South Korea

Park Geun-hye (Getty)

This is obviously the week for international conferences. The global elite have just convened at the Bilderberg conference in Denmark. Asian politicians and generals have descended on Singapore for the International Institute for Strategic Studies annual “Shangri-La dialogue” – which was opened with a keenly-awaited speech by Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister. Meanwhile, I have just spent a couple of days at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity – which is billed as the Korean Davos.

The weather in Jeju is a considerable improvement on Davos, as is the fact that the event takes place in a single resort hotel – rather than being spread all over town. However, like Davos, Jeju covers an eclectic range of topics. The core of the discussions are security issues – which is unsurprising given that North Korea is just an hour’s flight away. Read more

By Simon Mundy in Seoul

North Korea’s recent slurs against the presidents of the US and South Korea exemplify a high-pitched, extravagant and often venomous propaganda style unmatched by any other nation – as well as the inherent contradictions and hypocrisy within much Pyongyang propaganda.

Despite the country’s well-documented human rights abuses, North Korea‘s state media has sought to promote a message of opposition to discrimination. Two weeks ago it published a report attacking racism and other problems in the US, which it described as “the world’s worst human rights abuser”. In March it gave extensive coverage to International Women’s Day, trumpeting the rights accorded North Korean women and highlighting complaints about sexism in South Korea.

All this sits awkwardly with recent, repeated descriptions of US President Barack Obama as a “monkey” and of South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a “prostitute” – among other racist and sexist insults.

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  • Whoever wins the Indian election will be courting Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamool Congress has dominated politics in West Bengal and could be the third largest party in parliament.
  • Videos and messages on recovered phones bear witness to the sinking of the Sewol ferry off the coast of South Korea.
  • Charles Pierce at Esquire rages at the act of barbarism committed in Oklahoma when Clayton Lockett was executed.
  • China’s skewed demographics has contributed to social instability and could pose security risks.
  • Does high inequality foster culture or should a broader group of people be given freedom from the immediate demands of the marketplace?

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  • Seoul’s response to the ferry catastrophe has added to growing accusations of authoritarianism.
  • As the European elections approach, Alex Barker looks at the European Parliament’s growing power.
  • Edward Luce argues that, with the US always struggling between a push for freedom and a Calvinistic urge to meddle, the pendulum is now swinging back towards intrusion.
  • A defence pact between Washington and Manila will help the US put more muscle behind its pivot to Asia.
  • Simon Kuper argues that inequality is the new apartheid: your life path is largely determined before birth.
  • As the tourism industry in the Sinai has slumped, bedouins are turning to illegal opium production.
  • The US has dispatched its first advanced weapons to Syria since the conflict began, raising hopes among rebels that the Obama administration will lessen its resistance to military aid.
  • Russia could create a weak, neutral Ukraine almost instantly. But will it?
  • Mikhail Khodorkovsky has been discussing the blunders that have fed Putin’s myth that “fascists” have taken power in Ukraine.

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• The FT continues its Fragile Middle series with a look at how one in five Chinese are only one pay packet away from losing middle class status.

War has created civilisation over the past 10,000 years – and threatens to destroy it in the next 40.

Turkey‘s social media curbs are darkening prospects for its technology sector.

• Despite the undue frostiness that has greeted Iran’s nuclear spring, politicians and diplomats are convinced Tehran wants a deal.

It took just four years for Kim Yong-chul to go from chief lawyer at Samsung to working in a bakery. Now the most high-profile whistleblower in South Korean history is back in the spotlight.

China is unlikely to have a Lehman-style moment – but danger is lurking in the shadows. Read more

Will a slow down in Asian economies mean cancelled orders for Airbus and Boeing? Our Aerospace special report explores the possibilities and looks at how much western defence contractors such as Raytheon stand to gain from North Korean sabre-rattling and Asia’s territorial disputesRead more

By Toby Luckhurst

  • A BBC documentary will reveal former Libya dictator Colonel Gaddafi’s hidden rooms in which he sexually abused children as young as 14.
  • The New York Times explores South Korea’s taste for Spam.
  • Argentina’s economy minister Axel Kicillof is increasingly the public face and policy guru of the government’s efforts to tackle rising inflation and stagnant growth.
  • The exaggerated threat of terrorism and years of political violence have fomented a conformist backlash in Egypt on the third anniversary of the protests that toppled military dictator Hosni Mubarak.
  • Katrina Manson interviews Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, the most prominent African to reveal his homosexuality.
  • Rand Paul is tainted by the extreme views of a minority in the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, as well as by his father’s successes and failures.

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♦ From our comment pages: “How a digital currency could transform Africa“.
♦ Pigs’ trotters are crucial to the advancement of lowly Chinese Communist party officials.
♦ Some interpreted the Westgate attack in Kenya as a sign of al-Shabaab’s weakness, but there are signs that it is regrouping and recruiting new members, becoming “an extended hand of al-Qaeda” in the words of Somalia’s president.
♦ US trade policies are driving the global obesity epidemic, even as its own citizens get healthier.
♦ The Dutch real estate market is getting a new lease of life.
♦ A Egyptian general ousted under Mohamed Morsi has been rehabilitated by his protégé Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and put in charge of the general intelligence service.
♦ South Korea is aggressively targeting US technology for its own use in a variety of Korean weapons programmes, according to Foreign Policy.
♦ Modern Korea, with its electrical power lines, is encroaching on older villages and farmland. Villagers have protested through self-immolation, demonstrations in Seoul and even a two-year sleep-in.
♦ The Afghan government attempted to form an alliance with Islamist militants in the hope of taking revenge on the Pakistani military.
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By Gideon Rachman
Japan’s public diplomacy hovers between the ludicrous and the sinister. In recent months, the country has specialised in foreign policy gaffes that seem designed to give maximum offence to its Asian neighbours while causing maximum embarrassment to its western allies.

By Catherine Contiguglia
♦ A European Commission probe into competition and price fixing in the oil market is raising questions about how much power one man’s price reporting window can have on the market, and whether greater EC regulation might worsen the problem by discouraging the availability of oil prices altogether.
♦ The Chinese decision to ban milk imports from New Zealand due to fears that some batches could contain botulism has stoked fears of wider import bans on all foreign milk going into China.
♦ Cash-for-freedom deals in the US were originally designed to funnel in badly needed cash to law enforcement budgets from white collar crimes and drug cartels, but are giving rise to corruption and violations of civil liberties.
♦ Romance is being nationalised in South Korea, where the government is taking the lead in campaigns to introduce young singles at government-sponsored parties. Corporations are also increasingly encouraging relationships in the workplace as fears mount about the shortage of workers in an aging society.
♦ In countries where the government or market fails to meet citizens’ needs, the connectivity of social media and mobile technologies is allowing individuals to build their own representative platforms to meet them.  Read more

It is 60 years since the Korean peninsula was at the very centre of international affairs. After the Korean war, the focus moved on – to Vietnam, eastern Europe, the Middle East, even to Afghanistan. But Korea now has a good claim to be right back at the centre of global concerns. North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles earlier this year, as well as its increasingly warlike rhetoric, have made South Koreans and Americans think hard about the previously unthinkable – the possibility that a nuclear war might actually break out on the Korean peninsula. I spent some of last week at the Jeju forum in South Korea, where researchers, politicians and diplomats grappled with a number of terrifying questions: such as what would the impact be of a nuclear strike on Seoul, the South Korean capital; and could South Korea launch a successful pre-emptive strike on the North’s weapons? (Answers: appalling and no.)

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On Friday, South Korea advised the 175 workers left at the Kaesong industrial park in North Korea to leave for their own safety. Photographer Chung Sung-Jun captured part of the journey for Getty Images. In a set of striking photos, cars and vans are shown piled high with factory goods, to the extent that some of the drivers appear to have had no clear view through their windscreens. The workers joined compatriots who have left the zone since work was suspended earlier this month as a result of the escalating tension between Pyongyang and Seoul.

Seven South Koreans were held back on Monday, according to the BBC:

“Officials said the North insisted that some South Korean staff remain to negotiate unpaid wages. They did not believe the seven would be at risk.”

APRIL 27: South Korean workers arriving from the Kaesong joint industrial complex in North Korea at the inter-Korean transit office on April 27, 2013 in Paju, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

The FT’s Song Jung-a reported on the start of the exodus a few weeks ago:

“Long lines of cars and trucks loaded with heavy luggage crossed the border gate into South Korea this week as South Korean workers brought raw material and half-finished products back to minimise losses.”

APRIL 27: South Korean workers arriving from the Kaesong joint industrial complex in North Korea at the inter-Korean transit office on April 27, 2013 in Paju, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Kaesong began operating in 2004 – the product of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, and a symbol of the potential for economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

According to a US congressional research note from 2011, products manufactured in the industrial park include “clothing and textiles (71 firms), kitchen utensils (4 firms), auto parts (4 firms), semiconductor parts (2 firms), and toner cartridges (1 firm).” Read more

♦ Kenya’s new leader Uhuru Kenyatta is proving deft at politics even with a charge for crimes against humanity hanging over his head.

♦ Jonathan Soble looks at the dilemma that Haruhiko Kuroda faces over the next two years – “How do you convince markets and consumers that you are serious about raising prices, without being so dogmatic that you risk the central bank’s credibility – and your job – if you fail?”

♦ Margaret Thatcher’s death has prompted a wave of nostalgia among US conservatives.

♦ Sarah Neville, the FT’s public policy editor, thinks welfare reforms in the UK are likely to test the resolve of the middle class. (You can find out more about the reforms in today’s additions to the FT Austerity Audit.)

♦ Nicolás Maduro summons the ghost of Hugo Chávez in the final days of his campaign, a move he is counting on to propel him to victory at Sunday’s presidential elections.

♦ Hugo Chávez may have made himself enormously popular by subsidising fuel, but his policy has damaged long-term prospects for Venezuela’s economy.

♦ Jon Lee Anderson recalls his earliest memories of living in Seoul when his father was working in the Korean demilitarised zone.

♦ Jack Goldstone at Foreign Policy thinks there “is a real risk that the Korean Peninsula will follow Syria’s descent into war”. (Although you might not have to worry. The military’s planned missile test has been “put on hold because of “problems with Windows 8”, according to the Borowitz Report.)  Read more

Is war with North Korea imminent?

In the last two weeks, tension on the Korean peninsula has risen dramatically, as North Korea has threatened to target US territories in the Pacific and blocked South Korean workers from entering a joint industrial complex in the North. In this week’s podcast, John Aglionby is joined by Geoff Dyer, diplomatic correspondent and Jamil Anderlini, Beijing bureau chief, to discuss whether Kim Jong-eun’s escalating rhetoric is purely sabre-rattling or if we should be worried about his threats.

A video grab from North Korean TV on March 20 shows Kim Jong-Un overseeing a live fire military drill (North Korean TV/AFP/Getty)

A video grab from North Korean TV on March 20 shows Kim Jong-eun overseeing a live fire military drill (North Korean TV/AFP/Getty)

Taking weeks of shrill rhetoric and threats to a fresh high on Tuesday, North Korea announced plans to restart a shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of enriched uranium. So did we just move one step closer to nuclear armageddon? Here’s a reading list of comment and analysis to help gauge the hazard level.

  • Our own Gideon Rachman argues that there is still “an unfortunate tendency in the west” to treat North Korea as a bit of a joke. “In reality, the Pyongyang regime is about as unfunny as it gets.” He warns that the US and South Korea are responding to North Korea as if it is a rational adversary – “but the unsettling reality is that we cannot be sure.”
  • What do North Korea’s air defenses look like? Foreign Policy has the answer. (Spoiler: they look quite old, as they’re largely from the 60s, 70s and 80s).

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The thing about MAD is that it requires both sides to be sane. Ever since the onset of the nuclear age, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, has kept the peace. The calculation that, ultimately, no rational political leadership would risk millions of deaths in their own nation has seen the world through some perilous moments – from the Cuba missile crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

By Gideon Rachman

“Our intercontinental ballistic missiles are on standby … If we push the button, they will blast off and their barrage will turn Washington, the stronghold of American imperialists and the nest of evil … into a sea of fire.”

The youtube video of Gangnam Style has received over 530 million views. As a point of reference, Nasa estimates that about 530 million people watched Neil Armstrong take one small step for man in 1969. What on earth is going on?  Read more

Here’s what got us chatting at our desks this morning:

Articles piquing our interest today: