooner-or-later we would begin to push-up against the ultimate limits of our knowledge, and so the next problem we faced could be a step too far – David Deutsch saw something different. Just as Popper had accepted the messy reality of things before him, Deutsch too started from a point of acceptance - “we shall never reach anything like an unproblematic state”. And so it is true that we might be doomed, but not regardless of what we choose to do. We can survive!

Every time we make progress we are solving problems, and every time we solve a problem, of any kind, we are creating new problems – but they are also better problems. The fact that problems keep arising, is never something that we will be able to fix. To be able to do so, would entail having access to future knowledge, to understand the unforeseeable. Yet despite not being able to comprehend future knowledge, we do have the capacity to deal with it – without limit. It all comes from that unique ability of ours to create explanatory knowledge, because there exists an intimate relationship between explaining the world and controlling it.

This is something that we do all the time, in what now often seems mundane ways. The world around us today, just as it was for our ancestors in the Great Rift Valley, is still a death trap. The only reason it doesn’t feel as such anymore, is by virtue of the explanatory knowledge we have already created. We no longer think about the problems of staying warm in winter, ensuring a constant food supply, or of avoiding waste-borne diseases, only because we have already invented clothing, agriculture and sewerage systems. The only people that do still think about these things, are those people trying to improve them (error-correction). Without the layers of technology that we have already built around us, most of us would die almost immediately – and yet for the most part we are thriving.

The only thing that makes any environment hospitable, is what the inhabitants of it actually know. And what we know, we can control. We might still fail to solve problems in time – in which case we will go the way of all other life – but through a commitment to learn from, and correct our mistakes – to always move on and embrace better-and-better problems – we have a chance… our only chance. And there is reason to be optimistic here. It is a messy, reality-based optimism just like Popper’s theory of knowledge – but also like Popper it is precise and doesn’t hinge upon utopianism.

It starts by doing away with hopes of prevention or delay. Approaches like these can be useful in dealing with any individual problem, but they can never constitute a future strategy in themselves. Trying to protect against – or trying to limit once they happen – future problems that we don’t yet know about, is a strategy that will quickly find its ceiling. It has the same logic of being told by a doctor that instead of treating your broken leg, he will instead show you how to avoid breaking it again in the future. For all its high-minded intent, it does nothing for your predicament right now – and in terms of existential threats, it means we only have to be wrong once for the whole project of humanity to end. To focus on problem avoidance rather than problem solving, will achieve very little of either.

Not only are these threats out there, and not only do we not know what they are, let alone how to deal with them, but there are also enemies of civilization – people who would seek to end the whole project by their own hand. Yet what all these problems have in common is their solubility, and what all these people have in common is that they are wrong. Thinking otherwise is not just to adopt the mindset of a static society, but also to adopt a mindset that – according to Deutsch – is deeply unscientific. Karl Popper has given us the tools to always stay ahead of these problems and these people, but it requires nothing less than a total commitment to achieving rapid, open-ended progress – the type of progress that static society ideology is just not capable of.

But this is not just a parochial arms race addressing cosmologically insignificant events, it is also our ‘Beginning of Infinity’. Stepping firmly ahead of Popper now, Deutsch saw what for some people might sound like a truism but – yet just like with Popper before him – has been almost completely misunderstood. That is, ‘any physical transformation not explicitly forbidden by the laws of nature, is achievable given the right knowledge’. It is hard for the full gravity of that statement to set in. It means that we can reach out across the universe, manipulate planets and stars as easily as we now do TV channels, and regulate the conditions of galaxies as easily as we now regulate the temperature of bedrooms. It means that the alchemists were onto something, they only failed to create gold because they didn’t have enough knowledge.

If there is a limit to what we can achieve, then that limit is also discoverable, comprehensible, and a law of nature. In the absence of such a law, everything – absolutely everything – is possible. And so we are capable of changing everything (the universe) at will, because there can be no such thing as a solution beyond our reach. Sure our problems often feel parochial – and they often are – but this is just because we are only at the beginning of David Deutsch’s infinity (and always will be).

When people talk about our niche in the universe being precarious, that we are insignificant, and so we need to be cautious and humble in what we do and what we desire, they are doing the one thing that will spell the end of humanity – turning away from rapid, open-ended progress, and toward stasis and stagnation. But perhaps worse, they are wrong! As beings capable of creating new knowledge (explanatory knowledge), and therefore of affecting the universe without limit, it follows from physics that we are of the deepest cosmic significance.

It is hard to imagine a universe without limitation in this way – and so the tendency is to imagine instead that even though explanatory knowledge has this unique reach to it, and although we have the capacity to create explanatory knowledge, we are still limited by our biology. Maybe other beings will be able to control the universe in this unbounded way, maybe even better evolved versions of ourselves in millions of years’ time, but not us! We are too broken, too incomplete, too much a product of our messy evolution. This misses the point of explanatory knowledge, and with it the lesson of universality.

Explanatory knowledge is a launch point, an escape valve after which there cannot be any other limitations, because with explanatory knowledge those limitations (problems) can simply be solved. And if we decide that the problem is our biological selves, then we could also simply solve this through improvements in our culture or nano-surgery in our brains. Without a foundation, our minds are completely fungible, and expandable without limit – we are entirely re-writable software. The principle of the ‘Universality of Computation’ means that there can be only one way of doing computation, and so the structure of our minds already contains the structure of everything. It feels god-like, but it is true, we are universal beings!

An open-ended stream of explanations is always available to us. The limitation is never resources (because all resources only become so by virtue of what people actually know) but only knowledge. It is never going to be pretty, but we can begin to step ourselves out of Karl Popper’s swamp, and to do so at ever greater speed. Progress of this kind in any one area, is also intimately linked with knowledge and progress in other areas; if technology continues to lead the way in this regard, as it does today, then progress in politics and morality will follow closely behind. The only dangerous thing we can do, is to think that some solutions are beyond our reach. “What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.”

The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 4: Social Progress, Morality and Rugby

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It is all a lot more fundamental than it sounds – it’s a question of how knowledge accumulates in the world.

There is an unnecessary focus on details here, but they do need restating: Israel Folau is a hulking – and once much loved – Australian rugby player who takes his religious faith seriously. So serious in fact, that he is now willing to risk his career and reputation over the question of whether or not gay people are going to hell. He thinks they are, and that they can still be saved if only they repent and reform. Australian Rugby thinks differently, and so seemingly parochial questions of offense, freedoms, and contractual responsibilities are being arbitrated in strangely public ways.

This is only because – despite Karl Popper solving the issue a century ago – most people still don’t understand how it is that we can know anything; how it is that knowledge develops, and with it how progress – moral or technological – is ever possible. It is not an overstatement to say that we have forgotten the most important lesson that our species could ever learn.

The details of what was said, what was breeched, who was offended, and what freedoms are protected, just don’t matter when it comes to the question of what should be done about Israel Folau. The improvement in gay rights over recent decades is undoubtedly a positive, and not something that most people would want to wind back. But though the attachment to this progress is charged with heavy emotion, the only reason that it isn’t reversed, is one that is cold, impersonal, and above all, explanatory.

It has always tended to lag behind technology, but moral progress is happening all around us, all the time. But that doesn’t mean that the growth of moral knowledge (and knowledge in general) is linear. All theories that claim to start from a foundation are not only false, but cruel. The idea that something is known for certain, carries the imputation that questioning that certainty deserves punishment. Because only someone who is deliberately malicious dares to criticise what they know to be true.

It is unsurprising then, that for most of human history the permanent state of things has been stagnation and suppression. Every time we discover new knowledge, the next question can always be ‘why that way, and not another’. A foundation doesn’t allow this – and without questioning of this kind we cannot discover problems, let alone solve them. And so until the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, in the course of any given human life nothing ever really improved. The world you were born into was the world you died in; almost entirely unchanged.

For these people, the problem wasn’t bad ideas – because bad ideas are the general state of things – but rather ideas about the world that discouraged change. New ways of organising political institutions, health care, marriage, or even new ways of understanding what constitutes a good life for example, weren’t just dismissed as wrong, but silenced as heretical. The problem here is the issue of fundamentals – people believed that knowledge came from authorities, and that this knowledge was also self-evident.

With this bug in our thinking, a large chunk of philosophical thought was dedicated to questions of ‘who should rule’ or ‘how do we get the best people into power’. The question itself was wrong. Instead of asking who should rule, Karl Popper turned it over and wanted instead to know ‘how do we best remove bad leaders’. What he had stumbled on was an understanding that the natural state of things is error, and that the truth is never obvious. So what is needed is not authorities, but constant error-correction and a tradition of criticism – a commitment to rapid change and recursive improvement.

This doesn’t mean that no one can ever say that a particular moral theory is better than another, but rather that moral progress is available to us only because no one has a claim – as they did for most of our history – to understand the future growth of knowledge. We have come a long way, and every piece of that progress was fought tooth-and-nail by people claiming to know what was always beyond them (and always an obvious tautology): tomorrow’s knowledge, today.

This also applied to the advocacy of gay rights. At every step people were saying not just that homosexuality was immoral and therefore should be illegal or limited, but also that this would remain true into the future. You only have to go back fifteen or twenty years and the consensus in every country – no matter how enlightened – was against gay marriage… at a minimum. This was – at the time – as foundational a moral principle as that of murder or theft being wrong.

It was only by embracing Karl Popper, and the acceptance that no truth is so incontrovertible that it cannot be questioned, that gay rights advocates ever got a hearing, and then slowly managed to snowball those early noises into broader acceptance, and eventually social change.

The change happened by explanation. By the open challenge of one set of ideas, by a better set of ideas. People were not shamed or coerced into changing their minds, they were convinced. This is how knowledge works: most of us have this strange impression that knowledge is literally transferable, that it can be downloaded from one person to another. This is wrong in so many ways – it can’t possibly exist like this. When someone changes their mind or gains some form of new knowledge, they have in fact given it to themselves – acquired only, and always, through that individual’s creative engagement with it.

The set of problems that got Karl Popper motivated here, was that of induction and empiricism. Essentially the claims that we comprehend the world through our senses, and that our experienced reality resembles unexperienced true theories. Popper again turned this over – our thoughts about the world only come to us through long chains of conjecture; reality is always theory laden, and so it is always deceptive. 

People listened, they thought about it, and finally they came to understand that the gay rights movement was not just championing moral change, but moral improvement. Arguments against this were less credible, were built on bad explanations, and so proved to be less convincing over time.

Popper exposed the messiness of our enterprise here. There is no hierarchy to knowledge, and what feels like truth or progress might be revealed as false, or as regression, at any moment. Any claim to the contrary is a claim to understand what is impossible – the future growth of knowledge. Considering how far we have come in recent years, or indeed how the morality of only a few hundred years ago now seems abhorrent to us, the only reasonable thing to project is that our moral standards will continue to improve. And our descendants in a hundred years will look back on us with the same – if not greater – level of disgust, and in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is as sure as anything that we understand in science or philosophy – prophesy is not available to us. All we can know is that moral improvements are coming our way – if we play our cards right. Just what those improvements are likely to be, we can never know until we have the explanations.

The lesson here – and particularly for people wanting to protect gay rights – cannot be clearer: it is always a mistake to try to silence opposition and criticism, no matter how upsetting those arguments may be. If we allow institutions to impose today’s moral values by coercion, then we must also accept that this would have mandated that those early gay rights advocates – openly challenging accepted norms and offending the standards of their day – be silenced also. It may feel like the compassionate thing to do, but protecting feelings also means that soon enough the immoral, the barbaric, and bigoted, will also have that tool in their arsenal.

Forget gay marriage, forget legalisation of homosexuality at all for that matter. If the values of our predecessors had been immune from criticism – in the same way that certain people now want to be immune from Israel Folau’s criticism – then we would still have those old values today. Women would still be second class citizens, racism would be the norm, and the thought of allowing gay men and women a voice would be a great blasphemy.

The second half of Popper’s equation – after conjecture – is refutation. It is not that we adopt theories as true, but only that we don’t discard them as false if they survive in the face of criticism. Without this second step, we are only ever guessing blindly at truth – rigorous testing knocks down bad ideas, leaves good ideas standing, and only then is progress possible.

So it is always a mistake to allow anyone to wall-off their truth claims. And we should not respect anyone who – once they have achieved the small piece of salutary progress that matters most to them – would then seek to shut down all criticism of that progress. Having benefited from Popper’s open society, and their freedom to speak their mind without limit, they would seek to burn the bridges behind them, and again claim to be the final arbiters of truth. If silencing people by the moral standards of the day were appropriate, then we would still be living in the dark ages. 

Truth has a rare property that separates it from falsehood: it is strengthened by criticism and not weakened. It doesn’t need to be shielded, or protected – the more people are allowed to hammer away at it, the clearer it becomes. Israel Folau, if he could, would turn back the clock not just on gay rights but also on (in his own words) “drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters”. We have a choice: to challenge him and let his arguments fail on their own grounds, to prove him wrong; or to simply – and dangerously – insist that he shuts up.

Israel Folau might lose his court case, and if so it will be on the principle that employers have the right to impose their moral values – or the consensus values of society – upon their employees. This is a loss for everyone involved. It means we are again in the business of outsourcing our truth claims to authorities, of empowering those people with the ability to silence dissent, and so we are also in the business of locking in the values of today against future change. Instead Karl Popper would have us meet Israel Folau’s challenge head on, test his understanding of gay rights against our own, and break him down only with argument. Popper knew, as so many people seem to have now forgotten, that the source of all tyranny comes from the idea that the truth is manifest…

From here, the possibilities for what we can do, and what we can become, are literally infinite… Continued in part 5

The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 3: Totalitarianism and Tiananmen

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It is something so instinctively true that it barely needs repeating – democracy matters because it is about freedom, rights and empowerment. It satisfies, as much as anything, an emotional need. And yet this is completely wrong! So much so, that thinking of this kind is in fact a pathway in the opposite direction – toward domination, disenfranchisement and totalitarianism.

It is true that we should be able to elect and remove our political leaders, and yet by focussing on the hiring process we edge ourselves closer to tyranny – wilfully handing over the keys to our own society. Writing during the rise of Nazism, Karl Popper applied his “war effort” to understanding the psychology of totalitarianism. Where most people saw answers in biology or social conditioning, Popper instead found a technical – even mundane – sounding truth. It packaged up other such theories, simplified the whole process, and exposed the unlikely space that totalitarianism needs to survive. And having come so far, having embraced democracy so substantially today, it is a risk that we – often – no longer recognise.

The ability to elect our political leaders does nothing to ensure that those leaders won’t become tyrannical, or even that democracy will be a better functioning system than an authoritarian one. In fact it has almost become fashionable today for people to question the value of the democratic systems we live under, and to do so in comparison with the rise of seemingly cleaner, faster growing, and less problematic systems like that in China today. From all directions it feels like non-despotic, developmentally-focussed, authoritarian regimes like these are simply capable of things that democracies are not.

Sure, the trade-off is slightly unpleasant, but for many people it feels increasingly acceptable: the citizens have their voices marginalised or ignored, and in return unbelievably impressive things can be achieved. Without concern for civil liberties, crime can be addressed a lot more swiftly and comprehensively, limitations on development can be removed without fuss, and large-scale national policies can be introduced without regional pushback or legal challenges. The ability of the Chinese government to reach decisively into society, to mobilize people and resources, and to control the direction of change and progress so completely, feels not only like a good thing, but also exactly what most modern democracies are lacking.

Marred by political infighting, bogged down by the need for compromise, limited by parliamentary diversity, and constrained by the legal challenges of minor groups, democracy increasingly feels middling, messy and unproductive. So we get national, resigned-to-the-outcome mantras like ‘it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they are all the same’. Democracies just don’t feel designed for rapid progress, or even for passing good policies into law. And in the event that the stars do align in this regard, the next electoral cycle is always never too far away, and any good work can be undone by a new government, incentivised by the adversarial nature of our politics to roll back the changes even if they agree with the previous policies.

This stasis and inaction is most apparent when compared with Chinese style authoritarianism. Crackdowns like that in Tiananmen Square are unpleasant, and something most people would not like to see happen in their own country. But as a price to pay for a far superior political system, and the promise of noticeable improvements in their lives, those same people often become envious. It begins to look like a compromise worth making. And this is where the discussion ends, in a simple choice between a system that makes rapid progress, and a system that respects individual rights; of which the right to vote is one.

This is a completely false understanding of the value of democracy, and with it the limitations of authoritarianism. Democracy isn’t about electing the best leaders, it’s about removing bad ones as quickly, effectively and bloodlessly as possible. There is a historical element in our failure to understand Karl Popper here – and our failure to understand the origins of totalitarianism. The Chinese state represents a long tradition – not limited to any country or people – as universal as anything else we have.

Our first clearly recognisable attempt at an Enlightenment – ancient Athens – was not an attempt to keep things the same, but rather to open-up old ideas, values and institutions to criticism; and so with it bring about change. Socrates paid the ultimate price for this, famously put to death for the charge of ‘corrupting the youth’. Traumatised by this moment, yet also emboldened by his teacher’s courage, Plato internalised a reasonably sensible lesson. He sought to avoid these types of mistakes by devising a better, perfect society, governed by perfect leaders. As Plato saw Socrates’ death as a problem of who held power – in this case they weren’t the right people, and so they couldn’t see the mistake they were making. The idea of ruling by authority, or of deferring to traditions, wasn’t wrong in itself – it was only that they had the wrong authorities and wrong traditions.

And this instinct – now replicated in places like China – is understandable. It is a product of what Popper called the “strain of civilization” – the deep insecurity that comes from a rejection of tribalism (belonging) and the embrace of fallibilism. The idea that all authorities, regardless of their claims to knowledge, are hopelessly flawed (just like the rest of us) and so the only reasonable thing to do is to shake-off the claims of parent-figures, and to embrace a world whose natural state is error. It’s not easy. Personal responsibility and individual freedom are always inseparable from anxiety, fear and isolation. It is the shift away from the childlike impulse to find a protective and all-knowing parent. And for Popper, it is the choice between living in an ‘Open Society’ or a ‘Closed Society’.

And for all the well-meaning intentions of Plato, he couldn’t bring himself to make the adult choice. By dreaming up the perfect ‘Republic’, he was consciously creating a hierarchical order that could never be challenged, never be changed, and so had the same qualities of the system that he wanted to reform. Stuck on the question of “who should rule?”, he was – without realising it – simply trying to replace one tyranny with another. And this is where the arguments in favour of modern totalitarianisms, like that in China, begin to breakdown. The person willing to abrogate their rights in exchange for increased wealth, standards of living, and global power, is still making a mistake on those very grounds.

China has a one-party political system, and for the sake of argument let us afford those people at the top of the party (those people running the country) something that no leader ever deserves – good intentions. Let’s just say they aren’t in it for themselves, but only for the betterment of the Chinese nation – and that they accept the responsibility to rule only because they honestly see no one else who is better qualified. They see themselves as best fitting Plato’s criterion for government – they are the best people for the job. And from their position they probably feel this is true, which again runs us a little closer to the real issue here.

The protestors in Tiananmen Square thirty years ago were fighting against corruption and for democracy, yet what they were really doing was something a lot simpler – they were offering criticism. There were certain things about Chinese society – foremost their lack of a say in how they were being governed – that they disagreed with. And they chose to protest in the manner they did, only because they didn’t have any other forum under which to try and correct the errors they believed they had found. However, the Chinese government saw only a break in social harmony, a risk to economic growth, and the feeling of history repeating itself and their country collapsing back into internal conflict and maybe even civil war. It’s the same impulse that Plato had when he wrote that social justice “is nothing but health, unity and stability of the collective body”.

Individuals on the streets, blockading public areas, and disrupting everyday life, can certainly have an unpleasant feel about it. Anyone that disagrees with the purpose of their protest is also likely to resent the imposition. The decision made by the Chinese government on June 4th in Tiananmen Square was misunderstood by those on both ends of it. The values underlying it – the desire for a direct political voice vs. the desire to maintain harmony at all costs – obscured what was actually happening. It sounded again like a question of ‘who should rule?’, but it was a plain – even mundane – attempt to error-correct mistakes. And whether it is Plato in Athens or Deng Xiaoping in China, the rejection of avenues to error-correction has implications far beyond any individual event.

Both Plato’s ‘Republic’ and modern day China are examples of Closed Societies – and both charge forward toward the same strange and impossible place – the idea that tomorrow’s knowledge can be known today. To reject ideas as wrong – which happens every day in democracies around the world – is a completely different behaviour from that of stopping new ideas from ever bubbling-up, from ever being voiced let alone heard, and from the impact of those ideas ever being felt. The latter might feel cleaner, more efficient, and even more appropriate if the ideas in question appear ridiculous, but what is being lost is more than messiness – it is also the only means by which we can actually improve things.

Authoritarianism is a surrender of the individual – the interests of any one person in favour of the interests of the state. The sacrifice in lives and suffering under the crackdown at Tiananmen was easily justified under the shadow of China’s collective strength and prosperity. This is a hallmark of all authoritarianisms – it comes in different forms, in different justifications, and with different ‘higher’ principles, but the individual is always expendable when compared to the state. This is not just possible to accept, but even axiomatic, once a certain conception of history becomes mainstream truth. That is, the flow of history is governed by predictable laws, that these laws are easily comprehensible, and that they point in a clear direction; an end-game. This is ‘Historicism’, and the mistake that Popper saw in it, that so many people seemed to have strangely missed – or naively bought into – was not just the claim that the truth is manifest, but that the future is also predictable.

Plato built his Republic on this foundation, as did almost every other political philosopher that came after him. Whether it was based on aristocratic order, divine rule, race-based nationalism, or workers seizing the means of production, all these visions involved focussing on a small set of known problems and then imagining that their resolution would be the last ones ever needed. There simply wouldn’t be any more problems, or that any future problems would be parochial matters; tinkering on the fringes. In short, they were all utopian. Before the full horrors of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union were widely known, Popper knew what they would be. Systems which elevate the collective above the individual, that censor criticism, that centralise control, and that impose rigid hierarchies, are systems predisposed to tyranny and horror.  

Which brings us back to those moments in Tiananmen, and the apparent successes of Chinese authoritarianism. Many critics saw the crackdown as a sign of a deeper illness, something that might not kill its host right away, but that in time, inexorably, would do so. The hope they shared was that political defiance – no matter how ineffectual it might feel at the time – will slowly shift people’s perceptions, further unrest will grow, and eventually it all snowballs into political overthrow.

Though coming from a different direction, there is a touch of Historicism about this type of thinking too. All questions of inevitability are fallacies. The sickness in the Chinese model has nothing to do with their ability – or lack thereof – to control future dissent, but rather the lack of error-correction that they are allowing into their political decision-making. By creating a system that supersedes the individual, China – and other authoritarianisms – are claiming an immunity to error; or that it is enough for the select few people in positions of power to error-correct each other, in house.

Popper showed that all knowledge is conjectural. It doesn’t come to us through the senses, and our experiences of the world around us don’t reveal true theories; instead everything is theory laden. The fact that we can ever know anything is only by an uncertain method of proposing theories (educated guesses), and then testing those theories against criticism – conjecture and refutation. At the point when a theory survives exposure to the best available criticism, we don’t adopt it as true, we only don’t reject it as false; always leaving open the possibility that future criticisms – which we can’t conceive of today – might force us to abandon it altogether.

Being wrong is the natural state of things, and no truth can ever be so incontrovertible that it should be walled-off from criticism. To do so, is to claim an understanding of what is not available to anyone – the future growth of knowledge. Truth and progress only come about through the open challenge of one set of ideas by another – bad ideas are destroyed by this process, and good ones are strengthened.

Popper matched his political theory to this theory of knowledge. Instead of reaching too far, and imposing too many values that might be hard to challenge or change, democracy should be minimalist – designed to do nothing more than fix mistakes by removing bad leaders and bad policies quickly, and without violence. And constitutions – or any other means of defending the value of democracy – should simply “make anti-democratic experiences too costly for those who try them: much more costly than a democratic compromise”.

By silencing the protestors at Tiananmen, and anyone else that has tried to follow their example, China is closing itself off to a broader range of ideas, a broader range of criticism for existing ideas, and a broader means of error-correction. The limited range of error-correction happening inside the Chinese Communist Party today might have been sufficient to transform China into a global power, but that is only because there are greater levels of error-correction there now (though still limited) than existed under the shadow of Mao Zedong. The Great Leap Forward was a mistaken policy,; what turned it into a human catastrophe was a fear of criticising it as a policy, and the silencing of those people who dared to do so.

The correction of mistakes is the only means of making progress that we have available to us. By limiting this into the hands of a select few people, China was also limiting its ability to respond to failures, to make changes, and to improve things. If it wasn’t the Great Leap Forward, it was the Cultural Revolution, if not the Cultural Revolution then it would have been something else. China today is no longer making this same level of mistake simply because it has allowed more criticism than it did previously.

Yet by still limiting this range of criticism to those select few people in the upper hierarchy of the Communist Party, China continues to expose itself to unnecessary levels of mistakes. They are unlikely to be as obvious as the calamities of the past, but they are happening, and they will continue to do so. And this doesn’t just relate to the creation of bad policies, but also a sluggishness in recognising them as bad, and then the failure to replace them with something better; again as quickly as possible. If we are being generous with the number of people in the elite circles of the Chinese Communist Party holding any real power, we might accept a figure of about a thousand – and a thousand-odd people doing error correction is just not as good as what could be nearly a billion in a Chinese democracy. A billion people looking for errors in their society, a billion people suggesting alternatives, and a billion people constantly – and loudly – judging policy outcomes.

Democracy is messy, annoying and frustrating, but only because knowledge creation is also. Anyone, or any government, claiming to be an authority, to be beyond criticism, or claiming that any given truth is self-evident (that they know it for certain) is simply making the same mistake that doomed almost every human society that has ever existed. They are always on the edge of something unpleasant, of a new Great Leap Forward, or of something much worse. Countries like China may look prosperous, successful, or even worth emulating, but they are exposed to catastrophe and limited in their ability to make progress in a way that no democracy is.

And that limitation is not just political, or technical, but moral as well… Continued in part 4

The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 2: Alternative Voting Systems

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Democracy matters – we can all feel it in our bones. There is something emotionally satisfying about being able to hire and fire your government, to stand in judgement over how your society is run. And by handing this authority to the masses, it is denied to the oligarchs, the aristocrats and the dictators. Yet despite all these things having a recognisable value, even thinking in this way is a grave mistake. The problem that democracy solves has nothing to do with rights, freedoms or even ensuring that the best possible leaders get into power. In some ways these come along for the ride, but democracy has only one significant advantage worth caring about – error-correction.

Just as it goes with knowledge creation, we cannot predict the future – and so the natural state of things is error. We are all wrong, incompetent, flawed and prejudicial in ways we don’t properly appreciate, all the time. This, of course, also applies to our political leaders, and to our ability to select those leaders. The hope of choosing “The Best” people – as Plato put it – to govern society is misplaced, as is the underlying question – also Plato’s – of “who should rule?”. Karl Popper’s solution to this might have felt like an easy fix, but it was also the most important development in political philosophy that had ever occurred. He did so by embracing the fact that mistakes are everywhere, and then turning the question around, asking instead ‘how do we best remove bad leaders without violence?’

From this we get democracy, but only in concept – it is the best system we have available to us for error-correcting bad leaders and bad policies. Yet this only takes us so far, in fact it leaves most of our work still ahead of us. The limitations we see in our democratic systems often come back to the fortuitous, yet tragic, fact that we historically found our way to democracy not through Popper, but through Plato – with the wrong question still in mind. Free of this, and with Popper’s criterion, it is possible to tune-up and improve upon our democratic institutions – to solve problems of disproportionate political power, and achieve arithmetic fairness. The ‘Open Society’ is still, and always will be, within our reach; we just have a slightly different question to ask now – ‘what kind of democracy is most effective at removing bad leaders and correcting bad policies?’

The dismissal of a government by regular voting, is a robust form of ensuring that leaders are always accountable, and of avoiding anti-democratic takeovers. But we never actually rule ourselves – on election day the keys of government are always handed over to our political leaders, after which we sit and hope that they are returned to us at the appropriate time. And when it comes to the bureaucracy – the people in charge of implementation, of minor decisions, and whose information and advice politicians rely upon – we often don’t have any mechanism to change them at all (barring malpractice of some variety).

And yet when you start with Popper and not Plato, everything simplifies. We don’t need to edge delicately into this imperfect space, but rather go straight for the jugular of democratic change – voting systems. The idea behind democracy that we instinctively hold, is that parliament should be a representation of the people – each individual member a mirror for their constituency; the nation in a microcosm. As closely as seats in parliament can be matched numerically to the views of the people voting, the closer a society is to the best democratic system… or so the theory goes. This is called proportional representation, and it is a terrible mistake.

Proportional representation favours parties and not people, with citizens tending to vote for what they most clearly recognise and understand – political parties – and it is those parties that select who should represent which constituencies. And what is the purpose in setting up a political party other than to further an ideology – policies may change, but their founding principles rarely do, lest they risk losing their established supporter base. This becomes a shield against error-correction and a system designed for personal advancement. The people who most adhere to the core ideology are shuffled into safe seats and conferred with significant campaign financing, while voices to the contrary (error-correction) are filtered out the other direction.

Elected representatives in this system owe their allegiances much more so to the party that supports them, than to the people who voted for them. A candidate that is elected under the banner of one political party and then later defects to a different party, or to sit as an independent, is often considered to be betraying his/her constituency – because they likely gave their votes only in consideration of the party’s platform, and not with the individual candidate.

This doesn’t just rob the voters of choice (the possibility of error-correction), but also robs the elected individual – and the political system as a whole – of personal responsibility between political leaders and the voting public. With this aspect built into its fabric, proportional representation tends to also cause a proliferation of political parties – and though increased choice seems to come with this, it presents a significant roadblock against the removal of bad leaders.

The more proportionate the political system, the more power that is afforded to smaller parties and independent members of parliament. In any given single electorate it is increasingly rare that one candidate will secure the votes of more than fifty percent of the population. Trying to match these numbers to elected members, a proportionate voting system tends toward ensuring that no political party holds a majority of seats in parliament. When seats in parliament successfully mirror the broader societal breakdown in this way, the means by which governments form, or fail to do so, is through coalition – and in coalition the desired fairness breaks down, from the opposite direction.

By forming government through proportional representation, the smaller coalition parties are –perhaps counterintuitively – afforded disproportionate political power. With no major party holding a majority of seats, and therefore needing the support of minor parties to form government, it means those minor parties effectively get to choose the government and to choose who becomes Prime Minister. And, of course, they are likely to make this decision in their own political interests. Rather than weighing the merits of each major party, or even leaning toward the party that has achieved the most votes, they will seek to make conditions upon their support and smuggle their own policies into power.

The fear of having unpopular political decisions legislated through the backdoor in this way, has often led to a renewed support for either of the two major parties. The thinking runs: if your political views best align with a minor party, then you should instead vote for the major party that most closely (though less perfectly) matches-up with you – anything else might risk overt minority party control, and not necessarily from the minor party that you support.

But this still doesn’t protect against bad policies in the way that people hope – a greater majority for the two major parties doesn’t do much to change the calculation here. If they both increase their votes equally, then they will stand as counterweights, and the role of selecting government will still be returned to the minor parties, unaffected by their diminished votes. The price of gaining power is unchanged. (The only challenge to this being that if minority party votes shrink dramatically, then maybe a major party could achieve government in their own right. This is a possibility, but a decreasingly likely one based on the range of views and the range of parties now operating in many democracies).

This bores the inevitability of coalition government into the foundations of most modern democracies – and with it the fragility of that government, both in its formation, and also its sustainability. Worse, by producing coalition governments, proportional representation further reduces political responsibility by making decisions not only reducible to the party as a whole rather than to individual representatives, but also reducible to the collective decisions and policies of multiple parties, in arbitrary coalition.

With an understanding that no party will likely achieve a majority, voters are stuck when it comes to Popper’s criterion of seeking to remove bad leaders as quickly and effectively as possible. By voting against an incumbent, you might inadvertently end up returning them to power if they cut a deal with the alternative that you voted for. Under a system like this, it becomes incredibly difficult to ever vote ‘against’ anyone, as opposed to ‘for’ a particular candidate – and so we are back with Plato, having made no progress and still trying to answer the wrong question. It becomes impossible to be decisive with one’s vote, and impossible to send a decisive message of judgement upon a government or set of policies. And this is witnessed today by the attitudes of political parties that suffer electoral setbacks, who more often than not see this as a natural fluctuation, rather than a firm and conscious indictment upon their failures.

Proportional voting systems allow for very bad governments to remain in power in the face of very good oppositions, so long as they can wheel-and-deal for minority support with greater success. For many the solution to this has been preferential voting, whereby people don’t just vote for a single candidate, but also select second, third and fourth choice options in the event that their first choice doesn’t manage to secure over fifty percent in the original round of voting. The hope here, is that by selecting a list of candidates it becomes more likely that better leaders gain power. But of course, this is the wrong question. What we want to do is remove bad leaders, not elect good ones.

In some ways the preferential voting system does this. If the vote in any given electorate is split between various parties, and yet there is a consensus that the incumbent member is a bad leader, the divergent voting patterns might still end up removing them from power by a majority of voters placing that incumbent last on their preference list. There is scope here to remove bad leaders despite no party receiving a majority of votes.

This is something, but it is still a narrow and constrained form of error-correction. The removal of any individual, poorly performing, Member of Parliament is good, but it doesn’t limit the problem of disproportionate minority party control at the level that matters. Preferential systems do open up avenues for removing bad leaders, but they don’t address the issue of minority parties influencing the government through insisting on cabinet positions, the legislation of unpopular policies, and even the king-making ability to select who holds power. On the national scale, bad policies and bad governments are still increasingly immune from error-correction if they can secure third party support.

By entrenching minority rule, all such systems fall down badly. The only thing that the third largest party in any political system of this kind realistically fears is becoming the fourth largest party; not the electorate in any real sense. Minor parties need huge swings against them to ever force them out of power, and so major parties can also take more liberties with – and often outright ignore – the voters, under the knowledge that their success in achieving power hinges much more so on making deals with minor parties.

This is error-correction, but an incredibly parochial and poorly functioning variety. Government ends up being run from fringe ideas, politicians fall over themselves to please the views of minor, single electorates, and parties bargain their way into power instead of being elected. Even occasionally producing the absurd spectacle – and catastrophe for political accountability and representation – of just one individual in an entire country being able to make-and-break both governments and national policies. The hope of institutionalising error-correction, in its best form, dies here.

So what should be done – in what direction would Popper have us move? A return to something that feels a little archaic, and that appears to lack the arithmetic nuance of proportional voting systems. The two-party system is something designed to secure majority governments, and institutionalise not only accountability but also constant error-correction through criticism and comparison with an alternative government. It is a system that presents elected members with a simple proposition: perform well and in their electorates’ best interests, or be removed from power. There are no backdoors, no deals to be cut and no way of ignoring the will of the voters – they either succeed or fail on their own weight, and the intended reward or punishment is always delivered unambiguously.

In a first-past-the-post, two party political system of this kind, leaders and parties will hold higher degrees of power once elected – allowing manifestos and policies to be implemented without third party hindrance or the fudging of policies. This can then be tested in public view, and a clear option can then be presented to voters as to whether to stick with the policies or accept the criticism from the second major party and vote to change government. A dialectical process of constant policy conjecture, constant unfettered application of those policies, constant criticism, constant presentation of alternatives, and then constant clear and unequivocal electoral choice.

This is still less than perfect, and there is a risk in this system that the scope of possible error-correction – possible criticisms and alternative policies – will be limited in the absence of widespread minor parties. And there is also a feeling of suppression and disenfranchisement here by denying the space for minority parties to rise and/or major parties to fall. It can all begin to look a touch anti-democratic. But the reach of this fear isn’t quite as pernicious as it might feel – healthy debate and constant error-correction will occur inside the two major parties, and the changing of a party platform is likely to become quite drastic and radical after two or three electoral losses in a row, with the failure of each party laid bare by the fact that they are only one-of-two games in town, and this is likely to happen even in the absence of a significant or sustained defeat.

When a political system is thick with minor parties, adjustments of this kind are unlikely to ever happen, with change predominately coming about through the rise of new political parties; which even in the friendliest of conditions is not an easy thing to organise. Returning again to Popper’s criterion of being able to remove bad leaders most effectively, a well-functioning democracy doesn’t need a spread of voices (this will always likely occur) as much as it needs sensitivity to the wishes of the voters, policy flexibility to match that sensitivity, and the healthy development of ideas followed by the healthy criticism of those ideas.

Just as with knowledge creation, we don’t – and never will – know the best possible political system; only ever approximations of it, that will then also require constant error-correction and improvement. It is a utopian fantasy to imagine that a government exists by some make-up of society that when voted for will not make mistakes, will not enforce bad policies, and who understand the future. Knowledge cannot exist in advance of problems, mistakes are the human condition, and any coalition-producing political system has the quality of making it harder to correct bad leaders and bad policies than it needs to be. All we can do is choose better-and-better political systems judged solely by their ability not to elect the best leaders, but to remove bad leaders as easily as possible without violence.

For Karl Popper this is the Open Society, and yet once here the risk of authoritarian relapse still exists, edging ever inwards in search of space and opportunity… Continued in part 3

The Politics of Karl Popper - Part 1: Asking the Wrong Question

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Modern democracy remains frozen in a moment – broken from its centre out. It feels like a new problem, but it’s not. It goes back to Plato and to the first questions of how societies should be ruled, to our first attempts as a species to theorize about alternative political systems and weigh the benefits of monarchy, aristocracy or a government of the people. Concerned that it would always deteriorate into a rabble – that the poorly informed masses would simply vote for other poorly informed people, or for demagogues able to manipulate them – Plato never warmed to the democratic option. And for many this still seems like the problem of our day… it’s not!

From those origins the question has always been ‘how do we ensure that the best people get into power?’ Plato was anti-democratic but the philosophers that came after him were increasingly the opposite, all the way up to Karl Marx who believed so strongly that people should have the right to govern themselves that he tried to supplant voting altogether. They were both wrong, in exactly the same way… and in the same way as most modern proponents of democracy are wrong too. It is an understandable mistake, but not so understandable that we keep making it.

Though Plato didn’t see it this way, Athens was ahead of its time. They were a direct democracy, with all important decisions of state handed back to the citizens for their vote. The term ‘citizenship’ was limited in such a way that it only applied to a minority of the population, but it was in principle a society where the people ruled themselves. The reason for this was fear – fear of tyranny, fear of domination, and fear of capricious governance. And so if they could ensure that they ruled themselves, then they would never have to suffer in this way. But democracies don’t guarantee good policies, or even good leaders – caught in this problem, Plato tried to abolish the institution altogether.

Once he had answered the question of ‘who should rule?’, there was really no other option – just as there was also only one answer: “The Best”. The brightest, the most knowledgeable, the most courageous, the most morally upstanding, and so on. If you are going to have a government, and if someone (or a collective) needs to be in charge, then it stands to logic that they need to come from this group of people. And democracy dilutes this possibility, because voters always make mistakes, and rarely know what is in their best interest.

And yet built into this – the hope to appoint someone, or a specific party, that are The Best – is a formula for tyranny. Once in power, The Best are beyond regulation, and beyond criticism, because no one else is, by definition, qualified to hold them to account. And this is exactly what happened for most of human history. Roman military might supplied all the legitimacy that the Caesars needed. They were unquestionable, their edicts absolute, and it was only in the decline of the empire that the errors of their rule were ever called into light… too late to be fixed.

The lesson here for our forebears was understood not in terms of needing to error-correct our political institutions more quickly and more effectively, but once again in terms of needing to find a better leader; someone with more authority, more legitimacy; someone infallible. Enter monotheism and the Catholic/Christian Church. Constantine latched onto this, and so he ruled not through any demonstration of ability, strength or earthly opinion, but by the grace of God. Anyone challenging this was also challenging the faith of society as a whole, so wisely only foreign armies ever did.

The question of who should rule, now had a very neat and uncomplicated answer: God and his human representatives. Our ancestors trudged through the Middle Ages in pain and suffering, and without a doubt in their minds that society was how it should be, because those people with the most right to rule were doing so. Of course the hiccup here was the Reformation followed by the English Revolution, where the monarchy was overthrown by people wanting self-rule… but only because they saw it as their divine right. The question of legitimacy was still echoing down from Plato.

The people’s divine right to choose became the foundation for Oliver Cromwell to establish a dictatorship under different colours, and so things continued largely unchanged. The tide was shifting though, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 became the wellspring of parliamentary democracy, the limitation of powers, and the slow end to authoritarianism. However, this change in direction occurred around the same flawed question – the debate was still around deciphering theological intentions and after which finding the right balance between the monarchy and the people. ‘Who should rule’ was being asked again, just in different, more appealing, ways.

The problem that kept Plato awake was being answered more-and-more definitively in just the way that he hoped it wouldn’t. Plato was wrong, but so were those early movers of democracy… just as we are today. When Karl Marx entered the scene, and sought to tear the whole political and economic order down, he was still doing so with Plato’s question in mind – ‘how do we get the best people into power?’ Targeting the capitalists and the landowners, Marx thought the workers should rule; and because these people are always in a majority, then there was also no need for elections anymore.

Millennia-upon-millennia of humanity’s finest political thought, poisoned by a single bad question. All of which was cured, and should have remained so, by Karl Popper. He did so in the same way that he had previously for the problem of how knowledge accumulates – how it is that we can know anything at all. For too long people believed that knowledge came to them through their senses, through empiricism or induction. And this seemed to make sense – unseen explanations resembling the seen world around us. And just as the growth of our political institutions were being held back by Plato, this also held back the growth of science.

Again, the problem was buried inside of the question, and not the answer. Until Popper, people had understood the term knowledge to mean ‘that which you can know for certain’ or ‘how it is that we can be sure about something’. It wasn’t just the wrong emphasis, but it was also claiming access to something that was never available to us. The idea of proving something to be true is a mistake in itself, all we can ever do is prove something to be wrong through a process of conjecture and refutation – guesswork (ideally educated), and then the testing of those guesses through criticism. The ideas that survive this ordeal are never accepted as true, but simply not discarded as false. No truth is ever so undeniable that it cannot be questioned. And so instead of certainty, all we can ever hope for is improvement – the replacement of bad ideas, with less bad ideas, and so on.

Moments like these are not as rare as they might seem. The barrier holding back our understanding of evolutionary biology wasn’t the idea of intelligent design, but rather a bad question that made it appear that intelligent design was the only answer. The question of ‘why do birds have wings?’ for example would never get anyone beyond the logical response, ‘so that they can fly’; design is inferred at every stage in this mode of thinking. What Charles Darwin did, even though he didn’t recognise it at the time, was change the question from ‘why do birds have wings?’ to ‘what type of process would lead to a bird having wings?’ The old explanations fell away under this new scrutiny, and Darwin had solved the problem by simply asking a different question.

What Popper exposed was more fundamental. It comes down to fallibilism, the recognition not only that we can be wrong about absolutely everything we currently hold as true, but also that the natural state of things is error. We are wrong all the time, because no one has access to future knowledge. What seems certain today, will be laughed at as ignorant tomorrow – just as we tend to do when looking back on the values of previous generations. So any theory of political order needs to hug close to the idea that those people in government, regardless of how they came to be there, or their apparent qualifications, are going to invariably make mistakes and expose themselves as horribly flawed; as we all are.

So how do you build a political system out of this unavoidable mess? By simplifying things. Dump the abstract language of ‘reason’, ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ – not because they aren’t desirable, but because they aren’t helpful. Words like these have simply become too malleable, too loosely understood, and too tainted to do the work that is required of them. Instead leave Plato’s flawed question behind, and the answer falls naturally into place, just as it did for Charles Darwin.

People should have the right to choose their leaders, yes! But it is not because people have a ‘right’ to choose their government, or even that this is a good mechanism to get The Best people into power, but rather by an inversion of that question. Instead of asking ‘who should rule?’, we should only be asking ‘how do we best remove bad leaders without violence?’ It is a political theory built on the understanding of how knowledge develops through constant flaws, missteps and error; and that there is no such thing as an obvious truth. Just as it is wrong to pursue certainty in knowledge, it is also wrong to pursue utopia in politics – or utopian leaders. As Popper quickly recognised, the source of all tyranny comes from the idea that the truth is manifest. What we want is error-correction!

Once here, the theory follows fairly intuitively. Any viable political system needs two simple qualities: 1. The ability to highlight errors as quickly as possible, and 2. The most efficient mechanism for removing bad leaders and changing bad policies once they have been recognised as such. More than anything, the goal here is the minimisation of harm. Democracy matters, and is a superior political system to theocracy, aristocracy, communism or anarchy (which Popper had a slight sympathy for in its attempts to escape the control of the state), only because it matches most neatly with these criteria.

Voting is an imperfect means to change imperfect politicians, but it does allow for – when done well – every member of society to voice criticisms of current leaders or specific policies, to weigh those criticisms against the publically voiced criticisms of alternatives, and then exercise the removal of bad leaders effectively and peacefully. This mess of constant criticism, change, and control by the rabble-forming masses is what Popper famously called the ‘Open Society’. A place where the emphasis should be on removing leaders, not on electing them – a place where utopia is never promised, only the opportunity for progress… and only then if we play our cards right.

Democracy as it has come to be known today, is mischaracterised and misunderstood. It is not that ‘the rule of the people’ has any intrinsic value – it is just a functional solution to a technical problem. Any government can be removed by a majority vote, and no majority consensus is ever enough to justify the rejection of future elections or the rule of law. Democracy is the best mode of government only because it is the best mode of error-correction (that we currently know of). Yet tragically, the democracies that we have today are still those designed with Plato’s question in mind, and not Popper’s. We have stumbled onto truth, and not discovered it through explanation – and so based on this old misconception, our political systems tend to be hopelessly flawed, despite being democracies.

With most people arriving at democracy from a completely different direction, Karl Popper still had all his work before him with the follow-up problem of ‘how should we best structure a democracy?’… Continued in part 2.

Israel Folau and the Problem of Future Knowledge

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It is all a lot more fundamental than it sounds – it’s a question of how knowledge accumulates in the world.

There is an unnecessary focus on details here, but they do need restating: Israel Folau is a hulking – and once much loved – Australian rugby player who takes his religious faith seriously. So serious in fact, that he is now willing to risk his career and reputation over the question of whether or not gay people are going to hell. He thinks they are, and that they can still be saved if only they repent and reform. Australian Rugby thinks differently, and so seemingly parochial questions of offense, freedoms, and contractual responsibilities are being arbitrated in strangely public ways.

This is only because – despite Karl Popper solving the issue a century ago – most people still don’t understand how it is that we can know anything; how it is that knowledge develops, and with it how progress – moral or technological – is ever possible. It is not an overstatement to say that we have forgotten the most important lesson that our species could ever learn.

The details of what was said, what was breeched, who was offended, and what freedoms are protected, just don’t matter when it comes to the question of what should be done about Israel Folau. The improvement in gay rights over recent decades is undoubtedly a positive, and not something that most people would want to wind back. But though the attachment to this progress is charged with heavy emotion, the only reason that it isn’t reversed, is one that is cold, impersonal, and above all, explanatory.

It has always tended to lag behind technology, but moral progress is happening all around us, all the time. But that doesn’t mean that the growth of moral knowledge (and knowledge in general) is linear. All theories that claim to start from a foundation are not only false, but cruel. The idea that something is known for certain, carries the imputation that questioning that certainty deserves punishment. Because only someone who is deliberately malicious dares to criticise what they know to be true.

It is unsurprising then, that for most of human history the permanent state of things has been stagnation and suppression. Every time we discover new knowledge, the next question can always be ‘why that way, and not another’. A foundation doesn’t allow this – and without questioning of this kind we cannot discover problems, let alone solve them. And so until the enlightenment and the scientific revolution, in the course of any given human life nothing ever really improved. The world you were born into was the world you died in; almost entirely unchanged.

For these people, the problem wasn’t bad ideas – because bad ideas are the general state of things – but rather ideas about the world that discouraged change. New ways of organising political institutions, health care, marriage, or even new ways of understanding what constitutes a good life for example, weren’t just dismissed as wrong, but silenced as heretical. The problem here is the issue of fundamentals – people believed that knowledge came from authorities, and that this knowledge was also self-evident.

With this bug in our thinking, a large chunk of philosophical thought was dedicated to questions of ‘who should rule’ or ‘how do we get the best people into power’. The question itself was wrong. Instead of asking who should rule, Karl Popper turned it over and wanted instead to know ‘how do we best remove bad leaders’. What he had stumbled on was an understanding that the natural state of things is error, and that the truth is never obvious. So what is needed is not authorities, but constant error-correction and a tradition of criticism – a commitment to rapid change and recursive improvement.

This doesn’t mean that no one can ever say that a particular moral theory is better than another, but rather that moral progress is available to us only because no one has a claim – as they did for most of our history – to understand the future growth of knowledge. We have come a long way, and every piece of that progress was fought tooth-and-nail by people claiming to know what was always beyond them (and always an obvious tautology): tomorrow’s knowledge, today.

This also applied to the advocacy of gay rights. At every step people were saying not just that homosexuality was immoral and therefore should be illegal or limited, but also that this would remain true into the future. You only have to go back fifteen or twenty years and the consensus in every country – no matter how enlightened – was against gay marriage… at a minimum. This was – at the time – as foundational a moral principle as that of murder or theft being wrong.

It was only by embracing Karl Popper, and the acceptance that no truth is so incontrovertible that it cannot be questioned, that gay rights advocates ever got a hearing, and then slowly managed to snowball those early noises into broader acceptance, and eventually social change.

The change happened by explanation. By the open challenge of one set of ideas, by a better set of ideas. People were not shamed or coerced into changing their minds, they were convinced. This is how knowledge works: most of us have this strange impression that knowledge is literally transferable, that it can be downloaded from one person to another. This is wrong in so many ways – it can’t possibly exist like this. When someone changes their mind or gains some form of new knowledge, they have in fact given it to themselves – acquired only, and always, through that individual’s creative engagement with it.

The set of problems that got Karl Popper motivated here, was that of induction and empiricism. Essentially the claims that we comprehend the world through our senses, and that our experienced reality resembles unexperienced true theories. Popper again turned this over – our thoughts about the world only come to us through long chains of conjecture; reality is always theory laden, and so it is always deceptive. 

People listened, they thought about it, and finally they came to understand that the gay rights movement was not just championing moral change, but moral improvement. Arguments against this were less credible, were built on bad explanations, and so proved to be less convincing over time.

Popper exposed the messiness of our enterprise here. There is no hierarchy to knowledge, and what feels like truth or progress might be revealed as false, or as regression, at any moment. Any claim to the contrary is a claim to understand what is impossible – the future growth of knowledge. Considering how far we have come in recent years, or indeed how the morality of only a few hundred years ago now seems abhorrent to us, the only reasonable thing to project is that our moral standards will continue to improve. And our descendants in a hundred years will look back on us with the same – if not greater – level of disgust, and in ways that we cannot yet imagine.

This is as sure as anything that we understand in science or philosophy – prophesy is not available to us. All we can know is that moral improvements are coming our way – if we play our cards right. Just what those improvements are likely to be, we can never know until we have the explanations.

The lesson here – and particularly for people wanting to protect gay rights – cannot be clearer: it is always a mistake to try to silence opposition and criticism, no matter how upsetting those arguments may be. If we allow institutions to impose today’s moral values by coercion, then we must also accept that this would have mandated that those early gay rights advocates – openly challenging accepted norms and offending the standards of their day – be silenced also. It may feel like the compassionate thing to do, but protecting feelings also means that soon enough the immoral, the barbaric, and bigoted, will also have that tool in their arsenal.

Forget gay marriage, forget legalisation of homosexuality at all for that matter. If the values of our predecessors had been immune from criticism – in the same way that certain people now want to be immune from Israel Folau’s criticism – then we would still have those old values today. Women would still be second class citizens, racism would be the norm, and the thought of allowing gay men and women a voice would be a great blasphemy.

The second half of Popper’s equation – after conjecture – is refutation. It is not that we adopt theories as true, but only that we don’t discard them as false if they survive in the face of criticism. Without this second step, we are only ever guessing blindly at truth – rigorous testing knocks down bad ideas, leaves good ideas standing, and only then is progress possible.

So it is always a mistake to allow anyone to wall-off their truth claims. And we should not respect anyone who – once they have achieved the small piece of salutary progress that matters most to them – would then seek to shut down all criticism of that progress. Having benefited from Popper’s open society, and their freedom to speak their mind without limit, they would seek to burn the bridges behind them, and again claim to be the final arbiters of truth. If silencing people by the moral standards of the day were appropriate, then we would still be living in the dark ages. 

Truth has a rare property that separates it from falsehood: it is strengthened by criticism and not weakened. It doesn’t need to be shielded, or protected – the more people are allowed to hammer away at it, the clearer it becomes. Israel Folau, if he could, would turn back the clock not just on gay rights but also on (in his own words) “drunks, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, idolaters”. We have a choice: to challenge him and let his arguments fail on their own grounds, to prove him wrong; or to simply – and dangerously – insist that he shuts up.

Israel Folau might lose his court case, and if so it will be on the principle that employers have the right to impose their moral values – or the consensus values of society – upon their employees. This is a loss for everyone involved. It means we are again in the business of outsourcing our truth claims to authorities, of empowering those people with the ability to silence dissent, and so we are also in the business of locking in the values of today against future change. Instead Karl Popper would have us meet Israel Folau’s challenge head on, test his understanding of gay rights against our own, and break him down only with argument. Popper knew, as so many people seem to have now forgotten, that the source of all tyranny comes from the idea that the truth is manifest…

Seizing North Korean Ships

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It might all feel like a dramatic escalation, a potential act of war – really it is just the first time that America, or any other country, have taken their own sanctions of North Korea seriously.

Detained in Indonesia, the inappropriately named ‘Wise Honest’ is now the property of the United States government, and the “first-ever seizure of a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions” according to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman.

This “sanctions-busting ship” had been in regular violation of international law since 2016, for smuggling coal out of North Korea and heavy machinery the other way. What scratched most invasively at the U.S. Department of Justice was the use – or misuse – of American banks to orchestrate cargo payments and maintenance work on the vessel.

North Korea are banned from conducting any form of business in the United States, and yet beyond this obvious transgression the payments are also – unless there has been an unlikely miscalculation here – in contravention of multiple United Nations resolutions

Just what the Trump administration has in mind for the Wise Honest, or the 25,000 tonnes of coal on board, is an open question – and perhaps a little irrelevant now – but the civil forfeiture that has been underway for months is an insight into both the limitations of sanctions, and a realisation of how they can be made more effective.

Until 2016, the restrictions on trade with North Korea were narrow and poorly enforced. A spider’s web of broader sanctions began to emerge at this time, with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2270, 2371 and 2375 complimented by a range of domestic regulations from significant UN member states.

Cross-border trade with China bore the most immediate impact. Trafficking of goods in large quantities is hard to camouflage, so instead smaller traders – making lighter yet more regular journeys – picked up as much slack as they could. But the total volume was seriously reduced nonetheless. Backlogs of this kind tend to find release valves – and for anyone with a grasp on ocean navigation, it was not surprising that the managed chaos of the open seas became this.

What can’t be driven, can easily be shipped. And once out of North Korean ports, flags can be changed, documents forged, and location broadcasting transponders – mandated for use under international maritime law – can simply be turned off. The Wise Honest did all these things, flying Sierra Leone colours, not properly disclosing the origin or destination for its cargo, and transiting around South East Asia for years without ever announcing its geolocation.

And can you blame them? The sanctions hurt (as intended), and the messy process of hunting illegal vessels is one that no country is very interested in doing.

The prohibitions now in place require United Nations member states to inspect all goods coming out of, entering, or even transiting through, North Korea. And that is everything, from the contents of freight liners to the handbags of tourists. Vessels flaunting these regulations must be refused entry into ports, and business of any kind with them is prohibited. This is not a passive obligation: any ship suspected of carrying cargo of North Korean origin or destination, must be boarded.

The list of contraband items entering or exiting North Korea hits at every conceivable industry – worthy of the name – that they have. Of course, any hardware that can be used in chemical, biological, nuclear or missile programs is particularly targeted here, but the whole North Korean military is under heavy scrutiny now. As are all luxury goods and all exports of any significance – iron ore, rare earth minerals, nickel, copper, lead, silver, zinc, iron, textiles, seafood, and of course coal.

The level of imposition here should be increasingly apparent – not on North Korea, but on the global community charged with enforcing the particulars of these resolutions. The seizure of related funds is also mandated, as is the charging of those companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang, as well as the third party agents who connect buyers with sellers. We’re not done yet: assets must be confiscated, as must the actual vessels in question, and anything beyond that must be destroyed or disposed of.

Yet through all this, the Wise Honest is reported to have stopped-in at multiple international ports, conducted regular ship-to-ship on-water transfers (something highlighted for particular concern in the language of the new sanctions regime), on one occasion actually conducted business with a South Korean company, and even pulled anchor at the South Korean city of Busan.

In truth, the Wise Honest was unlucky. The authority to board, search and confiscate in accordance with international law is something that no-one really wants to do. It takes too long, often requires military force, carries a high degree of risk, and then only blocks-up a single leak in what is an overwhelming cascade.

If anyone were serious in fulfilling their commitments here, they would have to execute a naval blockade of all major North Korean ports, and start patrolling the Yellow Sea to deter Chinese merchants from conducting the daily ship-to-ship transfers.

The spin-offs from this – legally and morally – would be huge. Sanctions would be enforced for the first time and the full scope of their intended pain finally felt, but what else? The intensity of civil conflicts in places as far away as Syria and Zimbabwe would be limited without North Korea selling them military hardware, the worldwide movement of drugs and counterfeit currency (a long term source of hard currency for the Kim dynasty) would dip, and if implemented years ago the routine kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean citizens would have been impossible.

Naval interceptions of this kind would increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang, deter international facilitators, appease the most hawkish of foreign governments, and offer some long overdue grit to an increasingly powerless United Nations.

But this will never happen… and it hasn’t happened here.

The Wise Honest was detained in port, and the near year long legal wrangling over its confiscation only adds another layer of caution to those few countries who are genuinely interested in fulfilling their international obligations. 

On the same day as the seizure, South Korean president Moon Jae-in announced that he had agreed to send more humanitarian aid to North Korea, with a senior Blue House official saying: “Nothing has been decided yet, and we still need to discuss everything, including what we’re going to send, how we’re going to send it, and how much we’re going to send. What we do know is that the two UN organizations have said that [North Korean] children and families need help to get through this difficult time.”

North Korea are living in a culture of international impunity, and they know it. No matter what their behaviour, there is always a significant portion of the world clamouring to forgive them before an apology is ever offered.

We focus on the nuclear issue because we don’t have the energy for more pressing humanitarian questions, there is a chronic refusal to pay the world’s single greatest – and longest running – human rights disaster any concern until a missile is fired, we insist on the use of sanctions against a regime that gains its legitimacy through military, and not economic, success, only then for there to be a near complete unwillingness to enforce those sanctions with any attention or coordination.

It feels like every problem with North Korea at the present moment, is a problem of our own making. Unless of course, the seizure of the Wise Honest is the unlikely start of an unflinching strangulation of the North Korean regime from outside its borders.

Losing Your Alliance: Risking an American Withdrawal from South Korea

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There is an understandable tendency to look at South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, as a kind of hesitant mother, watching nervously from her front door as her ordinarily level-headed teenage daughter (America) is being led away for a date (summit diplomacy) by a clearly unpleasant and poorly intentioned older boy (North Korea). Helpless to stop them, the mother is stuck watching-in from the fringes, hoping that it all ends before her daughter gets too damaged by the whole experience.

As onlookers we might rightly sympathise, but how long should that concern last after we notice the mother encouraging her daughter to apply more make-up before each date, to hike-up her skirts and show more leg, to wear lower-cut tops, and when that all fails filling up her daughter’s purse with condoms when she isn’t looking. The daughter, now walking away into the night – arm in arm with her new boyfriend – hears her mom shout a reminder (loud enough for the boy to hear) to “do whatever it takes to keep him happy, and coming back for more”. How long after seeing this should we hold our judgement, watching the mother sell-out her closest relationship for the brief adrenaline of a vicarious, and ill fated, love affair?

How long before the daughter becomes resentful of her mother’s willingness to take liberties with her, and risks on her behalf, and moves out permanently? Never to return!

In 2012, when Moon Jae-in was confident of winning the presidency – and so no longer in need of grand political gestures – he publically committed himself to achieving a North-South confederation before his term was finished. He wasn’t pandering so much as expressing his deepest convictions, and indeed lifelong hope. This was not the first time Moon had made this explicit pledge, just the first time during the campaign.

As a young advisor Moon had watched former presidents from his side of politics talk this way (Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun), and yet leave office without anything to show for it. This perceived lack of urgency is something Moon has been conscious of avoiding. And no better way of doing this, and of signalling your intent to Pyongyang than by appointing Im Jong-seok as Chief of Staff. Im comes from the same stock as those people who protested against authoritarian rule in the 1980’s (the 386 Generation), but was always considerably more upfront about –and willing to act upon – his belief that North Korea was the more legitimate of the two countries. While leading an explicitly pro-North group, Im campaigned for reunification under Kim Il-sung – effectively hoping for the destruction of his own republic.

During this period, Im Jong-seok was in direct contact with the regime in Pyongyang, and eventually served time in prison for this. Yet when elected to the National Assembly, and despite the end of authoritarian rule in the South, Im still had a near single-minded focus on furthering North Korea friendly policies. One such success was the enforcement of royalties upon the use of North Korean media in South Korea. So now every time a network chooses to air images or films of Northern origin (even propaganda), they have to pay a copyright charge directly to Kim Jong-un, all thanks to the second most powerful political appointee in South Korea.

An isolated case? No! The new Unification Minister, Kim Yeon-cheol, has publically championed a diplomatic approach even more chummy and forgiving than Moon Jae-in has dared, has begun pushing for an exemption to sanctions, and has even spoken about reunification being the solution to the nuclear crisis, not just as a downstream benefit. Other key positions have been filled – without shame – by people with similar pro-Northern resumes, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) is no longer enforcing its own security laws regarding North Korean agents, school textbooks have been edited favourably (removing mention of military incursions), the word “free” was removed from the constitution in regard to the nature of a future reunified peninsula (reversed only after public outrage), and the conservative media has been censored in its criticisms of the current policy direction through an abuse of libel laws.

The day after the Hanoi Summit collapsed, Moon Jae-in was already calling for deeper inter-Korean economic cooperation; in other words permission to violate international sanctions and United Nations Security Council resolutions. Rather than question how serious Kim Jong-un actually is following his paltry diplomatic offer, Moon immediately launched back into the role of match-maker. This despite Kim Jong-un in his speech to the 14th Supreme People's Assembly belittling the South Korean President as a “nosy mediator” rather than “the one who protects the nation's interest”.

This is North Korea giving their patron the hurry-along – as with the recently announced test of a “tactical guided weapon”. The whole discussion defies logic: if North Korea were serious about wanting sanctions relief to walk hand-in-hand with denuclearisation, then they never would have developed the weapons in the first place. The sanctions only exist – and became steadily more imposing – due to the presence of the nuclear program, and now we are asked to believe that North Korea will give it all up in order to wind things back down to zero. All that pain and sacrifice for nothing. Besides, does anyone – no matter how critical of America’s role in the world – think for a moment that Washington are a flight risk here? That they might turn delinquent and back out of their bargain if North Korea verifiably relinquishes their weapons first. It is unlikely that even the regime in Pyongyang has this concern.

There is a not-too-subtle game being played out. As Moon Jae-in has his sights on the North, Kim Jong-un has his on the South. Fresh from trying to coax Donald Trump back into the fold, and playing the role of messenger between the two parties, Moon is now talking up the need for another inter-Korean summit (this would be the fourth of his presidency): “Now is the time to begin the preparations in earnest for an inter-Korean summit”…“I hope the two Koreas will be able to sit down together, regardless of venue and form, and hold detailed and substantive talks on how to achieve further progress that goes beyond the previous two summits between Chairman Kim and President Trump.”

Lost in this is an understanding of American interests, and the fragility of alliances. Who knows where it may lie, but at some point there will be an end to Washington’s patience and commitment. Unreciprocated in Seoul, the American desire for denuclearisation as a precondition for improved relations is eventually going to force a decision. South Korea can behave the way they are, and gamble on the well-meaning intentions of Kim Jong-un, only because their alliance with, and the presence of, American troops remains as a failsafe to a second Korean war.

But with their goals noticeably diverging, and with the Moon Jae-in administration’s outreach to Pyongyang done so with the intention of bypassing weapons talks and alleviating sanctions pressure regardless, how long before Washington comes to see Seoul as part of the problem here? That, if only implicitly, Kim Jong-un’s bellicosity and obstinance is being encouraged by every meeting, every statement, and every policy from South Korea. The only real incentive at the moment for Pyongyang is to dig their heels in, to ride out the pressure, and have South Korea hand-deliver the reunification that they’ve always wanted. Donald Trump’s impulsiveness contributed to it of course, but the sight of the U.S. Marine Corps undertaking its annual Korean-American exercises in Hawaii and not South Korea should – but likely won’t – terrify Moon Jae-in and his administration.

Or to put it differently: soon the daughter grows tired of her dangerous boyfriend, the infatuation wears off, and she stops answering his phone calls. Increasingly irate, he stakes-out her house, and shouts abuse whenever the opportunity arises. Through this, the girl’s mother seems to be primarily concerned with reconciling the relationship; excusing the boy’s behaviour and even blaming her daughter for leading him on and being a tease. Eventually her mother’s manipulation and duplicity become too much to bear, and so the daughter packs her bags and moves out.

Alone in the house for the first time, the mother answers the door late at night and finds the young man standing on the porch. Drunk and aggressive, he says that with her daughter out of the way the mother can now get what she’s always wanted – they can finally be together. With nothing between her and this dangerous young man, her attitude changes instantly. The flirtatious predisposition is gone – all she feels now is vulnerability and fear. In a panic she tries to slam the door shut, but the young man already has his foot in the way; he steps forward contemptuously and pushes her aside….

Sudan’s Brief Moment of Freedom?

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If this were only pre-2010, there would be a lot more jubilation in the air. A lot more talk about ‘people power’, ‘self-determination’, ‘watershed moments’, and the ‘irrepressibility of the human spirit’. Omar al-Bashir’s three-decade rule of Sudan is over – decades full of oppression, starvation and a lethargic, but unyielding, genocide in Darfur – and yet for anyone testing the winds of international sentiment, the overwhelming feeling has been a kind of exhausted fear. A popular uprising against an unpopular leader –of dubious legitimacy – ought to catch the throat, if only a little. The yearning is all-inclusive, the courage is rare and wishful; and so the people on the streets should become instantly cosmopolitan, and every witness a participant in their mind - “Ich bin ein Sudanesischen”.

The change here has nothing to do with Sudan at all. Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 when, as a brigadier in the Sudanese Army, he orchestrated a military rebellion against the democratically elected Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi was widely unpopular at the time, but the act of heresy that pushed al-Bashir and his mutineers over the edge was the opening of peace negotiations with southern rebel groups. The new military regime banned all political organizations, purged the army, shut down independent newspapers, imprisoned opposition leaders, and significantly – after allying itself with Hassan al-Turabi – began implementing a form of Sharia Law so repressive that Osama Bin Laden migrated there for safe haven after Saudi Arabia could no longer tolerate his fundamentalism.

But it was with those southern rebels that al-Bashir crossed a line of, at least symbolic, importance. The epicentre of the crackdown naturally became the untapped oil fields of Darfur, where al-Bashir sold off the excavation rights to newly seized land so quickly that the state-owned Chinese National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) literally began following the violence, so that it could begin construction of the necessary mining infrastructure without delay. This hasty sale of national resources might seem a little reckless, but it allowed the government in Khartoum to dramatically increase its imports of arms. As the conflict thundered forward, and the world became increasingly outraged by the atrocities on the ground, Sudan managed nonetheless – through leveraging access to its oil fields – to increase its military purchases 13,700 percent from 2001 to 2006. And also, when desirable, use the civil infrastructure being developed in its wake as a launch pad for further incursions.

Omar al-Bashir’s decision for war with southern separatists resulted in the deaths of 400,000 people, the forced displacement of three million, the collapse of diplomatic relations with neighbouring countries who were forced to deal with the refugee flows, and almost the entire Darfur region in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. This wasn’t a conventional war with an achievable military aim (the pacification of rebel groups); this was a genocide. The Sudanese were open in their objectives – the cleansing of the non-Arab population from Darfur. Language like this comes with significant legal obligations, and so the international community are often hesitant to apply such labels or talk about the need for intervention. Yet watching Darfur, few people were under any allusions as to what they were seeing.

In 2004, American Secretary of State Colin Powell, testified before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “genocide has been committed in Darfur”. In 2005, the British Parliament announced that “if the responsibility to protect means anything, it ought to mean something in Darfur”. And Kofi Annan saw symmetries in the violence with the most scarring moment in modern humanitarian history: “we had learnt nothing from Rwanda”. But Al-Bashir had bet everything on the unwillingness of those concerned governments to actually risk anything on the ground, especially if he could make a defence – no matter how tenuous – in the same language in which the accusations were being made – human rights, independence and international law.

The brief momentum of history was at his back, with Algerian President, and then President of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Abdelaziz Bouteflika, championing the absolute right of non-interference in the affairs of other states as “our final defence against the rules of an unjust world” in 1999. And then Nelsen Mandela announcing in 2000 that the protective mandate and intervention in Kosovo set a precedent that was “more dangerous to world peace than anything that was currently happening in Africa”. Omar al-Bashir had his battlelines, and so quickly began taunting the world with its own principles of justice: “we will not accept colonial forces coming into the country”. United Nations sanctions condemning Sudan came and went, and talk of the need for a military intervention was never short of those willing to champion it, and yet even when a peacekeeping mission was authorized, no member state was willing to back-up their words with actual material support (12,000 to 20,000 properly equipped troops).

And inexplicably, the Sudanese attempt to twist international law and best moral practice worked, with the United Nations – even after authorising an intervention – hinging everything on permission and support from the government in Khartoum, with Security Council resolution 1706 seeking “the consent of the Government of National Unity”. Having successfully called the international communities bluff, al-Bashir got back to his killing, observed at every step, but almost entirely unchecked. In March 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC), made al-Bashir the first sitting president ever to be indicted under their jurisdiction. The charge sheet detailed a guided campaign of rape, mass killings and forced expulsions; in other words, genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. This was, of course, tokenistic. A man unwilling to stop a mass atrocity under foreign pressure, is unlikely to then suddenly accept the supremacy of international law and wilfully hand himself over for prosecution.

And yet patrons of the International Criminal Court are still unlikely to have their moment of satisfaction. Al-Bashir was removed – reluctantly – by his own military, only after months of street protests showed no signs of falling away. Surrounded by Sudanese flags, Defence Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, made the announcement on state television, while also crushing any hopes of a democratic handover. Instead, the military will rule for the next two years, with no transition plan in place.

Most insightful of all has been the kid-gloved treatment of the disposed dictator. Al-Bashir is under house arrest – an unbelievably luxurious type of confinement (completely unworthy of the name ‘imprisonment’ based on the riches of the property in question) – and the bloodlessness of the coup likely speaks to a negotiated retirement, rather than an actual arrest and punishment. And on that question of punishment, no sooner was the overthrow of Al-Bashir’s thirty year rule announced, than the defiance of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction also continued. The seventy five year old ‘prisoner’ will face court in Khartoum rather than The Hague. Not necessarily a problem in itself, but the chances of achieving judicial independence while military rule is still in effect is next to zero.

So with their constitution in tatters, and their revolution stolen, it is back to those people on the streets, and a test of their conviction. The protests started –just as those in 2010 during the Arab Spring – in response to epidemic levels of corruption, poor management and economic stagnation. How willing are protestors going to be to risk it all again for the principles behind, and not the material of, their original grievances? The Arab Spring laced the world with hope, as they watched a once politically comatose region shaking itself awake. Soon enough that hope was replaced by fear, as those champions of democracy showed themselves instead to be theocrats in their own right, or alternatively unable to gather the same broad support against their newly emerging enemies.

Omar al-Bashir came to power in an act of rebellion against a peace accord with southern rebels. With his own limitations forced back upon him, in 2011 al-Bashir oversaw the division of his country with the formal independence of the Republic of South Sudan. The absence of principles here matters – if for nothing else than to show the malleability of once held ‘best’ intentions. There is no shortage of countries who, once willing to help al-Bashir defy his international arrest warrant, would likely now offer him – and his personal wealth – asylum if his prosecution ever becomes a little too authentic. In the meantime, the Sudanese people have likely just replaced one tyrant with another.

25 Years Since Rwanda: International Blame for the Genocide

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In April 1994, the world was understandably dialled-in to the theatre of South African elections. The last remaining pillar of apartheid – and the symbolic end of racial hatred in South Africa – was finally coming down under enormous fan-fare and hope. And so few people even noticed the event that sparked the collapse of Rwanda, and with it the entire African Great Lakes region.

The surface-to-air missile that hit Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on his return to Rwanda, ought to have caught the international eye more than it did – it was, after all, the assassination of a sitting President. But soon enough it no longer mattered, there were more important things to worry about – within hours, roadblocks were constructed, refugees crowded toward the borders (250,000 refugees arrived in Tanzania alone within 48 hours of Habyarimana’s death), the police and army morphed into vigilantes, neighbours hunted each other in the streets, and ten thousand people were being killed each day – hacked down with machetes – in the fastest moving atrocity the world has ever been witness to.

Responsibility for the assassination remains in dispute, but it was accepted at the time to be the actions of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The ethnic majority Hutus saw this as the first open attack in an idle, but simmering, civil war, and so began circulating ‘kill lists’. Suddenly the two communities, living side-by-side, intermarrying, speaking the same language, and largely indistinguishable from each other, were demarcated in plain sight; one side targeted for murder, the other duty-bound to do the murdering.

Violence and unrest in Africa was not a surprise at the time, but the scale and willingness to participate was. Tutsis sheltering in churches were often killed or informed on by their own priests, and Hutu husbands began killing their Tutsi wives (failure to do so before the mob arrived would result in both of their deaths – one for being Tutsi, the other for sympathising with the enemy).

Rape became a tool of war in newly sadistic ways, with thousands of aids patients released from hospitals and conscripted into ‘rape squads’; charged with the single purpose of infecting as many Tutsi women as possible. Three months later when the violence eased, as many as half a million women had been raped, upwards of a million people were killed, seventy percent of the Tutsi population murdered (as well as ten percent of the Rwandan population as a whole), and fifty percent of the entire country were displaced.

These are the type of numbers that don’t straightforwardly process in the human mind. What was easier to comprehend was the risk – when the violence came there was already UN peacekeepers in place monitoring the Arusha Accords (a tentative power sharing agreement and peace settlement). These forces, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) Led by Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, were reporting to anyone willing to listen that, “Time does seem to be running out for political discussions, as any spark on the security side could have catastrophic consequences.”

But no one – at least in the necessary positions of power – needed to be told this. In the years before the violence, ‘death squads’ were openly roaming the streets in pre-skirmishes, and in the three months before the genocide erupted the CIA had been reporting on the likelihood of this happening, and even predicting half a million people would die as a result.

World leaders like American President Bill Clinton would look back on Rwanda and call it their ‘greatest regret’, and perhaps the speed and cruelty of the violence caught them off guard. But what nagged at their consciences was something a little more deliberate and calculating. In 1993, as the build-up to genocide was unmistakably underway, South Africa, Egypt, Russia and France were fighting-out a battle of their own – trying to outbid each other in order to supply arms and military hardware to the Rwandan government’s increasing needs.

As late as 1994, France continued to make illicit weapons sales to Rwanda, in strict violation of a United Nations arms embargo. Human Rights Watch then later reported South Africa, China, the Seychelles, Zaire (DRC) and France for further arms embargo violations, for resupplying the Rwandan military. This allowed, even as the violence eased-off at its epicentre, for a regional contagion of killing. With the genocide crossing borders at will, soon 150,000 people were killed, and over a million displaced in neighbouring Burundi. A year later, as people and their grievances crossed into the Congo, what was soon to be known as Africa's First World War broke out. The conflict rumbled forward for the better part of a decade, with 3.8 million people dead.

At its peak, the Rwandan genocide sucked-in nine neighbouring countries, and twenty different armed groups. The literal heart of Africa was burning to the ground, and this was only possible because foreign governments couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a little profit.

More immediately, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, on the ground as this all unfolded, has maintained since that he could have halted the genocide in its early stages, saving millions of lives, with as little as five thousand properly equipped, and mandated, United Nations’ troops. This might have a touch of hyperbole to it, but long form studies have concluded, on multiple occasions, that at least twenty five percent of the deaths could have been avoided under a ‘realistic military intervention’.

Newly freed from the shadow of the Cold War, and with a fresh hope for humanitarian cooperation and morally guided decision making, the proper place for international action was the United Nations. And yet when the debate came before the Security Council, they inexplicably chose to adopt resolution 912 which rather than increasing the peacekeeping presence on the ground, actually reduced troop numbers from 2558 to 270. With the obligations inherent in the Genocide Convention looming in people’s minds, these debates turned near-comical as member-after-member carefully avoided any reference of the term “genocide”.

Instead an obfuscating language was introduced to the world, as the same countries that would champion the Genocide Convention – before and after Rwanda – talked about a million deaths as “sporadic violence” and as only isolated “acts of genocide”; watering things down just below the threshold of where they would be legally-bound to intervene.

Meanwhile on the ground, the UNAMIR troops that remained – hopelessly understaffed – were also under-resourced and only mandated in a ‘monitoring’ capacity. Meaning as long as the genocidaires didn’t threaten them directly, they simply had to watch as the killing continued around them. And in the moments when they were attacked (once significantly alongside Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana) they chose not to respond for fear of inciting a larger response.

On 19 June, the French government announced Operation Turquoise, a military intervention in Rwanda under a United Nations mandate. The Hutus, against whom the tide of conflict was starting to turn, saw this – based on previous military and governmental support from France – as the arrival of allies, not enemies. So on the edge of retreat, the radio broadcasts inciting violence returned with a new vigour, and a new offensive was launched.

The United Nations requisitioned ‘Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the UN during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda’ diplomatically saw it to be "unfortunate that the resources committed by France and other countries to Operation Turquoise could not instead have been put at the disposal of UNAMIR II”. A nice way of saying things would have resolved a lot quicker if France didn’t actively prop-up the Hutu government.

The genocide in Rwanda officially ended in July 1994, not because international outrage grew too loud to ignore, but rather because a Ugandan-backed Tutsi force of rebel troops fought their way into the Capital Kigali, and removed the Hutu government by force. They were led by current President Paul Kagame.

Set up to prosecute those involved in the killings, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in November 1994. In a country that almost to-a-person became either perpetrator or victim, only ninety people have been convicted. A problem evermore pronounced by the near-complete lack of non-governmental aid agencies inside Rwanda at the time, limiting the real-time reporting of these crimes. 

The United Nations post-mortem shifted its sights to the global community, blaming the escalation of the violence on a “lack of resources and political commitment”. The sad truth about Rwanda is that it ought to have been expected. The record of the United Nations, and of individual member states, when it comes to intervening in mass atrocity crimes, is incredibly poor.

Five months before the genocide started, eighteen American soldiers were killed in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. The withdrawal of all U.S. troops was almost immediately underway… a year later the United Nations followed suit. Left behind was a decades old civil war, a country razed of infrastructure, 1.5 million people on the brink of immediate starvation, and 4.5 million people requiring emergency humanitarian aid in what United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar described as “the most serious humanitarian crisis of our day”.

More alarmingly, the will of the international community was exposed as fragile. And so the genocidaires in Rwanda had a guide post before them: the language of the international community is unlikely to correspond to actions, the expressed moral outrage of foreign governments will always be dwarfed by their fear of their own soldiers dying in defence of that concern, and when things turn messy domestic political considerations will take precedence with United Nations members near-universally lacking the stomach for difficult conflicts.

In Rwanda the international community was not caught flat footed as the theory goes, but simply betrayed by their own reversion to habit. Somalia offered encouragement for those planning genocide in Rwanda – since then this incentive to violence has only increased in moments when those charged with addressing international mass atrocities have preferred to watch as the killing rolls on. Sure outliers exist, but for every Kosovo and Libya, there is also Uganda, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Timor, Bosnia, Cambodia, Burundi, the Congo, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, China, Algeria, Angola, North Korea, Syria, Georgia, Yemen, Kurdistan, Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Lebanon, Egypt, Eretria, Mali, Chechnya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Kenya…….

Fighting North Korea Outside Its Borders

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Screams from a terrified woman… in a public street… in a foreign language… running from armed home invaders. Neighbours alert the police, and one of the criminals in question casually answers the door. He says he doesn’t know anything about the break-in, the beatings, the interrogations, nor the temporary imprisonment (as the woman’s complaint, then being translated from Korean into Spanish, alleges). But no! The police officers are not welcome to enter the property and see for themselves; it is a question of sovereignty – North Korean sovereignty. The house is, after all, a converted embassy. 

A few hours later the perpetrators simply drive away – watched anxiously by the same gawking neighbours – leaving behind a traumatised staff, bound, gagged, and slowly wriggling free. The police return on cue, and despite the obvious assault and theft that had just occurred, no one is interested in filing an official complaint, let alone pressing charges in the event of an arrest.

From all directions, there is an air of mobsterism: a brazen, daylight crime; the calm, authoritative, legally nuanced dealings with the police; the scene of eight brutalised victims refusing to cooperate in any way; and the sense that justice – if ever possible (or desirable) – will only come through reciprocal violence.

The ‘criminals’ – a group known as Free Chosun (formerly Chollima Civil Defense) – first came to any real public attention in the aftermath of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in Malaysia, for apparently spiriting Nam’s son, Kim Han-sol, (and other family members) away into safe keeping. The motivation for the rescue – all the way down to the public thank you message by the 21 year old Han-sol – felt more along the lines of grooming an heir-to-the-throne, than that of international witness protection.

It all seemed a touch ad hoc, a fortunate enterprise rather than a diligent calculation. And Free Chosun’s website (https://www.cheollimacivildefense.org/) – still with its former name in the title – is a backyard effort if ever there was one. A single scrolling page… with plenty of donation links. Which is why this latest raid feels so different. The planning and execution has a near military finish to it, including how they adapted so impressively to their own missteps (so much so, that it was originally suspected to be a CIA operation). Their amateur days are seemingly over.

It is that idea of a growing – and now efficient – organisation that would likely worry North Korea. Washing purposefully around the global community of defectors for decades, the formation of a North Korean government in exile has strangely never managed to take hold. Likely due to the focus on securing leadership as a prerequisite. For many years, people hoped Hwang Jang-yop, a key author of Juche literature, and the defector with the most immediate name-brand recognition (and of greatest former importance to the regime in Pyongyang), would be this figurehead.

The expectation was too much, and poorly conceived. Escaped North Koreans tend to want what most people do: freedom, a peaceful life, and the safety of their family and friends. They don’t want to end up like Kim Jong-nam… and who could blame them. Because people don’t tend to gather around anonymous political forces, this first hurdle toward an exiled government was also the last.

It is in the nature of this escalation in Madrid, that Free Chosun are fashioning a solution. Exactly what they got from the robbery is open to be guessed, but they were deliberate in what they went after: computers, hard drives, cell phones. Rebel movements over the centuries have always targeted – by necessity – the weak points of their enemies (outposts and regional infrastructure). When you can’t fight, you frustrate.

This was not that. Free Chosun wanted information from Pyongyang, not anger. North Korea uses its embassies for the illegal transiting of goods, money laundering, and covert operations, such as that against Nam in Malaysia. Counting their loot from the Madrid raid, the robbers will be hoping for contact lists, emails, bank accounts, trading partners, sympathisers, and spy networks. The tactic here, is a much deeper assault on the Kim regime. By interrupting North Korea’s cross-border operations, maybe Free Chosun can make their actions felt back inside the palaces of Pyongyang.

North Korea are a hard target: legally protected both inside its borders, and inside its embassies. But this immunity only extends so far: the behaviour of embassy staff can be enough to get them expelled; and prosecutions, the seizures of funds, and the public airing of dealings, can be enough to permanently dissuade foreign enablers. This is certainly the goal anyway.

So this all begins to smell a little more like a preliminary assault, than a one-off attack. And perhaps most significant, are the self-made claims that Free Chosun are being assisted in their actions by foreign governments, having tipped their hat to Taiwan, Holland and America following the rescue of Kim Han-sol; and in the lead-up to Madrid posting cryptically on their website that they had “received a request for help from comrades in a certain Western country”, with a “highly dangerous situation”.

Much of this stretches credulity. So far, their public successes certainly have a feel of high-level planning, financing, and operational experience to them. But none of it demands an explanation on the level of global conspiracy. Still, this is a careful game, and if Free Chosun can start making actual changes, improvements, even symbolic grand gestures like harbouring dissidents or picking deliberately at the weak links in a regime, then they might be able to embody something that looks like a government in exile. So a little hyperbole – if indeed that is what is happening here – can perhaps be excused.

What is certain, is that the attack in Madrid would now have Kim Jong-un’s attention, and in that, a strange, immoral satisfaction can be found. I challenge anyone concerned about North Korea’s international harassment – even assassinations – of journalists, publishers, film makers, and particularly South Korean politicians and North Korean defectors, to not gain a little morbid pleasure here.

For someone who has, for so long, exploited the difficulties of applying international legal principles, Kim Jong-un is learning that he is vulnerable in the same way. It is not a high minded, nor a morally grounded sentiment, but where judicial systems fail, extrajudicial ones are likely to take over. Criminality becomes the cause for celebration, and retributive justice the only means of satisfaction… my only fear is, that none of this will make any substantive difference.

The Retirement of Dictators: Chun Doo-hwan in Court

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If the passing of time is reason enough to forgive someone, then what about age itself? If not forgiveness, then how about a considered disregard? A decision to leave behind what cannot be changed – to simply get on with things.

Chun Doo-hwan is old (88), and as he walked into court this past week, shuttled along by his wife, it was – for anyone looking in on the scene from a position of neutrality (difficult in this case) – an alarming spectacle. There was a very real sense of physical danger to things. A frail, disorientated old man surrounded by – what is too common a display outside South Korean courts – an overly excited crowd of pawing media, pushing aggressively past visibly desperate, and overmatched, police officers.

This slight expression of concern would be too much for most people. Chun is also a former dictator and military leader, who ruled through coup d'état, and the last man at the scene of the crime – still fighting against the coming wave of South Korean democracy. In a country that struggles with the legacies of its former leaders, Chun rarely has this problem. He is the monster of Gwangju, a dictator without an upside, and germane to his current day in court, almost entirely unrepentant for his crimes – I don’t think it is a stretch to say – against the Korean people as a whole.

On trial again, Chun is now accused of ‘defaming the dead’, an odd charge in itself; also one with ‘criminal’ ramifications in South Korea. The deceased victim, a priest, Cho Bi-oh, claimed to have seen helicopter gunships fire upon protesters during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. In 2017, Chun published his memoirs, and responded by calling the priest a “shameless liar unworthy of the ecclesiastical title” and a “masked Satan”.

The charge itself hinges around technical details concerning the helicopter. There is enough in the historical record now to show that such firing upon civilians (from helicopters) did occur. But Chun doesn’t have to fight this. He merely has to show that such an incident did not likely happen at 2 p.m. on May 21, 1980 (the time Cho Bi-oh claimed to have witnessed it). Beyond this, Chun can, and according to his lawyers will, assert the defence (quite reasonably) that his “memoir was based on his own memory” and so there was no ‘intent’ to defame Cho.

But all this has very little to do with Cho Bi-oh. Adding to the theatre of the day, large crowds camped outside the courtroom, and sang old protest songs of the 1980’s. Returning to Gwangju (under subpoena) for the first time since the uprising, for many of the people waiting this was a chance to finally confront Chun, and express 39 years of built up anger and grief. For them this was about the commemoration of a massacre.

When interviewed they seemed to all return to a single theme: Chun Doo-hwan has never apologised for ordering the military crackdown. Instead he has always maintained that he acted in defence of the republic, against a “revolt caused by North Korean military intervention”. It is here that the real problem with Gwangju can be found. In recent years, the declassification and release of American documents has helped shed a little light on events, but it is still a clouded moment in history.

The North Korean question is often entertained as a slur against the memory of those fighting Chun’s authoritarian rule. But there is also the testimony from North Koreans defectors to consider. Some of whom have claimed that there were indeed Northern agents on the ground in Gwangju. What we know for sure, is that during this period Pyongyang had managed to embed thousands of spies inside South Korean society. It is unreasonable to believe that at least some of them did not head to Gwangju to help stoke things along, and ferment unrest, once the word got out. The impact they had was almost certainly next-to-zero, but to deny their likely presence altogether is unhelpful, and conspiratorial in its own right.

It couldn’t have helped ease Chun’s belief that three years later he narrowly escaped an assassination by North Korean agents whilst on a state visit to Rangoon, Burma (17 people were killed, including Korean cabinet ministers). Not the sort of thing that encourages someone to become a little more nuanced and open-minded.

On the stand, again Chun showed no remorse; but maybe a little dementia. Significant neurodegeneration from Alzheimer's disease was one of the reasons Chun’s legal team tried to have him excused from appearing in person at the trial; and recent sightings of Chun golfing don’t disprove his poor health, as so much of the media have tried to claim. Almost as soon as the hearing was underway, the judge carefully informed Chun of his right to refuse testimony. Chun replied, “I don't understand what you mean.”

By any reasonable measure, those outside the courtroom will never receive satisfaction. But their ire does feel a little narrow. For his eight years of authoritarian rule, Chun was convicted and sentenced to death in 1996; the specific charges being ‘mutiny’ and ‘corruption’. An appeals court commuted this to ‘life in prison’, and then President Kim Young-sam (acting on the advice of President-elect, Kim Dae-jung), pardoned both Chun and his successor Roh Tae-woo, under the guise of ‘political reconciliation’.

South Korean prison sentences just aren’t what they seem. Political leaders and the heads of the large Chaebol (family owned conglomerates) have a revolving door relationship with the justice system. They are regularly convicted, given exorbitantly large prison terms, and are then released on appeal, or pardon, after only a couple of years when the heat has died off. Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, is already free and back in charge of the company, despite being sentenced to serve five years in 2017; and in recent weeks thousands of conservative protestors have been demonstrating for the early release of his partner in corruption, former-President Park Geun-hye, sentenced to 24 years.

It is a strange targeting of anger to condemn Chun Doo-hwan, but not the men – nor the system – that excused him from his punishment.

If convicted of defaming the dead, Chun will face two years in prison, or a maximum fine of five million Korean Won (approximately US$5000). Based on the track record of such courts, and Chun’s age/health, it is unlikely to be the former. If the latter, then it can simply be added to the near-200 billion Korean Won he still owes from earlier court decisions (money he clearly doesn’t have, and will never earn).

Symbolic prosecutions are not entirely without value, but they do rely on the process being the punishment – an institutional sickness in itself, and a contemptuous attachment to the principle of judicial fair treatment. The only satisfaction being gained here, is that of inconveniencing Chun’s retirement. Soon the case will pass, the moment will wash-by, and left behind will be the Gwangju crowds; still hoping for an apology that will never come, as a replacement for the grief they can’t be free of.

The crimes of Gwangju will never feel normal, and apologies rarely fill the moral void that people imagine they will. What if Chun Doo-hwan, at his next court appearance, offered a full-throated repentance? Apologised, sobbed and grovelled approvingly in front of those watching. Would the Korean public suddenly forgive the man for whom so many of their historical scars are blamed? Chun will always be hated, and perhaps that is appropriate, but it should be so for what he did, not for his continued presence in society.

The victims of Gwangju, and Korea at large, are much like the technical victim in this particular case. From beyond the grave, Cho Bi-oh can hardly feel wronged, and as a priest, I wonder how comfortable he would be as a proxy for so much externalised pain and loathing. Forcing history back into the light cannot change it.

Behaving like the old soldier he is, Chun is firmly dug into the conviction that as he ordered the troops into Gwangju, he was fighting an existential enemy. If feels like nothing will change his mind on this, and coercion is not the answer. If you insist on people expressing contrition, then you are simply asking to be lied to. It may be abhorrent, and insulting to those personally affected, but in a free and open society Chun is entitled to question the history of Gwangju, regardless of how established a fact it is.

Korean libel laws are notorious for missing the point. They focus on offence and not truth. Truth only becomes so, as Karl Popper showed, through defending itself against criticism; intellectually, not legally. Through the court system, the media eye, and draconian laws, there is a risk of making Chun look like a victim (beyond this, what are the chances of him getting a fair trial in a city like Gwangju?). It is surely a mistake to campaign against authoritarianism, with the tools of authoritarianism. Either way, so much for Kim Dae-jung’s ‘political reconciliation’.

Kim’s Summit Victory?

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The Hanoi Summit is now in the hands of the South Korean Left.

It is a strained mental image: Kim Jong-un slowly rattling his way back to Pyongyang, through the eastern heights of Chinese industrialisation; from light to dark. The smatterings of information, second-hand reports and occasional image of Kim smoking on a platform, becoming less-and-less frequent, and reliable, as the sixty hour journey moved further away from Hanoi, then disappearing completely across the Yalu River into North Korea.

The sense outside of Kim’s bubble was one of defeat and miscalculation. He overplayed his hand, asked for too much, and stood too strongly over his convictions. Inside the bubble, things would have been different.

The only people paying any real attention to Kim – or indeed North Korea – during that leisurely train ride are called – and call themselves  – ‘Pyongyang Watchers’. It is a strained piece of language, and one I have never liked, but it does speak to the nature of North Korean studies (or what often passes for North Korean studies) in many academic circles.

These Watchers, with the world’s spotlight shifting elsewhere, are soon back to the grind of their daily work: picking through satellite images, market prices, imports and exports, and the presence – or absence – of regime members in official media broadcasts. From this, infer away! Try to divine intentions, new policies and indeed, national sentiment. What you get are plausible, yet nearly completely unfounded claims, about the internal cogs grinding away north of the DMZ.

A much more solid science is that which runs the other way, and which no-one seems to give much heed to. If the world is full of Pyongyang Watchers, then Pyongyang is also full of Seoul Watchers. Not Washington Watchers, London Watchers, Berlin, Moscow, or even Beijing. Kim’s game is the same one that his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and father, Kim Jong-il, were committed to playing. And it has nothing to do with joining the nuclear club, self-defence or even sanctions relief (which is, of course, derivative of the first two).

It is often by taking Pyongyang at their word, that we get our talking points about a nuclear deterrent and a country fearful of attack. And a Libyan Model/Fear of disarmament, collapse, invasion and presidential assassination.

The trouble is, North Korea have never behaved like an externally insecure regime; just the opposite in fact. Only one of the Koreas has ever had to fight off military incursions, political killings, terrorism, and full scale war from the other. Besides, what type of nervous, fearful regime spends its time in bellicose threats and intimidation towards the world’s most powerful military? Or indeed, doing the one thing that has been a redline for conflict and intervention elsewhere: the construction of a nuclear arsenal.

If nuclear weapons and the accompanying missile technology were the only thing capable of holding back an American attack, then the corollary must run that America would never have let them achieve it. That Pyongyang’s slow-motion nuclear build-up escaped a surgical strike or two along the way, is all the proof needed that North Korea’s conventional forces were always deterrent enough.

Which brings us back to the Hanoi Summit, and the question of what this is all about. Decades of long-term internal propaganda (intended for North Korean ears only), stretching back to the founding of the state under Kim Il-sung, gives a very clear answer. It is, and always has been, all about South Korea.

Reunification. Or as it is known in the North, ‘The Final Victory!’

The ‘victory’ connotation is important. It fits with Songun (North Korea’s ‘Military First’ policy), and should (but never does) echo as a permanent threat to the South Korean republic. Kim’s reunification is reunification under the Northern flag – the consumption of one state by another. North Korea will continue, enlarged and stronger; South Korea the necessary sacrifice.

It is here, and only here, that America is of any interest. 20,000+ American troops stationed in South Korea represent a unique problem for Kim. Any Northern absorption will be in steps: confederation, deeper political integration, a greater will for the fight within the North Korean citizenry, and at some point – preferably early in the process – the removal of American troops.

It is this hinge that the regime in Pyongyang are most concerned about, and rightly so. Edging the South toward capitulation is a lot more certain a proposition once they have first stepped away from their military and political alliances with America; a friendship consummated instantly with the American victory over Imperial Japan, which was in turn the liberation of Korea.

The Americans stayed around, invested, defended, and became Seoul’s deepest military ally. So how, if you are Kim, do you break this marriage up? First you spend a year (2017) making sure that both countries are paying very close attention to how badly things could go. Despite the desire for reunification in South Korea, it is often muffled into silence by an understandable fatigue and related apathy. Nuclear tests and missile launches are enough to wake anyone up.

Then you offer a rapidly escalating peace – an uncomfortably fast courtship. But coming out of the shadow of conflict, one that seems too good to ignore. You push for cooperation, the binding together of economies, policies and institutions; something Moon Jae-in and his government have been all too eager to commit to (trying to fulfil an election promise to complete the process before the end of his term). Pushing toward confederation at such an uninhibited speed, that extraordinarily the nuclear issue has fallen into the margins.

Except for the Americans, for whom nuclear weaponry is still the looming concern, and the only reason for talking to Pyongyang at all. So Kim asks for something he knows Washington cannot reasonably agree to, both parties walk away, and Kim watches carefully for Seoul’s reaction.

South Korea’s conservatives cheered Trump’s resolve, but they are a near irrelevant political voice these days, having still not recovered any sense of identity following the Park Geun-hye scandal. And elsewhere, Kim would have been happy. Boundless amounts of editorial space in leading newspapers were quick to accuse America of being too ‘negative’, ‘obstinate’ and ‘lacking consideration for the plight of the Korean people’. Then there were the voices of important public figures such as former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, saying: "I believe the breakdown was intentionally brought about by the U.S. side”.

The remedy: “An inter-Korean summit should be held”…the government should move fast."

Imagine the smile on Kim’s face: his battle being fought for him, and by none other than the people he intends to victimise next.

Large-scale anti-Americanism of the past is unlikely to return. But those moments in history do offer a look into just how fragile the U.S.-South Korean alliance might be. The two most infamous cases involved the accusation that U.S troops deliberately ran down two school girls from their military transport, and that Korea was to become the dumping ground for diseased American beef. Both factually wrong, both formed with an obvious air of conspiratorial thinking, and yet both drawing large scale street protests.

Taking the political wind inside South Korea, Kim Jong-un must be sensing his opportunity. A very real chance to convince his divided brothers and sisters that the only real barrier to peace and reunification is the American troop presence. A troop presence that Donald Trump has just strong-armed them into paying more to house and maintain.

And if things begin to fall silent in Seoul, and if that fatigue begins to re-emerge, Kim only needs to fire up a missile site or two, and dust off a few launch pads. Reminding South Koreans how badly things could go if they don’t play their part in pushing for reunification of the peninsula; at all costs, and in a manner that the regime in Pyongyang approves of.