Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cheonan Clown College, Part II

Update:  Consider this can of worms officially closed!  Do not open!

The United States on Wednesday rejected a call by North Korea for a new investigation of the sinking of a South Korean warship in March that Seoul blames on Pyongyang. The U.S. said the findings of a South Korean inquiry that attributes the attack to North Korea are "compelling."

The State Department said another investigation of the sinking is unwarranted and the focus of the world community should now be on coming up with an appropriate response to Pyongyang's provocative behavior.

The comments follow a North Korean request to the UN Security Council for a new inquiry into the March 26 sinking of the South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan.  Pyongyang wants another investigation under UN auspices in which both North and South Korea would participate.


Pyongyang denies responsibility and said in a letter to the Security Council on Wednesday that the most reasonable way to settle the matter is for the two Koreas to conduct a joint investigation.

At a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States "sees no ambiguity" about who sank the ship and that it is time for North Korea to accept responsibility.

"There's a difference between restraint and willful blindness to consistent problems."
                  President Obama, on Chinese reticence on accepting the results of the international investigation of the Cheonan and supporting condemnation of North Korea at the UN Security Council.

Hmmm.  Problems like using the wrong clipart to illustrate your slide show on North Korean perfidy.

Cheonan Investigators Presented Wrong Torpedo Diagram

In a blow to conclusions that are already under attack from leftwing politicians and activists, a team of experts that investigated the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan have admitted showing a diagram of the wrong North Korean torpedo when they presented their findings at a press conference on May 20.

When queried by journalists about discrepancies between the CHT-02D torpedo that attacked the Cheonan and the one depicted in the diagram, investigators said Tuesday that the pictured torpedo was of the model PT-97W and that the error was due to "a mix-up by a staff member while preparing for the presentation."

A South Korean military spokesman said the error was discovered after the press conference and a presentation of the evidence in front of the UN Security Council featured the correct diagram.

Actually, a "consistent problem" in the ROK's Cheonan case has been revelations of falsification of military records concerning the incident and, today, roughly five weeks after the fact, acknowledgment of an embarrassing flub in South Korea's presentation of its airtight case.

As I've stated before, there are solid reasons to believe that North Korea pulled off the attack.

There are also solid reasons to believe that the investigation is an evidentiary clusterf*ck, and the reason that South Korea is only asking for a meaningless "president's letter" from the UN Security Council is that the dossier has as many holes (and as bad a smell) as a piece of moldy Swiss cheese.

As China is by now well aware, President Obama's enthusiasm for this shoddy case has everything to do with his interest in supporting Lee Myung-bak's South Korea as an upgraded military and strategic counterweight to China.

Today, courtesy of the New York Times, the Obama administration tried to walk back its harsh public scolding of China at the G20 summit.  “The toughest part of a generally positive” talk, as the inevitable anonymous official put it.

However, I suspect that the toothpaste is pretty much out of the tube by now.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Has the Tipping Point in US-China Relations Been Reached?

All Sticks, No Carrots, and the Occasional High Profile Insult

This looks like a calculated slap in the face:

The US president has accused China of "wilful blindness" in remaining silent over North Korea's suspected sinking of a South Korean warship in March.

Barack Obama said he hoped that Hu Jintao, his Chinese counterpart, would recognise that North Korea crossed a line in the sinking of the Cheonan warship, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.


He said he understood that North Korea and China were neighbours, "there's a difference between restraint and wilful blindness to consistent problems".

Obama held talks with Hu on the sidelines of the summit and said he had been "blunt" with him on the issue of North Korea.

"My hope is that President Hu will recognise as well that this is an example of Pyongyang going over the line," he said.

China, which is Pyongyang's main international ally, has so far remained non-committal on the issue, prompting Obama to say that shying away from the harsh facts about North Korea's behaviour was "a bad habit we need to break".

Obama said he wanted the UN Security Council to produce a "crystal-clear acknowledgment" of the North's alleged action, which would require the co-operation of veto-wielding member China.

Obama, who met Lee Myung-Bak, the South Korean president, on the sidelines of the G20 summit, said it was "absolutely critical that the international community rally behind him and send a clear message to North Korea that this kind of behaviour is unacceptable".

It looks like President Obama has decisively put his eggs in the ROK basket, backing South Korean president Lee Myung-bak on the Cheonan sinking, putting aside his previous doubts about the KORUS FTA (US-South Korea Free Trade Agreement) to push for its ratification, and encouraging South Korea's ambitions to upgrade its regional profile to what looks like parity or more with the PRC.

I was struck with Korea Times' coverage of President Lee's remarks at the Toronto summit:

South Korea to represent voices of emerging countries at Seoul summit

TORONTO ― President Lee Myung-bak said Sunday (local time) that Korea will help countries reach an agreement on establishing a global financial safety net at the next Group of 20 Summit, slated for November in Seoul, to prevent the recurrence of a global financial crisis.

Korea will also host a meeting of 100 CEOs from globally renowned companies ahead of the G-20 Summit to discuss ways to boost private investment and the issues of global trade, investment and corporate responsibility.

Lee made the pledges in his closing remarks at the final session of the two-day Toronto summit.

The initiatives are in line with Korea's efforts to represent the voices of emerging and poorer nations on the global stage so that countries, rich or poor, can work together under a shared goal of achieving sustainable, balanced long-term growth, according to Seoul officials.

"Representing the voices of emerging countries" used to be China's self-assigned role.

Beyond the ROK-USA strategic romance, Beijing probably noticed that one other country that has yet to endorse the Cheonan report was not accused of "wilfull blindness": Russia.

That would lead one to believe that Russian President Medvedev had--upon the conclusion of a successful US visit during which he became "the first iPhone 4 owner in Russia" and President Obama was apparently unfazed by the uncovering of a large Russian spy ring operating within the United States--either signed on to the US position, or the Obama administration was staking out its Cheonan stance pre-emptively, expecting that Russia would decide to line up with the United States in order to avoid endangering the reset.

People's Daily English edition promptly ran a Global Times editorial pointedly titled "Blindness to China's efforts on the Peninsula ".

"Blindness". Get it?

It went on to say:

US President Barack Obama groundlessly blamed China for "blindness" to North Korea's "belligerent behavior" in an alleged attack on the South Korean navel vessel the Cheonan while speaking at the G20 summit Monday.

His words on such an important occasion, based on ignorance of China's consistent and difficult efforts in pushing for peace on the peninsula, has come as a shock to China and the world at large.

As a close neighbor of North Korea, China and its people have immediate and vital stakes in peace and stability on the peninsula. China's worries over the North Korean nuclear issue are by no means less than those of the US.

The US president should have taken these into consideration before making irresponsible and flippant remarks about China's role in the region.

Characterizing the US president as "irresponsible and flippant" is a convenient indicator that US-China relations are headed for the meat locker.

Another indication is the Chinese announcement that it will conduct live fire naval exercises as a riposte to the US-ROK joint exercises scheduled June 30 to July 5, which may or may not include a US aircraft carrier sailing around the Yellow Sea between the Korean peninsula and the Chinese mainland.

I came across another interesting and possibly telling news item relevant to the widening US-China rift.

I hazard most people don't get around to reading the Nepali press, but the news outlet Republica had an fascinating and carefully reported article by Kosh Raj Koirala entitled

Squeezed between China and West over Tibet

KATHMANDU, June 28: Department of Immigration (DoI) sent nine Tibetans to jail on April 30 after they refused to pay fines for illegally entering Nepal. The detention evoked so much diplomatic pressure from Western countries, mainly the US, that the Tibetans were released after five days in jail.

The pressure was so intense that officials at the Nepali embassy in Washington DC had to call up the Immigration Office in Nepal, asking it to release the arrested.

Following the release, Nepali immigration authorities have not detained any more Tibetans though there is a sustained flow of Tibetans to Kathmandu. DoI these days quietly hands over Tibetans illegally coming to Nepal to UNHCR-Nepal [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] without taking legal action as it used to in recent years.


Officials in Nepal fear that there could be a well-coordinated organization involved in bringing Tibetans illegally to Nepal and later sending them to Dharamshala, India and to Western countries through the help of UNHCR.

According to Koirala, it appears that the Tibetan Reception Center, which works with the UNHCR, is paying a bounty of Rs25,000 (about US$350) to policemen to bring Tibetans who have entered Nepal illegaly to the UNHCR-Nepal for eventual patriation to Dharmsala and the West, instead of turning them over to the Department of Immigration.

Interestingly, the DoI was not apparently planning to repatriate the Tibetans to China (although there had been rumblings of a China-friendly policy of shipping Tibetans back to the TAR); they simply wanted to fine them, and the Tibetans went to jail only because they refused to pay the fine.

Sordid commerce is apparently a factor in these escapes:

...arrested Tibetans said, during interrogations, that brokers brought them to Nepal with promises to take them to Western countries where they could lead comfortable lives. Those arrested even disclosed that they each paid Chinese Yuan 15,000 to 17,000 [US$2300 or so] to brokers.

So it's interesting that the UN is apparently helping Tibetan refugees to evade Nepalese jurisdiction. Nepal is under intense pressure from China to keep a lid on the flow and activities of Tibetans, so maybe UNHCR is just going the extra mile to shield Tibetans under new circumstances.

However, what's really interesting was the concerted pressure from the US and the Western countries to make sure that this dubious arrangement is sustained, even to the point of demanding the release of some guys who were apparently in jail just because they refused to pay a fine.

Tibet is a core interest of China. Reaffirmation of the one-China policy (including Chinese sovereignty over Tibet) was supposed to be the key concession granted by the US in the laborious negotiations with China over participation in the UN Iran sanctions discussions.

I guess the Chinese are finding out they should have read the fine print, and "acknowleding PRC sovereignty over Tibet" does not preclude "promoting the establishment of protected emigration routes to offshore havens for potentially anti-PRC Tibetans".

Speaking of U.S.-China deals that aren't turning out the way Beijing prefers, I have an article up at Asia Times entitled China in US sanctions cross-hairs (my suggested title, Stuart Levey, father of the North Korean atomic bomb, is back, did not make the cut).

It makes the case that the Obama administration has done a much better job than the Bush administration in laying a solid legal and diplomatic foundation for using US national Iran sanctions to pressure China on energy-related business in Iran and, for that matter, what else it wants to (like North Korea, RMB revaluation, etc.) and China may find that the US may be preparing to honor the imputed "We'll support UN sanctions if you won't pursue national sanctions against us" deal in the breach, as it were.

What interests me as that, as far as I can see, the Obama administration policy toward China is all sticks no carrots. The consequences of crossing the United States are meant to be dire, but I haven't seen any significant proffered benefits to China for toeing the U.S. line, other than the intangible ones--like not having President Obama insult your President at high profile international forums.

It will be interesting to watch this play out, especially in the run-up to the 2010 US congressional elections.

Friday, June 11, 2010

South Korean Clown College Now In Session on Cheonan Sinking


That's the only word to describe the Board of Audit report on the Cheonan sinking response.

From Korea Times:

State auditors Friday accused Gen. Lee Sang-eui, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), of being absent from the defense ministry's main command and control center on the night of March 26 when a South Korean Navy ship sank in the West Sea.

The JCS chief is also suspected of pretending that he was present at the control center throughout the night using a falsified document, according to officials at the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI).


On Thursday, the BAI recommended the Ministry of National Defense punish 25 ranking military personnel, including Gen. Lee, for mishandling the North's attack on the Cheonan.

Lee slept at his office while under the influence of alcohol before showing up at the control center at 5 a.m. the next day, a BAI official said.

On March 26, Lee allegedly drank several shots of whiskey at a dinner with some 30 military officers in Daejeon, after holding a meeting with them on military preparedness.

Lee arrived at the headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, about one and a half hours after the incident was reported, the auditor said.

From Chosun Ilbo:

Watchdog Sees No Merit in 'Flock of Birds' Story

The Board of Audit and Inspection on Thursday said there is no very good reason to believe that the Sokcho, the nearest warship to the scene of the sinking of the ill-fated corvette Cheonan, fired at a flock of birds rather than a submarine on the day the Cheonan sank in the West Sea.

The military said the Sokcho had initially thought its target was a North Korean submarine fleeing after attacking the Cheonan and fired 135 shots with 76-mm cannon. However, the military claimed close investigation of the radar tracking device revealed that the shape sailors saw was a flock of birds.

The BAI's assessment is apparently based on testimony of sailors that the Second Naval Command ordered them to change their stories. The Sokcho initially reported to the Second Naval Command that sailors saw what appeared to be a new type of North Korean submarine, but the command ordered officers to change their testimony to a flock of birds in a briefing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on March 27.

The BAI pointed out that military regulations ban speculation, addition or omission in initial reports to higher authorities. "Even during the audit, officers on the Sokcho did not change their opinion that it was a submarine and insisted that the radar tracking device did not show the image that could seen as a flock of birds," a BAI official said. "It is hard to understand how the change was made in reporting procedure."

He added the board believes the command acted out of fear of punishment over failing to take proper action in the initial stages after the sinking.

I'm not saying the South Korean response was pathetic.

I think the audit is pathetic.

I'm willing to believe that a North Korean mini-sub shadowed by a full-sized sub sank the Cheonan, even though the attack occurred against a modern ASW corvette, allegedly offshore of a joint U.S.-ROK ASW base, in waters with currents so violent that half of the Cheonan wreck was swept almost four miles away before it hit the bottom.

I'm also willing to believe that the South Korean military had a less-than-slam-dunk evidentiary case, and wouldn't be above using what bent cops in the U.S. call a "throwdown piece"--pitching a North Korean torpedo screw in the ocean to put the onus on the NORKs.

I do not believe that, in the aftermath of the sinking of an ROK naval vessel that claimed 46 lives, the Second Naval Command would suppress the story that its ship had alertly shelled a retreating submarine and instead lie to their Joint Chiefs of Staff that they idiotically fired on a flock of birds.

The audit looks more like an effort to plug some embarrassing holes in the official narrative and provide some pre-emptive sunshine inoculation to some questionable actions--including the ROK military's apparently serial enthusiasm for falsifying crucial records.

Add to chain-of-custody issues rumors that the survivors of the Cheonan have been sequestered to keep them from talking to the press, and the fact that the fuel is continually added to "friendly fire" allegation by shifting stories on the status of the Foal Eagle joint US-ROK military exercise (I believe the most recent reports have operations going on 75 miles away--just over the horizon, darn it!-- on the night of the incident), the South Koreans do not have a particularly sweet-smelling dossier to hand over the UN Security Council.

I wonder if the ROK report on the Cheonan would stand up to intense, critical scrutiny--of the kind that Israel's assault on the Mavi Marmara would receive--at the UN Security Council.

Maybe that's why South Korea isn't asking for censure or condemnation and may just settle for a grumpy letter from the president of the UNSC--their case is far from airtight.

But it's easier to blame the Chinese for shielding North Korea at the UNSC.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

UN Iran Sanctions and the National Sanctions Deal

[edited this post for clarity on 6/10/10--CH]

My basic thesis on the UNSC Iran sanctions (which just passed) was that China agreed with the Obama administration to support UN sanctions on the understanding that harsher national sanctions which would disrupt China's ordinary dealings with Iran might be passed by Congress, but would not be implemented by the Obama administration (through the exercise of the President's power to grant waivers to "cooperating countries" i.e. nations like China that voted in favor of the UN sanctions).

It looks like the Russians, at least, have that understanding.

As soon as the UN sanctions passed, Novosti carried this news article:

Russia threatens payback if Iran sanctions affect its interests

MOSCOW, June 9 (RIA Novosti) - The Russian Foreign Ministry warned on Wednesday of retaliatory measures if new sanctions against Iran affected Russian companies or individuals.

The United Nations Security Council approved on Wednesday a new package of economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

"We cannot possibly ignore signals reaching us about the intention of some of our start considering additional, tougher restrictive measures against Iran than those provided for under the UN Security Council resolution," the ministry said in a statement.

"Such decisions, if they affect Russian legal entities or individuals, are fraught with retaliatory measures."

To make sure the message got across, Novosti also gave over some of its prime front page web space to an all caps slug of type declaring:


Ratf*ck Diplomacy

Update: As a langniappe, here's an interesting opinion buttressing my point about China-bashing as a diplomatic and political priority. A Korea Times piece reviews China's apparently rather overt distaste for making the Cheonan sinking a matter for the UNSC and concludes:

[Professor Kenneth Quinones, dean of research evaluation of Japan's Akita International University]noted that he thinks "it is unrealistic for the government in Seoul to expect Beijing to support a sanctions resolution against North Korea at the UNSC."

"Nevertheless, President Lee Myung-bak must convince the South Korean people that he is pressing for resolute punishment of North Korea. By pressing for it, he can blame China for blocking such a resolution," he advised.
CH 6/9/10

I have an article up at Asia Times entitled Short shelf life for China-US reset.

It draws on some interesting exchanges at the Asian defense ministers confab in Singapore ("The Shangri La Dialogue") over the weekend to draw the conclusion that a) South Korea is attempting, rather clumsily, to make domestic and international political hay with the Cheonan sinking; b) the South Korean electorate and the Chinese aren't buying it; c) the United States has bought into the strategy of exploiting the sinking and South Korea's desire for an enhanced regional profile to advance the "irresponsible China" argument as a justification for a central position for the U.S. in the North Asia security equation.

Everybody is extremely cautious about avoiding open nasty talk. But I have the feeling that the U.S. activity, coming right after the fraught negotiations over Iran sanctions, has reinforced Chinese suspicions that the United States feels the best way to "return to Asia" is to goad the Chinese on sensitive issues to isolate Beijing, and use the ensuing difficulties to persuade the Asian countries that the best way to ensure their security is to line up with the United States.

The whole atmosphere of U.S.-China relations is pretty toxic today.

The overt estrangement between the Obama administration and China began at the Copenhagen Climate Summit.

Advance tidbits from a forthcoming tell-all biography of a close Obama ally, Australian PM Paul Rudd, give an idea of the Copenhagen rancor.

Tired and exasperated, surrounded by a knot of Australian officials and press, Rudd began to rage against the Chinese. He needed sleep. His anger was real, but his language seemed forced, deliberately foul.

In this mood, he'd been talking about countries "" each other for days. Was a deal still possible, asked one of the Australians.

"Depends whether those Chinese want to f... us."

Somebody raised the issue at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs June 8 press briefing, and got a bland response:

Q: It is reported that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said something impolite at the Copenhagen Conference about China’s actions. How do you respond?

A: I have no idea what happened on the spot. However, I am aware that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd always highly values bilateral relations with China, thus it is hard to believe such reports are true.

Copenhagen was a global diplomatic train wreck for which, I believe, the Obama administration was largely responsible. I hashed out the issue in an article for Asia-Pacific Journal in February 2010 and wrote:

The United States showed up in Copenhagen as the one major power that had never ratified the Kyoto Treaty and with no legal mandate from its legislature to negotiate. It made an embarrassingly small pledge to reduce greenhouse gases (far below the heroic efforts of the EU), promised hundreds of billions of dollars of vapor aid that it had no expectation of funding itself, and tried to turn the negotiations into political theater that would strengthen the Obama administration’s hand back home.

Not surprisingly, China, the other BASIC countries, and many of the G77 saw the U.S. tactics as an effort to paper over the fact that the Obama administration saw no prospect of the U.S. Congress ever passing Kyoto and wanted to dodge the blame for collapse of the existing climate change regime by pinning the “obstructionist” tag on the developing world instead.

Indeed, they were well aware that Washington had already gained EU support in October 2009 for scrapping Kyoto and replacing it with a new regime (immortalized in the notorious “Danish text”) that relieved the developed world of some of its obligations (and the U.S. of its domestic political burden) by transferring a healthy chunk of the emissions reduction load onto the backs of the newly developing but still far from wealthy BASIC nations.

China and India wanted to make sure that there was no way that the toothless Copenhagen goals could be presented as a substitute for the legally-binding Kyoto Treaty (with its advantageous free pass for developing countries), or used as a justification for unilaterally pressuring the BASIC countries to take matching steps while the Obama administration stood on the sidelines and calculated its political fortunes in the U.S. Senate.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese delegation, with India’s support, took the lead in stripping the Copenhagen agreement of anything—including the emissions cuts commitments by the EU, Japan and others-- that could allow it to be construed as a successor to Kyoto.

As a matter of tactical necessity, the Chinese keep their resentment under wraps.

The U.S., on the other hand, seems more interested in getting their digs at China into the public media, and thereby encouraging our allies to do the same (it was interesting to me that the Japanese prime minister's office executed a U.S.-style leak complete with mocking commentary of the details of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi's heated response to Japanese badgering on nuclear disarmament).

I wonder how productive this is.

Maybe the Obama administration's efforts to avenge itself against perceived Chinese slights from Copenhagen to Singapore will be known as The Ratf*ck Years.

It remains to be seen if the U.S. actions are remembered as achievements of astute diplomacy, or the residue of self-defeating anger.

Friday, June 04, 2010

What Happened on the Mavi Marmara

The PR aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident has not been edifying for people who worry about the future of Israel, the media, or the truth.

Anyway, the media apparently believes that the interests of journalism, the truth, and its readers has been served by covering the story for about 48 hours. Not coincidentally, for those 48 hours, Israel had the airwaves to itself, having detained the flotilla members incommunicado in Israel for that period.

The Israeli narrative emerging from that furious 2-day blitz is a reprise of the "intelligence failure" dodge employed by the United States to excuse the Iraq invasion. Faulty execution is blamed for an unfortunate cock-up during which a bunch of people got killed.

The "tactical failure" storyline for the Gaza flotilla involves unprepared, underarmed, and naive commandos abseiling into the hands of an vicious mob.

That sounds a lot better for Israel than what appears to be the actual story: Israeli ships and helicopters raked the Mavi Marmara with tear gas, flash grenades, rubber-jacketed steel bullets, and live ammunition, killing and wounding several people, to soften it up prior to boarding; their commandos descended on the ship and got the worst of it for a few minutes as a few infuriated and and terrified activists tried to fight back with steel bars they had wrenched from the ship's railings and the occasional deck chair; after more bloodshed the passengers raised the white flag and the vessel was subdued.

One of Al Jazeera's correspondent on the Mavi Marmara, Jamal Elshayyal emerged from detention in Israel to give a teleconferenced account of the assault from Istanbul.

At 3:20 in the clip, this exchange occurs between the Al Jazeera anchor and Elshayyal:

Anchor: I want to ask you about a sequence of events because we've heard from the Israelis on a number of occasions that they did not fire live ammunition until the weapons of two Israeli soldiers were taken away on board. In other words, it couldn't have happened until Israeli soldiers themselves were on the Mavi Marmara...

Elshayyal: There is no doubt from what I saw that live ammunition was fired before any Israeli soldier was on deck.

I wonder if the accounts of Elshayyal and other passengers on the flotilla will gain any traction.

In response to the blizzard of Israeli spin and prevarication--and an unwillingness to dig into the testimony of the emerging flotilla witnesses, whose cameras were seized by the Israelis-- the media seems to be retreating to the comfortable and safe ground of "Fog O' War".

The LA Times dutifully threw dirt on the grave of the flotilla story in its June 4 coverage. A photo caption reads: "Amid widespread anger, some were willing to reserve judgment. "We don't know which side is right. We don't accurately know what really happened," one mourner said.

Actually, it looks pretty clear what really happened.

The Israeli armed forces attacked a Turkish flag vessel in international waters.

That is the real issue, one that the Israeli media operation is working determinedly to obscure--with the happy cooperation of the international media--by diverting attention to the who-shot-whom-when-and-where-and-how-badly-did-the-victim-deserve-it conundrum.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

China Matters Iran/NPT Scorecard...

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Cheonan Sinking and President Lee Myung-bak's China Agenda

I have a post up at Asia Times on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's efforts to exploit the geopolitical potential of the Cheonan sinking.

It's called "The Cheonan Sinking...and Korea Rising".

President Lee has grand plans for South Korea, as indicated by a January 2010 Newsweek piece entitled, Lee Myung-bak wants to move his country to the center of the world.

This piece, which lists no author, is a gold mine of tin-eared PR flummery.

Lee is one of only two former CEOs to lead a major trading power—Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is the other—and he runs South Korea like the just-do-it boss he was at Hyundai, where staff called him "the Bulldozer." At Hyundai he led a company known for fearless forays into foreign markets...

I'm afraid that neither the interests of journalism nor propaganda are served by comparing one's subject to Silvio Berlusconi in the same sentence.

The mind is immediately overwhelmed by the Mussolini-meets-Tiberius-as-envisaged-by-Fellini image of Italy's pocket dictator, thereby undercutting any appreciation of Lee's bold and visionary free-market savvy.

I also tended to dismiss the claim that South Korea--which I perceive as largely a Japan Inc. clone with powerful, export-driven industrial groupings feasting on preferential access to credit and political influence--is perceived as "a dynamic alternative to both China's mighty command economy and Japan's no growth economy".

As to

South Korea, says U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, is "the best example in the post–World War II era of a country that has overcome enormous obstacles to achieve this kind of success."

Better than Germany? Japan? The Czech Republic? Singapore? Taiwan?

I was so unsure of the piece's provenance--was it an unidentified entry in an ROK advertising supplement, I wondered?--that I didn't use it as a source.

However, what I did use as a source was an April 12 interview with Lee Myung-bak by Fred Hiatt, jefe of Newsweek's parent company, the Washington Post.

The Newsweek article (or the supportive editorial attitude behind it) may well have been an enabling factor for the boon of the lengthy, exclusive interview, a softball-fest that enabled President Lee to make the same case in the article, together with some remarkably pointed swipes at China.

The interesting points are Lee Myung-bak's eagerness to raise the ROK's profile as a world power, and present his country as the politically and economically vigorous successor to sclerotic Japan as America's go-to guy in North Asia and counterweight to the PRC.

I analyze the South Korean response to the Cheonan sinking in this context.

President Lee clearly hopes to use the sinking as a 9/11-type event to galvanize support for himself, his party, and his worldview: confrontation with North Korea, partnership with the United States, and distancing from China.

Lee's outreach to the West--represented both by the composition of the international investigative team, which excluded China and Russia, and the desire to take this matter to the UN Security Council instead of mediation through the auspices of the Six Party Talks anchored by China--was undoubtedly noticed by Beijing... was South Korea's push to use the incident as justification for fattening the South Korean defense budget.

However, because of the immense economic ties between the ROK and the PRC, both President Lee and China have taken pains to avoid overt friction over the issue.

What makes this interesting to me is the reunification angle.

The Kim regime has been around in Pyongyang for so long that, in the United States, the potential demise of the DPRK is little more than an interesting abstraction.

But as China and the ROK become more and more prosperous, the burden of succoring the North's twenty-three-million or so impoverished inhabitants looks less and less onerous.

As the Chinese and South Korean economies mature, the untapped potential of North Korea's population and resources look more and more attractive...

...and the interests and potential opposition of Kim Jung Il's isolated regime, bomb or no bomb, look less and less consequential.

Korea reunited and politically and militarily integrated under the leadership of Seoul would be a genuine alternative to Japan as a powerful U.S. ally and give China a lot to think about.

So I look at President Lee's moves on the Cheonan in the context of a reunification endgame that might begin sooner rather than later.

I speculate that South Korea would want to put North Korea into some kind of political receivership under UN auspices as a prelude to complete integration into the current ROK political structure

This would fit with President Lee's desire to place North Korea--and not just its nuclear and proliferation-related activities--on the Security Council agenda.

China clearly prefers continued regional muddling through the Six Party Talks and might still hope for the emergence of a authoritarian, economically more liberal, but politically independent successor regime in Pyongyang.

But I think that China recognizes that the post-Kim leadership cadre in Pyongyang is a discounted and wasting asset and Beijing would probably pay an an unacceptable political price by openly obstructing Korean reunification.

China's leadership may be starting to think about how it might have to coexist with a pro-US economic powerhouse of 65 million people literally at its doorstep.