- - Sunday, April 15, 2012


Technology is politically and ideologically neutral.

It would be comforting to believe that increasing levels of technology alone could solve social and political problems and make the world a better place. But history has proved that false, alas, again and again. When German scientists, with their traditional leadership in chemistry, invented a gas to slaughter Jews more efficiently in Nazi death camp “showers,” we got more proof.

The complexities of technology present opportunities, which may or may not be used for moral or utilitarian purposes.

We are in the throes of another test, were one needed, of the phenomenon. North Korea, an unprecedentedly cruel and retrogressive regime, is trying to preserve its existence with technologically advanced weapons of mass destruction. With such weapons, it could continue to blackmail the world into tolerating - and even supporting - its existence, if in no other way than by feeding its starving population.

Surely, even in their irrationality, Pyongyang’s desperate leaders recognize that their regime is on the cusp of implosion. In a relatively small country (perhaps even fewer than outside estimates of 25 million), at least 1 percent of the population is incarcerated under conditions more than matching any horror in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. It seems unlikely over time that mass undernourishment - a near decade of famine in the 1990s may have taken as many as 3.5 million lives - would not affect the human reservoir for the world’s fourth-largest army, which has more than 1 million men. (North Korean children are a head shorter than their South Korean counterparts, only one obvious manifestation of their deprivation.)

But Pyongyang at the moment confronts the rest of the world with a huge dilemma. North Korea probably will go on to test new nuclear weapons - almost a political requirement “to save face” for the inexperienced nominal leader, Kim Jong-un, after the abysmal failure of last week’s missile test. But there is no stability for a regime that cannot feed its people while diverting resources to such extravagant technological misadventures.

Next door in China, Pyongyang’s only ally, the one-party dictatorship’s unprecedented economic progress has led to a crisis wherein corrupt leaders - purportedly representing conflicting ideologies - are brawling. Having introduced digital communications, the leadership experienced a breakdown this month of its incredibly elaborate effort to control public participation and expression. At this writing, it is still not clear why Chinese websites were knocked off temporarily, even though official government media announced purging tens of thousands of netizens and some websites.

But the successful application of the latest technology clearly has not solved the problem of how to guide a fifth of the world’s population into a rapidly changing environment. Nor has it stifled calls for a more just if not a free society. It seems unlikely that the Communist Party leadership, scheduled for an overhaul this fall, will be able to put the increasingly vocal Internet dissent back into the box. Then what?

The danger for the rest of the world, of course, is that these regimes - even with borrowed and stolen foreign technology - will be unable to solve their domestic problems within the narrow politics they have chosen.

Unfortunately, North Korea holds South Korea’s cosmopolitan society hostage: Greater Seoul, with a fourth of that country’s 50 million people, is within range of Pyongyang’s aging artillery. Only incredible restraint by a conservative South Korean government to a series of North Korean provocations has prevented another war on the peninsula.

Similarly, Beijing’s rapidly growing capacity for military technology becomes an increasing threat as China enters a period of complex challenges. The country must provide for a rapidly aging population in a depressed world economy no longer able to afford it unlimited opportunities. Chauvinist rhetoric and occasional provocative acts also have characterized China’s military, and the once organic relationship between the Communist Party and a technologically advanced military no longer guarantees cautious civilian dominance.

As the U.S. moves toward elections this fall, it is increasingly self-evident that the dangerous world in which we live is growing even more precarious. American technological leadership, however much eroded in a time of straitened resources, is more necessary than ever. But it will take more than technology to meet these challenges. Bold strategies, such as sanctions on Chinese banks that support North Korea’s economy like those that proved so effective in ending Pyongyang’s currency counterfeiting in Macau, may be a necessity.

Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at solsanders@cox.net and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.

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