Monday, February 29, 2016

South China Sea Missiles: The Woody Island Media Circus Explained

America's enthusiasm for protecting the South China Sea against Chinese aggression would be more impressive if we made it clear we knew what was in the SCS and what was going on there.

Judging by the hysterics surrounding the Woody Island story, many of us don't.

We might not hear much more about the horrors of missiles on Woody Island once people a) figure out where Woody Island is b) what the PRC has done there over the last twenty years c) how it does and does not relate to the burbling confrontation over the Spratlys.

But you never know.  The largely uninhabited South China Sea is apparently an almost perfect tabula rasa upon which any pretext for anger and anxiety can be projected.  And the US government doesn't seem at all unhappy when the media keeps the strategic threat pot boiling down there.

I unpack the latest iteration of the Woody Island saga in an exclusive at Asia Times: South China Sea Missiles: The Woody Island Media Circus Explained.

Trigger Warning: Snark.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Remembering Kim Young Oak

Around the corner from my home in LA’s Koreatown is the “Kim Young Oak Academy”.  I had assumed it was a private cram school serving the local ethnic Korean kids, maybe with a punny name along the lines of “once an acorn, in the future a mighty oak” aspirations.

Not true.

KYO Academy is a LAUSD outfit serving a predominantly Hispanic (85% or so) student body.  Notably, it is an experiment in “single-sex education” trying to raise achievement by teaching boys and girls in separate classes instead of co-ed environments.  This approach, it must be said, is apparently not yielding spectacular results judging from KYO’s lower quintile rankings in the state test scores.  Interested readers can go here for an analysis of the rather equivocal outcomes in same-sex programs across the country.

The school, it turns out, is named for one of the most remarkable figures in Asian-American history, Kim Young Oak, who grew up in Los Angeles.

I had the good fortune to come across a biography of Kim, Unsung Hero: The Story of Colonel Young Oak Kim, authored by Woo Sung Han in Korean based on five years of research, and translated into English by Edward Chang, who runs the aptly named Kim Young Oak Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside.

The book devotes a lot of space to Kim’s military exploits in World War II and the Korean War.  Kim was apparently a supremely talented military commander, with an instinctive grasp of terrain and infantry and artillery tactics, a brilliant and thorough operations officer, and cool and clear-headed as a combat leader.  He was highly decorated, to put it mildly.

Kim earned at least 19 medals, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts and the French Croix de Guerre, the National Order of the Legion of Honor from France, the Bronze Medal of Military Valor from Italy, and the ROK’s highest military honor, the Taegeuk Cordon of the Order of Military Merit.  The fact that Kim never received a US Medal of Honor is a sore point for his supporters and ascribed to shortcomings of documentation by his superiors.

More to the point, officers and enlisted men wanted to serve under him, and his superiors turned to him when a task demanded careful and creative planning, determined execution, and inspiring and effective leadership in the field.  One notable patron was William McCaffrey (who was Kim’s superior as a colonel in Korea and ultimately rose to become a Lieutenant General;  he was the father of Gen. Barry McCaffrey of Rumaila Causeway massacre and drug czar notoriety).  

Being a “fair haired boy” had some genuine life-saving advantages.  Kim was seriously wounded both in the World War II and the Korean War and in both cases his commanders made special efforts to take care of him.  In World War II he received a treatment of penicillin (at that time both a rare privilege for connected patients and an agonizing program of four shots a day for ten days in the arms and buttocks):

The repeated doses hardened the injection sites and by the time Young Oak had received twenty shots, his arms had turned into rocks.  They could hardly find a soft spot to put the needle in, as it would bend the metal tips…[Unsung Hero, pp. 140-141]

In the Korean War, when Kim was wounded on an exposed hillside, his commander overrode the objections of the helicopter crew to order a risky high altitude front line evacuation.

Despite the favor shown to Kim by his superiors, an unavoidable subtext of Kim’s story is his experience of racial discrimination.  He started serving in a segregated unit and was the first Asian-American commander of a battalion in the history of the US Army.  

Reflecting on his experience, near the end of his life Kim told an interviewer:

"America is unique and special, and true democracy is only really successful here in America. We're a beacon for the rest of the world, but we have a long way to go. We have to continue to educate people not to be prejudiced and not to hate others. People today are less biased than people 25 years ago - that shows progress - and progress is hard to make. But I have great hopes for young people, and I am pleased with the young people I've met."

In light of his military abilities, his service, and the esteem in which he was held by members of the top brass, Kim probably deserved to become a general officer.  That he did not is in part attributable to the fact that the US Army was a white old boy’s network that took care of its own first.

In his discussions with his biographer, Kim was forthright in discussing and naming officers he didn’t particularly care for, one of whom was William Westmoreland.  

Westmoreland was allegedly on President Eisenhower’s “rocket list” of ten or so officers he had tagged for rapid promotion.  At the time of the Korean War, Westmoreland had no combat experience—a prerequisite for promotion to general officer in the US Army—so he was given command of a front line battalion for two months during a prolonged, relatively fighting-free stalemate late in the war.

Kim served in the neighboring battalion and worked out a suitable disposition for the two forces to cover their section of the front in a formation that was reasonable for both.  But Westmoreland vetoed it and Kim’s superior backed down:

In Young Oak’s eyes, Westmoreland was an officer who actually knew nothing about the infantry, which was different from his reputation, or he was simply an officer who cared about his own record and not the safety of the soldiers…The new [contact point between Kim’s & Westmoreland’s battalions] suggested by Westmoreland would have made his regiment impregnable, but would have easily exposed Young Oak’s battalion to the Chinese.  Fortunately, the enemy didn’t attack.  After this experience, Young Oak assumed Westmoreland would become a general someday.  Young Oak also thought Westmoreland was someone who would sacrifice his men at any moment for his own glory. [Unsung Hero, pp.344-345]

Perhaps since the book was originally written for a Korean audience, the treatment and naming and shaming of US officers who, in Kim’s view, didn’t measure up, is quite unvarnished.

However, I think it would be incorrect to treat Kim’s criticisms as sour-graping by a retired military guy who felt he didn’t receive his due.

Kim’s biography offers some interesting insights into the workings of the US Army in the 1940s and 1950s.

Judging from his recollections, it was staffed by good, bad, and indifferent managers just like any other business.  Only difference was, instead of making you work late on Christmas Eve, a bad officer could, through incompetence, callousness, or malice, get you killed.

I’m assuming that thirty years of continual warfare by a volunteer military has ironed out some of the bumps since then, but it is remarkable in Kim’s time how many bad officers there were and, for that matter, how many officers realized they didn’t have what it took to lead in combat and happily turned over their duties to Kim.

Kim’s career fresh out of Officer’s Candidate School sees him refusing orders he saw as stupid.  Even when he follows orders, there’s a lot of “I want my objection put on the record”; and quite a few condemnations of murderous command idiocy, particularly during the Korean War.

The bitter coda to Kim’s frontline service was the severe wound he received during the Korean War in August 1951 as the result of a friendly fire incident.  The artillery spotter plane lazily assumed that US forces couldn’t really be occupying a hill intruding so far into enemy territory and the orange identifying placard Kim had put out must be fake.  The hill was plastered with 25 rounds of nasty anti-personnel ordnance that exploded above ground level for maximum shrapnel lethality before the barrage was stopped.  Kim was badly wounded and, as mentioned above, was helicopter evac’d out.

According to his biography, Kim was ordered up there in the first place to distract an impatient corps commander from relieving Colonel McCaffrey on the spot for unacceptably slow progress in taking some other hill.  Apparently Kim’s capture of the dangerously exposed and strategically dubious objective (surrounded on three sides by Chinese forces) occasioned enough high-fiving for the corps commander to leave the command post in good humor--and leave Colonel McCaffrey in continued possession of his command (and his career).

Kim’s superiors demanded a court martial for the offending artillery battalion for its friendly fire transgression but the corps commander was apparently not interested, nah uh, and the whole thing got dropped.

It would be interesting to check how the US Army wrote this thing up in its official history of the Korean War.

Anyway, Kim was evacuated to Osaka where only the sustained efforts of a crack medical team from Johns Hopkins managed to save his legs.  But by the time he was able to return to active duty, he had missed his chance to climb the steep pyramid of advancement to general officer and retired a colonel in 1972 on 85% disability.

In 1999,  Kim served on the expert's committee attached to the US investigation of the massacre at No Gun Ri.  On No Gun Ri, it should be said, he supported the US Army's version of events meant to beat back the allegations reported by AP, one that was undercut by a subsequent disclosure of more damning documentation that the DoD had suppressed.  Not his finest hour, perhaps, but at 80 years of age and in poor health, I would suggest Kim was not in a position to independently review and analyze the million pages of documentation the US assembled to shape its narrative of what had happened.

The truest measure of Colonel Kim’s character and stature are perhaps are revealed in his achievements beyond his military record.

Kim grew up in a household steeped in Korean nationalism.  His father had opposed the Japanese occupation of Korea and fled to the United States, where he was extremely active in the Korean diaspora’s mobilization on behalf of Korean independence.  When Syngman Rhee came to Los Angeles to promote his movement, he would stay in the Kim family’s modest home.

Despite this background in anti-Japanese agitation, Kim refused a transfer out of the unit he had been assigned to out of OCS: the 100th Battalion, the “Go For Broke Battalion” of Japanese-Americans which distinguished itself during World War II.  (He had probably been assigned to the segregated unit because his mother’s passport showed her nationality as “Japanese” thanks to Japanese conquest of the Korean peninsula).  Instead, after an initial round of bigoted Korean-baiting, he successfully commanded a platoon, then a company, and rose to the position of battalion operations officer during the Italian campaign.

After the war, he opened a chain of coin-op laundries and employed Japanese-Americans to give them a leg up after the US internment program had destroyed their previous livelihoods.  During the Korean War, as battalion commander he supported an orphanage in Seoul.

After retirement, Kim endured 40 operations that attempted to deal with the continual pain he suffered from the wounds he suffered in Korea.  Nevertheless, he fulfilled a vow, quoted in his biography, to “devote his life to the betterment of the community I belong to.”

That community was not just Korean-Americans.  I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting here:

Kim was the first person to serve on the United Way board for a total of 10 years. He recognized the underserved ethnic communities in Los Angeles and worked to provide them with linguistically and culturally competent services. When Kim joined the board, the Chinatown Service Center was the only United Way Asian Center. Kim added the Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean American Centers to United Way. He also diversified the board with three more Asian American members. 

Kim continued to be an active member of the Asian American community and beyond. 

In 1975, he helped found the Korean Youth and Cultural Center, now known as the Koreatown Youth and Community Center. The organization now serves more than 11,000 immigrants from Asia and Latin America each year. It helps youth and families in Los Angeles who are struggling with poverty and language barriers. Kim further served the Korean American community, as a founding member of the Korean American Coalition (KAC) from 1985 to 2005. The KAC has an ongoing goal to promote civic and civil rights interests of the Korean American community, through education, community organization, leadership development, and coalition-building with diverse communities. 

From 1986 to 1988, Kim served as a member of Serving the Family & Friends of the Keiro Homes, part of a non-for-profit healthcare organization that promotes healthy lifestyles for the elderly. Throughout the 1990s he served as Chairman of the Center for Pacific Asian Families, an organization that was founded to help address violence and sexual assault in the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Under his leadership, the Center for Pacific Asian Families became the largest women’s shelter in Southern California. 

In 1986, Kim co-founded the Korean Health, Education, Information, and Research Center to provide new, uninformed immigrants with the health care information and services that they are entitled to receive by law in America. As one of the largest ethnic charity organizations today, it continues to help new immigrants obtain basic health care and offers them bilingual services in English, Spanish, and Korean.

Kim participated in the founding of the Korean American Museum, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Go For Broke Foundation.  He also lent his name to opposition to the Iraq War and to support for comfort women.

Kim Young Oak is worthy of commemoration and emulation, so I wrote this story as an example to myself and also to fellow readers who might be inspired by this account of his achievements.

More information on Kim’s life can be found at the website of UC Riverside’s Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies, and on the website of the Kim Young Oak Academy (including a video of a 50-minute talk by Edward Chung).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

About Those Missiles on Woody Island

I have an article up exclusively at Asia Times Online, South China Sea Face-off: The Mystery of Woody IslandGo ahead, click the link!

It addresses the media freakout over a Fox News report that commercial satellite imagery revealed something that looked like HQ-9 surface-to-air missile launchers were on the beach at Woody Island in the Paracels.

Official reactions in the PRC were noticeably...strange.  The PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs was clearly blindsided by the whole thing, indicating that whatever was happening was not part of a carefully planned provocation/escalation.

On the US side, Admiral Harris said rather belatedly that the report, "if verified", was an unwelcome sign that Xi Jinping was breaking his "pledge" not to militarize the South China Sea.

(I don't go into in the AT piece, but as I noted at the time of Xi's visit, he never "pledged" not to militarize, he simply said he didn't intend to.  The idea that Xi would unilaterally and individually make "pledges" to the United States concerning areas the PRC considers sovereign territory is apparently not too ludicrous to be entertained by the Western media at large.)

Anyway, it turns out that the Woody Island deployment, if it actually occurred (I'm always a tad skeptical when these things are documented by expert photo analysis of fuzzy commercial imagery), was not the first time the PRC has put missile launchers on Woody Island; in fact it would have been the third time.

And since Woody Island is a key PRC military facility of decades standing, characterizing rotations of military equipment on and off the island are hard to spin as "militarization".

The HQ-9s might have been put on Woody Island to support the deployment of J-11 fighters, something which is supposedly happening now.  It would be the second deployment of J-11s since the airport was enlarged to accommodate them, apparently something the PRC does in rotations instead of stationing them permanently and risking corrosion of the airframes from prolonged exposure to salt air.

And, of course, the Paracels are genuine, not man-made islands a couple hundred kilometers from Hainan, not the infuriating fake-island Spratlys down by the Philippines.

The Paracels do have issues.  In fact they are a permanent obstacle to any formal settlement in the South China Sea since their seizure from Vietnam in 1974 is the hottest of hot button issues and Vietnam will never acknowledge PRC sovereignty over them.  The US doesn't like the archipelagic baseline the PRC claims around the whole group of island (instead of calculating individual territorial waters/EEZs like UNCLOS wants) and the most recent USN FONOP challenged this particular piece of cartography.

But the Paracels and Woody Island are not part of the Spratly island building/militarization fears/nine-dash-line/salami-slicing/arbitration fracas that obsesses the United States right now.

As such they are not a particularly effective venue for the PRC to "defy" President Obama and the ASEAN confrerees at Sunnylands, the allegation that Fox (and its DoD partner in leakage) were trying to push.

All of this, of course, just factual noise in the media  "Missiles in the South China Sea!"  frenzy. As I write in the piece:

Just like in Hollywood, the motto for reporting on the military in Asia is “Nobody knows anything.” Exactly the way the DoD likes it, I expect.

As far as I can tell, the big outlets ran with the Fox story without demanding a look at unambiguous high-res imagery from US spy satellites or, for that matter, trying to get a comment from the PRC apparatus before running the story.

No fun or profit in that, I guess.

The prevailing media zeitgeist appears to be that PRC propaganda must be balanced, in an info-war sort of way, with equally crappy adversarial reporting in part, I suspect, to punish the PRC for its serial mistreatment of foreign journos and their employers.

Might as well get used to it.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Keeping the Panda at Arm’s Length: The China Factor in the Apple/FBI Battle

I take perverse pleasure (note to self: discuss with analyst!) in parting company with my libertarian/lefty buddies on the issue of the FBI’s demand that Apple assist in accessing an iPhone phone of the San Bernardino shooter.

The shadow of the People’s Republic of China—and the demands it plans to impose on US vendors of telecom/IT equipment in China once the Obama administration has established the benchmark for law enforcement intrusion—hangs over the whole debate.

And I believe the Obama administration has done a pretty canny job of getting law enforcement’s foot in the door while not letting the CCP panda completely in the tent.

First off, some techy details, as I understand them.  (If I misunderstand them, and somebody points them out, I will happily and humbly correct.)

On older iPhones, if the user was lazy and stuck with a four position numerical passcode instead of choosing a fancier, longer option, local enforcement could attach a “crappy Chinese box”, in the words of an iPhone forensics expert (costing a mere $355 and well within the reach of local cops), to brute force the passcode. i.e. input four-digit numbers into the phone until it hit the right combo.  No more.

A few years ago, Apple updated its security strategy and created unique difficulties to law enforcement.  Specifically, the phone’s memory is wiped (actually the decryption key needed to access the encrypted data gets “forgot” by the phone) if 10 unsuccessful attempts are made to enter the passcode.

To make things extra difficult, Apple installed a separate processor on the new iOS8 iPhones in an area called “Secure Enclave” to handle the passcode/encryption duties.  It includes some circuitry with burned-in random numbers (unique to each phone and “forgotten” i.e. subsequently unknown by Apple) that can’t be read for the purpose of “mirroring” or copying the phone’s memory.  If the phone’s memory can’t be mirrored, it can’t be loaded into a computer or a bazillion computers to attack the mirrors simultaneously to try to hit the passcode.  

There are tech rumblings that the burned-in numbers might be vulnerable to physical inspection i.e. peeling off the chip’s epoxy coating without destroying it and reading the circuits with a scanning electron microscope for mirroring.  But not yet.

Supposedly, even if Apple helps out by disabling the wipe function, the FBI still can’t mirror the new phones for parallel attacks; the only phones they’ll be able to break are the ones that a) they have in their physical possession and b) have rather lame, un-terrorist-worthy four digit numerical passcodes that can be bruteforced through sequential attempts on the phone itself.  Gotta wonder if this is really the case, given the FBI’s avid interest in this capability. 

The government’s demand that Apple provide a firmware update that will disable the wipe function on this one phone has elicited a chorus of heroic squealing both from Apple jefe Tim Cook and the privacy/tech/Apple-adoring segments of the Internet, complaints that I find unconvincing and, I suspect, the Obama administration finds rather irritating.

A lot of thought, I believe, has gone into the government’s case, and it is designed to split the baby into three parts that satisfy a) privacy advocates b) law enforcement and c) the US government’s anxieties about inevitable PRC demands for reciprocal treatment from US tech companies.

The symbolic/precedent setting character of this demand is clear from the fact that the specter of the terrorist bogeyperson has been unleashed by invocation of the San Bernardino shooting even though it’s not terribly likely that Farouk kept a lot of vital info about his rampage on his employer-provided/four digit passcode phone (a phone, by the way, that could have been made transparent to his employer with a $20 piece of software); and the fact that the FBI made its demand public instead of just talking to Apple privately.

I will also add my suspicion that the FBI already knows what's on the phone, or simply doesn't care.  Supposedly, in some goof-up during the investigation, the FBI botched a password reset attempt to gain access to the iCloud account linked to the phone, so that the phone couldn't back up its precious contents to the cloud--where Apple apparently can help extract them.  Oops, so sorry, here comes the All Writs Warrant for Apple to create the firmware bypass to the 10-and-out function on the phone itself.

Anyway, the US government is not demanding a back door that would enable the FBI to eavesdrop on the phone covertly while it’s in the hand of the user; instead it wants Apple to develop a utility that allows the FBI to attack an encrypted phone that is in its physical custody and obtained, presumably, under color of law in a criminal investigation.  And it’s only asking for a one-time firmware update prepared by Apple itself and then destroyed, with Apple exclusively handling its signing certificate, thereby denying the US government a real “backdoor” tool, the ability to deliver certified firmware updates into any and all iPhones.

So, no apparent surveillance capabilities (unless the assumption is that the government will do some TAO operation, acquire a target phone, spend a few days burning it up to read the hardwired factors and bruteforcing the passcode, extract the encrypt/decrypt key, and then covertly return the phone to the hapless enduser in order to spy on him or her; yes, inevitably there will be plans of this sort, but only at the outer limits of practicality), to keep the privacy advocates happy; a legup to the FBI on a rather knotty encryption problem; and relatively limited benefits to the PRC, which craves a universal backdoor into the iPhone for nefarious realtime surveillance of targeted individuals and, instead can only occupy itself with extracting one-time assistance from Apple for single phones in law enforcement custody, presumably only for the noblest and best-articulated of reasons.

And I think Apple understands it too, and what we are seeing with this massive Apple-polishing privacy campaign is an elaborate piece of kabuki whose major purpose is to demonstrate both to its customer base and to the PRC government that it will not provide phone-forcing utilities unless it’s a one-phone deal in response to categorical formal legal compulsion, and executed only by Apple and not by turning over the software fix (probably not terribly fancy) and, most importantly, its signing certificate over to some government agency for repeated use at the government’s discretion and maybe without crossing the search warrant/due process/human rights Ps and Qs.

If I was Apple (and the Obama administration and, for that matter, people who worry about PRC bullying of US IT firms for access to source code, surveillance utilities and the like) I would look for a graceful way to cave in response to a one-time demand through a court in a single case.  Better to button up this issue now, in other words, rather than open the door for the Congress to pass a CALEA-style law with a blanket obligation for Apple to cooperate on issues of this sort--a precedent that would make the PRC pretty happy.

Cynic that I am, I would not be surprised if this public spectacle was paralleled in private by a side deal between Apple and the US government to diddle with the physical encapsulation of the Secure Enclave chip to make it accessible to the FBI, and maybe get more liberal with sharing the signing certificate.  After all Apple, though a relatively insignificant provider of goods and services to the US government compared to behemoth spook servicers Google and Microsoft, is facing uncomfortable scrutiny over a $30 billion/year income tax diddle it's conducting through its (physically nonexistent) Irish affiliate; so the Apple executive agenda probably doesn’t include scorched-earth opposition to the United States or, for that matter, against the People’s Republic of China, which now accounts more than 25% of Apple profits.

In other words, a solution cleverly designed to completely please no own.  And, by that criterion, apparently a signal success!

Updated on Feb. 23, 2016 with some additional observations on the San Bernardino phone and the court order vs. legislation angle.