South Korea

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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Esther Bintliff

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.)

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♦ 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.

Esther Bintliff

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.”

Esther Bintliff

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: