Showdown time for US and Russia

In May 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, then a rising hero of Russia at age 54, declared an anti-alcohol campaign while claiming that social reforms could not be achieved without changing the deep-rooted culture of alcohol abuse in Russia.

Because of the campaign, the price of vodka, which Russians regarded as the elixir of life, soared remarkably. Along with general inflation, the campaign cost the economy 100 billion rubles, and as the government struggled with the deficit, Gorbachev’s popularity hit rock bottom.

An anti-alcohol campaign was tried once in the U.S. as well. The 18th constitutional amendment, prohibiting the production, transport at and sale of alcohol, was adopted in January 1919. But instead of stopping people from consuming alcohol, it led to bootlegging gangsters such as Al Capone. Hundreds of people died violently as gangsters fought for territorial distribution rights among themselves. At last, unable to maintain the prohibition, the U.S. government ended it after 14 years. In December 1933, the 21st Amendment was passed to repeal the 18th Amendment.

If Gorbachev had studied U.S. history, he would have realized the ironclad principle that people cannot be stopped from drinking alcohol.

Maybe, the Korean government has learned this lesson from history. Unable to increase the price of alcoholic drinks at all, it recently doubled the price of cigarettes instead.

Gorbachev finally resigned as president on Dec. 25, 1991, and as Boris Yeltsin took over power, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was dissolved into 15 countries. The Soviet Union disappeared from the world atlas, and Russia was born.

Taking advantage of Russia’s economic turmoil, its satellite nations began to seek independence, and armed conflicts occurred here and there. The countries that started this independence movement, which killed thousands of people, were the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania).

These three countries on the Europe’s east Baltic coast formed Russia’s most important region. By losing this area, Russia was disconnected from rich European countries around the Baltic Sea. President Obama visited Estonia a few days ago on his way to the NATO summit in the United Kingdom.

Obama told the presidents of the three Baltic nations who gathered there that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula and invasion of eastern Ukraine were brazen assaults that the U.S. would never ignore, and promised that the U.S. and NATO would protect the Baltic nations.

This strong message to Russia flustered Putin. Even Republicans in Congress, who had been dissatisfied with Obama’s lukewarm responses against Putin, praised the U.S. leader’s strong stance.

Retaking the Crimea from Ukraine was Putin’s first successful step toward achieving his dream of recapturing the Baltic region. According to the U.S. press, encouraged by that success, Putin was trying to annex the eastern part of Ukraine with the same method used for Crimea ― organizing Russians living there to cause armed conflicts against the Ukraine military.

But the U.S. could never accept the brutal act of Russia taking the Crimea. Finally, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the annexation by an overwhelming margin.

Thanks to this, the U.S. and the E.U. put economic sanctions on Russia. As Russia was isolated internationally, investors began to leave, and the economy began to wobble. Faced with this crisis, Russia warned NATO nations that the whole of Europe would have to face serious economic problems by messing with Russia if things got worse.

Undaunted by this threat, Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron joined forces, and NATO agreed almost unanimously to send 4,000 soldiers of a Rapid Response Force to the region.

Sensing that the situation was unfavorable, Putin signed a truce with Ukrainian President Poroshenko. The battle is over for now, although we will have to see if it leads to permanent peace. This was an obvious victory for Obama, Cameron and the EU, and Russia suffered great damage.

Some people are talking about the possibility that Putin may follow Gorbachov’s path ― even though Putin has great support domestically ― as Russia’s economic losses grow bigger than its political gains because of the economic sanctions.

It was not politics, but the economy, that caused the fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. That happened because the Soviet Union lost its ability to help its satellite states economically. If Putin fails to learn from history and only pursues his ambition, he will not be able to avoid a tragic ending.


National Assembly should axe secret ballot

Last Thursday, Sept. 11, 2001, was the 13th anniversary of one of the most terrible tragedies in U.S. history. Terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. killed 3,000 innocent people, and 125 policemen and firefighters died trying to rescue victims. That night, President Bush addressed the nation and assured a frightened public that the U.S. would find those responsible for the terrorist attacks, no matter where they were hiding, and bring them to justice. Support for Bush, whose popularity was dismal at the time, exploded to more than 90 percent. Not one person called for his resignation as a way to make him accept responsibility for the attacks. New York City mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, showed his leadership, encouraging and supporting policemen and firefighters at the site. His popularity soared sky high, and he was even considered as a presidential candidate for the next election.

The Stars and Stripes flew across the country in honor of the victims, people wore black ribbons on their chests in mourning, and “God Bless America” banners were raised everywhere. The unity was no less than what would be expected from one of the world’s top countries. Of course, there was also severe economic damage. Stock markets in New York City were closed for one week, and U.S. stocks plunged. More than 430,000 jobs were lost in New York City alone, a loss of $2.8 billion in wages just in three weeks. Tourism also noticeably decreased. The federal government put into the city a total of $21.7 billion, $11.2 billion immediately and $10.5 billion early in 2002. Because people trusted Congress and supported the administration, the nation worked together to get everything back in order in just three months.

On Sept. 16, 2014, five months will have passed since the Sewol disaster. As nothing has been resolved in the last few months while the incident has been used politically more and more, the tragedy has now paralyzed the National Assembly. Grieving families are still suffering and protesting at the tent in Gwanghwamun Square, and opposition lawmakers have abandoned the National Assembly to protest in the street, raising banners demanding that President Park Geun-hye deal with the issues surrounding the “Sewol Act.”

While pending bills concerning people’s livelihoods have been piling up in the National Assembly, a motion to arrest National Assembly member Song Kwang-ho was voted down by his fellow lawmakers, who guaranteed they would deal with the motion in a principled way rather than hold a “bulletproof” session to protect their own through immunity from arrest.

There is a similar law for members of Congress in the U.S. as well, but it is intended to protect their congressional activities by guaranteeing their freedom. I have never seen a case where a U.S. congressman protected himself using his immunity from arrest instead of voluntarily going to the prosecutor’s office to prove his innocence. Furthermore, if the case involved a serious crime like bribery, the immunity would be denied by a unanimous vote at a general meeting of the U.S. Congress.

James Traficant was a U.S. House Representative from Ohio. He was a star quarterback in college, and a very popular figure in the House. Though Traficant, who emphasized law and order, was a Democrat, he was also popular with Republicans as he often supported Republican bills as well. Unfortunately, he was convicted of bribery and racketeering. Taking bribes using one’s position as a House Representative was an unacceptable disgrace to the House.

On July 24, 2002, the House voted on a resolution to expel Traficant. He made a final appeal to his fellow Representatives before the vote, but lost his seat by an overwhelming 420-1 vote in favor of his expulsion. At the time of the vote, the mood of the House was all gloom, and some members wept. After the vote, the press asked members who were close to Traficant why they voted for his expulsion. One of them replied in sorrow, “Today is the saddest day. I beg for God’s forgiveness as I voted for the resolution to permanently expel from Congress a hero who I liked so much and loved like my brother. But the country and the people should come before my personal friendship, and it was a choice to protect the honor of Congress.”

If members of the National Assembly thought that they should put the country and honor of the Assembly before anything else, they would not have granted immunity from arrest to the fellow lawmaker. It is not right to put the motion for arrest to a secret vote. If the National Assembly respects people’s right to know, it should let people know how its members vote by having a non-secret ballot for any matters on which it votes. Each lawmaker should reveal his or her votes in the Assembly to the people, taking responsibility for how he or she voted.

There is no secret ballot in the U.S. Congress. It does not seem honorable to hide behind the secret ballot or immunity from arrest. As they are part of the highest institution that represents the people, National Assembly members should honorably give up their immunity from arrest, should get rid of the secret ballot, and should focus only on law-making inside the Assembly.

Empowering the Korean-American Community

Jay Kim was selected as one of eighteen Korean-Americans that empowered Korean-Americans by the Research Center for Korean Community in its book, Korean Americans Who Have Empowered the Korean-American Community, on these people’s achievements and efforts for the Korean-American community.

African-American and ethnic conflict to raise the US ‘economic gap’

In his interview with YTN on September 10, Jay Kim talked about people’s prejudice against African-Americans, the bias that associates African-American people with crime, and also the lack of recognition of the importance of education in the African-American community leading to its social and economic alienation and negative perceptions from others, which might perpetuate racism.

Racism in US

When I came to the U.S. as a student in the early 1960s, racism was still rampant in the country. It was not just African-Americans, but also Asians, who were severely discriminated against. Koreans were even more looked down on because Korea was thought to be a poor, dirty country full of thieves.

At the time, many female students from Korea told others that they were from Japan. Japan was envied most by other Asian countries for its rapid economic development. Since Japan’s economic development was always praised in the U.S., people from Japan were naturally treated with relatively high regard. Korean students, with the lowest status among Asians, had to endure discrimination that they blamed on the extreme poverty of their country.

Though it does not feel so long ago that this kind of discrimination happened in the U.S., the U.S. of today has improved greatly on the issue of racial discrimination, and it is regarded as a country that is racially more tolerant than any other country in the world and a country where many races and ethnicities consider each other and live together in harmony. Even this level of racial harmony was made possible only by the success of steady efforts that only the U.S. could make, such as anti-discrimination movements and anti-discrimination laws against racism.

It is something for Americans to be proud of all kinds of people that live within America abiding by the law, while preserving the uniqueness of their culture. However, the continuous illegal immigration of Hispanics and the deeply-rooted discrimination against black people are painful issues that still hurt American society.

A major problem is the prejudiced perception that others have of African-Americans in America. After reading news articles that state African-Americans have the highest crime rate and make up more than half of prisoners in the U.S., crime is the first thing that comes to one’s mind when one encounters an African-American. Though legal discrimination has almost disappeared, social discrimination is still there.

While successful African-Americans do not experience racial discrimination at all, living in white neighborhoods, those who fall behind cannot get out of black neighborhoods, which have insufficient educational facilities and poor living conditions, and people have lived there for several generations in isolation from mainstream society.

However, since small convenience stores or liquor stores in black neighborhoods are said to be rather profitable, many Korean-Americans run such stores in those areas, which everybody avoids, despite the risks. So, whenever there is a riot by black people, it damages Korean-American stores.

For example, a series of riots, the largest and worst race riots in American history, started in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. The Los Angeles riots were started by African-Americans who were angry at the acquittal of four white policemen who beat up an African-American man with their batons. The riots began in black neighborhoods in the southern part of Los Angeles, and moved toward the northern part where white neighborhoods are. The riots, the worst in terms of the damage they caused, destroyed everything in their way. On their way north was located Koreatown, and rioters tried to go through Koreatown to get to the white neighborhoods.

But the rioters failed to reach the white neighborhoods, stopped in Koreatown by tenacious, well-organized resistance from Korean-Americans. With the deployment of 10,000 California National Guard troops, the riots were suppressed completely. During these riots, 58 people died, and 2,100 people were arrested. There were countless incidents of arson and looting. The economic damage to Koreatown, which was at the center of the riots in their final stage, was also enormous.

The recent riots in Ferguson, Mo., were much smaller in scale. Due to quick responses from the Missouri governor, such as declaring a state of emergency, implementing a curfew, and finally mobilizing the Missouri National Guard into Ferguson, the riots did not spread, and only one Korean-American store was damaged. Furthermore, President Obama sent the attorney general to Ferguson and had the FBI investigate the incident. These nimble responses calmed down the unrest. As a result, the National Guard was withdrawn and peace has returned to the town.

Unlike the time of the Los Angeles riots in 1992, the social status and economic power of African-Americans have improved rapidly, and now a black president has even been re-elected predominantly with support from Asian Americans and Hispanic. Crying out racism does not work anymore. According to the demographic data from the Census Bureau, white Americans will become a racial minority, making up less than 50 percent of the U.S. population, by 2042.

I still think that the U.S. is the country that is more racially tolerant than any other country in the world. And, I think, that is why I, someone who was despised as a poor Korean, could be elected to Congress, one of the highest institutions of the U.S., three times.

In my opinion, there’s no place better than America.