North Korea, South Korea: A Tale of Two Countries

Countries come to be defined by what they prohibit rather than what they permit.

Nowhere is that contrast between the haves and the have-nots or the free and the imprisoned more evident than on the Korean Peninsula. The divide between the North and the South has ripped families apart, pushed an entire population under the shadow of authoritarian rule and constantly threatens to erupt into war. The Orwellian North Korea - with Kim Jong-Un at its helm - is one of the last remaining dictatorships in the world that still strives towards the impossible notion of autarky. As a consequence its people suffer from famine, poverty and a near-complete ignorance of the ‘outside world’.

Meanwhile, South Korea is a roaring economy that encourages innovation, artistic expression and freedoms.  In fact, it is currently led by the country’s first female president – a milestone that speaks volumes about just how diametrically different South Korea is to its northern neighbor.

The book Korea | Korea by Dieter Leistner is a striking photo project depicting the various differences between the two countries by portraying the regular and mundane – street culture, landscapes and just the things that you don’t see on the news. Leistner is an architectural photographer so instinctively his eyes fell on to the urban landscapes of Seoul and Pyongyang, photographing them in 2012 and 2006 respectively. The result? A remarkable collection of photos made up of supposedly 'unremarkable' images that tell a poignant story. 

Street scene in Insa-dong / Street scene in Pyongyang

Bus stop for Boseong Girls' Middle and High School / Bus stop in Pyongyang

Hat seller on Insa-Dong Street / Policewoman on Janggwang Street 

Seoul Subway / Pyongyang Metro

Architecture lecture at Daelim University / Language course at the Grand People's Study House

A suburb of Seoul / Fields in the Gangdong district

The book is published by Gestalten – find a copy here.  

The Problem with Raids

Two recent raids in Libya and Somalia of an al Qaeda operative - Abu Abas al Libi - and an Al Shabaab fighter - "Ikrima" - respectively were both hailed as remarkable displays of America's strength and intelligence; Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the "quality and courage" of the operation and added that "those who conduct acts of terror...can run but they can't hide". While al Libi was captured, the raid in Somalia didn't end successfully; the Navy SEALS had to retreat due to heavy fire and they were unable to capture Ikrima or even identify whether he was dead or alive. 

The two events, which occured simultaneously on October 6, raise some interesting questions about international law and about the changing nature of warfare overall. Generally speaking, the use of force by one state in another state's territory is prohibited by Article 2 (4) of the UN charter: 

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State.

This includes the use of force against non-state actors too (ie: terrorists).

However (there are always but's) the UN does allow for the use of force if a. the other State has granted permission or b. it is in self-defence, as outlined in Article 51, responding to any threats to peace or acts of aggression. The main issues and questions associated with these kinds of operations, then, hinge upon the definition of self-defence and the identification of threats. 


US officials say that the Libyan government knew of this raid and didn't have a problem with it. That doesn't seem to align with the actions of the Libyan government after the raid, which is demanding the US to return al Libi, labelling the operation as a "kidnapping" and claiming that it was a "flagrant violation of Libya's national sovereignty." It is still unclear what the real scenario is, right now it's a matter of he said, she said, and  these things are usually only clarified quite a while after the dust has settled. 

The right of self-defence:  

As mentioned above, when there is no consent, self-defence can be invoked. In The Ethics of War, A.J.Coates states that the right to self-defence granted by international law  

embraces the right to resist an ongoing attack; but it also includes the right to resist an act of aggression that has already achieved its objective...even though the lapse of time give it an 'offensive' appearance. 

In the case of al Libi, for example, the man has been indicted with taking part in the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The 15-year time lapse doesn't negate the fact that he is a wanted man and, so from this angle, the raids can be seen as perfectly legal and legitimate under the umbrella of self-defence. Add to this the fact that captures - rather than killing suspects - can help with intelligence gathering making it a win-win situation. 

Credit: Reuters

On the other hand, a report by the UN Special Rapporter on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbritrary Executions highlights several counter points about the dangers of using self-defence to justify extraterritorial targeted killings of terrorists and some of those points apply to extraterritorial captures too: 

1. Article 51 might not even apply to non-state actors:

It has been a matter of debate whether Article 51 permits States to use force against non-state actors. The argument that it does not finds support in judgments of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) holding that States cannot invoke Article 51 against armed attacks by non-state actors that are not imputable to another State.

2. Self-defence cannot apply to terrorists that are not posing immediate threats:

Self-defence also includes the right to use force against a real and imminent threat when “the necessity of that self-defence is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” A third view, invoked exceptionally by the US Bush administration, but which apparently may still reflect US policy, would permit “pre-emptive self-defence”, the use of force even when a threat is not imminent and “uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack.” This view is deeply contested and lacks support under international law.

In this case, Al Libi's wife claims that the man had left al Qaeda a long time ago and in fact had nothing to do with the 1998 bombings so just how much of a threat was he posing? Of course, it comes down to which side of the story you believe.  

More interestingly, both these raids occurred in a context where raids and the use of drones are becoming common, and the number of boots on the ground are being scaled back; Osama bin Laden was taken out by a carefully executed raid and drones still hover over Pakistan, taking out suspects here and there. Since World War II, war has transformed from being an all-out phenomena to being something that can be contained within a particular locale and can, for many, feel very distant. The use of raids conducted by small expert teams and drones controlled by someone far from the conflict zone will only widen that distance, raising concerns about where war is headed in the future. 


B.R. Ambedkar: The Visionary


The wonderful Intelligent Life magazine is currently running a series identifying the best speeches in history. To kick off the series, Sam Leith states, “great speeches don’t come out of nowhere. Threads of debt and inheritance tie the earliest recorded oratory to the speeches of the present day.” Since speeches are always products of their contexts, what makes them great is that they can expand beyond their immediate circumstances and resonate across time; they can move the people they seek to address and inspire the people of the future.

After gaining independence from the British on August 15, 1947, India set out to create its identity beginning with the cornerstone of any newborn nation – the Constitution.

On December 9, 1946, the Constituent Assembly set off on this task of codifying the values of this new nation; a task that is inevitably wrought with pitfalls and argument and challenges particularly given the level of contradictions and diversity in India.

B.R. Ambedkar was appointed chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution. In November 1949, almost three years after the first meeting, his team had just completed the Herculean task and Ambedkar seized that momentous opportunity to deliver a speech that was truly great, in the sense described above and in a more general sense - it was timeless and captivating.

He began by answering the criticisms that were directed at the drafting committee at the time. The public accused it of being too slow and lackadaisical or, as he very succinctly put it, the public viewed the lengthy process as “a case of Nero fiddling while Rome was burning.” He compares the time taken to create the Indian Constitution with the time taken for America, Australia, Canada and South Africa to create their own. “It is true that we have taken more time than what the American or South African Conventions did. But we have not taken more time than the Canadian Convention and much less than the Australian Convention.” The reason being, he explains, is that the Indian Constitution has many more articles than all the other Constitutions: 395 articles while the American has just seven, the Canadian has 147, Australian 128, and South African 153. By highlighting that seemingly innocuous fact, Ambedkar simultaneously silenced critique and highlighted the sheer size and weight of the Indian constitution as well as setting the tone for the rest of his speech.

Ambedkar then turns to the dangers of what lie ahead for India. “However good a constitution may be,” he said, “it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot.” In a nutshell, he foresaw the perils of corruption and cronyism that cripple India to this day and make the constitution nothing more than false promises, regardless of whether it is a constitution worth merit.

The greatness of a constitution also depends heavily on maintaining independence, a notion that worried Ambedkar. “It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time?” In the past India lost her independence because of the “infidelity and treachery of some of her own people”: during the invasion of Sind, when the British were trying to destroy Sikh rulers, and then again in 1857 when parts of India declared war against the British. Time and again, Indians betrayed their own people, watching silently as the prize of independence slipped through their fingers. “Will history repeat itself?” he asked anxiously. “This anxiety is deepened by the realization that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds, we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country?” Though he posed that question more than six decades ago, it seems relevant even today. What sort of nation does independent India want to be and is India meeting the full potential of its independence?

He then goes on to the notion of democracy and how easily it can morph into dictatorship. To avoid this unfortunate outcome, he explains, the nation must “hold fast to constitutional methods…It means we must abandon the bloody methods of revolution…civil disobedience, non-cooperation and satyagraha…these methods are nothing but the grammar of anarchy.” Reading these words brings to mind the recent hunger strikes by Anna Hazare and Co. Of course not even Ambedkar would argue against Hazare's motives – anti-corruption in a country where corruption is now part of the culture – but his methods are uncalled for and, unfortunately, the Indian people have a tendency to follow such so-called leaders blindly. As Ambedkar said, “bhakti, or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in [Indian] politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world,” which is a “sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” 

Unfortunately, the very constitutional methods Ambedkar encourages have today become ineffectual. Dirty politics and dynastic rule renders elections hollow and inconsequential, leading to a complete distrust in the institutions of power amongst the people. Ambedkar foresaw this too. “Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy…a way of life which recognises liberty, equality and fraternity.” These three principles must come together because one without the other would “defeat the very purpose of democracy….Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things.” Today, India lacks equality and fraternity – some would argue even liberty to a certain extent. Given the nation’s slowing growth rate, political corruption scandals, sub-par infrastructure and poverty rates, it would seem, much to Ambedkar’s dismay, that we’ve lost our way to a real social democracy.

He finishes on a sombre note: “Independence is no doubt a matter of joy. But let us not forget that this independence has thrown on us great responsibilities…If hereafter things go wrong, we will have nobody to blame except ourselves….Let us resolve not to be tardy in the recognition of the evils that lie across our path…nor to be weak in our initiative to remove them. That is the only way to serve the country. I know of no better.” And, there is no better.

This speech in its entirety, along with many other remarkable speeches, can be found in the book The Great Speeches of Modern India by Rudrangshu Mukherjee. Grab a copy here.


In light of the recent tragedy in Boston, a look into the definition of terrorism is worthwhile. 

Getty Images

Getty Images

 In Ethics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism - a compilation of essays on the subject edited by Georg Meggle - Janna Thompson gives that elusive, shape-shifting notion of terrorism a solid definition. 

A group should be regarded as terrorist if it fails to meet at least one of the three conditions of legitimacy she sets forth:

First of all, it must be an organization accountable for the violence of its members; it must be able and willing to enforce obedience to the restrictions of just war theory, to negotiate a peace and to keep it.

Secondly, it must recognize (even if it does not always live up to) the restrictions of just war theory, the rights of the parties and the framework and institutions which make it possible for agreements to be made and kept and for there to be an enduring (if not ‘perpetual’) peace. To this extent organizations that count as legitimate authorities have to regard themselves as subject to law, though they may have disagreements about the nature of this law and may not on all occasions be law abiding.
But there is a third condition which also seems important. The leaders of the state or organization should be acting as the agents of its people. War cannot be waged on the whim of leaders, however powerful their states. This third conditions not only enable us to insist that some states are not legitimate authorities. It also allows that non-state organizations can be.

The first of Thompson's conditions was one that even Nelson Mandela - a remarkable legend who was on the US terror list up until 2008 - reiterated. In 1993, not long after his release he proclaimed: "If you have no discipline, you are not freedom fighters." The line between criminal terrorists and freedom fighters is restraint and a respect for international law. 

With Al-Qaeda, a classified terrorist organization at the forefront of the West's 'war on terror,' restraint is absent: the network attacks civilians and combatants alike.

Yet, the fact that Al-Qaeda openly takes responsibility for bomb attacks around the world (Thompson's first condition) reflects its desire to be viewed as a 'legitimate authority' in order to elevate its status from a group of lawless criminals to a group that is supposedly acting on behalf of Muslim people. 

But, Thompson continues:  

The Al-Qaeda network, with its apocalyptic view of a world struggle between Muslims and the West, does not appear to be an organization prepared to negotiate, compromise and make a peace that respects other parties.


The Al-Qaeda claims to be acting on behalf of Muslims, and it is in fact supported by some Muslims, but it does not in any real sense represent them.

By failing all tests of legitimacy, the group can then officially be classified as terrorist. 

Most importantly, Thompson does not necessarily subscribe to the view that acts of terrorism are those politically motivated acts that spread terror by attacking only innocents nor to the idea that terrorism is always morally wrong. Attacks on military personnel or property (combatants) can still be seen as terrorist acts. Horrific state actions can be classified as terrorism too (such as Nazi Germany, which was not only removed but was also subjected to criminal proceedings) and sub-state groups that have enough legitimacy can be spared the title of terrorist (such as revolutionary acts in tyrannical states, in which case it is not morally wrong).