With all eyes on the crisis between North and South Korea, the international media have largely overlooked growing tensions between both Koreas and Japan. On April 5, Seoul lodged a diplomatic protest against Japan's renewed territorial claim to the Dokdo Islands, known as Takeshima in Japan. The protest came after Tokyo issued a formal claim over the Seoul-controlled easternmost islets through approval of a diplomatic report that stated: "Takeshima is clearly Japanese territory in light of historical facts and under an international law." In a separate protest days earlier, Seoul lodged a complaint over new textbooks approved in Japan that emphasize Tokyo's claim to the islets while downplaying Japanese wartime atrocities in Korea. (Dong-a Ilbo, April 6; Xinhua, April 5; AsiaOne, March 27)
And this comes amid an outburst of extremely ugly anti-Korean xenophobic protests in Japan. The biggest was March 31 in Shin-Ōkubo, a Tokyo suburb with a large Korean population. Hundreds of right-wing protesters marched through the streets carrying signs reading "Go back to Korea!" and labeling Korean immigrants "cockroaches." Thankfully, equally large numbers of Japanese anti-fa types also showed up to protest the protest, hurling back slogans like "Get back to the Internet where you belong!" (Rocket News 24, April 2)
The Daily Mail notes one ultra-disturbing phenomena stemming from an anti-immigrant protest in Osaka's Korean district of Tsuruhashi, where a young girl went on a "shocking anti-Korean rant," that has since gone viral on YouTube, with over 45,000 views. She spews into a mike: "I hate the Koreans so much I cannot stand it! I just want to kill them all now! …We will start Tsuruhashi Massacre like Nanking Massacre!" The crowd responds with an enthusiastic "YES!!!" (Rendered in all caps and with three exclamation marks in the vid's English subtitles.)
The anti-Korea outburst is of course exacerbated by the DPRK's threats against Japan. Rodong Sinmun newspaper, run by the North's ruling Workers' Party, ran a commentary this week helpfully reminding Japan that its largest cities—invoking Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya and Kyoto by name—lie within range of its missiles. (Japan Daily Press, April 11) (Actually, this amounts to an implicit admission that, despite Pyongyang's bluster, Honolulu and San Diego do not.)
Political archaeology in Manchuria
There are similar disputes between both Koreas and China, touching on another case of political archaeology—concerning the Koguryo/Goguryeo Dynasty (37 BCE-668 CE), when a Korean kingdom ruled over much of Manchuria. Guess who wants to remember it and who wants to forget it? From the IHT Rendezvous blog, April 10:
For evidence of deep suspicion among Koreans about China, people need look no further than the reported discovery late last year of a memorial stone from the Koguryo, a dynasty that ruled approximately the territory of North Korea (and some of the South) and large parts of China's northeastern provinces, flourishing for 700 years until 1,300 years ago.
"China conducting closed research into ancient Korean dynasty," read a headline in the Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper. "Observers say work on the Goguryeo stele is an attempt to incorporate it into Chinese history," the paper said, using an alternative spelling for Koguryo….
The issue is not new. In 2004, China-South Korean relations soured over it… That year…the Chinese Foreign Ministry deleted references to Koguryo from the Korean history section on its Web site. A Chinese government study group, the Northeast Project, had been set up two years previously, in 2002, to establish the kind of history Beijing was looking for, and issued academic papers bolstering the position that the ancient kingdom was merely a Chinese vassal state.
Protests erupted in South Korea. But North Korea is no less sensitive about China's claims to the kingdom, which Koreans of all kind see as the forerunner of their nation.
The old Cold War logic that sees North Korea as China's ally or proxy makes less sense in the emerging New Cold War between the US and China. Beijing has for the past decade maintained an equidistant stance between the two Koreas—keeping the North as a buffer state against the US military forces in the South, but finding the South too alluring for capitalist investment to isolate. China's attempts to rein in the North's nuclear ambitions may be enflaming nationalism in Pyongyang that even extends to anti-China sentiment. Ironically, this could even provide a point of unity between North and South, if not of the most positive kind.
Dissident voices of civil society
Rarely making international media are voices of civil society on the Korean peninsula demanding demilitarization of the conflict, and simple justice for people whose lives are caught up in the power game. Even North Koreans are finding a voice, albeit in the South. Last month, the Network to Save North Korean Refugees held a protest at the Chinese embassy in Seoul, to demand that China stop forcefully repatriating North Korean refugees. Some actual refugees who were on hand testified that they feared torture and sexual abuse at the hands of authorities if they were returned, saying, "Dying is better than being sent back to North Korea." (NKNet, March 13)
Prof. Yang Yoon-Mo end a 52-day hunger strike on March 24 in a jail on Jeju Island, where he is serving time following a civil disobedience arrest to oppose construction of a new US military base. He ended the strike at the urging of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea (SPARK), which expressed concerns for his health. Protests and prayer vigils continue outside the jail in his support. This is but the latest of several such sentences he has served for protesting the militarization of the island. (Save Jeju Now, March 24; The Nuclear Resister, May 25, 2011)
South eyes re-nuclearization
Unfortunately, some powerful voices in the South are calling for dropping the official policy of "denuclearization"—and even for withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Christian Science Monitor reports April 9:
Calling international efforts to stop North Korea from building atomic weapons a "miserable failure," a prominent South Korean lawmaker today called for the deployment of tactical US nuclear weapons in the South and suggested that his country think about developing their own nuclear deterrent.
The call by M.J. Chung, a seven-term member of the Korean National Assembly and former presidential candidate, comes amid the biggest spike of tensions on the Korean peninsula in recent years. Among other threats, the new young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has threated to target Guam and Hawaii, and turn Seoul, South Korea’s capital, into a "sea of fire."
…Mr. Chung said "the lesson of the cold war" is that nuclear weapons must counter nuclear weapons for a threat to be credible. If deployed in South Korea, weapons of mass destruction would be an important bargaining chip, said Chung, who asked South Koreans to start "thinking the unthinkable" in order to deter war.
"North Korea's economy is collapsed, it is isolated, and yet we have failed to stop them from gaining nuclear weapons," he said to a roomful of policymakers and officials in a keynote address at an annual Carnegie Endowment for International Peace meeting in Washington. He argued that future generations would call the current dealings with North Korea one of the "most spectacular and consequential failures" of the age.
Chung recommended that if South Korea decided to develop its own nuclear deterrence, it could "temporarily" suspend its membership in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which it has been a signatory since the 1970s…
"We have all failed and it is now up to us to think of new options," Chung said later in a Monitor interview.
One wonders what exactly "temporarily" means in this context…
How much method to Pyongyang's madness?
While North Korea is certainly playing a dangerous game, we've noted before that there has always been a certain method to the madness. The nuclear posturing is aimed at avoiding regime collapse, with both an external and internal element. Externally, the regime has in the past sucessively bargained its nuclear program for much-needed aid. Internally, orchestrated paroxysms of nationalism and war fever provide a safety valve for discontent. But brinkmanship, of course, has its risks. How likely is it that things will spin out of control and actually lead to war?
The predictably spooky North Korea Leadership Watch website notes some rituals of regime continuity that may be influencing the timing of events in Pyongyang:
DPRK state media reported on 8 April (Monday) that a national meeting was held at the 25 April House of Culture in Pyongyang. to commemorate the 20th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong Il's election as National Defense Commission (NDC) Chairman. KJI was elected NDC Chairman on 9 April 1993 at the fifth session of the 9th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), and used that position to establish himself as the country’s supreme leader.
An official account of the proceedings is also quoted:
It was a historical event of great significance in developing the DPRK and carrying out the Songun revolutionary cause of Chuch'e that Kim Jong Il assumed the responsible post as chairman of the NDC as desired by all the service personnel and people of the DPRK and absolutely trusted by them… The reporter noted that Kim Jong Il successfully solved all issues arising in the nation-building in the era of Songun with his rare wisdom and sagacious leadership, setting a true example in building a thriving socialist nation in the era of independence.
Chuch'e (more commonly rendered Juche) is the official ideology first promulgated by dynasty founder Kim Il Sung, usually translated as "self-suffiency" (certainly an irony for a regime essentially trying to blackmail the world into subsidizing it with foreign aid). Songun refers to the "military-first" doctrine instated in the long period of crisis since the end of the (last) Cold War. April 25, after which the House of Culture is named, marks the 1932 founding of the Korean People's Army (to fight the Japanese, significantly).
The Commentator noted on March 31:
Yesterday the rising tensions in the region culminated in Pyongyang sensationally revoking the 1953 Panmunjom Armistice Agreement, which temporarily halted the conflict in the Korean War, and declaring that a state of war existed with the South… What seems irrational is the continued testing of nuclear and missile technology in spite of UNSC resolution 1718 [October 2006], which causes only further isolation and hardship… The success of gaining a nuclear deterrent is debatable, the continued proliferation has isolated Pyongyang in the region. It ended the Six Party Talks in 2009 and has brought about the suspension of both American and South Korean food aid. Despite this, the programme presses on.
In February 2013, the third nuclear test occurred and recent estimates by the Institute for Science and International Security have concluded that the North has acquired at least 12 nuclear weapons. The weapons themselves remain a strong persuasive argument domestically, that Juche ideology of the regime is delivering the promised goal of strong national security for the Korean People's Army and is a shining example of the nation’s technological progress….
In the end, we can be almost certain that there will not be another overt action against the South in the current climate, especially during combined US-South Korean military exercises. The test of brinkmanship for Kim Jong-Un is the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the border, employing over 50,000 North Koreans in 120 South Korean companies. It is a financial life line to Pyongyang.
Already today the North Koreans have threatened to close the complex, and if indeed it does close, then we know for sure that the Great Successor has ripped up the old rule book, and we have entered a dark new era of uncertainty.
Now of course the North has indeed closed the industrial faciliity. Are we thusly in a "dark new era of uncertainly"—just in time for the 60th anniversary this July 27 of the Panmunjom agreement that ended (although not officially) the Korean War?
And there's another big anniversary coming up even sooner. From Time, April 10:
On April 15, North Korea will mark the 101st birthday of the state's founding father, Kim Il Sung. It is the single most important day in the North Korean calendar… so much so that in 1997, Pyongyang replaced the Christian calendar with a juche calendar, in which history begins with the birth of the Great Leader, in 1912. Last year, Kim Jong Un celebrated his grandfather's birthday by trying, but failing, to launch a rocket two days before hosting a massive military parade.
Will Kim top last year's showing? In Seoul today most experts played down the likelihood of an attack, saying a test was more likely. Bernhard Seliger, an economist at the Seoul branch of Germany’s Hanns Seidel Foundation, predicts Kim might simply use the anniversary to "claim victory" over foreign aggressors, aligning himself symbolically with his grandfather, who is venerated like a god. Seliger, who estimates that he's been to North Korea about 100 times over the past 10 years, predicts the tension will dissipate quickly as attention turns to spring planting in the impoverished rural hinterlands. "North Korea can't wage war, because the soldiers are really needed in the fields," he says.
Let's hope so.