South Korean rice farmers look North

According to the Hankyoreh Seoul’s policy of witholding rice aid to North Korea is driving down the price of of the grain, prompting thousands of farmers to take to the streets in protest.

Approximately 30 thousand South Korean farmers convened together for a National Farmers’ Convention to ask the government to address plummeting rice prices on Tuesday.

The main cause of plummeting rice prices is the government’s decision not to send rice aid to North Korea, (they said)… During the previous administration, 400 thousand tons of rice were sent to North Korea annually, whereas the current administration has stocked up over 800 thousand tons of rice. (Protesters) say the excess reserves of rice are one of the main causes of the steep decline in the price of rice.

As if to add insult to injury, Seoul recently offered 10,000 tons of imported corn aid to Pyongyang, which further riled local rice growers and was, being far less than what  was  expected, rebuffed by the North as “narrow minded.”

With this year being a bumper crop year, a bag of 80 kilograms of rice is now traded at around 130,000 won, about 15 percent lower than last year.

Farmers are razing rice paddies out of anger, stacking bags of rice outside as they run out of storage space and dumping the surplus rice in the South while millions of people are starving in the North as they are short of some 800,000 tons of rice…

According to the local human rights group Good Friends, parts of North Korea are suffering from one of the worst food shortages in over eight decades. “People live on acorns and herbs they collect in mountains while the better-off eat mostly porridge to save rice, not just in Hamgyeong but also in South Pyongan Province,” it said.

so many mouths

A more salient factor behind the drop in prices could be the fact that Koreans are simply eating less of the one-time staple, and much of what they are eating is increasingly coming from overseas. As globalization continues to take hold, the local diet has become far more international.

Rice, which once determined a person’s financial status and served as the beloved staple of Korean food, is becoming less symbolic and losing its appeal here as the country increasingly opens its palate to the world and moves toward globalization.

During the 1980s, the average Korean consumed 130 kilograms of rice annually. As of last year, it stood at 76 kilograms, which is roughly equivalent to two servings a day versus four several decades ago.

One of the approaches to resolving the dilemma facing farmers is promoting consumption of rice-based products like makkeolli, the fermented rice wine that goes oh so well with a meal of barbecued bacon.

Exports of traditional Korean rice wine surged by more than 20 percent in the first nine months of this year mainly due to strong demand from Japan, a government report said yesterday.

Exports of makgeolli, or rice wine, reached $3.56 million totaling 4,380 tons up until September, the Korea Customs Service said.

I’ve recently spotted canned versions of the drink, which usually come in plastic green bottles. I even saw a packet of garlic flavored makkeolli. But again, the problem is that most of the rice used to produce makkeolli and similar rice based products comes from abroad, meaning local farmers are not likely to benefit from the stronger sales.

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Playing to ‘lose’ with NK

Andrei Lankov has an op-ed in the IHT offering his take on what American negotiators can accomplish as they prepare to engage with Pyongyang fully aware that its leaders have no intention of abandoning their nuclear arsenal.

1) it is possible to agree on dismantling the North Korean nuclear research and production facilities.

2) North Koreans will probably agree to some nonproliferation measures.

3) the negotiations will allow a channel of communication with Pyongyang to be kept open at a time when Kim Jong-il’s health is ailing and changes (not necessarily for the better) might happen at any time.

4) the negotiations will create an environment in which North Korea’s exchanges with the outside world will become possible.

In conclusion, Lankov writes, the “pace of negotiations should be slow, bargaining should be hard, and no magical breakthrough should be expected.”

He does not mention here how Beijing factors into Washington’s game plan, though he does say that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s much trumpeted “Grand Bargain” would be a grand waste. “Alas, a cash-for-nukes solution will not be acceptable to Pyongyang: The lump sum payment would be spent quickly, and without nuclear weapons, additional aid would be very moderate…

Playing with fire

An editorial in the Korea Times bemoans the country’s lack of fire prevention and overall safety standards, echoing President Lee Myung-bak’s statements that the fire that claimed 10 lives, including seven Japanese tourists, at a Busan shooting range diminished South Korea’s reputation.  A breakdown of tragic fires in South Korea over the past decade:

Eight people died in a fire at a state-run psychiatric hospital in northern Seoul in 2000 and another eight were killed in a blaze at a cram school in Gwangju City in 2001. A fire in a red-light district in Gunsan City claimed 12 lives in 2002. No one can forget the arson attack on the Daegu City subway train in 2003 which killed 192 passengers. Nine foreigners were killed in a fire engulfing the immigration service’s detention center for undocumented visitors in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, in 2007.

Last year, 47 people died in separate fires at two refrigerated warehouses in Icheon, 80 kilometers south of Seoul. The country also lost Namdaemun gate, a 610-year-old landmark at the heart of the capital city, in February 2009, due to another arson attack. All those incidents were blamed on the nation’s widespread violations of safety and fire prevention steps.

It pays to get arrested by North Korea

It’s not as if this comes as any suprise but Euna Lee of the famed Ling/Lee investigative duo has reportedly signed a six-figure deal for a memoir about her time in captivity in North Korea.

I’ve tried to keep an open mind about this, holding back the gag reflex that kicked in when I saw the headline. Maybe “these two brave American women,” as one commenter described them, really were motivated by the purest of intentions if not equipped with the most refined of journalistic skills.

But with the book deal (Ling’s reportedly got her own deal in the works) and the alleged damage their “reporting” did to activists and North Korean refugees in the region, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The arrest of three American hikers by Iranian border guards in late July brought about a similar cascade of vitriol from the on-line community as that hurled at the two women, with commenters calling for them to rot in prison cells for their carelessness, stupidity or simple naivete.

But unlike Ling and Lee, who parachuted into the NK-China border region, Shane Bauer (one of the hikers) had spent considerable time living in and reporting from the Middle East. He spoke the language, knew the culture and judging from his writing he was a sound journalist.

Apart from this their cases are strikingly similar, with both countries leveling charges of espionage and with the Clinton connection coming into play. And while all’s well that ends well for Ling and Lee, the future for the three hikers remains in serious doubt.

UPDATE

This is probably the best analysis I’ve heard on the plight of the three Americans, by Stanford Professor of Iranian Studies Abbas Milani.

Women in S. Korea’s rank and file

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Female soldiers in S. Korea

A report from Yonhap suggests that S. Korea’s top brass may move to allow females to serve as rank and file soldiers in the country’s military. Currently women are allowed to serve as officers, though they are barred from the kind of activities that men perform as part of their mandatory two-year service.

Though a decision has yet to be made, the report notes that the idea came about due to an expected shortfall in military manpower. Interestingly, it also points out that the government is planning to reduce the number of its armed forces from 665,000 to 500,000 by 2020 to be compensated by enhanced weapons systems.

From Af-Pak to Nork Nukes, Asia a minefield for Obama

Excellent piece in the New Yorker by Seymour Hersh on securing (or not) Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the face of increasing attacks by the Taliban and radicalization of the nation’s military.

A senior Pakistani official who has close ties to Zardari exploded with anger during an interview when the subject turned to the American demands for more information about the arsenal… Today, he said, “you’d like control of our day-to-day deployment. But why should we give it to you? Even if there was a military coup d’état in Pakistan, no one is going to give up total control of our nuclear weapons. Never. Why are you not afraid of India’s nuclear weapons?” the official asked. “Because India is your friend, and the longtime policies of America and India converge. Between you and the Indians, you will fuck us in every way.”

Speaking of which, this gives a sense of the larger AF-Pak nightmare that Seoul recently agreed to become a part of and that will certainly be among the topics discussed when Obama visits Seoul next week. Others include a visit to Pyongyang by Washington’s point man on North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth. Of that visit, Victor Cha offers an interesting take.

As per the Asia Times:

The point of the Bosworth mission, he indicated, without actually saying so, would be to fail. Or, as Cha put it, “Bosworth could go there and come back and say the North Koreans are not serious.” So take that, China. No longer could the Chinese be telling the Americans to at least talk to these people, and no longer could anyone anywhere accuse the US of not wanting to deal.

Seoul’s concern, of course, is being sidelined by any possible deal struck between the U.S. and North Korea, intrinsic to Kim Jong-il’s attempt to portray himself as “ruler of all Koreans before whom all others bow, as did the previous South Korean presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun…”

And speaking of bowing before a higher power, with the first stop of Obama’s Asia tour in Japan a lot of attention has been paid to Tokyo’s desire for a more “equal” partnership with the U.S.

The second page of the Financial Times is dominated by a story on plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinanwa, where “10 percent of the land is under U.S. control.” While Tokyo’s previous government under the LDP made the agreement, the country’s new leaderhsip under the DPJ is looking to either alter or scrap the plan alltogether.

Accompanying the piece is another on Tokyo’s announcement that it will provide some US$5 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan, a move many say is aimed at quelling fears in Washington over Japan’s decision to end naval refueling in support of U.S.-led anti-terrorism operations in the Indian Ocean. The Afghan aid could also be meant as leverage in discussions over the base relocation.

(It’s ironic that Japan’s new leaders are looking more like the past liberal administrations in Seoul while Lee Myung-bak would fit right in with the old LDP.)

In an interview on the BBC yesterday, a Japanese official seemed hard pressed to explain how the country would ensure that the money did not disappear into the pockets of Kabul’s corrupt leaders. But anyway…

Peter Brown back over at the Asia Times does a much better job of summarizing what exactly Tokyo means when it says it wants a more “equal” partnership with the U.S. “without actually doing any damage to the security relationship that guarantees Japan’s survival in a dangerous neighborhood.” How dangerous?

“North Korean missile tests and China’s impressive missile modernization program showcased during the National Day celebrations on October 1 underscore the missile danger to Japan and the US.”

(…) In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou has recently accused the US government of being too easily influenced by China as he declared that the US is stalling with respect to the planned sale to Taiwan of 66 F-16 fighter aircraft….

Certainly, North Korea does not appreciate the timing of new revelations in the Japanese media these past few days concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by the North Koreans and the allegation that Kim Jong-il exercised command authority over North Korean abduction operations starting in the 1970s. When Kim met with prime minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2002, he denied any role in these operations.

This almost guarantees that Pyongyang’s volatility and confrontational stance will be ramping up over the coming days, especially when Obama’s trip to the region already lent itself to exploitation by the North Koreans. (This written before Tuesday’s naval clash.)

According to Brown, all of this noise adds some serious weight to the long standing alliance with ballistic missile defense at the core of the issue. While the U.S. needs its bases in Japan for deployment of its Aegis destroyers and for missile detection, Tokyo needs the missile umbrella provided by the U.S. The relationship could call for “unprecedented integration and information sharing,” which some could interpret as proof of Japan’s elevated status.

Korean naval clash rattles my nerves

I’ve been in Seoul long enough now that when a protest breaks out I don’t go running out with my camera to see the action. Massive oil spills or the destruction of a national treasure are so cliche as to barely be worth comment. Even a nuclear test in the North evokes little more than a yawn. But when I heard that a minute-long naval clash between a South Korean warship and a North Korean patrol boat had erupted, my first thought was that I really do live in a war zone. 

As per Yonhap:

Naval boats of the two Koreas opened fire on each other on Tuesday in their first armed clash off the west coast of the divided Korean Peninsula in seven years, officials said.

   No South Korean casualties were reported, but North Korea’s patrol boat retreated after apparently suffering “considerable” damage near Baekryeong island, a Navy official here said.

   “It wasn’t a close-range battle. We fired heavily on the North Korean vessel,” the official said, speaking under the condition of anonymity.

   The battle erupted shortly after 11:30 a.m. when the North Korean boat ignored South Korean warning shots to return across the Northern Limit Line, where clashes turned bloody in 1999 and 2002.

 The North has long contended the NLL, drawn by US forces at the end of the Korean War. As far as the reasons behind today’s skirmish, speculation runs from Pyongyang attempting to ratchet up tensions ahead of an Obama visit here next month, to sending a message to Seoul that it should take its northern neighbor more seriously.

Earlier reports today said the North’s media rebuffed Seoul’s limited offer of food aid as “rubbish” while a recent post in NK Economy Watch noted the worsening food situation in the North. The line that jumped out most from that story was a quote from a North Korean defector, who said the number of people “sitting down and starving to death was exploding.”

When the North conducted its nuclear test in May, I happened to be out hiking that day and heard about the explosion from a friend who called to let me know. I stopped to pick up some snacks and asked the vendor whether she had heard of the test and what she thought. She sort of smiled and shrugged her shoulders, as if to say “why take it so seriously.” 

Maybe I haven’t in fact been here long enough.