One of the more surreal experiences available to someone living in the year 2016 is to wake up in Seoul—home of K-Pop, Gangnam style, and a growing collection of attractive postmodern skyscrapers built with the accumulated wealth of the last few decades—and then travel up the highway to the North Korean border. This doesn’t take long. If Seoul were Washington, D.C., the ironically named demilitarized zone would be substantially closer than the city of Baltimore, or, to go in the other direction, roughly as far away as Manassas. That’s about 25 miles.
Late in the morning of October 12th, 2000, in the Yemeni port of Aden, two al-Qaeda operatives drove a small craft laden with explosives up to the side of the USS Cole and detonated their payload, killing themselves and seventeen American sailors, many of whom were lined up for lunch in the ship’s galley. Sixteen years later to the day, another US naval vessel conducting business in the neighborhood of Yemen was attacked, this time by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels using apparently sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles.
To draft an apologia for Barack Obama’s foreign policy might seem like a thankless task. The problem is obvious: things don’t appear to be going very well. Let’s accept for purposes of argument that the administration has enjoyed some progress on international cooperation with fighting climate change (I said for purposes of argument!) and warmed up a few previously chilly relationships with Vietnam, Laos, Burma—and, heck, we’re being generous, so why not throw Cuba in there as well? Check. But what about the big stuff, the major global flashpoints Obama inherited from Bush in January of 2009?
There is a tendency for western media to treat Air Koryo, North Korea’s only “commercial” airline, as an opportunity for humor. The fact that it has been named the world’s worst airline by an industry group for four straight years plays a role in the company’s attractiveness as a butt for jokes, as do the propaganda films that play on its small fleet of Tupolev and Antonov jets (there is no volume control) and the mystery meat burgers served by its flight attendants.
But Air Koryo is no joke. It is an arm of the Kim family’s military-gangster complex, implicated in smuggling cash for Pyongyang’s slave labor enterprises, and has been implicated in weapons trafficking.
TOKYO—Anyone paying even passing attention to the news from East Asia knows that the rise of China has taken a bad turn in recent years, and that our closest allies in the region feel threatened by the increasingly belligerent policies of President Xi. It’s not clear, however, that even well informed Americans realize how dire the situation is. It’s time they paid better attention, because China’s lawless pursuit of resources and territory is coming to resemble nothing else so much as the behavior of the Japanese empire before World War Two—a disconcerting comparison I have heard more than once from analysts and government officials here, where I have been traveling with a group of journalists and policy experts on a trip arranged by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.