Tag Archives: Cold War

Word of the Week, 8/15-8/20/11 – endgame

Endgame

The last possible phase of a game of chess, although quite often games end in the middlegame or even in the opening.  Many attempts have been made to classify just when the middlegame finishes and the endgame starts.  Considerable simplification is necessary, but the queens being exchanged is certainly not a sufficient (or necessary) criterion.  The key concept is that in an ending the king ceases to be primarily a liability to be guarded, but becomes a fighting unit, and the main battle revolves around the creation and advancing of pawns.  This does not mean that the king is not subject to any attack, or that complex tactics cannot occur, however, but just that the need to activate the king overrides the dangers.

~ The Mammoth Book of Chess, Graham Burgess (FIDE Master and Chess World Record Holder)

One of the beauties of chess lies in how well it functions as a metaphor for human reality, right down to the pieces who are human characters.  Despite its apparent order and rules is a “black and white jungle”–chaotic and deceptive, often at the mercy of the creative force that pushes the pieces–just as with life which, despite rule of law and laws of nature, is difficult to calculate.  It is the dichotomy of order and lawlessness that makes it both compelling and apt in describing life.

The endgame is the perfect case study of this concept.  On the one hand, the definition is clear: the last possible phase of a game of chess, but sometimes this occurs in the middlegame or even the opening–especially when inexperienced players try their hand.  The transition from the middlegame to the endgame defies classification.  Considerable simplification is necessary but no set criteria for that exists.  The key turns on the king’s activity: the transition from merely being a liability to being activated.  (Chess players use the word activation to mean a piece is in play from its starting position–sometimes only that it is free to move from its starting position.)  In other words, the other hand of the definition is the inherent ambiguity surrounding entry to what constitutes the last possible phase of a game of chess.  Working backwards from the end to the point of transition from the middlegame to the endgame preoccupies many of the most astute scholarly, historical minds.  I will develop this essay to consider the obvious example of one of history’s most dramatic examples of endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall in U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match.

Life has its many checkmates and it is often in global events, such as politics or war, when the comparisons are most frequently made.  In chess, the game ends when the opponent’s king is in checkmate.  This means that the king has been put in check–meaning that in the next move the other side would capture the enemy king–which often happens with some frequency in the game, but in mate the king cannot escape.  Defense and offense are often interchangeable by this phase of the game, differentiated perhaps only by one’s willingness or astuteness to exploit advantages gained or blunders made.  This is different from earlier phases in the game where advantages are being sought and balance is often kiltered to one side or the other.  For example, in David Shenk’s The Immortal Game, A history of chess, he explains the chess problem set forth in al-Adli’s 9th century book about chess, which introduced the world’s first known chess problems:

White to move; White to checkmate in three moves

Black has an extremely strong position, but it is white’s turn.  If it were black’s turn, the next move would be checkmate for the white king.  However, as the caption explains, white can checkmate the black king in three moves.  The only pieces left on the board are the kings, both rooks for each side, one pawn for each side and one knight for each side.  The kings can move one square in any direction and capture opposing pieces except for the opposing king.  The rooks can move as far as they choose horizontally and vertically, but no diagonal movements or piece-jumping.  The pawns can move forward only, except when there is an opposing piece ahead of them diagonally, in which case they may capture that piece.  The knight moves up two squares and over one (an l-shape on the board) and is the only piece that can jump other pieces.  The key for white in the above scenario is that it must keep the black king in check with each move or it will lose.  The solution follows:

White knight to h5+ (check to black king).

Black rook captures the white knight to defend the king (Rxh5)

Again, white forces check to the black king: White rook captures the black knight on g6 (Rxg6+)

The Black king defends itself and must capture the white rook that threatens it (Kxg6)

White gets checkmate: White rook moves behind the black pawn and diagonal to the black rook--nothing can take it, but the king cannot escape: checkmate!

White’s defense is keeping up the attack; if in a move  white fails to check the black king and compel black to defend, black can return to the offensive, winning in one move.  The reason white is so confident in victory is simple: with each checking move, black has only one option, so white is assured victory with these moves and assured defeat if it makes any other.

The above is an example of an endgame scenario, although we have to acknowledge that it began before we joined the action.  The ambiguity of its start, if not its end, is one of the characteristics that differentiate the endgame from the opening.  Chess openings are set moves, often anywhere from ten to fifteen moves long and sometimes longer.  They are compelling pieces of a chess player’s development, because, “every game has an opening, and therefore certain opening principles are important to every game,” as Bruce Pandolfini states in Chess Openings: Traps and Zaps.  The primary purpose is to set the board in one’s favor and create an advantage for oneself in the middlegame and endgame.  But, as Pandolfini goes on to say, “Too many players study the opening almost religiously, by rote, and misuse the versatile and adaptable tools it puts at their disposal.”  This highlights another key difference between openings and endgames: openings follow a prescribed, even if adaptable, path, whereas endgames function without prescription, based only on the tools, strategy and applied tactics of each player.

The middlegame is the phase in which the player either a) seeks to exploit the advantage created in the opening, or, b) seeks to regain the advantage after blundering in the opening.  In Weapons of Chess, An omnibus of chess strategy, Pandolfini explains the principles of progression and how one uses the tools at one’s disposal: “Weapons of Chess is mainly about strategy, with emphasis on the middlegame.  Strategy means abstract thinking and planning, as opposed to tactics, which are the individual operations used to implement strategy.  Tactics are specific; strategy is general.  Tactics tend to be immediate, strategy long-term.”  The middlegame’s conclusion, the transition to the endgame, is obviously as muddled as the endgame’s commencement.

All of these features point to the unique nature of chess as compared to other games, especially in the case of the endgame.  Firstly, there is no element of chance or luck, unless you wish to consider an opponent’s blunder luck (and I prefer not to because it is based on the consequence of the other’s foresight or lack thereof not the random rolls of dice or drawing of cards).  Secondly, unlike most games which require some minor amount of calculation or little at all, chess requires foresight.  Thirdly, it is not necessary to deliver a smothering, systematic extermination of the opponent to win as in the case of Risk or Monopoly; the opponent’s king must be checkmated, regardless of any other piece captured.  Finally, it is a game that pits one mind versus one other mind; one vs. one; there is no team in chess while the game is on.

It is often the case for inexperienced players and those with limited acumen or study, that the endgame begins well before one identifies that one is in the midst of it.  The ineffective chess mind is often oblivious to the nuances and moves in game being played, but without retraining it is easy to reinforce mediocrity and failure.  Jeremy Silman, author of The Amateur Mind, Turning chess misconceptions into chess mastery, describes this in his introduction to his chess problems:

“We don’t have to go over this game, I already know where I went wrong.”

I’ve heard this line from students for many years now, and in virtually every case, I find that their view of the game’s errors was based on an opening mistake or a major tactical blunder.  When I point out subtle errors (which are far more common and more important than mere blunders), they are often amazed to find that I’m criticizing moves and ideas that they were proud of in the actual game.

~ The Amateur Mind, Jeremy Silman

I find this most interesting when one considers the evaluation of history, personal or global.  By the point at which Nixon gives his “I-am-not-a-crook” speech, he is already in the endgame.  What triggered that transition from middlegame to endgame probably varies based on one’s perspective or involvement in Watergate.

Observe, again, the value and ease of the game as a metaphor.

The Cold War over 32 black and 32 white squares

During the Cold War, competition of every kind, particularly head-to-head competition, stood in place of pitched battles (for the most part).  The Cold War was the ultimate chess match: two powers waging bloodless (for the most part) war.  Of course, much of this was hinged on the perception of the spectators, and how the two powers created that perception.  Chess matches, along with international sporting competition, music or dance presentations and the space race, were important battlefields in this war for supremacy of two combating ways of life.

Much like their more athletic counterparts, youngsters with an aptitude for chess were identified at a young age and groomed in the weapons of chess as early as possible.  Their training included various methods of psychological warfare.  Josh Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer, written by his father, and himself the author of two books: Josh Waitzkin’s Attaching Chess and The Art of Learning, in the latter book describes his encounter with such trained chess players:

The competition for the top of the American scholastic chess ranking was stiffened by a tremendous influx of Soviet immigrants.  As the Soviet Union fell apart, many of the powerful Russian players looked for opportunity in the west…  Many of these new rivals were armed with a repertoire of psychological “tricks” that presented serious challenges.

One of the more interesting tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game.  He was a very strong player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions.  Then one day, an old Bulgarian Master named Rudy Blumenfeld approached my father in the Marshall Chess Club and asked him if we were aware of what this boy was doing to me.  We were not.  He explained that in the climatic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and patiently work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process.

~ The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin

Many Soviet chess masters would become defectors to the U.S., unable or unwilling to proscribe their creativity and expression for the state.  Bobby Fischer would have his mental breakdown in part because of his own pawn’s role in the global chess match.  But, these are not the most compelling associations I have with chess and the Cold War.  That is reserved for the moment when the world looked around and realized, without a doubt, that the U.S. vs. U.S.S.R chess match was in the endgame: the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall: Endgame

Here we must return to our earlier theme of the endgame’s ambiguous nature, particularly in identifying its beginning.  By the time the Berlin Wall falls, the endgame has already begun, but it is in this move that there can be little doubt the Cold War will end one way or the other.  Within a few days of East and West Germans meeting atop a concrete symbol of division that had carried every threat of a very hot war, not only was the endgame known, but that inevitability that often creeps in for those who can calculate that far ahead grew stronger and indicated that, not only was it the endgame, the winner was known, too.

Below are two news reports from November 1989.  The first, is a Special Report from Peter Jennings and colleague Barrie Dunsmore, reporting the East German announcement that its people will be able to leave at their choosing and visas would be granted.  The second is ABC News “Nightline”, the following day, with the journalists wondering aloud if this is really the beginning of the end of the Cold War; the conflict they have spent their entire professional lives covering.

Dunsmore’s comments regarding Gorbachev are worth considering.  Is it Gorbachev’s rise that marks the transition from middlegame to endgame?  An older player in the game, say Kruschev or Stalin, would certainly not have allowed East Germany’s defection from the program.  Or, is the key move the establishment Poland’s Solidarity movement; Pope John Paul II’s visit behind the Iron Curtain; the Hungarian uprise; the election of Ronald Reagan; the election of Margaret Thatcher; or, is it something more subtle, maybe even earlier?

Historians will debate this for many years still to come.  The ambiguity of the move is perhaps one of the finest analogies between chess and life.  It prompts me to wonder and to ask if the popular uprisings in Muslim countries signal the plays of an endgame in Muslim-West relations.  There are similarities, certainly, but the differences are significant and provide strong caution against over-stretching the parallels.  Clearly, there are moments on the board and in life when the endgame is more clearly identified after the end is known and the king is dead.

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Sports in the Cold War Race

During the Cold War era it was all about, as Charlie Sheen likes to say, winning!  But, winning in this context was as much about public perception as it was about controlling territory and people.  The perception of the success of one way of life versus another was just as important as the various other races the USA and USSR were running.

The fact that so many of the political moves were described as competitions and races is telling in itself.  During the Cold War there were a series of relays with very specific goals: the arms race (nuclear bombs, bombers, submarines, etc.) and the space race.  Key goals that had to be won by being reached before the other country.

So much of the achievement in these goals was based not on reality, but on the perception created for the public.  More than any other war this was one based on propaganda and its achievement marked in public morale.  Sporting competition and its terminology provided concrete victories in lieu of battles and hot warfare.

Basketball. USSR vs. USA

What follows are some perspectives on this phenomenon.  The first is from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, which covers the doping program in the GDR, including its devastating effects for the youth involved–especially the girls.  The latter three are from this year’s American Historical Association Annual Conference in Boston and take on the sporting scene during the Cold War.

Doping for Gold ~ The Cold War Sporting Front | Secrets of the Dead | PBS.

Click on the link, above, to go to PBS and watch Doping for Gold.  Nothing was above board in international sporting competitions during the Cold War.  Athletics was an important tool in demonstrating the superiority of a country’s way of life, thus differing slightly from its significance during the Nazi Olympics which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  In order to accomplish this, the Communist nations trained their athletes as much in psychological warfare as they did in their given field–chess players, for example, were groomed to create minor “legal” disturbances in competitions, such as tapping a chess piece while a competitor studied the board in pressure situations.

It was particularly in team sports that dominance was considered vital for Communist nations.  They flouted Olympic rules demanding the participation of amateurs only, by enlisting all of their athletes into the military and then listing them as military personnel, while training them full time in their sports.  They also used doping to gain an edge.  This was especially true of the East Germans who saw women’s sports as the wave of the future and leaped at the opportunity to dominate during the German Olympics in Munich.  The women famously spoke with absurdly deep voices and gave every appearance of masculinity.  The site that you can follow with the link above provides a summary of some of these means for subversive competition.

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian HockeyProfessionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This workshop was based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality in its regard and treatment of emerging Communist countries.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) by Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO although Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort by Japan to distance itself from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is co-author of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the making of modern Germany.  For the purposes of this brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the aspects I found most interesting from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government.  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.

In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience,Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972 and subsequent competitions.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.

The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.A.

 

These examples highlight the importance of sports in the Cold War and help to provide a terminology for a war that is being fought in symbolism and achievement (for the most part) as opposed to hot battles.  It is particularly the case for life hidden behind the Iron Curtain, but in the war of words and symbols, the USA was not far behind the USSR and the GDR.  For example, the Kennedy staff, having campaigned on the hawkish need to build missile reserves, was shocked to learn that the USA  had already out-paced the Soviets according to the intel, when it was briefed coming into office.

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The Northwest Passage: It’s On! (Again…)

NASA image of the Northwest Passage

At that ambiguous turn in periods from the Late Medieval to the Early Modern, Europe was broadening its horizons in a way that only the Vikings had approached previously.  The Italians dominated the Mediterranean; the Spanish the central and southern Atlantic; the Portuguese the Indian Ocean.  In northern Europe, France, England and the Dutch wanted in on the game.  Once the whole global idea started to set in for the wider European set, it became clear to many in these northern countries that logically a northwest passage should exist to link northern Europe to the lucrative markets in the Far East.

Many tried.  All failed.  Some survived, but many did not.  Emerging from the medieval world’s Little Ice Age, ice blocked the route from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic north of modern-day Canada.  Those who ventured out were motivated by adventure, wealth, prestige and royal charters.  This failure led to the French demise in North America since they chose not to pursue colonization as fully as did the English (and the Spanish to the south).  Their leave-[little]-trace approach to colonization of their New World holdings, reinforced by the lack of a northern trade route enabled England, fresh off the colonization of Ireland, to overwhelm them.  Unlike the French, the English would build a formidable Navy unhindered by the obvious obstacles: a) its northerly position and b) its distance from the obvious trade routes to the East.

The need to get from North America’s east coast to the Pacific more efficiently remained relevant.  This is obvious by America’s interest in the Panama Canal.  In the first couple decades of the 20th century (1904-1914), America invested millions of dollars and (estimated) over 30,000 lives (lost) in building the Panama Canal.  (For more information on the Panama Canal visit the Canal de Panama website with English translation.)  Western Civilization may have advanced since the Age of Discovery, but shipping remains as essential now as it ever has been–and, likely more so than it ever was.

With the dual advents of the Cold War and the nuclear submarine, movement in Arctic waters–or, more accurately, under Arctic waters–actually turned the region into a pretty warm zone.  In fact, the Arctic was arguably the hottest point outside of actual war zones in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan–perhaps even hotter than outer space during the Space Race!  Of course, this was due to simple geographic proximity during the Cold War’s bipolar chess match.

Now, once again, nations are competing for the Northwest Passage.  Today, the major players are Canada and the U.S. with a few other competing claims.  There are also pressing concerns by Inuit cultures who have long lived in the region and are somewhat better recognized today than during the period of European “Discovery“.  Other than the nationalities represented and their existing establishment in the New World, the competition has changed very little in the intervening years since the Age of Discovery.  Is this evidence of that period ushering in the modern era?  Is it proof of the relevance history has in current affairs?  Is it yet another opening for social, economic and political discussions of trade or environment?  Yes.

Check out the links below for more on the development of the issue and the history of the fabled passage.

Map of the Northwest Passage from Princeton online exhibit (link below)

Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage (Princeton online exhibit)

Arctic Passage (NOVA)

Canada boosts claim to Northwest Passage (Financial Times)

Arctic nations agree steps to boost cooperation (Reuters)

Northwest Passage (Forbes)

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Reflections on the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, 2

I loves sports!  I am a huge football and ice hockey fan!!  So, I was thrilled to attend the following workshop in preparation for my Sports in America special topics history class at The Community College of Baltimore County.

The Hynes Convention Center where the AHA 2011 conference was held (and where an exceptionally irritating fire alarm interrupted the session I am describing in this post)!

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian Hockey Professionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This was a fantastic workshop based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented (through fire alarms, believe it or not . . . poor Bobby Hall . . . being disrespected in Boston!) on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) out of Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO and Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort to distance Japan from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is a scholar after my own heart (although much more accomplished and knowledgeable) who is actually a medievalist, doing sports history for the joy of it!  For the purposes of my brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the most interesting aspects from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government!  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.  In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience, Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.  The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.

Of course, this is a brief summary of larger discussions and contexts, but it shows not just the legitimacy of considering sports in the Cold War, but the actual necessity of it!

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Korea–a really brief look at how we got here

Korea has always been stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as China and Japan.  If it was not under the thumb of its neighbors in modern times, it was under the influence of imperialist European nations.  We might as well begin at the conclusion of World War II, when Korea had been forcibly liberated from Japan–a period of brutal treatment that has not been forgotten (as is evident from the Japanese textbook scandal a few years back which riled China, North Korea and South Korea with its glossed over account of Japan’s war crimes committed against the occupied people of these two countries).  Not unlike World War II Germany, Korea was divided by the Soviets and the Americans in the Allied attempt to defeat the Japanese.  The Soviets established the Korean Workers’ Party and installed their man, Red Army-trained Kim Il-Sung, founding the People’s Republic of Korea in 1948, accompanied by Soviet withdrawal.  When the South declared its independence the Korean War began with North Korea’s invasion.  Thus, it was one of the few hot spots during the Cold War.

Kim Il-Sung, the "Eternal Leader", with his son, Kim Jong-il, the "Dear Leader".

When folks refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war they are in part referring to the preference to look at the Second World War and Vietnam, while neglecting this brief but brutal conflict.  Over two million people died between 1950-1953.  Only twenty thousand fewer Americans died in that span than died in seventeen years of the Vietnam War.  In the end, with the involvement of U.S.-led coalition forces, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union, two Koreas were forged in brutal warfare, separating families and isolating the people of North Korea.

A Map of the Korean Peninsula (1993, CIA)

Roughly along the 38th Parallel is a no-man’s land, legendary for its absurdly large collection of land mines, which is guarded around the clock by North Koreans on the north wall and South Koreans and Americans on the south wall.  American forces have remained in South Korea since the Armistice that ended the Korean conflict.  (They have mostly been welcomed, but more recently their presence is controversial to a younger generation, especially given a level of inappropriate behavior by some soldiers.)  Whereas South Korea has achieved some economic stability, the North has been in a dire situation for decades with extremely poor health, short life expectancy and widespread hunger and starvation.  Conditions for aid have often been dependent on a more humane government, but it has sacrificed its people for weapons and a desire to establish a nuclear armament.

The physical darkness of North Korea and metaphor for the internal conditions.

Throughout the last decade and a half, the West and North Korea’s neighbors have been concerned about its attempt to negotiate for nuclear energy to solve some its internal problems.  The potential to turn energy into arsenal has always been a concern, though many agree that clean and abundant energy would be an asset to a nation that is significantly behind in medicine, food production, manufacturing, everything but military arsenals.  The so-called Six Party talks, named after the six countries at the table: North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States, have been orchestrated on numerous occasions to discuss the nuclear situation.  In the last decade North Korea even agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA of the United Nations to conduct investigations and inspections intended to insure that all nuclear-interests were peaceful, but ultimately failed to make good on such promises.  Traditionally, China has insisted on protecting the North, and as with a small sibling, scolding and cajoling them into cooperation, but many question China’s influence, particularly in light of its recent economic changes.  Current events, including two attacks, may sorely test China’s right to keep little brother from straying into international conflict.

Kim Jong-il's family

In 1994, Kim Il-Sung died after amassing a substantial military regime, bolstered by Soviet and Chinese aircraft, artillery and guns, and was replaced by Kim Jong-il.  It is believed that the next succession is under way from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, but given its closed society it is difficult to say for sure what it is intended.  If Kim Jong-il is about to end his career as North Korea’s supreme leader, it is worth remembering the brief thaw in North-South relations which many Koreans, separated since the conflict in the early 50s, were reunited.  It came during a brief period of hope that has since evaporated.  In contrast to this touching scene, we may also recall the presentation of his father as Eternal Leader ten years after his death and the fact that the country resembles nothing so much as a giant concentration camp.

The Kims. Kim Il-Sung holds the sickle of the USSR to emphasize his background.

In the last few months, North Korea has become increasingly provocative.  The most recent missile attack on Seoul has certainly ignited the South and led many to question whether war can be avoided–an unpleasant thought under the “best” circumstances but more disturbing now, given the confirmation of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities on par with Iran.  It becomes more difficult to predict what the next course of action will be and whether a non-violent solution is possible.

North Korea ups the ante...

This has been every bit as brief as advertised and as such is likely to be vulnerable to the inaccuracies or misguiding points that are often the product of brevity.  For this reason I wanted to provide some fast but more thorough resources recommended for further investigation.

For a quick analysis on economics, history and current political situation, such as it is known, the first place to start is the CIA World Factbook for North Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html and for South Korea: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ks.html.  I would also suggest the US State Department to see what it is providing and saying about current events.

For a summary on Korean history in an easy to access package, try the BBC’s website: http://search.bbc.co.uk/search?go=toolbar&uri=/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml&q=korea.  From that page you can link to country profiles on both North and South as well as recent headlines and news.  While you are there you may want to make use of the timeline: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/1132268.stm and the summary of the Korean War http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/coldwar/korea_hickey_01.shtml–it is succinct, but more in depth than what I provided.  There are better and more academic sources out there, not least because they are written by political scientists, economists and historians, but they are not so brief.

The Economist also provides a brief commentary on the current situation and what should be done: http://www.economist.com/node/17577117?fsrc=scn/tw/te/mc/solvekorea

For a report on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities visit Foreign Policyhttp://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/23/hecker_north_korea_now_has_same_nuclear_defense_as_iran

Foreign Affairs also provides analysis on North Korea’s political situation in general with two articles from August 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66581/sung-yoon-lee/the-pyongyang-playbook and October 2010: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66870/by-jennifer-lind/the-once-and-future-kim.  Note: both of these articles predate the most recent round of hostilities and the most escalating to date.

Finally, I recommend The Week, with its broad summary coverage of what the media is reporting and how it is commenting: http://theweek.com/article/briefing_blog/141/conflict-in-the-koreas–Bonus!: the site includes cartoon commentary!

Raising the next generation of Kims.

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