Categories
International Relations Government

The Dear Sister Disappears

A quick break at marching practice North Korea
A quick break at marching practice North Korea. Photo: Joseph A Ferris III/flickr.

TOKYO – The Korean peninsula is stirring. In December, South Koreans will go to the polls to choose President Lee Myung-bak’s successor in what is currently a three-way contest. Meanwhile, China is seeking to seize opportunistically on the recent flare-up of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan to court the government in Seoul. But, perhaps most important, one of the pillars of the North Korean dictatorship may now be cracking – at a time when the country must once again cope with a severe, man-made food shortage.

On September 25, the South Korean media reported rumors that Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of the late “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il – and the aunt of North Korea’s twenty-something leader Kim Jong-un – was seriously ill. The reports have not been confirmed, but her name was missing from the list of attendees at a recent Supreme People’s Assembly. In secretive North Korea, that seems to be a clear sign that something is afoot. Singapore and China have been mentioned in Asian intelligence circles as possible treatment locations for Kim Kyong-hui.

Categories
International Relations Foreign policy

Sea of Japan vs. East Sea

Old map of the "Mer de Corée", which is nowadays widely called the "Sea of Japan"
"Sea of Japan", "East Sea" or both? Map: Wikimedia Commons.

With 16 history professors, diplomats and maritime officials, South Korea sent the third-largest delegation to the 18th International Hydrographic Conference, in Monte Carlo, in April this year. In this case, however, strength did not lie in numbers:  At the summit, the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO)rejected Korea’s request to use the name “East Sea” alongside the established “Sea of Japan” to designate the body of water that lies between the Japanese Archipelago and the Korean Peninsula. Instead, it was decided that the exclusive use of the name “Sea of Japan” would continue through 2017, when the next conference is set to take place.

For twenty years, Japan and South Korea have been involved in a diplomatic spat over the name of the body of water in question – which borders Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea – and the dispute remains a source of continued frustration for the Koreans. So far, the naming controversy has not led to a direct military clash between the two countries, but, with Japan continuing to favor the status quo, Korea seems to be stepping up efforts to achieve a name change (either to its preferred option, or to the concurrent use of the two terms), thus politicizing the technical question of maritime name designations.

Categories
Human Rights

‘Comfort Women’ Haunt Japan-Korea Relations

Former ‘comfort women’ protesting in Seoul. Image: bittermelon/flickr

While long denying having subjected Korean women to forced prostitution during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula, in 1992 the Japanese government officially recognized its involvement in the ‘comfort women’ issue and apologized for having committed war crimes. Since then, every Japanese prime minister has further reaffirmed and expressed Japan’s official apologies to South Korea.

The issue remains however far from being resolved and continues to damage Japanese relations with the Republic of South Korea and other countries in the region. The dispute became more visible in December 2011 when the South Korean government established a monument for ‘comfort women’ directly adjacent to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.  In addition, South Korea now uses the question time of the Human Rights Council meeting as a venue to force Japan to provide answers to this painful chapter of the two countries’ shared history. In what follows, we will further explore the issue and place the ‘comfort women’ within the broader context of ongoing tensions between Japan and South Korea.

Categories
International Relations Security Keyword in Focus

Keyword in Focus: North Korea

When will this border be crossed again? photo:fresh888/flickr

After Tuesday’s incident, in which North Korea reportedly shot 170 rounds of artillery on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong killing two civilians and two marines, tensions have been at an all-time high in East Asia. Increasingly unpredictable and volatile in its behavior, the Kim regime seems to have embraced a whole new level of brinkmanship in this long-running conflict. Explanations in terms of reasons for such a brazen attack vary, from the internal power dynamics of the elder Kim shifting power to his newly appointed heir-apparent, to simple blackmail. Although we may never know what caused North Korea to risk so much (also in relation to its increasingly impatient ‘big brother’, China) the worry that the Koreas and their closest allies might be drawn into a war because of a provocation or freak accident is as worrying as ever.

I don’t believe that this conflict will escalate further. North Korea has pushed proverbial buttons before and will undoubtedly continue to do so, whether to consolidate the heir-apparent’s power base in the military or in order to push members of the six party forum to grant it further concessions in a yet unforeseeable round of talks. It is, however, unlikely to be willing to sign its own death certificate in the form of a highly destructive war and one which could involve the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons (shudder). We may not want to place much trust on the rational capabilities of Kim and his entourage, but China, for one, will do all it can to prevent this.

Categories
History

60 Years and Counting

Bombs over North Korea in 1950, courtesy of the US Department of Defense/Public Domain

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War; a war that gave rise to one of the most intractable conflicts in modern history. Technically still at war, North and South Korea were torn apart in the shadows of the early phase of the Cold War and in some ways represent one of the last remnants of it.

Yet the war itself, as well its veterans, are often overlooked; a mere footnote in the long, epic and tragic saga of the 20th century.

But to understand the current conflict, to see how deep the antipathy and fear go, it is important to look back at the war and to remember that the seeds of Kim Jong-Il’s madness, the source of China’s intransigence and the root of South Korea’s fear were sown in the conflict that a war-weary and exhausted world fought in 1950-53.

Here are some interesting resources on the topic:

  • The Boston Globe’s Alan Taylor takes us through some harrowing and haunting images of the war in a new picture series.
  • BBC provides an excellent overview of the war and its most important phases.
  • An Institut für Strategie- Politik- Sicherheits- und Wirtschaftsberatung (ISPSW) brief seeks to put together the North Korean puzzle.
  • The 1953 Armistice Agreement in our Primary Resources section shows how the war turned into the stalemate we know today.
  • A chapter from the Canadian Military Journal on the contribution and strategic effects of Canadian and Australian involvement in the war.