Last week I headed up to the 9th floor of my office building to take care of some routine duties. The floor is filled with young interns, dressed in the tattered jeans and flannel shirts that are the trend during Korea’s wintry weather. Turning a corner I bumped into one of them, a young man who looked to be barely in his twenties. He bowed to me, and it was so abrupt and unexpected that I didn’t return it.

I worried at first, after my mind had a chance to register what had just transpired, that perhaps I had come across as rude. As a foreigner it’s something I’ve become at times acutely conscious of here, not wanting to unknowingly give offense. Then – and this surprised me – I experienced a sense of pride. My chest puffed out a bit and my head became inflated by the thought that this person had acknowledged me as a superior. As superior.

That felt good. But frankly I doubt its how Japan’s Emperor Akihito took Obama’s bow.


Conservatives across the US are deriding the president for sending the message that America now “willingly prostrates itself before the rest of the world.” They say Obama seeks to “transform the United States,” to “teach Americans to bow before monarchs and tyrants.”

My sense is that the bow was in fact not intended for Akihito himself but rather to win over the Japanese public, which has grown increasingly anti-American in recent years. And while the outcome of Obama’s visit to Tokyo may not have been as frutiful as he would have liked, that simple gesture likely went some way in assuaging local sentiment. It was an aggressive, not a passive, move.

I studied judo for about five years when I was in my teens. The first thing you do before beginning a match is bow to your opponent. It doesn’t mean you’re going to roll over and let him throw you around like a rag doll. You bow and then go at him, with of course the utmost of respect as an opponent, an enemy and even perhaps a teacher. It’s an attitude America would do well to embrace.

Which brings me to China. Some two centuries ago a British admiral traveled to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, the Son of Heaven, in order to convince him to loosen trade restrictions that were then bleeding England dry. There were some issues of protocol to be worked out before the meeting, however, including making sure that Adm. Macartney banged his head on the floor before the emperor as a sign of England’s submission to the greatness of the Middle Kingdom. The proud Englishman of course refused.

I remember the event because of something I heard during a college lecture. According to an employee of the East India Company and member of the mission who recorded the journey, Macartney despite his obstinance apparently tripped and banged his head while approaching the emperor, who then graciously accepted the Englishman’s submission, though he refused his demands.

The failure of the mission has been described by scholars as a missed opportunity for China to accomodate the West, a political stumble by Beijing – not Macartney – that would lead to nearly two centuries of chaos and instability that China is now looking to put behind istelf. Now it’s America that is indebted to Beijing.

Obama has called hismelf America’s first “Pacific President,” and if his recent trip through Asia demonstrates anything, it’s that he’s learned to speak Asia’s language. Besides the bow, he’s drawn fire for backing off on pressing China over its human rights situation, something his critics have described in words akin to the president knocking his head on the floor before Beijing. Or bowing low.

In truth, as this piece in the Asia Times points out, Obama’s outward show of “deference” is no mere sign of weakness, it is not fueled by an apoligist approach to foreign relations. It is a genuine display of respect that allows the wheels of diplomacy to turn all the more smoothly and reflects a measure of confidence that America does not diminish itself simply by acknowledging its opponents.

In David Halberstam’s last book on the Korean War, he quotes a converstaion that Mao Zedong is said to have had with Zhou Enlai regarding the commander of U.S. forces, Gen. MAcArthur.

“What kind of man is he,” Mao asks. “Arrogant,” comes the reply, at which point Mao smiles and says, “Good, an arrogant man is easy to defeat.” That war still hasn’t ended.


Oh what a feeling – Hyundai

Via Reuters comes an analysis of the success that South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia have had in recent months, particulalry in comparison to their Japanese rivals.

Hyundai has also struck gold with big operations in India and China — two of the fastest-growing markets. And ingenious marketing such as an offer to allow buyers to return vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year helped Hyundai and Kia increase sales even in the sinking U.S. market.

The volume growth has come hand in hand with industry-defying profit improvements. In July-September, Hyundai made a record net profit of 979 billion won ($847 million) — equal to the combined earnings of Toyota and Honda Motor that quarter.

For the sake of full disclosure I’ve driven a Hyundai for the past several years, first in the US because it came cheap and now in Korea because, well… because I’m in Korea.

While I’m loathe to heap scorn on our first Hyundai, an  Elantra — simply because like a loyal canine that refused to quit  it took my family and I as far afield as Vancouver and New Mexico — the thing rattled and shook whenever we approached the speed limit. The model I drive now is a vast improvement, far more solid and better milage, but in the end I doubt either will outlast the 25 year old Toyota Camry my folks still drive with 200,000+ miles on it.

But anyway, some of the reasons cited in the Reuter’s piece for Hyundai’s success are the local currency’s relative weakness compared to the Japanese yen, which aid in boosting exports.

This then dovetails with the second reason, which has to do with Seoul’s free-for-all market policies that has led to “more than 40 free trade agreements (FTAs) with countries ranging from the United States to India. Japan has less than a third as many, almost all of them with the rest of Asia.”

What this means for Korea was spelled out in a recent report that warned of a too-heavy reliance on international trade.

South Korea’s dependence on overseas trade exceeded 90 percent of the national income last year for the first time, leaving the nation’s economy more vulnerable to fluctuations in global market conditions…

Comparable ratios for Japan stood at 31.6 percent, while those for India, Australia and Britain were 37.7 percent, 39.1 percent and 41.2 percent, respectively, suggesting that those countries have well-nurtured domestic markets…

Lingering uncertainty in the job market is a major source of concern for leaders in Seoul when it comes to the health of South Korea’s domestic market. While unemployment figures have been improving there’s concern that they could drop off again once a government-led job creation plan ends this month. According to Yonhap irregular employees make up some 35 percent of the nation’s workforce.

The latest figures on household income aren’t promising either, with average household income fallingand  for the second straight quarter with a family of two earning just under US$3000 per month.

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.

Blix calls for engagement with North

Hans Blix, former head of the WMD inspection team in Iraq and chairman of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, says engagement with the North is the only way to convince the country that “a piece of paper” will guarantee its safety more so than a nuclear stockpile.

Perhaps a piece of paper could be made more attractive if it were signed by the great powers and combined with a peace treaty. Perhaps it would also be more credible if it were offered in the margin of the revival of international nuclear disarmament. While allowing civilian nuclear power and guaranteeing access to uranium fuel, it would have to comprehensively ban nuclear weapons, enrichment of uranium and reprocessing on the whole Korean peninsula[…]

There may be limits to the persuasive power of the Chinese government, but it is significant and there can be no doubt that Beijing has an enormous interest in using it. A nuclear-capable North Korea shooting missiles over Japan could push Tokyo in a direction that would sharply increase tensions with China.

N. Korea launches rocket!

Reuters reports that N. Korea launched its rocket at around 11:30 local time, citing Japanese government sources. S. Korea has confirmed the launch.

Japan said the rocket’s second booster stage had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, indicating the launch had been successful.

“The projectile launched from North Korea today appears to have passed over toward the Pacific,” the Japan prime minister’s office said in a statement.

UPDATE: I’m just gonna throw this out there for hell of it. One of the North’s aims with this launch is reportedly to beat the South to the punch in orbiting a satellite. Seoul apparently intends to conduct its own launch in the coming months and, despite the fact that South Korea is one of the world’s largest suppliers of weapons, its own launch will likely register barley a blip. Shows how skewed perspectives can get.

Yonhap reports that an official in Seoul says the rocket was indeed carrying a satellite. Cheong Wa Dae says it has yet to confirm whether the launch was a success.

A South Korean friend said last night he didn’t see any problem with the North’s launch. “They are also Korea,” he said, adding such technology would be good for a future, untied Korea. I’ve heard this sentiment before, but it always takes be a little aback as I’ve become so accustomed to thinking of the North in a less than positive light.

I told him of a report I’d seen on a defense paper issued by Japan earlier in the year that said the country would go nuclear if a unified and nuclear Korea emerged. He smirked, as if to say “big surprise,” and asked why Japan hadn’t issued a similar warning for China and India.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to sympathize. When you think of conditions in that country and the fact that the millions spent on the launch could have gone towards improving the plight of citizens there – not that there’s even a remote possibility of that happening. But it does serve as a reminder of how a good number of Koreans view this issue and is in stark contrast to most headlines.

Believe It or Not, North Korea is Aiming for Space

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il

Isolated, impoverished and universally hated North Korea is going ahead with some sort of space launch. It can’t keep its cities lit or its roads full. It can’t even feed its people. But it can keep the entire region on alert as it ratchets up the kind of tension that has proven to be a major lifeline for the regime, leaving the rest of us to wonder if and when things will boil over.

Tension has mounted steadily in recent weeks after reports last month that Pyongyang is planning to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking parts of the U.S. West Coast. The North soon responded by admitting that preparations were indeed underway, but for a “peaceful” satellite launch. That was followed by a warning about the safety of South Korean passenger jets flying through the North’s airspace. Flights into Seoul had been diverted due to the threat.

Last Wednesday, U.N. agencies said they’d been notified by Pyongyang that the launch would occur between April 4-8. That’s when I began thinking about keeping a packed suitcase in the trunk. Just in case.

“In order to protect the supreme interests of the country and the nation from the war maniacs’ reckless moves for aggression against the DPRK,” read a statement carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, “we will retaliate any act of intercepting our satellite for peaceful purposes with prompt counter strikes by the most powerful military means.” DPRK is the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war.”

Initial reports dismissed North Korea’s claim that it was pursuing a “peaceful space program,” harking back to 2006 when Pyongyang issued a similar statement just before firing off a long-range Taepodong II missile. That rocket plopped into the sea minutes after take off, but the launch was soon followed by a nuclear test that led to U.N. Resolution 1718, banning the North from future missile tests, and sanctions that were nonetheless rendered ineffectual by China’s continued material support of the North.

Some analysts actually questioned whether the missile launch was in fact intended to fail, as a successful launch would have been too provocative and harmful to the North’s real intent. A “failed launch,” on the other hand, would cause just enough tension between players in the region to allow the North more room to maneuver. In the game of smoke-and-mirrors, North Korea is a pro.

Later, editorials emerged asking “what if?” What if the North is preparing for a satellite this time and not a missile launch? Would regional powers like Japan or the United States still be justified in shooting it down? For countries like China, Russia and Iran, all looking to pursue their own space ambitions, that’s a serious question. And even assuming that it is a satellite, the launch technology involved is essentially the same as a ballistic missile, so either way the North benefits.

For their part, Seoul and Washington insist that any launch would violate U.N. sanctions. Philip Zelikow, former head of the 9/11 commission, took it a step further in a February op-ed for Foreign Policy when he called for a strike on the rocket if the North attempts to send it up. That’s all well and good, but destroying the rocket would wipe out any chance of discerning whether it is in fact carrying a satellite or missile, allowing the North to insist on the former. And besides Zelikow doesn’t live in Seoul. 

While threats out of the North are nothing new, particularly these days with Seoul’s conservative Lee Myung-bak government on less-than-friendly terms with Pyongyang, the fact is that any confrontation has potentially catastrophic ramifications. North Korea is a cornered raccoon with a million claws bared and not a hell of a lot to lose. A friend suggested that the North had taken heart from events in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to a more positive assessment of its ability to handle U.S. forces.

A more likely scenario is that Pyongyang is betting that it can win concessions without sparking a full-blown conflict that would see their demise. It’s a risky bet, but one that’s worked for decades.

One South Korean analyst said recently that North Korea views the loss of lives in a military skirmish as beneficial as it stokes domestic support for the regime while keeping neighbor countries on the edge of their seats. A successful launch will have the same effect, strengthening internal cohesion while creating tension between regional players who are sure to clash over how to react. Japan is likely to push for an aggressive response, while China and Russia will opt for a less hostile approach, placing the United States–neck deep in a tanking economy and two wars – squarely in the middle.

A British colleague quipped the other day as he stepped out for lunch that he was off to see about getting a passport for his Korean wife: “You never know when North Korea is gonna go ballistic.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, and that’s the problem with Seoul’s intractable neighbor to the North.

Korea more egalitarian ’cause of Japan

Korea c. 1904

Korea c. 1904

An article in the IHT by Norimitsu Onishi about the buraku of Japan and their slow rise out of the traditional depths of Japan’s ancient social hierarchy, a rise — and article — that took inspiration from Obama’s election in the U.S. What caught my attention was a short graf in the middle that referred to Korea’s more egalitarian society, a result, says Onishi, of the wars and invasions that swept the peninsula and Japan’s colonial occupation.

…nearly identical groups of outcasts remain in a few other places in Asia, like Tibet and Nepal, with the same Buddhist background; they have disappeared only in South Korea, not because prejudice vanished, but because decades of colonialism, war and division made it impossible to identify the outcasts there.

As far as I know, it is factually true that the successive wars that erupted in Korea destroyed among other things the family records of thousands born into slavery. Those same people were then freed from their traditional lower status, with some even gaining the ranks of the elite yangban.

Still, the statement did make me pause because it seemed like a casual snub at Korea. But an interesting read nonetheless.