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.


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…

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.


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

All hail the idiot box


The medium is the message

“I want to watch a moooovie…” That’s become the near-daily mantra my son repeats as soon as he wakes up and right before going to bed. Power Rangers, Little Einsteins, Caillou… in truth it could probably be anything and he’d likely turn to stone in front of the glowing screen.

Which is great for me on a weekday at 7pm, dead tired and looking to tune out alongside him. But there’s no denying that he’s grown addicted to the TV, and while we’ve managed to curb his watching time to just a couple of hours per day the box’s presence, even when off, is magnetic.

Which is what drew me to this article from Foreign Policy. Living in one of the world’s most high-tech societies I naturally assumed that the revolution would indeed not be televised but rather Tweeted or Twittered or thumbed across the digital ether. Hard to believe the ol’ boob tube still has a few tricks up its sleeve.

According to the author, televsion programming could help to create

a world more equal for women, healthier, better governed, more united in response to global tragedy, and more likely to vote for local versions of American Idol than shoot at people.

Where’s that damn remote? In cities, towns and villages — even where there is no electricity — around the globe humans gather around their TVs like moths to a flame. One Indian lawmaker even encouraged residents to watch more so as to lower the country’s birthrate.

In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children…  it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep.

I guess it beats forced sterilisations, but with Baywatch the biggest television series ever with an estimated audience of 1 billion I have to wonder…

Television programming here in Korea is huge. I remember stepping into a local bunsikjeom (Korean style greasy spoon) for dinner once. Across from me sat these two leathery old men, chewing on raw chilie peppers, downing soju by the bottle and arguing with the waitress about who would marry who on the local soap opera playing on the screen above. Weird.

But then again, former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun reportedly gave his North Korean counterpart a box set of the drama Jewel in the Palace during his 2007 summit in Pyongyang.

Russian-born Korea scholar Andrei Lanov has long been trumpeting the use of DVDs and similar means to bring news of the outside world to North Koreans starved by their government’s self-imposed isolation.

Rumors of South Korean prosperity have begun to spread, assisted by popular smuggled DVDs of South Korean movies. The world’s most perfect Stalinist regime is starting to disintegrate from below.

According to Lankov, DVD technology is perfectly suited to the North Korean case given the relative affordabilty of players and discs. And while radios have their place in delivering subversive information, images showing the propserity of Seoul and surrounding areas  make it hard to swallow the line that the South is a bastion of poverty and misery.

China absorbing North Korea

On a recent trip to North Korea, John Linton remarked after viewing that country’s athletic blitzkrieg known as the Arirang Games, which closed on Oct. 20, that a third of the performance was in praise of China.

All for one

The son of missionary parents raised in rural South Jeolla Province and current head of Yonsei’s College of Medicine, Linotn’s remarks, according to this editorial in the Hankyoreh, are further proof of North Korea’s steady absorption by China and the misguided policies of Seoul’s current 2MB administration.

China is filling the void of inter-Korean cooperation spawned by deteriorating inter-Korean relations, and is establishing development projects on its own in the regions around the North Korea-China border.

“To put it simply,” it declares,  “this region is becoming a fourth province of northeastern China.”

It’s food for thought, but I think the author makes the mistake of assuming that Pyongyang will simply roll over and allow Beijing to swallow it whole. If nothing else, North Korea’s leaders are masters at playing powers off of one another while milking them for all their worth. And despite its show of affection, my sense is that the North remains just as wary of China as it does all others beyond its borders.

For a less emotional analyses of what exactly might lie behind Beijing’s North Korea policy, Foreign Policy offers its take on why China continues to shirk its duties to international peace and security “commensurate” with its global status (terminology employed by the U.S. when it pressed Seoul and Tokyo to support efforts in Afghanistan.)

Beijing now deliberately separates its bilateral relationship with North Korea from the nuclear issue, placing the responsibility for nuclear questions on the United States. In Beijing’s eyes, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang was evidence of the success of this dual-track approach. The China-North Korea bilateral relationship was strengthened significantly, with the announcement of Chinese aid and economic cooperation packages worth more than $200 million. Far from fearing being marginalized in nuclear talks, China is pushing for a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. Should the United States not pursue this option, it will be harder to convince Beijing to take a tough line with Pyongyang in the future.

Not to be outfoxed, Washington will be sending Stephen Bosworth to Beijing in the not-too-distant future, with the express purpose of “failing” to sway Pyongyang and thereby throwing the ball back into Beijing’s court. A game of nuclear hot potato as it were.

A few more stats on China’s “bonds with North Korea

A report published by the Korean Industrial and Financial Research Institute reveals that China has a near monopoly over North Korea’s mineral resources, both through direct purchases and by obtaining development rights. All major contracts were signed around 2005, including 50-year rights to develop Musan Iron Ore, the largest iron ore mine in East Asia, and 25-year rights to exploit the Hyesan copper mine.

The above article concludes that “Just as international sanctions against Sudan gave China almost exclusive access to that country’s resources, the same thing is happening in North Korea.”

It leaves out any reference to the North’s gold reserves, however, which according to this 2007 Christian Science Monitor piece are impressive. Beijing has been buying gold on the (Chinese) domestic market, which is sometimes referred to as the “People’s Central Bank,” in order to safeguard against USD risk and to bolster the future expansion of its own currency.

In addition, a report in the Telegraph notes that the global gold supply is running out. If that’s the case than Beijing, as the dominant player in North Korea, could stand to make a killing.

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.

Today in Korean history

1975 — Eight South Korean men convicted of trying to overthrow the government are executed just 20 hours after a court sentenced them to death. They were among a group of 23 arrested on rebellion charges as part of a government crackdown on dissident movements.

An article by Bruce Cummings in the Hankyoreh from 2007 details the event and notes the eight were cleared of the charges in 2007.

A court ruled that the government pay compensation in the amount of 63.7 billion won (US$67.4 million) to 46 members of the families of eight men who were once accused of being members of the Inhyeok-dang (People’s Revolutionary Party, or PRP). The men, who were found innocent at a retrial held in January, were executed in 1975 for what the government cited as anti-government activities and cooperation with North Korea.

The eight were arrested on charges of treason and violating the National Security Law in 1974, when anti-government student protests spread across the nation. Student activists and opposition leaders demanded an end to the military dictatorship and the repeal of the Yushin Constitution, in force from 1972-1979, which had been revised to allow then-President Park Chung-hee, the father of current opposition leader Park Geun-hye, to stay in power indefinitely.

Park Chung-hee ordered cruel, nationwide crackdowns on political dissidents and student activists in order to further solidify his power. Those who were alleged to have been part of the PRP had grown up together as friends and acquaintances in the region near Daegu, and were arrested in the round-up on false charges of having formed the PRP in order to overthrow the government.

The People’s Revolutionary Party was later found to have been a fabrication of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, which predates today’s National Intelligence Service, and the fear with which it became associated became a strong tool for Park’s ruthless, authoritarian rule. Those accused of being part of the PRP were not only tortured into confessing that they had formed the group, the KCIA also alleged that group members had confessed that their eventual goal was to build a socialist government in close cooperation with North Korea, in violation of the National Security Law, which prohibits both communism and the recognition of the North as a political entity.

Eight of the accused were sentenced to death and dozens of others were sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment. The eight men who were handed death sentences were hastily executed less than 24 hours after the final rulings by the Supreme Court were issued. Human rights organizations, both in South Korea and abroad, have criticized the execution as barbarous, and have long called for reinvestigation of the case.

The eight men, Woo Hong-seon, Song Sang-jin, Seo Do-won, Ha Jae-wan, Lee Su-byeong, Kim Yong-won, Doh Ye-jong and Yeo Jeong-nam, were acquitted of all charges in a ruling handed down in January of this year.