Monthly Archives: May 2013

South Korea is, in many ways, an incredibly impressive place. It was as poor as India in the 1950s, but now has wealth levels comparable to Spain or New Zealand. It is also now the 12th largest economy in the world, measured according to purchasing power. It has produced world-beating companies like Samsung and Hyundai – as well as a vibrant pop-culture.

Yet, talking to South Koreans, it is pretty apparent that there is also a darker side to the country’s economic miracle. There are two particularly shocking statistics. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the developed world. And it also has the lowest birth-rate in the developed world: 1.2 children are born for every woman. As a result, the society is ageing very rapidly. One prominent economist in Seoul told me that if the country cannot turn around its demographics, “South Korea will implode in two generations time.” Read more

Qusair, in Homs Province (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

This has been a week of intense diplomatic and military activity over Syria. At the end of it, anyone analysing the situation has much new detail to reflect on. The Assad regime is making considerable advances on the ground. The EU arms embargo on Syria has been amended, allowing Britain and France to supply weapons to parts of the Syrian opposition at some future date if they wish. Russia seems to be pressing ahead with the provision of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to the Syrian regime, alarming the Israelis. Meanwhile diplomacy over a planned peace conference to try and bring an end to the civil war presses ahead – albeit with deep scepticism from many diplomats about the chance of success.

What should we make of all these events? After conversations with several western diplomats analysing the situation, one can pick out various strands that help organise one’s assessment of where things stand. Read more

♦ All change in Europe? French labour market reforms start to bear fruit, with signs of movement in industrial relations and eurozone austerity might be on its way out.
♦ India’s economy grew at the slowest rate in a decadehampered by electricity shortages and poor infrastructure.
♦ Mexico’s highest-grossing film is still filling multiplexes 10 weeks after its release. The NYT looks at whether audiences just want to see rich people humiliated, or whether they are actually looking for a form of middle class catharsis.
♦ Neal Ascherson reports on the state of German politics: “They are pissed off with Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, but reluctant to let go of Mutti’s hand. In short, the public are in one of those sullen, unreasonable moods which make politicians despair.
♦ Ethnic strife in Xinjiang, northeast China, is worsening with the growth of immigrant-dominated settlements – Uighurs are resentful of such powerful entities dominating the region and employing so few of their own ethnic group.
♦ And here’s something to chew on this weekend. When you’re having your morning pastry spare a thought for New Yorkers who have been lining up at 6am, or paying as much as $40, for a delectable new pastry – the cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid. It seems the bakery has a scaling problem, which is driving cronut-craving customers to the black market. Read more

What next for Syria?
With the Syrian conflict now over two years old and political positions hardening, Roula Khalaf, Middle East editor, James Blitz, diplomatic editor and Beirut correspondent Abigail Fielding-Smith join world news editor Shawn Donnan to discuss the disarray among the Syrian opposition, the relaxation of the EU arms embargo and the impact of Hizbollah fighters.

The reason behind the largest Chinese takeover of a US company to date? Dumplings.

Chinese meat processing firm Shuanghui is aiming to buy Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. The deal is being driven by Chinese consumers’ soaring demand for wonton dumplings, char sui noodles and other delicious pork-based dishes. Read more

♦ The FT shows in words and picture how austerity affects the UK and Europe.

♦ After the bumpy start of the BoJ’s stimulus package last month, stock prices fell as bond yields rose. Martin Wolf, FT commentator, says this does not mean Abenomics has failed. Read more

France’s cultural commissars should hop on a plane and visit South Korea. Any fatalism about the relentless march of English-speaking entertainment would be banished if they did what I did earlier today in Seoul – and visited the purveyors of K-Pop. Korean pop music not only dominates its local market. It has also gone global.

Of course, the most famous single K-Pop hit was Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, which topped the charts in 30 countries last year. But K-Pop has been a phenomenon for almost 20 years now – and it is just getting bigger. Read more

“Aren’t you ashamed?” charged a visibly angry Eric Chevalier, the French ambassador to Syria, as he chastised opposition members for failing to expand the Syrian National Coalition after a week of negotiations.

In the Youtube video clip that was making the rounds of social media sites on Tuesday, the French diplomat goes on to ask how Coalition leaders elected only eight members, when they agreed to add 22. “There is a problem,” he said. Read more

♦ The UK and France have won the freedom to supply weapons to Syrian rebel groups after they succeeded in dismantling an EU arms embargo in spite of determined opposition from fellow EU member states.

♦ In the face of opposition from home and abroad, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague says the potential to supply weapons to Syrian rebels has sent a “clear message” to the Assad regime.

♦ The west must take a united stand on Syria, but Russia, Iran and foreign jihadists complicate the issue, says FT Columnist Gideon Rachman.

♦ By aiding the Syrian army, Hizbollah has taken a gamble that could threaten its influence in the Middle East, the New York Times reports. Read more

Fabrizio Saccomanni

It takes a little more than 15 minutes to cover the mile-long distance that separates the Bank of Italy from the ministry of the economy and finance in central Rome. But the upper echelons of the two institutions dominating the commanding heights of Italy’s economy have traditionally been closely linked by a revolving door. Read more

By Gideon Rachman
As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the west’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East. Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable.

Chinese novelists publish tales of military victory online, in the face of censorship.

To avoid “perpetual war” with terrorists, Pres. Obama calls for fewer drone attacks. Read more

President Obama’s speech on terrorism and drone warfare yesterday was a rare example of a president responding to criticism of a covert campaign, before a major scandal has broken. Better still , President Obama has done it, not with angry denial, paranoia, or increased secrecy, but with a rational attempt to take on board some of the more telling criticisms of the drone campaign. That said, I think there are still problems with the policy. Read more

Russia’s role in world politics
Under the second Putin presidency, the Russian government seems to have become even harder to deal with, be it in seeking to forge international agreement on Syria, spy scandals, energy diplomacy, or neighbourhood diplomacy. Charles Clover, Moscow bureau chief, and James Blitz, diplomatic editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss the best ways to understand the Russian government.

'Getting to Gnome you' (Getty)

The Chelsea Flower show, that quintessentially British annual event where celebrities, business leaders, and horticulturalists rub shoulders with royalty, is in full bloom. This year it has generated a number of unusual talking points.

The chatter started with the Gnome controversy. This year the organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society, announced (well ahead of the show so Gnome collecting could begin in earnest) that they were lifting their ban on the love-them-or-hate-them ornaments. A plethora of photoshoots have now been held of the humble figures, displayed liberally around the show. Debate’s raged over whether they were tacky, somewhat lowering the tone of this highly polished event that kicks of the British social ‘season’, or whether it signified a welcome abandonment of snobbery and class discrimination. Read more

Evidently, Ai Weiwei is not one to let 81 days in jail keep him quiet. China’s most famous dissident has just released a heavy metal song with a video that re-imagines his time in detention. The FT’s Kathrin Hille describes it as “a chilling, five-minute rant filled with coarse language that is provocative even by Mr Ai’s standards”.

The artist is nothing if not versatile, working with a range of materials – here is the best of the rest.

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The battle raging in al-Qusair, about 15km east of Lebanon’s northern border, looks ominously like a turning point in Syria’s civil war. If the Assad regime can recapture this strategic corridor from the rebels, it will, on the face of it, be a morale-boosting triumph.

It will also almost certainly flatten the few remaining barriers to this bloody conflict turning into an out-and-out sectarian fight between Sunni and Shia that will graft an uncontrollable regional dimension onto what began as an Arab Spring struggle for freedom from tyranny.

Militarily, the narrow corridor between Homs and the Lebanese border is a great prize for both sides. The Homs Gap, as it is sometimes called, has always been the natural gateway from the Syrian coast to the interior; not for nothing did the Crusaders build a line of castles there (including the magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, reportedly already damaged by regime shelling). Read more

♦ Since 2010, American drone attacks have declined due to unfavourable popular opinion around the world.

♦ The US Attorney’s Office of the Southern district of New York is cozying up to the Wall Street rogues it once deposed, says Kara Scannell. Read more

I am pleased that my column on Britain and Europe today has attracted lots of hits and comments. But, inevitably, when you try to deal with such a complex subject in 900 words (give or take), there is a lot you have to leave out. And there was one vital part of the subject that I didn’t deal with – and that is the impact of immigration on the British debate on Europe. Read more

♦ Tim Cook faces a grilling by the US Senate committee after a report on Apple’s international tax structure accused the company of using Irish subsidiaries that are not tax residents of any country to avoid paying billions of dollars in tax. Although Ireland’s low tax rate has created a vibrant International Financial Services Centre, there are questions over the benefits of it – especially at a time of sluggish growth and stagnant tax revenues.
♦ Britain’s plans to renegotiate its ties with the EU could hit efforts to tackle crime and terrorism, particularly in Ireland.
♦ In Parma, the first major Italian city run by the Five Star Movement, the reviews so far are decidedly mixed.
♦ Hong Kong is being taken over by art, but is it ready for it?
♦ If any of you have been bemused by football in the UK before now, the NYT has pulled together a handy guide.

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