December 28, 1955 Juche

The nuclear relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother

We tend to look at WWII in a kind of historical box, with a beginning and an end.  In reality, we feel the effects of WWII to this day.  Just as the modern boundaries (and many of the problems) of the Middle East were shaped by WWI, the division of the Korean Peninsula was born of WWII.

Korea’s brief period of sovereignty ended in 1910, when the country was annexed by Imperial Japan. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Korea was divided into two occupied zones; the north held by the Soviet Union and the south by the United States.

The Cairo Declaration of 1943 called for a unified Korea, but cold war tensions hardened the separation. By 1948, the two Koreas had separate governments, each with its own diametrically opposite governing philosophy.

Kim Il-sung came to power in North Korea in 1946, nationalizing key industries and collectivizing land and other means of production. South Korea declared statehood in May 1948, under the vehemently anti-communist military strongman, Syngman Rhee.

Both governments sought control of the Korean peninsula, but the 1948-49 withdrawal of Soviet and most American forces left the south holding the weaker hand. Escalating border conflicts along the 38th parallel led to war when the North, with assurances of support from the Soviet Union and Communist China, invaded South Korea in June 1950.

koreanwar-fourmaps1200Sixteen countries sent troops to South Korea’s aid, about 90% of them Americans.  The Soviets sent material aid to the North, while Communist China sent troops. The Korean War lasted three years, causing the death or disappearance of over 2,000,000, combining military and civilian.

The Korean War ended in July 1953, though the two sides technically remain at war to this day, staring each other down over millions of land mines in a fortified demilitarized zone spanning the width of the country.

The night-time satellite image of the two Koreas, tells the story of what happened next.kim_il-sung  South Korea went through a series of military dictatorships from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, since developing into a successful Republic.  In the North, Kim Il-sung built a communist hellhole, a cult of personality established under a North Korean ideology known as “Juche”, (JOO-chay).

The term translates as “independent stand” or “spirit of self-reliance”, its first known reference in a speech given by Kim Il-sung on December 28, 1955.  Theoretically based on independent thought, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in defense, “independence” applies to the collective, not to the individual, from whom absolute loyalty to the revolutionary party leader is required.  In practice, this principle puts one man at the center and above it all.  According to recent amendments to the North Korean constitution, that man will always be a well-fed member of the Kim family.

Son of the founder of the Juche Ideal, Kim Jung-il, was a well-known film buff. In a movepulgasari that would make Caligula blush, he had South Korean film maker Shin Sang-ok kidnapped along with his actress ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. After four years spent starving in a North Korean gulag, the couple accepted Kim’s “suggestion” that they re-marry and go to work for him, producing the less-than-box-office-smash “Pulgasari”, a kind of North Korean Godzilla film.

The couple escaped, unlike dozens of South Korean and Japanese unfortunates “recruited” with the help of a chloroform soaked rag.

ryugyong-hotelNorth Korea broke ground on what foreign media called “the worst building in the world” in 1987, just in time for the Seoul Olympics the following year. With 105 stories and eight revolving floors, the Ryugyong would have been the tallest hotel in the world, if it ever opened.  Construction shut down in 1992, partly because Soviet funding dried up, and partly because construction was so bad that it’s unsafe to stand within 10 blocks of the thing.  In 2008, Orascom Telecom of Egypt agreed to spend $180 million to put glass on the outside, in exchange for a $400 million contract to build the nation’s first 3G cellular network.  Whether there will ever be more than one customer, is unclear.   Perhaps 2017 will be the year that the Ryugyong becomes more than the world’s largest telecommunications antenna, but so far the place remains “too popular to take reservations”.

north-korean-prison-concentration-camp-life-04Anywhere from 1 to 3 million North Koreans starved to death during the ‘90s, while it’s estimated that one in every hundred North Korean citizens are incarcerated in a system of gulags, torture chambers and concentration camps.

As of 2010, the North Korean Military had 7,679,000 active, reserve, and paramilitary personnel, in a nation of 25,000,000. Over 30% of the nation’s population, and absorbing almost 21% of GDP. Today, that military is under the personal control of a 32 year old who had his own uncle Jang Song-thaek executed, presumably by anti-aircraft machine gun fire, before being incinerated by flame thrower. The same method used to kill two of Mr. Jang’s associates, a week earlier. The New York Times reports that the execution was for a coup plot, but others say he didn’t clap his hands long enough and with the right amount of enthusiasm, over some pronouncement of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jung-un. The same Dear Leader who controls the nuclear arsenal.kim-jong-un

The Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) and the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea have had more or less “normal” relations, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  The relationship isn’t all moonbeams and lollipops, the DPRK sought relations with Baghdad throughout the Iran-Iraq War.  The IRI maintains relations with South Korea as well, but a cordial hatred for the United States has always kept the two united.

Authorities warned the nation of yet another impending famine in March 2016, the state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorializing that “We may have to go on an arduous march, during which we will have to chew the roots of plants once again.”

The Obama administration recently concluded a nuclear “deal” with Iran, secretly sealed with pallet loads of taxpayer cash.  CIA Director John Brennan conceded in September that his agency is “monitoring” whether North Korea is providing Iran with clandestine nuclear assistance.  It doesn’t seem a stretch, there have been arms sales and “peaceful nuclear cooperation” between the two since the 1980s. The nuclear relationship between the two is now guided by the steady hands of the “Death to America” mullahs, and the man who banished Christmas and ordered North Korea to worship his grandmother.   I cannot imagine what could go wrong.

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December 15, 1256 Stronghold of the Assassins

Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman

For the Islamic world, the 11th century was a time of political instability. The Fatimid Caliphate, established in 909 and by this time headquartered in Cairo, was in sharp decline by 1090.  The Fatimids were destined to disappear within the next 100 years, eclipsed by the Abbasid Caliphate of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known to anyone familiar with the story of Richard the Lionheart, as Saladin.

To the east lay the Great Seljuk Empire, the Turko-Persian, Sunni Muslim state established in 1037 and stretching from the former Sassanid domains of modern-day Iran and Iraq, to the Hindu Kush.  An “appanage” or “family federation” state, the Seljuk empire was itself in flux after a series of succession contests, and destined to disappear in 1194.

Into the gap stepped the “Old Man of the Mountain”, Hassan-i Sabbah, and his fanatically loyal, secret sect of “Nizari Ismaili” followers, the Assassins.

The name derives from the Arabic “Hashashin”, meaning “those faithful to the foundation”.  Marco Polo reported a story that the old man of the mountain got such fervent loyalty from his young followers, by drugging and leading them to a “paradise” of earthly delights, to which only he could return them.  The story is probably apocryphal, there is little evidence that hashish was ever used by the Assassins’ sect.  Sabbah’s followers believed him to be divine, personally selected by Allah.  The man didn’t need to drug his “Fida’i” (self-sacrificing agents), he was infallible.  His every whim would be obeyed, as the literal Word of God.

assassin-fortification-at-alamut-northern-iran
Alamut Fortress, Nortwest Iran

The mountain fortification of Alamut in northern Persia was probably impervious to defeat by military means, but not to the two-years long campaign of stealth and pretend friendship practiced by Sabbah and his followers.  In 1090, Alamut fell in a virtually bloodless takeover, becoming the headquarters of the Nizari Ismaili state.

 

Why Sabbah would have founded such an order is unclear, if not in pursuit of his own personal and political goals.  By the time of the first Crusade, 1095-1099, he found himself pitted against rival Muslims and invading Christian forces, alike.

Sabbah would order the elimination of rivals, usually up close, with the dagger.  From

assassination_of_the_seljuk_vizier_nizam_al-mulk
Assassination of the Seljuk Vizier Nizam al-Mulk

religious figures to politicians and great generals, assassinations were preferably performed in broad daylight, in as public a manner as possible.  It was important that everyone absorb the intended message.

 

Though the “Fida’in” occupied the lowest rank of the order, great care was devoted to their education and training.  Possessed of all the physical prowess of youth, the individual assassin was also intelligent and well-read, highly trained in combat tactics, the art of disguise and the skills of the expert horseman.  All the necessary traits, for anyone who would penetrate enemy territory, insinuate himself into their ranks, and murder the victim who had learned to trust him.

Sometimes, a credible threat of assassination was as effective as an actual killing.  When the new Seljuk Sultan Ahmad Sanjar rebuffed Hashashin diplomatic overtures in 1097, he awoke one morning to find a dagger stuck into the ground, next to his bed.  A messenger arrived sometime later from the old man of the mountain.  “Did I not wish the sultan well” he said, “that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast?”  The technique worked nicely.  For the rest of his days, Sanjar was happy to allow the Hashashin to collect tolls from travelers.  The Sultan even provided them with a pension, collected from the inhabitants of the lands they occupied.

Saladin himself awoke one morning, to find a note resting on his breast, along with a poisoned cake.  The message was clear.  Sultan of all Egypt and Syria though he was, Saladin made an alliance with the rebel sect.  There were no more attempts on his life.

assassin-fortification-at-masyaf-in-northern-syria
Assassin stronghold at Masyaf, in Northern Syria

In the 200+ years of its existence, the Assassins occupied scores of mountain redoubts, though Alamut would remain its principle quarters.

It’s impossible to know how many of the hundreds of political assassinations of this period, were attributable to the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah.  Without a doubt, their fearsome reputation ascribed more political murder to the sect, than they were actually responsible for.

The Fida’in of Hassan-i Sabbah were some of the most feared killers of the middle ages.   Scary as they were, there came a time when the order of the Assassins tangled with someone far scarier than themselves.

The Grand Master dispatched his killers to Karakorum in the early 1250s, to murder the grandson of Genghis Khan, the Great Khan of the “Golden Horde”, Möngke.  It was a bad idea.

The Nestorian Christian ally of the Mongol Empire Kitbuqa Noyan, was ordered to destroy several Hashashin fortresses in 1253.  Möngke’s brother Hulagu rode out at the head of the largest Mongol army ever seen in 1255, with no fewer than 1,000 Chinese engineer squads.  Their orders were to treat those who submitted with kindness, and to utterly destroy those who did not.

That he did. Rukn al-Dīn Khurshāh, fifth and final Imam who ruled at Alamut, submitted after four days of preliminary bombardment.  Mongol forces under the command of Hulagu Khan entered and destroyed the Hashshashin stronghold at Alamut Castle on December 15, 1256.

Hulagu went on to subjugate the 5+ million Lurs people of western and southwestern Iran, the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the Ayyubid state of Damascus, and the Bahri Mamluke Sultanate of Egypt.  Mongol and Muslim accounts alike, agree that the Caliph of Baghdad was rolled up in a Persian rug, and the horsemen of Hulagu rode over him, because Mongols believed that the earth was offended if touched by royal blood.

Some people are not to be trifled with.

December 13, 1577 El Draque

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye

The “Pelican” left Plymouth, England on November 15, 1577, with four other ships and 164 men.  The weather was so rotten that they soon had to turn back, seeking shelter in Falmouth, before finally returning to Plymouth, where they started.  The flotilla set out again on December 13 after making repairs, soon to be joined by a sixth ship, the captured Portuguese merchant ship Santa Maria, renamed “Mary”.

Historians argue whether this was a voyage of exploration, of piracy, or merely an effort to poke the Spanish King Phillip II in the eye.  Before it was over, Sir Francis Drake would be the first to circumnavigate the globe in continuous command of the expedition.

He was the third, actually, depending on how you count them.  Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out with 5 ships and 250 men back in 1519, becoming the first about 58 years earlier.  Magellan himself didn’t make it though, he died in the Battle of Mactan on a Philippine beach, in 1521.  19 men and a single ship under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano, was all that remained on the expedition’s return in 1522.

The Spanish explorer García Jofre de Loaísa was the second, leaving in 1525 with 450 men on seven ships.  None of his ships ever made it back.  25 of his men would return in 1536, under Portuguese guard.

Drake had crossed the Atlantic and made it to Patagonia, when it seems one of his captains got on his last nerve.  Thomas Doughty had been in command of the Mary, when he caught Drake’s brother Thomas stealing from the vessel’s cargo.  One thing led to another and Doughty found himself accused as “a conjurer and a seditious person”.   He was brought before a shipboard trial for treason and witchcraft, establishing the idea that lasts to this day, that a ship’s captain is its absolute ruler, regardless of the rank or social class of that ship’s passengers.

Doughty lost his head, in the end, in the shadow of the weathered and sun bleached skeletons and the bleak, Spanish gibbets where Magellan had put his own mutineers to death, a half century earlier.

golden-hind-replica
Golden Hind Replica

It may have been to smooth over the Doughty episode, that Drake renamed his flagship the “Golden Hind”, (a female deer of 3 years or more), after the coat of arms of Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the expedition’s prime sponsors. Soon reduced to three ships, Drake made the straits of Magellan by August of 1578, emerging alone into the Pacific in September.

Drake captured a Spanish ship laden with 25,000 pesos of Peruvian gold near Lima, when he heard about the galleon Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, sailing west toward Manila.  Nicknamed “Cacafuego”, translating as “Fireshitter” (I wouldn’t make that up), the ship carried 80 pounds of gold, a golden crucifix, jewels, 13 chests full of “royals of plate” (silver coins) and 26 tons of silver.  It was the richest prize of the voyage.

After a fine dinner with Cacafuego’s captured officers and gentlemen passengers, Drakedrake offloaded his captives, each with a gift appropriate to his rank, and a letter of safe conduct.

Drake landed near Alta, California in June 1579, where he repaired and restocked his vessel.  He claimed the land for the English Crown, calling it Nova Albion:  “New Britain”.   The precise location was carefully guarded to keep it secret from the Spanish, who by this time had a bounty of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million in today’s money) on the head of “El Draque”.

The Golden Hind sailed into Plymouth, England with Drake and 59 remaining crew onboard, on September 26, 1580.  The half share owed to the queen surpassed the crown’s income for the entire year.  Drake himself was hailed as the first Englishman to circumnavigate the earth.drake_1577-1580

Drake’s seafaring career ended in January 1596, when he died of dysentery, anchored off the central American coast.  There he was dressed in his armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin, off the Portobelo District of Panama.  Divers search for his coffin, to this day.

December 12, 1937 Panay incident

Though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story

USS Panay was a flat bottomed river craft, built in Shanghai as part of the Asiatic fleet and charged with protecting American lives and property on the Yangtze River, near Nanking.

Japanese forces invaded China in the summer of 1937, advancing on Nanking while American citizens evacuated the city.  The last ones boarded Panay on December 11:  five officers, 54 enlisted men, four US embassy staff, and 10 civilians.

Japanese air forces received word the morning of December 12, 1937, that Chinese forces were being evacuated on several large steamers and a number of junks, about 12 miles north of the city.

Anchored a short way upstream along with several Chinese oil tankers, Panay came under bombing and strafing attack that morning, sinking mid-river with three men killed.  43 sailors and five civilians, were wounded.  Two newsreel cameramen were on board at the time of the attack, and were able to film part of it.

The American ambassador to Japan at the time was Joseph C. Grew, a man who was morebaltimore_news_post_panay than old enough to remember how the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor brought the US into war with Spain in 1898.  Grew hoped to avoid a similar outcome following the Panay sinking, though Japanese authorities were less than helpful.  US cryptographers uncovered information shortly after the attack indicating that aircraft were operating under orders, while the Japanese government continued to insist that the attack had been accidental.

The matter was officially settled four months later, with an official apology and an indemnity of $2,214,007.36 paid to the US government.  The “accidental attack” narrative appears to have been a safe story both sides pretended to accept, but it seems a little hard to believe.   HMS Ladybird had been fired on that same morning by Japanese shore batteries, and the attack was followed a month later by the “Allison incident”, in which the American consul in Nanking, John M. Allison, was struck in the face by a Japanese soldier.

Added to the fact that American property was being looted by Japanese forces, it seems clear that relations between the two governments were poisonous at the time.

Interestingly, though the Japanese government held considerable animosity for that of the United States, the people of Japan seemed a different story.  Ambassador Grew was flooded with expressions of sympathy from Japanese citizens, who apologized for their government and expressed affection for the United States.

They came from citizens of all ages and walks of life, from doctors and professors to school children.  The wives of high ranking Japanese officials apologized to Grew’s wife without their husbands’ knowledge, while ten Japanese men describing themselves as retired US Navy sailors living in Yokohama, sent a check for $87.19.

A typical letter read: “Dear Friend! This is a short letter, but we want to tell you how sorry we are for the mistake our airplane made. We want you to forgive us I am little and do not understand very well, but I know they did not mean it. I feel so sorry for those who were hurt and killed. I am studying here at St. Margarets school which was built by many American friends. I am studying English. But I am only thirteen and cannot write very well. All my school-mates are sorry like myself and wish you to forgive our country. To-morrow is X-Mas, May it be merry, I hope the time will come when everybody can be friends. I wish you a Happy New Year. Good-bye.”

The two governments never did patch things up.  The US placed an embargo in September 1940, prohibiting exports of steel, scrap iron, and aviation fuel to Japan, in retaliation for their occupation of northern French Indochina:  modern day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Japan occupied southern Indochina by the summer of 1941, as the US, Great Britain, and the Netherlands retaliated by freezing Japanese assets.

Throughout that summer and fall, Japan tried to negotiate a settlement to lift the embargo on terms allowing them to keep their newly captured territory, while at the same time preparing for war.  General Hideki Tojo, future Prime Minister, secretly set November 29 as the last day on which Japan would accept a settlement without war.

Air and naval forces of the Imperial Japanese government attacked the US naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, about a week later.

December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along the 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years

Politicians love nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own benefit, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi had advised him to build his city “opposite the land of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros”, Greek for cow-ford), the narrow channel which divides Europe from Asia, they judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to recognize the advantages two miles away on the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today the second largest city on the planet, based on population living within city limits.

Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade.at the crossroads of east and west,

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma” – New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.byzantine_constantinople

The Roman empires of the east and west would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be too little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last almost until the age of Columbus and the discovery of the New World.  Most of that time it remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces in all of Europe.

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after reigning Emperor Theodosius II, they were built on the orders of the Roman Prefect of the East, Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by the Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of anitiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell after a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.

It was May 29, 1453.  Constantinople, now Istanbul, remains under Muslim rule to this day.