Wednesday, March 20, 2013

North Korea, the Nuclear Question

Kim Il-sung, North Korea's founder, had seen the devastation wrought by the bombs dropped on Japan in WWII and witnessed the obliteration of the Korean Peninsula by Allied forces in the Korean War. Almost from the start Kim Il-sung desired to develop his own nuclear weapons program. But, his desires were placed on hold as more pressing issues were on the table at the end of the Korean War, namely, rebuilding the country and completing his restructuring of the entire economy, military and culture.

With the Soviets as allies, North Korea felt relatively safe from American "imperial aggression" and so they went about more basic national concerns. However, they engaged in lower level nuclear activities with the USSR. In 1956 their scientists were given basic knowledge on how to begin a nuclear program and in 1959 the DPRK and USSR signed a "nuclear cooperation" agreement.

The collapse of the USSR marked the beginning of many changes in North Korea. It precipitated the famine, helped to wreck their economy, and a few years later they restarted their nuclear program after losing their primary defensive shield - the Cold War threat of all out nuclear war with the ruin of the US. Their nuclear program had been on hold since 1994 but in 1998 they tested a ballistic missile and restarted processing nuclear fuel.

Today, North Korea lacks any ability to sustain a long-term, full-scale war. Most of their tanks and other weapon systems are around 25-30 years old and many sit idle or broken because North Korea lacks sufficient fuel, replacement parts and even bullets. But we should not let that lull us into a false sense of security. The North Korean soldier is one who is strongly motivated, loyal to the point of religious zealotry, and is constantly reminded that all of their problems are directly caused by the US.

For us, the Korean War ended in 1953. For the North Koreans, it's still happening. The country's leadership knows full well that without Soviet and Chinese support during the War the North Koreans would have been wiped off the face of the earth...and they very nearly were. And so today, they see South Korea flourishing, they see thousands of US troops stationed in the South and they realize they probably can't count on Russia or China in the event of a new war. At the same time they also remember that prior to the early 1980's they had a stronger economy and better infrastructure than their southern cousins. So what is a tiny country with a schizophrenic superiority/inferiority complex to do?

Their insistence on developing a serious nuclear defense program is one we find difficult to understand. After all, the money they've spent pursuing this goal could have fed the entire population for several years. We have to realize that what the national leadership does is for its own survival alone and not necessarily the well-being of ordinary citizens.

For decades, North Korea has promoted itself to its people as a strong nuclear power and fully capable of sending satellites into space; at the forefront of any and all technologies. The reality is that they're bumbling about with little to go on except what they learned via the Soviets and their interactions with Iran, Syria and Iraq. Their brightest scientists are decades behind the modern world. And so, in an effort to ensure their legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and to reap the benefits of aid monies and arms deals, they have become hellbent on developing nuclear weapons and all the ancillary technologies that goes along with it.

The military is the lifeblood of North Korea. The official policy of North Korea is "Songun" (military-first) which means, in essence, the entire purpose of the nation, its economy, agriculture, technology, everything is to serve and enhance the military. And while the Kim family seems like they have had an iron-fisted grip on the county's affairs the reality is that they (more precisely, he; Kim Jong-un) must maintain an uneasy alliance between himself and the military leadership. It would go a long way toward cementing his rule if the military was well taken care of, which would include a nuclear arsenal.

This leaves us with a few questions:
What about sanctions?
What is the real threat?
Where does all this leave us today?

The first question deals with sanctions. The US and UN has levied multiple rounds of sanctions against North Korea since 2004. The problem with this is sanctions more often than not hurt the people of a country more than the leadership. Sanctions have attempted to squeeze the ruling elite into submission, in reality they have played right into their hands. The sanctions have drastically limited the amount of fuel oil and other necessities flowing into the country thus exacerbating their economic problems and hampering the ability of everyday Koreans to thrive. Exceptions have been made in the realm of food aid but this too has had a negative effect. By their very nature any aid that goes to North Korea must first go through government bureaucracies and the military is usually the one who ends up with the aid. Then soldiers take truck loads of food and sell it on the black market fueling the corrupt and the terminal kleptocratic state of the country.

The international community has also failed to realize that what constitutes "luxury goods" to the West is not what people in North Korea consider luxury. A simple TV is a luxury good in the North, not necessarily a gold-plated toilet. And the elite have had little problem getting their "luxury" goods since the UN doesn't provide a strict list of what exactly luxury means, rather they let each member country determine what is or isn't.

Sanctions, normally US led, also fits the propaganda. By engaging in sanctions and severely harming their domestic economy the North can easily blame all their woes on the US and can use them as an excuse to use their sovereign imperative for self-defense by citing a "need" for a nuclear deterrence. So while sanctions may make the West feel good about "stopping a rouge regime", the North is busy working their starving people into a frenzy of anti-American sentiment, ready to wage war at the drop of a hat. Not to mention that despite sanctions the North has recently tested two nuclear devices and multiple long-range rockets. Sanctions are clearly not working.

Furthermore, North Korea is not as dependent on outside help as one might expect. Their successful "satellite" launch in 2012 was a prime example. Based on the examination of rocket parts found in the ocean the world was shocked to discover that much of the rocket was domestically made. North Korea also has a fair amount of natural uranium deposits (32,000 TONS of pure uranium to be exact). Uranium enrichment is a rather straightforward process and the technical skills needed to produce a uranium-based nuclear device is much less than needed to produce a plutonium bomb. All of this tells us that while sanctions may make things difficult for the North, they are not preventing them from moving forward with their programs...obviously.

The next questions is a rather simple one, what is the real threat?

North Korea, more a socialist nightmare than utopia. A broken economy and starving people with an obsolete military. What could they possibly do? Well, obviously they can build nuclear weapons and place objects into orbit and we dismiss or poke-fun of North Korea at our own risk.
There is no way the North could launch a nuclear missile (or any missile) at the US mainland and even dream of hitting it. Theoretically, they could however send a bomb over in a shipping container. The North has been able to maintain an armsdrug and information trade with multiple nations the world over so it is conceivable that they could blow up the Port of Los Angeles by sneaking something on board one of the 8 million shipping containers (using another country as a 3rd-party mediator) that flow through the port. After all, ports are a notorious weak spot.

More realistically, I think we should focus on South Korea and the mood within the North. When Kim Jong-un came to power as a young, European educated man, the world hoped for real reforms. Unfortunately, it seems that the young Kim suffers from youth induced arrogance and a desire to prove himself to his people (undoubtedly egged on by seasoned and hawkish military advisers). The North has also been "gearing-up" for war since 1953 and I imagine that the citizenry is growing tired of constant war propaganda without ever releasing the tension.

Historically, North Korea has engaged in small hit & run tactics such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the bombing of Yeonpyeong Island or limited incursions. In fact, the North has technically violated the terms of the 1953 Armistice 221 times. So there is little question that the North is capable of hits, the question is, are they ready to engage in a full blown war? Politically speaking, the time is ripe for an escalated conflict. We've seen the North take provocative actions but now South Korea has also stepped up its rhetoric. The nearly elected ROK (Republic of Korea) president has made it clear he is willing to be much more aggressive in the face of any threat from North Korea and this willingness on both parts will make it very easy for an otherwise small event to blow up into war.

North Korea maintains a secretive and elite rapid strike force of about 180,000 men. These troops are well trained in asymmetric tactics and have a network of tunnels beneath the DMZ which, in the event of war, means that the South could be taken off guard as 180,000 enemy soldiers surround their forward defensive lines. Additionally, Seoul is within reach of thousands of field guns and rocket launchers which could inflict massive damage. North Korea could use its 500-forward deployed, long-rang guns to rain down 500,000 shells an hour for several hours. All of this would result in up to 1 million South Korean casualties within the first few days of war. Not to mention the rest of the North Korean military which in terms of raw numbers dwarfs the South's. And while the North lacks any real ability to engage in a sustained invasion the goal may not be to "win." Like the Taliban, the goal could be to bleed the US dry. We would be forced (by treaty) to send large amounts of aid and soldiers to back up the 28,500 US soldiers already stationed in the South and to help the South Korean military. The disruption in trade between the US and South, as well as the disruption of South Korea's overall $560 billion in global exports, could cause very real economic problems for the "enemies" of North Korea.

In the end, North Korea would be turned into a pile of ashes, as was the case during the Korean War but, not without costing the US and its allies a great deal first.

What do we do now?

I doubt North Korea genuinely wants an all out war. The end game of war would be bad for everyone involved. It is more likely that the North is simply wanting some breathing room. If it weren't for their nuclear program it's doubtful the world would even give the North the time of day. But there can be a positive outcome. Although sanctions haven't worked to stop their weapons programs they have succeeded in making life very hard for them and rumors of assassinations and internal power struggles surface from time to time.

I think it's time we re-evaluate our position with North Korea. The North is like a spoiled child and our approach to keep him from doing bad things is by starving him to death. To me, this doesn't sound very wise -or moral. It is obvious that all of their bellicose language has been in an attempt to gain attention and aid. It is equally obvious that the international community lacks the ability to stop the North from doing as they please since they have a fair amount of domestic capability (even if it's at the expense of other sectors). At the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, both sides understood that any escalation would result in both sides losing. There is no doubt that while we would technically win the war we would also lose it. Sanctions against the USSR did little to stop their activities and in the end the USSR collapsed from internal forces and a never ending asymmetric war in the Middle East.

Today, the US trades with many of our mortal enemies, Russia, China, Germany, Japan, Vietnam etc. Russia and China maintain militaries that could easily take our military to task if pushed to. Russian and Chinese human rights abuses are well known and their systems of government and economics are not the same as America's. That being said, the lives of modern Russians and Chinese are better now than at any point in history and at the same time the Chinese Communist Party has never been stronger. I am not saying that their horrid human rights record, or the deaths of millions caused directly by their governments should be ignored. I am saying that there are ways of opening up societies, of making lives better, without bombing the hell out of them or holding such threat above their heads. As is evident by Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, you cannot bomb "freedom" into a culture unable or unwilling to accept it. Sometimes change must be gradual.

The US and China have been at odds over rare-earth metals and there is a grave threat to the world economy if China decided to play bully. North Korea, surprisingly enough, has up to $6 trillion (yes, trillion) in rare-earth metals. Would it not make more sense to extend an olive branch to the North Koreans, to not demand the end of their ruling elite, and instead allow them to implement gradual economic reforms while we reap the benefit of another source of needed materials? Economic freedom breeds personal freedom. The only way for North Korea to really benefit from their natural resources is to change their economic model and in doing so the yoke of serfdom which pervades North Korean society will naturally lessen.

As long as we threaten them directly or indirectly they will never relent. Morally, North Korea does have every sovereign right to defend itself and to develop nuclear technologies, and we have no moral (or Constitutional) right to stop them. We do have the moral and legal right to trade with them and if they launched an actual attack against us then fine, we'll erase them from the universe. I would rather have a country of full bellies which still has a Kim leading it than further continue a nation where 1/3 of those under 5 have stunted growth as a result of malnourishment with a Kim leading it.

I think we owe it to the millions of starving North Koreans, to our South Korean friends, and to ourselves to try a new path. Instead of holding on to Cold War fears and maintaining policies which clearly do not work, let us engage.

-- Jacob Bogle, 3/20/13

Additional Reading:
Timeline of North Korea's nuclear program, Wikipedia
Study on nuclear terrorism against US trade, Abt Associates (PDF)
North Korea's nuclear program, International Institute for Strategic Studies

(Originally posted at:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Thoughts on Life in the Universe

---Disclaimer: This is a departure from the things I normally post about and is more a train of thought/ philosophical discussion rather than a true position on a topic. ---

There are a number of theories on the nature of the universe, the existence of life outside Earth and the abundance of such life. My own philosophical leaning is that life is an expression of the will of God (or as Carl Sagan said, "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself") and that humans are the ultimate expression of such will (until we find other intelligent aliens out there). Of course this is just my own leanings and much of this post will deal with theory and belief more than rock-solid science.

The generally accepted theory of the creation of the universe involves a big bang and a period of inflation, which is then followed by a period of matter dominating the universe, which is finally followed by a period in which dark energy dominates. We currently live in the dark energy dominated period and it looks as though the known universe will one day die a slow, cold, dark and empty death many trillions of years from now. However, within this model (the inflationary universe theory) there lies an interesting feature. Some areas within the whole universe (we live in the whole universe but can only study the observable universe which may just a tiny part of the whole) may have undergone a period of rapid and eternal inflation which would create "pocket universes." When you look at the math it seems likely that these pocket universes far outnumber the regions where inflation slowed to allow matter to form.

Generally speaking, our little corner of the universe may be the only place life could ever possibly exist. So in a universe which is, to us, infinite, our observable universe (some 93 billion light years in diameter) is all we have to go on. It is possible that other universes exist, but as far as we know there will never, ever, be a way for one life form in our universe to communicate with life in another universe or pocket universe no matter how fast they travel or for how long. For ease of thought, let us assume that our universe is all there is.

If we agree that evolution is the process which gives rise to life (ignoring the possibility of some one or some thing causing evolution to occur), then it would seem logical that life exists throughout the universe. I think I need to list some points to help you see where I'm coming from.

--In the past we thought that it was probable that the only planets that existed were the ones around our sun. Today, we know of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars and there are literally thousands of other potential planetary candidates. Doing some quick math one could arrive at hundreds of billions of planets just within the Milky Way galaxy.

--In the past we thought life only existed on Earth. Today, while there is no evidence of life on other worlds we have found the building blocks of life, amino acids, in asteroids, interstellar gas clouds, and practically everywhere you could look.

--On Earth there are many millions of species. Life takes the form of plants, fish, land animals, birds, bacteria, fungi, and a myriad of other forms.

Now, depending on the assumptions used, with Drake's Equation:

You can come to one of three general conclusions; 1) we are completely alone in the universe, 2) life exists but is far and few between, or 3) life is practically everywhere.

The Fermi Paradox plays into my thoughts for today and I consider it a stronger idea now than when it was first discussed in the 1950's. Given that we know of a vast number of planets, that many of them lie within habitable zones, that the building blocks of life are found in every corner of the universe in some form and given that life on Earth exists in so many forms - including within rock itself and free from the need of sunlight, why haven't we found any?

One might expect that some type of life (or evidence of a metabolic process) evolved on Mars or perhaps in the deep oceans of distant Jovian moons. The simple fact is, we have no evidence. There is no doubt that Mars once had a magnetic field, liquid oceans and a thicker atmosphere. There is little doubt that life on Earth began within a few hundred millions years of the planet's formation, so, would it not stand to reason that life should have evolved on Mars as well? There are many features (like stromatolite formations and oil) which are made up of the compressed bodies of trillions of tiny critters and plants. Shouldn't a similar thing have occurred elsewhere?

We have found life on Earth almost everywhere we have looked. Life above, on, and within the Earth's crust and seas; even miles above Mt. Everest and thousands of feet within solid rock. Every time (to my knowledge) that we thought Earth was unique or special in some way we have found out that we are as common as sand on a beach, albeit pretty sand. The only area without even circumstantial evidence is in the arena of life.

Everything I have discussed brings me to this question, what if life really is unique to Earth? Would it be a stretch to assume we alone (life on Earth) might actually have been created for a purpose (again, ignoring any single faith and even the concept of a god as commonly understood, but simply, the ultimate expression of will) or are we indeed the result of the most random of random fluctuations? Either way, it gives me pause.

If we exist simply because we are here and, as Stephen Hawking has said, the only purpose or meaning in life is what we give it, then shouldn't we take the opportunity to achieve all we can achieve in our short life spans? If there is no heaven or hell then the only things we will ever learn or experience will happen while we're alive. I think that regardless of how we came to be (via chance or God) we owe it to ourselves to stop acting so incredibly childish and really seize the moment. Mankind figured out the Earth orbited the Sun 2,300 years ago (although it was forgotten) and we have truly wasted hundreds of millions of lives in conflict. Can you imagine where we would be if we had not been afraid of logic and reason, if we had not been so bent on destruction? Do you really think our purpose (either from God or the purpose we give ourselves) should be to waste the only existence we will ever have? To waste the only intelligent life that possibly has ever, will ever, arise in the universe?

--Jacob Bogle, 3/19/2013

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Murfreesboro Greenway Situation

Tonight, the Murfreesboro, TN City Council approved a 25 year plan to add an additional 150 miles or so of new greenways and bike paths to the Murfreesboro Greenway System by a vote of 4-3. This plan had a minimum cost of $104 million - with no current financial security. Tonight's vote was the final step of a process that began several years ago.[1]

I and many others made our views very clear and at times they were impassioned pleas but in the end the Council ruled, in all their wisdom, that this was something worth doing. There is little chance of stopping the ordnance now, at least until the next election, and I wish I had made my little speech with greater force but all I can do is make my case here in hopes that it can be used in future discussions.

I will start by repeating what I told the Council as my opening remark.

"When governments use money for something, be they the federal government or local, they are by definition taking money from someone else." 

At first glance the idea of greenways and bike trails sounds really nice. Currently Murfreesboro has 12 miles of riverside greenways and they are used fairly often. Murfreesboro is also a fast growing city and so the expansion of the system sounds like a logical step to improve the over-all quality of life for the city's inhabitants. 

The problem is that whenever government decides it needs additional land to expand something it almost always comes from private citizens. The City's vice mayor, Ron Washington, assured us all that this was simply a "plan for the future" and that nothing was set in stone; no ones land was being taken. And yet, two landowners rose and testified that they had been approached by city agents discussing the acquisition of their land for the Greenway expansion project including a man who turned a rundown property 27 years ago into his own paradise.[2] Another had his land appraised by the city at $1,000. $1,000 for 1.6 acres of well maintained land, with 300 feet of river front and a re-enforced concrete private bridge spanning the river. 

Several spoke out in favor of the project and a few even asked that the city go above and beyond the current plan. A supporter said (paraphrasing) "When you break it down you're only spending $4 million a year, well worth it." Of course that ignores the simple fact that what they're asking for is the local government to seize private property for the benefit of the few. Vice Mayor Washington added that land seizure is "unfortunate" and "the cost of doing business." I doubt he would feel the same if it were his land being taken. 

Proponents also discussed the positive environmental impact of such greenways. They claimed that the greenways connect small parcels of natural spaces and help wildlife move about. I find that somewhat illogical; in order to protect the natural environment they want to clear cut an area some 45 feet wide and extend that along hundreds of miles; something another opposition speaker mentioned. Then they want to pave a 15 foot wide section of it for all those miles. 

From an environmental standpoint, the first few feet of soil (depth) and the plants that grow above are instrumental in filtering out pollution and keeping soil erosion at bay. Clear cutting and paving over miles of territory will negate this natural action. The cleared land will remove the trees and bushes, along with their roots, and replace them with a single species of grass - so much for biodiversity. The paved portions then become a strip of open run-off with no ability to protect the rivers and creeks from surface pollution. One needs only look at the Greenway section which goes along Lytle Creek and beneath Broad Street. Lytle Creek is incredibly polluted at that point. In fact, much of street runoff city wide goes directly into the very waterways they're professing a desire to protect.

Not only does the paving of natural areas to protect natural areas strain the rules of logic you must ask yourself, why are there so few green areas today? The answer is rather simple. The government has continued to approve new constructions, new annexation of properties, and helped to direct the course of environmental destruction. So now, we're asking government to solve a problem it had a hand in creating.  

Then there is the economic factor. In a time when every working citizen has had to adjust their budgets to reflect the 2% increase in their taxes and everyone has had to factor in higher gas prices it boggles the mind that our leaders would think such a plan is a good idea. You can't drive to the local mall without seeing homeless people begging for money or a job, but this is a worthwhile expenditure of resources? Supporters have brought up the fact that some of it would be paid for via federal grant money, however, this is a 25 year plan and it is completely foolhardy to expect that the federal government will continue to dole out funds as they rapidly approach insolvency.

The plan also did not take into account the cost of paying "fair market" value for the confiscated land nor the costs for continual maintenance. The plan would cost approximately $700,000 a MILE just to build. Then the City will be on the hook for the additional employees they will need to hire to mow the grass, trim the trees, repave the paths, replace damaged signage, and the additional man-hour costs for security which I will discuss in a moment. All of this is at a time when the City is $396 million in long-term debt, more than double that of 2004.[3] Yes, our debt is slowly being paid off, however there is still no mechanism in place to pay for this program. 

A number of supporters talked about the fact that so many families use the system and how they feel safe and love going there. For them, this may be the case. Yet for others, not so much. Even one of the Council members expressed the fact that he did not feel safe on the Greenway and others talked about their cars being broken into.[4] There are many examples of crime on the system which are not limited to adult victims.[5] I also told them that one need only step off the cleared path to find any number of less than enjoyable problems. For example, the Greenway in and around Old Fort Park (a very popular park, especially among children) has illegal encampments of homeless people, used condoms and drug paraphernalia can be easily found. I showed the Council a picture of 4 hypodermic needles which were within 100 feet of the Greenway path right in the middle of the park grounds. 

(The image I showed)

If the City can not adequately protect the 12 miles of paths we have now, how do they hope to protect the additional 150 miles of paths? Most of the paths lead away from the city's core into areas that tend to have a smaller police presence. A good many people, including myself, have stopped using the system for this very reason. To me, this is a very real a grave concern; one the Council decided to ignore. 

In the end, we have a city in debt who wishes to go further into debt for the sake of recreation. There are multiple parks, recreational facilities and the current Greenway system is popular. That being said, no one is complaining about the crowding, no one has to endure "people-jams" on the Greenway and many citizens flat out do not use it. No one suggested that we destroy the Greenway we have, we just don't think that robbing people of their land to build a massive expansion or financing it with debt or money likewise stolen in the form of taxes is the best way to go. If we need new paths let's build them as we grow. It is a sad state of affairs when we can not finance our own programs without begging for federal money, money that never comes without strings or moral hazard.

As I said, the vote happened and for now there's little we can do about the situation. However, I think this issue should be kept in our minds and remembered during the upcoming election. We may have to wait but there is no reason why we can't reverse this action if we have leaders who will actually defend the rights of citizens and not try to be "progressive" (as some members suggested we expect of them). Rather, we should be a city which places a great importance on private property rights and does not plunge itself into greater financial troubles for recreation.

The 3 brave council members who voted no were:
Toby Gilley, Madelyn Scales Harris and Eddie Smotherman

The 4 who voted for this $104 million "plan" with no means to finance it were:
Mayor Tommy Bragg, Vice Mayor Ron Washington, Shane McFarland, and Doug Young

Jacob Bogle, 3-8-13

2. Landowners Fear Eminent Domain, News Channel 5
3. Election 2012, Murfreesboro Post
4. Thieves target cars, Murfreesboro Post
5. Man Sexually Assaults Teenager, News Channel 5 

Additional reading:
25 Year Master Plan, 217 pages (PDF)
City Council members Feel free to message Gilley, Harris & Smotherman to voice your thanks, or to message the others and let them know you won't forget this.