Tuesday, 30 May 2017 00:00

North Korea war coming

The United States and North Korea are hurling threats at one another. In Japan, the sale of bomb shelters is booming. And in South Korea, a country that has seen this all before and is typically nonplussed about a test or two, citizens are feeling a bit anxious. 

Could war really break out on the Korean Peninsula? Could a conventional war lead to the first use of nuclear weapons since 1945? Is this actually for real?

Well, there is some good news and some bad news. But it has to be said, the good news isn't that great and the bad news is potentially horrific.

First, the good news. On average, big, ugly wars between major countries don't happen very often. On any given day, the chance of a major war, let alone a war involving nuclear weapons, is exceedingly small. On the Korean Peninsula, that probability is reinforced by the fact that none of the key players wants a war. North Korea doesn't want a war, because it knows it will lose and lose decisively. That would mean the end of the Kim dynasty, and if there's one thing Chairman Kim Jong-un wants, it's to stay in power. 

Most South Koreans are similarly allergic to the idea of a large-scale conflict. Yes, North Korea would lose, but along the way, a sizeable chunk of Seoul, the South Korean capital and its most important economic centre, would be devastated by North Korean artillery. Even if the conflict ended without the North getting a conventional/nuclear/chemical shot off, it would still be ruinous. The South would face a human tidal wave of refugees, economic dislocation, and an anxious, defensive China worried about its border. And that's if it went "well".

China doesn't want a war - not on its border, not with nuclear weapons in play, not when its number one vital interest is political stability and sufficient economic growth to keep a poor and potentially restive population focused on dreams of a middle-class life. Japan?

There is nothing in it for Tokyo, except possibly stirring up anti-Japanese feelings that have persisted since the end of World War II. And the last thing Mr Donald Trump needs is a war, not with tens of thousands of US troops in South Korea and Japan. His presidency would be over before it had barely started.

So, no war, right? 

Not so fast.

Unfortunately, wars can break out even when none of the parties wants a war. Leaders may be rational, yes even Kim Jong-un, but that doesn't mean they are perfect. They can miscalculate the likely response of an adversary; they can misread the situation; they can find themselves backed into a corner where the only "rational" choice is to fight. 

If I were Mr Kim and I knew my enemies can take out what I have early in a conflict, I would have an itchy trigger finger.


Those inadvertent or accidental wars are also rare, even less likely than wars fought on purpose, but they can happen. And the Korean Peninsula happens to be a place where many of the conditions for such a conflict are already present. Poor lines of communication and little understanding of the adversary's intentions? Check. Lots of bluster and bluffing by the parties? Double check. Military doctrines and force postures that can push small incidents up the ladder to a major confrontation? Again, check.

North Korea is the most isolated, least understood country in the world. The US repeatedly misread Soviet intentions during the Cold War, despite an enormous effort that lasted for decades, and my conversations with government officials in Washington, Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo give me no reason to believe that we are doing any better with North Korea.

Of course, the North Koreans could tell the US what they want. They could communicate their red lines, but the US has no formal diplomatic relations with the North Koreans and rarely talks to them. And if the North Koreans told Washington where those red lines are, would it believe them? How are we to distinguish the over-the-top threats from the serious warnings? 

And unfortunately, the new US administration has its own issues in this regard. Between late-night tweets, contradictory statements by the highest officials in the US government, and threats that are clearly bluffs, how should Pyongyang interpret US "signals"? Will the Kim clan be able to discern when the Trump is serious and when he is posturing? China can act as a go-between, but one has to wonder what gets lost in translation, especially when Beijing has its own interests and the Chinese-North Korean relationship (never great to begin with) further erodes in response to Chinese pressure. 

Less well-understood but perhaps more important are doctrines and force postures. The North is outgunned, and they know it. South Korean and US forces are far more capable and have worked assiduously to be able to hit every military asset in North Korea. If you are an American or South Korean, that sounds like a good thing, until you realise how that looks from Pyongyang. 

If I were Mr Kim and I knew my enemies can take out what I have early in a conflict, I would have an itchy trigger finger. Let's say there is an incident or a murky report of an incident. Is it nothing or is it the beginning of a much-discussed decapitation strike? If he thinks it is the latter, Mr Kim may conclude he'd better go big and go fast. He will, as they say, have to "use them or lose them".

Or what if Kim waits, fights a conventional war and then inevitably begins to lose. Popping a nuclear weapon off to stave off regime collapse will be a powerful temptation. Perhaps he will think that by just using one nuclear weapon in a limited way, he can force the US and South Korea to halt their advance or perhaps force a Chinese intervention that would freeze the situation in place. But maybe the Americans and South Koreans don't get the message. Maybe they think they'd better escalate in response. 

So yes, it is possible that no government wants a war, but that they chose war, even nuclear war, because it is the "rational" option under extreme circumstances.

The good news is that this is unlikely. The bad news is that it is possible, and the result will be far worse than anyone can possibly imagine.

Dr Jim Walsh is an expert in international security and a senior research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program. Walsh's research and writings focus on international security, and in particular, topics involving nuclear weapons.

Friday, 19 May 2017 00:00

Travel makes you richer

A journalism mentor once told our class there are two kinds of stories: Going on a Journey, and Stranger Comes to Town. I’ve been mulling that notion more than a decade, trying to discern its truth.

What I know today: I love going on a journey. And I love being the stranger who comes to town.

I write this from a happy perch around 30,000ft (9000m) above ground. I’ve just eaten a surprisingly tasty meal of venison with pumpkin gnocchi, washed down with Chardonnay, topped off with strawberry icecream and tea. I’d dash for the toilet, but I’m too tubby to move.

It’s not just the wine or food spinning me into delirium – it’s the euphoria of possibility. Suspended midpoint between departure and arrival is a sweet spot- where what might happen has yet to shake hands with what will be. Anticipation is the honey in my just-poured tea.

It never starts this way. Nearly all aeroplane trips are preceded by dread. He’s the gremlin tapping my shoulder, warning I may have forgotten something. He won’t tell me what.

I spent last night feeding the gremlin, checking my packing list and texting a babysitter and other parents who will, for the next five days, care for my children and shuttle them between sports trainings and home. Murphy’s Law has decreed the week I get to write a travel story about Hong Kong is the same week my husband starts a new job in Hamilton. Our village to the rescue.

After dropping the kids at school and navigating minimal traffic en route to Auckland, I arrive at the airport’s International Departure Hall. I’m more than two hours early, yet race to the check-in counter, vibrating with excitement.

Frequent business travellers tell me the grind quickly wears thin when faced with weekly trips to distant conference rooms and soulless hotels. I don’t travel often enough to face that problem. A boarding pass still thrills.

I’m inspired by the Kiwi spirit of adventure, which says the Land of the Long White Cloud is not only a fine place to live, but a nifty runway, too. The past month, I’ve farewelled friends temporarily leaving the Bay of Plenty for months-long excursions to Central America and Europe. Seventy-five per cent of New Zealanders own a passport. Thirty-six per cent of people in my native US own a paper key to other countries. Kiwis embrace the notion life is short, the world is vast and there’s much to learn when we leave home.

It’s said travel is the only thing we buy that makes us richer.

If we’re lucky enough to afford the ticket, we give ourselves a gift to last as long as memory. We bring our particles elsewhere hoping, not just to traipse the nave at Notre Dame, trudge the stairs of the Great Wall or traverse Sydney’s Harbour Bridge, but also to be changed by places we visit and people we meet. My favourite encounters have happened not at monuments, but in uncelebrated homes, pubs and footpaths. I’ve eaten cherry clafoutis in a suburban Paris home, watched volunteers sew an artisan quilt in the Swiss Alps and partied in a quasi-speakeasy at a Luxembourgish barn. None of these experiences (to my knowledge) featured in a guidebook.

Ibn Battuta said travelling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

Even crappy trips deliver something – cautionary tales or reminders of the blessings of home. My worst holiday, on Oahu’s Ewa Beach in Hawaii, involved daily 45-minute traffic jams, a beach littered with office furniture, and the smell of fresh tar from roadworks in front of our rented house. Who needs Oahu when I have Papamoa? At least I have the story.

Solo travel is its own reward. I found, as a university student riding the rails through Europe, I was 500 per cent more likely to meet strangers on my own than while with friends. Sometimes, solitude is fortifying. A friend gave herself a solo excursion on the Tongariro Crossing as a 40th birthday present (though, given the trek’s popularity, a solo tramp still has you rubbing shoulders with a sweaty mass of humanity).

Will my Hong Kong adventure live up to my imagination? Does it matter? The journey’s richness resides in possibilities stretching like the horizon mid-flight.

What’s your most unusual travel memory?

Friday, 27 January 2017 00:00

The evolution of flight

A joint exhibit by Fraport AG and the Senckenberg Natural History Museum opens today at Frankfurt Airport.

What do octopuses and rockets have in common? How have pterosaurs inspired the design of gliders? These and many other questions are answered by “The Evolution of Flight”, an exhibit that opened today in Terminal 2 at Frankfurt Airport. It is jointly hosted by Fraport AG and the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung.

Every day some 200,000 people pass through Frankfurt Airport. Most of them are travelers. But many others come to work, shop, eat, or watch planes land and take off. Starting today, yet another attraction awaits them all: an exhibit called “The Evolution of Flight” that is the outcome of a collaboration between Fraport AG and the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society). Fascinating facts about flight are presented in texts, pictures and videos on two “sciencecubes” underneath gigantic models of ancient flying reptiles.

The first living organisms that took to the air, about 400 million years ago, were insects. They were eventually followed by reptiles, birds and mammals. Much later still, humans were inspired by the designs found in nature to invent a variety of flying machines. The exhibit directly compares these with their archetypes to show how similar they are. The rotor of a helicopter, for example, is strongly reminiscent of dragonflies, which are astonishingly powerful and agile aviators: species of the Aeshnidae family (known as hawkers or darners), for instance, fly at speeds up to 50 kilometers per hour while beating their wings 30 times a second. They can also accelerate thirty times faster than what is induced by the earth’s gravity, thus outperforming a state-of-the-art jetfighter by a wide margin.

The lift-generating wings of aircraft are an ingenious feat of engineering that was inspired by pterosaurs, bats and birds. Interestingly, it is also possible to “fly” in water: octopuses, for example, swim by jet propulsion, the same method that is used to drive spacecraft.

Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Volker Mosbrugger, Director-General of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung said: “The findings of our studies of the forms and functions of living organisms aren’t only of interest to a small group of specialized scientists. As the exhibit shows, they also have practical applications, in this case for designing aircraft. We’re therefore very pleased to be able to present this work not only in our museum, but also here at Germany’s largest airport.”


Dr. Pierre Dominique Prümm, Senior Executive Vice President of Fraport AG’s Airside & Terminal Management unit said: “Frankfurt Airport is always an experience for guests and passengers, thrilling them again and again with new events, tailored services, leading-edge facilities and surprising activities. The exhibit isn’t something you would normally expect at an airport, but it makes a striking and memorable impression. Our excellent collaboration with Senckenberg is yet another example of how Fraport creates a sense of place to make Frankfurt Airport even more attractive by distinguishing it from other, more anonymous airports. Here two of the city’s foremost institutions, namely Frankfurt Airport and the Senckenberg Natural History Museum, have joined forces for the first time in a project with great public appeal.”

The “Evolution of Flight” exhibit is open around the clock near the platform of the SkyLine people mover in Terminal 2, and is free for everyone. Guides of the Senckenberg Natural History Museum will show visitors around the exhibit on selected days. For more information, please click here.

The “Evolution of Flight” exhibit is presented by Fraport AG, the operator of Frankfurt Airport, in collaboration with the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society).

Wednesday, 18 January 2017 00:00

Who is hungrier -- Trump or China?

We all now recognize that 2016 was a highly unusual year. Political events that we are witnessing today seemed simply impossible 12 months ago.

One of the less noted shifts in global politics -- but probably the most profound in its long-term impact for us all -- is the emergence of Xi Jinping's China as the world's great champion of globalization.

This year is the first time that a Chinese president has graced the Alps' elite enclave of Davos. The symbolism is heavy. At the epicenter of capitalist, free-market internationalism, the leader of the last remaining major country where a communist party has a monopoly on power was able to enjoy his moment. Xi's speech did not disappoint.

If there was a hint of schadenfreude, it did not show. Xi is one of the best public orators China has produced in recent times. But his message was an elegantly simple one: China will stand by globalization, no matter what protectionist fads contaminate the discourse in Washington or elsewhere.

It will do this for two reasons. One, Xi set out clearly in his speech: globalization has served his country well. He himself will know -- along with every other Chinese person of his generation -- what a China with closed markets and rigid borders looks like. This was the reality under Mao.

Since 1978, China has been an increasingly open country -- at least economically. This process has replaced poverty and domestic instability with a country now poised to be the largest economy in the world. No wonder Xi speaks as a fan and ardent supporter of global free trade and open economic borders.

The second reason is more prosaic. China needs growth to keep its emerging middle class happy. The sources of that growth are becoming more elusive. So deeper links with the outside world continue to be a necessity rather than a luxury. Xi's China has no choice about committing to globalization. His speech as good as admitted that.

The world is shaping up to be dominated by two hungers: that of China for its moment of renaissance and greatness, and that of the US, seeking restoration of its once secure position as the number one superpower. The two have always been competitors. But until recently, their competition was subliminal and concealed. Under Trump, it looks likely to spill out into clear day.

If these fears of competition become a reality, the question is this -- who is hungrier for success?

Based on Xi's fierce defense of the kind of world he wants his country to exist in, he sounds like a man with a good appetite. And to be honest, many in his audiences and the wider world are starting to see his offer as more appetizing and preferable than the meager fare currently being prepared for the world by President-elect Trump and his administration.

It has finally happened. After months of stalling, of saying nothing but "Brexit means Brexit," British Prime Minister Theresa May has set out her plan for how she wants the UK to leave the European Union.

The Prime Minister wants a clean break with the EU bloc. Most importantly, this will mean Britain leaving the single market. It is the "hard Brexit" that Nigel Farage, the right-wing press and many of her Conservative MPs wanted -- and that many of the 16,141,241 people who voted Remain feared.

Timmermans: US will understand importance of EU

Britain also will give up its full membership in the EU customs union -- spelling higher tariffs for UK exports to the EU -- but could remain as an associate member. That negotiation starts now.

May's 12-point "Plan for Global Britain," unveiled in central London on Tuesday, provides more detail than had been expected in Westminster. Now she has to persuade other EU leaders to accept it.

The Prime Minister will be cheered on by pro-Brexit British newspapers and Tory MPs who are overjoyed with her plan because Britain will save billions of pounds by no longer contributing to the EU budget and can close its doors to immigrants by giving up freedom of movement.

May acts as if her negotiating hand is strong and talks of a "new and equal partnership" with the EU. One of the key phrases from her speech was that "no deal is better than a bad deal" -- if EU leaders do not accept her terms, she will walk away.

Basking in praise from anti-EU populists, she has a false sense of security in her own position. This is a dangerous place to be.

What are the issues that led UK voters to leave the EU?

Walking away from a "bad deal" would mean no free trade deal with the EU, which would be punishing for British businesses, the City of London and the wider UK economy. The short-term sense of triumph that the Prime Minister and the pro-Brexit camp feel now will likely turn into long-term pain for the UK economy.

Crucially, May underestimates how dimly Germany and France view Britain's exit from the EU and with it the withdrawal from the post-war dream of European harmony and political unity.

The Leave side says that no matter what happens, however bumpy the negotiations between the UK and Brussels will be, Germany will still want to sell its cars to the UK, as will France its wine. Trade will win out.

Yet this is not how Germany's Angela Merkel sees Brexit. Germany and France -- for now, led by a pro-EU president -- will not reward the UK for leaving the EU. In fact, they are likely to impose tariffs on UK trade as a price for leaving.

That post-war dream of European unity has always been more important to Germany and France than it has to the British public. The European "superstate" that populist politicians like Nigel Farage have spent years claiming was the ultimate goal of the EU is one of the main reasons ordinary Britons voted Leave.

Yet it is also the very reason why Merkel and her fellow EU leaders will be willing to play hardball with May in the coming months.

When it comes to preserving the EU project, politics will trump economics.

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