Sunday, June 28, 2009

'Gimme the Damn Bomb!'

In the movie Fat Man and Little Boy about the building of the atomic bomb, the late Paul Newman, playing Gen. Leslie Groves, administrator, of the Manhattan Project, vents frustration at the civilian pointy heads at Las Alamos who are challenging the rationale for the bomb in the spring of 1945.

“Just gimme the damn bomb!” he barks at Robert Oppenheimer, head of the team of scientists at the New Mexico ranch, who are designing the first workable bomb. It seems to me that this comment encapsulates at least two ideas that are germane to the problem of dealing with North Korea’s bid to become a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.

The first is that rationales for building such a weapon change over time. It should be remembered that the main motivation for the bomb, the reason why many of the scientists set aside their qualms about working on the world’s first weapon of mass destruction, was as a hedge against Nazi Germany getting one first.

By the beginning of 1945 it had become obvious that the Germany was not going to beat America to the bomb, indeed was on its last legs. Many people on the project began to question the need to proceed with its development. Their objections had certain logic to it, if the sole purpose was a hedge against German acquisition.

But by the time Germany surrendered in May the U.S. was tantalizingly close to having a working bomb and loath to give it up. That leads to the second proposition. It is very hard for any country that actually has a bomb or very close to having it to surrender it. Giving up a “program” that may or may not succeed is one thing but the bomb itself?
“Just gimme the damn bomb!”

The six-party talks, indeed negotiations stretching back to the Geneva Accords of 1994, have always been predicated on the proposition that North Korea’s nuclear program was basically a chip that could be bargained away for aid, diplomatic recognition, a peace treaty and integration into the international community, all things Pyongyang is believed to want.

The second testing of two small bombs, not to mention the parallel tests of multi-stage rockets, strongly suggests that, for whatever reason, North Korea’s underlying rationale for building a bomb has changed. What may have begun as a bargaining chip has become an end in itself. It may want all those good things, but it wants the bomb more.

I can envision my own movie where the North Korean generals bark at Kim Jong-il, something like this: “We’ve got the atomic bomb now, and you want to give it away? For an embassy? Are you crazy?” I don’t know whether North Korea’s generals speak to the Dear Leader in such tones. For that matter I don’t know if the Fat Man and Little Boy is precisely accurate as history, either. But I think it does speak to basic truths.
“Just gimme the damn bomb!”

If this is the case, is there any point to reconvene the six-party talks, assuming that Pyongyang agrees to join them? Is there anything meaningful to talk about? I would propose that they continue, but that nothing should be expected from them for a long time– simply mark time until events change, the new sanctions show some signs of working or the northern regime provides an opening.

The Obama administration has not yet formulated a strategy toward North Korea, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing now. I imagine that he came into office basically hoping to pursue the same bargaining strategy of his predecessors, but the unrelenting stream of invective backed by provocative actions from North Korea makes any kind of dialogue fruitless at this stage.

I’ve argued previously that the U.S. should consider reintroducing some nuclear weapons in South Korea or on aircraft carriers based in Japan that were withdrawn in the early 1990s in order to provide some tangible evidence that the “nuclear umbrella” that Obama endorsed in his recent meeting with South Korea’s President Lee Myung-ban really exists. Why not turn the tables on North Korea? Let them be the ones who want to negotiate a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

Kim Jong-il is said to be a big movie fan. Perhaps he is already contemplating a movie where he plays the role of Gorbachev to Obama’s Ronald Reagan, as the two sides meet in a summit to endorse a pact whereby Kim gives up his nuclear weapons, while Obama graciously agrees to withdraw U.S. weapons from the region – you know, the ones that aren’t there now.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Absurdist Cinema

You have to wonder whether Hiroyuki Tanaka, better known as “Sabu”, was really the right director to bring Kakiji Kobayashi’s 1929 left-wing novel Kanikosen (Crab Canning Ship) back to the screen. The film version, to be released this month (June) is almost totally devoid of any serious political content. Sabu turns this proletarian novel into a black comedy - communism as camp.

Asked about this Sabu, responds in the best if-you-want-to-send-a-message-try-Western-Union- Hollywood style, telling a sneak preview audience that “first and foremost, movies have to be entertaining. I could have done a faithful adaptation, but it wouldn’t have spoken to the issues facing young people today,” he said.

Certainly, the new version of Kanikosen is entertaining, in parts, in a macabre kind of way. One of them is the scene where the canning factory crew tries to commit suicide en masse, which ends up as a comedy of errors. I haven’t been able to get my hands on the 1953 film version or an English translation of the novel, but I’d certainly bet that the scene sprung out of Sabu’s and his writer’s fertile imaginations.

So one could pose the question another way: Not whether Sabu is the best director for the material, but whether the story is the best material for Sabu. He is, after all, much better known for youthful chase movies and films starring punk rockers. Why would he even want to make a movie about a mutiny aboard a crab canning ship in the cold waters of the Sea of Okhotsk? The answer comes from a small inner voice that whispers: “because it was a best-seller, dummy.”

The original novel was suppressed and forgotten until a few years ago, when a few devoted fans began to push for the novel’s revival. In 2008 it turned into an improbable best-seller. By May the publisher, Shinchosha, had printed 200,000 copies; by the end of the year some 600,000 copies had made their way to the book stores. Several manga editions have been published and a documentary of novelist Kobayashi prepared and broadcast.

This phenomenon has been linked to the hard economic times and what many in the media see as a revival of the Japanese Communist Party. It might more accurately be seen an example of the Japanese media’s unsurpassable ability to promote virtually anything when it collectively decides to hone on to a topic.

The Japanese Communist Party has had some nice things to say about the new movie in its publications, although one has to wonder why. There is relatively little revolutionary content. True, the protagonist Asakawa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), wearing a strangely un-nautical full-length gray coat, goes around with a stick whacking workers from time to time, but little real sense oppression or exploitation comes through.

One assumes that the party would have been happier with propaganda value of the 1953 film version by director So Yamamura. This version draws heavily on the social realism manifested by the great Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein’s famous story of the mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin.

The 1953 version was a product of Japanese cinema’s golden period of the 1950s. Although it won an award for cinematography, it has been much overshadowed by the other great films of the period such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, released that same year, and Akiro Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, released the following year.

But it is a long distance from the period of the late 1920s when the novel was written and even to the hard- scrabble years just after the war. This is an entirely new era, a time of anime, manga and video games. It may be that Sabu is pitch perfect in his understanding of the times and his audience, while being tone deaf to the material he is working with.

The young in Japan have been in a long and steady retreat from politics. Their activism peaked in the 1970s with demonstrations over the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and the opposition to the building of Narita Airport. The new Japanese proletariat is made up of the floating population of temporary workers known as freetas.

Yet, it hard to see how this movie would reawaken the political conscientiousness of the under-30s set as opposed to simply allowing them to enjoy its undeniable entertainment values. From a Marxist point of view the freetas are poor revolutionary material, too atomized and too wrapped up in their own troubles to develop proper class conscientiousness.

Although Sabu has ambitions to distribute Kanikosen internationally and he is a regular on the international film festival circuit, middle-aged gaijins like me are not exactly his target audience. Still, I would have preferred a more richly detailed period film set in the 1920s and 1930s.
This was a pregnant time for Japan, as the liberal spirit known as Taisho democracy was being snuffed out by the advance of militarism and fascism just as Kobayashi’s life was snuffed out in 1933 at the hands of the secret police. It is a period not well represented in Japanese film or any other media.

Such a film need not be just limited to the one novel. Kobayashi’s life and work provides much material, including his last novel, The Life of a Party Member, published after his death. It is set in a factory that has been ordered to switch to the production of gas masks to serve Japanese troops fighting on the mainland of China. Japanese cinema used to excel in such historical presentations, sometimes derisively referred to as “Samurai epics”. But it is not necessary that every samurai epic be about samurais.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Guantanamo Quandry

If there is any prisoner at Guantanamo Bay who fits President Barack Obama’s definition of a detainee who cannot be effectively prosecuted but who is too dangerous to be let free, it is probably Hambali, also known as the “Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia.”

Scarcely known outside of Asia and among counterterrorism experts, the Indonesian-born jihadist was arrested in Thailand in 2003, held incommunicado for three years, possibly in Jordan, before being moved to the Cuban establishment in 2006 as one of 14 “high value” suspects transferred there.

On January 22 in one of his first acts as president Obama declared his intention to close Guantanamo by the end of this year. Most would be transferred to the mainland U.S. for trial, but Obama elaborated on this by explaining that there were some who might have to be detained indefinitely, even without trial.

Obama didn’t mention Hambali by name, but his case seems to embody all of the difficulties and contradictions of applying due process of law in what was once known as the “War on Terrorism.” Take the first part of the equation: Can Hambali be effectively prosecuted in the U.S.?

He is linked any number of despicable and violent crimes, ranging from the October, 2002, bombing of a tourist resort on the island of Bali, the bombings of the Australian Embassy and Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, the string of bombings of Christian churches in 2000 that killed 15 and injured a hundred.

But all of those crimes took place in Indonesia, involved Indonesians or other foreign casualties and did not strike directly at U.S. interests, making it harder to determine what American laws he broke. Perhaps something could be made of the fact that seven Americans were among the 202 that died in the Bali bombings or that Hambali lent material support to a terror group.

Take the other side of the equation, that he is undeniably an enemy of the U.S. by virtue of his reputedly close association with Osama bin Laden. Hambali is a long-time jihadist, a man who cut his teeth supporting the jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan. His time there even predates Osama bin Laden’s.

He is often described as Osama bin Laden’s main representative in Southeast Asia. Indeed, he once sat on Osama’s shura, or council, the only non-Arab on the council. He is supposed to have served as “operations officer” for the Jemaah Islamyia (JI), thought to be behind much of the terror and sectarian violence that has taken place in Indonesia.

So the obvious solution to the dilemma would be to extradite Hambali back to Indonesia where he could stand trial on various terrorism charges, but that might not be so easy.

In the early days of his captivity, Jakarta did seem keen to get their hands on him. The Indonesians were irritated, too, that the administration of George W. Bush refused to allow Indonesian authorities to interview Hambali in captivity, which is said to have hampered the prosecution of some of the Bali bombing suspects. Only recently has Obama relaxed that prohibition, allowing some members of Indonesia’s crack Detachment 88 anti-terrorism unit to interrogate Hambali in his Guantanamo cell.

As recently as last February, during a visit to Washington, Indonesian Vice President Josef Kalla, publically asked that Hambali be returned to Indonesia for trial. However, there is good reason to believe that Jakarta actually prefers that he remain in U.S. custody.

In February, soon after the closure announcement, two Indonesian officials reportedly flew to Washington to meet with counterparts in the State Department and FBI. They requested that the U.S. continue to detain Hambali, presumably on the mainland, after Guantanamo closes.

They fear that his return to Indonesia would turn him into an instant celebrity and “re-energize” the jihadist movement in the country, which has been weakened considerably by the government’s successful anti-terrorism measures in recent years. The U.S. said it had no intention of releasing Hambali to Indonesia or any other country.

One concern that Washington harbors is that the authorities would not aggressively prosecute or punish Hambali if he were to stand trial in Indonesia. Last November Jakarta executed three men by firing squad convicted of bombing the tourist spot in Bali. It was said to show considerable backbone considering the three men’s potential for martyrdom.

On the other hand, other Indonesians more indirectly connected with the bombings received much lighter sentences. Indeed, Jakarta has shown a reluctance to seriously punish with long sentences people who don’t actually make and plant the bombs.

The obvious example is Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the so-called “spiritual head” of JI, who openly calls for a Muslim caliphate across Southeast Asia and was convicted of advocating the overthrow of the government but not the bombings himself. He is now free, having served a light sentence, made lighter by traditional Independence Day remissions.

It is felt that Hambali might receive the same cautious treatment, in part because of his prominence and because of the difficulty of proving that he was directly connected with the various bombings. Being the “operations officer” of JI would not necessarily cut it as the jihadist organization is legal in Indonesia.

The one plot where Jakarta might get a conviction is the church bombings of 2000, said Indonesian counterterrorism expert Ken Conboy. “And he is not likely to get a very long sentence for that,” he added. Unlike neighboring Singapore or Malaysia, and to its credit, Indonesia does not have an Internal Security Act that provides for indefinite detention without trial.

Maybe Cambodia would be willing to take Hambali off Washington’s hands. The jihadist has already been convicted in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2004 for plotting to bomb the British Embassy in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, there is no extradition treaty between Cambodia and the United States.