Archive for September, 2008

Sokcho/Mt. Seorak

View entire set on flickr

‘Security Theater’: Is Amtrak Too Wide-Open?

Seoul Staion. Photo by dnc.

Seoul Staion. Photo by d'n'c.

SEOUL — LAST YEAR, AS I WEIGHED whether to commit to a 42-hour train ride from Seattle to Wisconsin, one chief factor helped me ultimately decide to see the northern part of the country by rail: “At least I won’t have to mess with security.” But a recent contingency exercise carried out at Amtrak stations along the eastern seaboard raises questions about how long passengers will be able to rely on that reasoning:

Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration deployed officers from about 100 local police departments to 150 train stations in 13 states and the District of Columbia during the morning rush on Tuesday in a drill to familiarize law enforcement personnel with the rail system and to practice working together. An Amtrak spokesman said some travelers were asked for identification and some were told to open their bags for inspection. […]

Participants drilled on a variety of tasks, [TSA spokesman Christopher White] said, including looking for bombs near the periphery of train stations, where crowds might flee after an explosion within the station. Attacks on mass transit in Madrid and London involved bombs that exploded more or less simultaneously, not sequentially, but, Mr. White said, “We need to prepare for scenarios we haven’t seen in the past.”

The drill perhaps has some valid goals. Everyone gripes about getting stuck in the security line, but when things go wrong the citizenry is quick to point at holes and ask why didn’t somebody do something? Yet the exercise also raises questions about civil liberties, and whether such a show of force demonstrates any real ability to address legitimate threats. The ACLU’s technology and liberty program director asked rhetorically in the NYT article excerpted above whether “this isn’t just security theater.”

A journey from Seoul Station to Busan puts passengers through nary a security measure; conductors hardly check tickets. There hasn’t been an attack here in recent memory. I imagine the Eurail system to be a bit tighter, especially following London and Madrid, though I’ve no direct experience (comments are welcome). Either way, I can’t imagine seeing the same kind elaborate drill being carried out in any of the nations around the globe where train travel is a primary mode of transit — it feels vaguely Orwellian, and at the same time inadequate.

This may be too idyllic a dream, but it seems to me that instead of rehearsing iron-fisted tactics, Amtrak and the TSA would to better to put in place a light network of well-trained, courteous, regular-duty personnel who can maintain order should something get out of hand — whether it’s a rowdy drunk on the train or something a bit more serious. Checking bags or IDs isn’t necessary as such measures are largely useless anyway. We do what we can to keep ourselves safe, but after that we just have to roll.

Morals & Global Society: Let loose in Dubai, Button Up in Singapore?

Chinatown night, Singapore. Photo by e-chan.

Chinatown night, Singapore. Photo by e-chan.

SEOUL — WHEN A BRITISH COUPLE was arrested in July this year for having sex on a Dubai beach, it was perhaps not a symbol of the Islamic nation’s moral heavy-handedness. A recent New York Times piece by Michael Slackman, and an accompanying photo slideshow, paints the emirate as an honest place where people are left to their own devices — to go to the mosque, to drink beer, to dance, to hire prostitutes.

Two commenters (so far) on the the NYT’s Lede blog, which had a short post explaining the article, lauded this freedom as the reason Dubai has not given roots to terrorism, and credited the emirate for improving the image of Muslims.

Others were less than pleased:

Sorry to bust your idealism, but the “prostitute indicator” is NOT a measure of a society’s prosperity or progress.

Dubai had better start “cleaning” its streets of the prostitutes – and relegate the “open sex trade” way back into the shadows, IF it wants to remain an Islamic nation.

Rich and prosperous non-Muslim secular countries, like Singapore (which Dubai models itself after), have done as such, in the name of Asian values. It all falls back on how citizens want their country shaped, and what morals and values they deem important.

I’d like to know what the Dubai citizenry makes of this?

— Posted by LogicGirl

LogicGirl (and at least one similarly-minded commenter) may have a point, but her argument falls apart when it comes to Singapore. A 2006 podcast with the Times‘s correspondent in the city state reveals that while there might be laws against walking around your own apartment naked, Singapore is not as buttoned-up as it may seem. Prostitution is legal and regulated, with working girls (and presumably men) carrying identification cards to prove they’ve checked out in terms of HIV and other diseases.

Reporter Wayne Arnold says Singapore’s reforms have largely been driven by the same reasoning by which Dubai has chosen not to wield the stick of the Shari’a–because it wants to be a world player:

Singapore has taken some extraordinary steps to change its authoritarian image. The government has lifted restrictions on freedoms of speech and assembly. Entertainment laws have been revised to allow nightclubs and bars to stay open late. Casinos, once strictly forbidden, are now legal

Sims: What does Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, think about this remake that’s taking place there? Because he was probably singularly responsible for Singapore’s severe image.

Arnold: He has spoken about this quite a bit publicly in the last couple of years. And it’s no secret that I think at first he was hesitant — and his own biography speaks to this a little bit — I think he originally didn’t see a lot of need for this frivolity. Singapore was all about doing business and making sure things got done efficiently.

Sims: Mm-hmm.

Arnold: Now I think he admits that he may have erred on the side of severity, and he now agrees that as Singapore matures and it tries to attract new industries and become a major international city that Singapore will have to let its hair down.

[Edited 2008-09-26]

Heading WEST: How the New U.S. Program Isn’t As Welcoming to S. Koreans as it Appears

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

Incheon Airport, Departures Platform. Photo by wZa.

SEOUL — NEWS OF THE UNITED STATES’ plan to allow 5,000 South Koreans annually to work, study and travel independently in the country on 18-month visas buzzed along local wires shortly after the State Dept. issued a media release Monday. But there has been a notable lack of commentary on the announcement here, even from South Korea’s famously controversy-prone ‘netizens.’ The “Reader Opinion” sections are empty, and Web portal Daum’s WEST forum hasn’t seen activity for 10 days.

By the silence, we can perhaps guess there has been a general nod of approval.

But while the WEST (Work, English study, Travel) program may entice loads of South Koreans who are looking for improved language skills and a leg-up in the corporate world, it doesn’t live up to the rhetoric of facilitating “cultural exchange” — due mainly to one binding guideline:

Participants will devote at least 450 classroom hours to structured English language training and coursework focusing on American business practices and business procedures, U.S. corporate culture, and general office management issues.

While I can only interpret vaguely, what I read is this: no art students, no English lit kids, no history majors et al. The U.S. is interested in bringing young Koreans bent on business, finance and management degrees; the rest are on their own.

The stipulation will hardly whittle the number of applicants, but it will certainly influence the dynamic of any cultural interaction; a good number of the Korean nationals that U.S. students have the opportunity to talk with will all be chasing after the same thing. Of course, skilled Korean artists and academics of other disciplines can still be accepted as exchange students directly by their universities, but won’t have the luxury of time for travel and exploration afforded by the new WEST visa, known as J-1.

It may be a futile effort, but I think local institutions should be lobbying for an amendment to the new agreement that allows for more breadth — or, if not, start pushing now for a wider doorway for American students when Seoul draws up its reciprocal program.

(UPDATE) Irrawaddy Under Attack, Still Unavailable

SEOUL — THE BURMA-FOCUSED MAGAZINE The Irrawaddy sent a message to its on-line subscribers today saying that both its main and mirror sites are down due to Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, one year after the beginning of the Saffron Revolution. The publication is, in the meantime, continuing to report from a blogger site.

On Tuesday, we received reports that the Internet in Burma was running slowly, suggesting a concerted effort to prevent information from going in or out of the country.

Then on Wednesday, our colleagues and subscribers in the US, Japan and Malaysia notified our Thailand-based office that they were unable to access our Web site.

A few hours later, I-NET, the largest host server in Thailand, confirmed: “Your site has been under distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack since around 5pm.”

I-NET finally decided to shut down our server.

Singlehop, which hosts The Irrawaddy’s mirror site, explained: “Your server is under a major attack. Due to the size of the attack our network engineers had to null route the IP to negate it. When the attack has subsided we will remove the null route.”

Singlehop told us that the cyber attack was very sophisticated.

Currently, our Web site is disabled and we have been forced to launch our daily news in blogs. Fellow exiled news agencies Democratic Voice of Burma and New Era were also disabled.

A Year Gone By: Looking Back on the Saffron Uprising

SEOUL — ON SEPTEMBER 24 OF LAST YEAR, Burma’s military junta issued a warning to the masses of gathering protesters, saying they were prepared to crack down on the Buddhist monks who had driven the demonstrations. The streets of Rangoon were filled with saffron robes and laypeople alike, in numbers not seen since the 8.8.88 democracy uprising. What had started as outrage over fuel prices was now a situation as volatile as gasoline, and both sides were tempting it to spark.

Two days later, it lit. Soldiers opened fire into crowds of protesters. Monasteries were raided. Myint Thein, the spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi’s democracy party, was arrested along with scores of other activists. Reports of monks being shot and killed sent ripples of anguish throughout the Southeast Asian nation, as images of Burma’s bloody struggle spilled onto front pages worldwide.

And then, the heaving streets were subdued — largely remaining so until the torrential rains of Cyclone Nargis wiped them from the map. The tension that had continued to roil under the surface was overwhelmed, drowned into despair.

Most of the news media have since moved on, but there are still some reports trickling out. George Packer writes from Rangoon for The New Yorker, interviewing writers and watching plays at the American Center. He wonders whether the people of Burma can improve their lives through their own civic activism without tangling with governments — as many have given up hope for a foreign invasion, and even more have realized their own administration wants nothing to do with them.

Radio Free Asia remembers the uprising through the eyes of a citizen activist and a monk. The man, who is referred to only as Zarni, recalls having to go into hiding and being divorced by his wife after talking to journalists towards the beginning of the protests. The monk, U Zawana, is the leader of the All Burma Monks Union and talks about why the sangha got involved.

And in a more recent development, The Irrawaddy says that its Web site was the victim of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, a day ahead of the anniversary of the beginning of the Saffron Uprising. The publication says reports have been coming in that Internet speeds in Burma have been extremely slow lately, indicating a concerted effort to choke the flow of information.

A year gone by, and still not much has changed.

Looking West: Britain’s Revised Immigration Policy

London in movement by fabbriciuse

London in movement by fabbriciuse

SEOUL — IT’S TOUGH BEING UNWANTED, especially when you’ve fallen out of favor with a major Western power. Britain’s migration advisory committee published a list Tuesday (local time) reducing the number of skilled jobs open to non-EU migrants to 700,000 from 1 million. Effective November, the fields of medicine, secondary education and social work will be closed to those from outside the European bloc, along with 300,000 other jobs. Whether this is a sign of growing economic protectionism or a simple case of discrimination (or both) depends on your perspective. But it seems clear that in an increasingly borderless world, some parties are still trying to hold the line.

They have, of course, left some channels of immigration open — notably to sheep shearers and ballet dancers (Guardian via FP Passport):

It is thought the changes will cut the level of skilled migration to Britain from outside Europe by between 30,000 and 70,000 people a year.

The main list of shortage areas identified by the group of labour market economists is headed by construction managers involved in multimillion-pound projects, civil and chemical engineers, medical consultants, maths and science teachers, and ships officers to staff a newly growing merchant navy.

It also includes unexpected occupations such as skilled ballet dancers and sheep shearers. The experts heard evidence from the Royal Ballet that very few British applicants had the required level of artistic excellence or aesthetics.

The other exception will enable a group of 500 Australian and New Zealand shearers who travel the world working on up to 400 sheep a day to continue to operate in Britain, where they shear 20% of the UK flock.

The MAC acknowledged that one way to address these shortage areas, aside from turning to “low-paid immigrant labour,” is to increase pay rates for those positions. Citing budgetary reasons, they said such a solution is off the table for now. Another answer might be to both raise wages and allow people from outside the EU to compete — leveling the playing field, allowing immigrants to improve their lot and potentially giving the economy a boost. That idea didn’t seem to occur to the committee.

Having just moved to a nation where the word “foreigner” is used in wide brush strokes and where finding work as an outsider in anything besides teaching English is often prohibitively difficult, I can perhaps say based on anecdotal evidence that such closed economic policies are not only the result of buried nativist tendencies (Korea for Koreans, Britain for the Brits) but have the effect of perpetuating such notions. A blunt example is Japan’s refusal to grant suffrage to the over 600,000 ethnic Koreans living in the island nation, many of whom are second or third generation — a policy that pokes at the still-gaping wound of colonial history.

If migrants, expats and other such folk are regulated out of having a full role in their adopted society, they are also shut out in more emotional ways. Tension bubbles, leaving rifts in a culture that could otherwise be rich in mingling hues. It is a backwards step in a globalising world, and one that Britain should consider carefully.

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