The 2014 Asian Games are the largest sporting event in Asia. This year the games, starting in mid-September, will take place in Incheon, South Korea and North Korea is expected to send a team to the games. According to the New York Times, “The organizers in Incheon, a port city west of Seoul, had campaigned for North Korea’s participation, saying they hoped that it would help thaw relations on the divided Korean Peninsula.”
As the late, great Nelson Mandela famously said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” While the prospect of North and South Korea finally making peace (let alone reunifying) remains far off in the horizon, sports have played a recurring role in the tumult of Korean politics. Beyond basketballer Dennis Rodman’s surreal trip to the Hermit Kingdom, Mandela’s guidance, also known as the concept of Sports Diplomacy, has represented one of the few glimmers of hope for normalization of relations in the Korean Peninsula.
For example, in the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney Australia, North and South Korea entered as a unified country under a single flag. More recently, as reported by Voice of America, “North Korea is Set to Participate in Incheon Asia Paralympics”:
North Korea will send nine athletes to this year’s Asian Para Games to be held in South Korea.
The 2014 Incheon Asian Game Organizing Committee says that Pyongyang made the announcement in a letter sent on 3 September.
This will mark the first time North Korean athletes are participating at an Asian Para Games.
The Asian Paralympics games are scheduled for October 18-24 in the port city of Incheon. It follows the 17th Asian Games, which start later this month in Incheon. North Korea is also sending athletes to that event.
A South Korean government official sais in an interview with VOA Korean service that the latest decision shows the North’s efforts to project itself as a normal nation to the international community.
The Pyongyang delegation will consist of around 30 people, including the athletes participating in swimming, table tennis, archery and track and field competitions.
The chief of North Korea’s disabled athletes association, Li Bun-hui, will lead the delegation. Li’s trip is gaining much media attention in the South, as she is a former ping pong athlete who played with Hyun Jung-hwa, a star player from the South. The duo played in a unified Korea team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championship in Japan and scored a victory against the Chinese team.
The president of the Incheon Asian Para Games, Kim Sung-il, said he hopes the North’s participation will serve as a turning point for the inter-Korean relationship.
The North became a member of the International Paralympic Committee last November.
(Voice of America, emphasis added)
Another instance of Sports Diplomacy in North Korea took place late August when, as the Washington Post reported, “Pro Wrestlers Made An Unlikely Peace Trip to North Korea”:
North Koreans are not exactly used to seeing 300-pound Americans in tiny black underpants with “strong man” emblazoned across the rear.
So they audibly gasped when Jon Andersen, the professional wrestler from San Francisco with muscles that look set to burst out of his skin, appeared on a floodlit stage in a Pyongyang stadium in late August, with music declaring, “He’s a macho man,” blaring from the sound system.
Women clasped their hands over their mouths when, seconds later, an even bigger American wrestler, Bob Sapp, emerged in a white sequin-and-feather cape to the theme song from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Once in the ring, Andersen exhorted Sapp to “kill ’em!” as the pair took on two Japanese wrestlers, picking them up and throwing them on the ground.
Unlikely as it may seem, these two fearsome Americans, together with their compatriot Erik Hammer, are part of the latest effort to bring about more harmonious relations between North Korea and the outside world.
Indeed, many of the 13,000-plus carefully selected North Koreans in the audience laughed out loud when, in a move that did not look entirely spontaneous, one of the Japanese wrestlers ducked and Andersen kicked Sapp square in the chest instead. Another American miscalculation, their laughter seemed to say.
The violent spectacle — complete with flashing lights and heavy metal music — was part of the Pyongyang International Pro Wrestling Games, a weekend of martial-arts-related events organized by Antonio Inoki, the Japanese wrestler-turned-politician who promotes “peace through sports.”
Famous in the United States for his 1976 fight against Muhammad Ali, Inoki is on a personal mission to help improve ties between the communist state and its former colonial master, and especially to help resolve decades-old abduction cases.
The three Americans are among the 20-odd wrestlers participating in his two-day event here, in which sport is used to provide contact that politics does not currently allow. (…)
Then they laughed as a Japanese wrestler trash-talked his opponent and chuckled at some of the more obviously choreographed moves. Some North Koreans even got out their cellphones — a relatively new piece of technology here — and took photos. (…)
As one foreign diplomat in the audience tactfully put it, the show provided a glimpse of the outside world that North Koreans don’t usually see. (…)
Nothing in North Korea is left to chance, and such events — even in the capital, home to the political class most loyal to the Kim family — are strictly controlled. It is highly likely that these North Koreans were carefully selected by the government and well prepared for the cultural contamination of the show.
One 16-year-old boy’s response to a journalist’s question could have come straight from the central propaganda department.
“I want friendship between Japan and North Korea, and I hope that this event will contribute to better relations,” the chubby-cheeked high school student said when asked whether he’d ever seen anything like this kind of wrestling.
Although the event was more about relations between North Korea and Japan, at a time when the United States is practicing “strategic patience” with Kim’s government and there is next to no official contact between the two countries, the fact that such an American event took place in Pyongyang is notable.
Proponents of cultural exchanges say non-political interaction can help improve relations between foes and ease the isolation of closed societies.
While skeptical about the prospects of better ties, Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat with a long career of dealing with Pyongyang, said such events could help with mutual understanding.
(Washington Post, emphasis added)
The notion of Sports Diplomacy has garnered so much promise that the U.S. Department of State has a whole program devoted to it through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Unfortunately, these initiatives can only do so much and the long list of political and security concerns have yet to be outweighed by some fun and games. Nonetheless, at the very least, “Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair.” – Nelson Mandela
South Korea Refines Multiculturalism
Few countries take multiculturalism as seriously as Korea does. While most countries have vague and ambiguous multicultural policies consisting of either forcing immigrants to assimilate to the local culture or allowing immigrants to integrate while keeping their traditions, Korea has come up with a new concept: tamunhwa. Tamunhwa means multiculturalism in Korean, and the basic idea is for Koreans to learn as much as they can about immigrants’ original culture while setting up as many cultural immersion programs as possible for immigrants. With foreign residents now accounting for nearly 3 percent of the population of a country that long defined itself as homogenous, Koreans are taking multiculturalism seriously. Immigration policies in Korea are strict. Migrant workers can only renew their visa for three years before they are forced to leave the country. They cannot bring their family members with them to Korea. Those with investor visas need to invest large sums (approximately 100,000 dollars) to stay in Korea, barring immigrants from investing in small shops, grocery stores, or small restaurants as is the case in many other countries. People who marry Koreans now have to demonstrate proficiency in one of the languages the spouse speak. Foreign workers have their visas tied to their employer and do not own the visa, placing restrictions on job hopping. But there are rewards for those who assimilate. Korea has recently put in place a points system that can lead to permanent residency. To be eligible, one should have worked at least one year in Korea, and factors such as income, education, age, and Korean proficiency are taken into account. If you are educated and can obtain a high score in the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) your chances of achieving permanent residency after working for one year are good. The Korean authorities have also put in place some useful facilities. “Global centers” have been built around the country, catering to the needs of foreign spouses, foreign investors, migrant workers, and tourists. Information desks have been set up for foreigners who may need information, especially in spots highly frequented by migrants. Foreigners are also increasingly visible in the media, participating in entertainment shows or in the news. Cultural events have been initiated to promote Korean culture to foreigners and foreign culture to Koreans.
Korea faces a dual demographic problem: 97 percent Koreans in any given age group graduate from high school, and 82 percent go on to attend university. This leads to a severe shortage of unskilled workers. Migrant workers have stepped in to fill the gap. The education focus also leads to a shortage of brides for farmers, as women often move to cities to attend university, leading to brides being imported from abroad for rural marriages. The other demographic problem is that the birth rate has plummeted to 1.2 children per woman, and the local Korean workforce is shrinking. (The Diplomat)
South Korea Slips Again in Competitiveness Ranking
South Korea’s national ego has taken a knock with another downgrade of its global competitiveness ranking by the influential Switzerland-based World Economic Forum. The forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, which annually assesses more than 100 countries, this year ranks South Korea 26th—one notch down from 2013 and the lowest spot since 2004. The annual rankings are based largely on surveys of business people on a raft of criteria–including institutions, infrastructure and the macroeconomic environment, health and education, financial market development, technology and innovation. South Korea’s drop followed a six-notch fall last year, from 19th in 2012, and continues a decline from a peak of 11th in 2007, according to WEF records. South Korea has long been unsuccessful in its efforts to obtain an upgrade from its MSCI emerging market status, largely because of the limited convertibility of its currency, the won. In June, it was removed from the list of candidates for a possible upgrade. MSCI, a global provider of stock market indexes, is widely used by investors to adjust their positions. South Korea thinks an MSCI upgrade will help attract more capital to its markets. The WEF report usually offers no specific reasons for the changes in rankings of individual countries. (…) As it did last year, the ministry pointed out that South Korea may look worse than it actually is. A series of negative events—like massive ID thefts at South Korean financial firms, North Korea’s repeated missile-launch provocations and the deadly Sewol ferry accident—coincided with the survey earlier this year and may have hurt the country’s ranking. (…) The report shows Switzerland remains the world’s most competitive nation this year, followed by Singapore, the United States, Finland, Germany and Japan. (Wall Street Journal)
South Korea Faces Welfare Revolt against Government
South Korea’s local governments in early September made the unprecedented move of challenging central government over lack of welfare support, a key concern in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.
It is the first time that the local authorities have grouped together against the government – they are warning that they will be unable to meet spending requirements on welfare unless they are given more support. The government has promised to spend 316 trillion won (S$388 billion) between now and 2018 on social spending to expand childcare support, allocate more funds for senior citizens, reduce medical expenses and raise the fertility rate.
But the heads of the country’s 226 small cities, counties and wards warned they would be unable to meet welfare spending unless the central government expanded support for them to deliver its policies. (Straits Times)
South Korea May Catch Japan’s Economic Cold
South Korea is becoming more like Japan, and not in a good way. After years of strong economic growth driven by exports of high-end electronics and cars, the country is edging closer to the deflationary, low-growth trap that Japan has been mired in for decades. Korean consumers, weighed down by household debt and a stagnant property market, are saving rather than spending. Companies are hoarding cash as they face uncertain demand at home and more competition from China. Korea’s population is also aging faster than that of any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, with people 65 and older set to account for at least 14 percent of the population by 2017. “The way Korea used to grow can’t continue unless Koreans spend more and companies invest,” says Kim Yong Ok, head of economic policy at the Federation of Korean Industries. (Bloomberg Businessweek)
South Korea’s Limited Options for Engaging Pyongyang
From the Sunshine Policy to the $3000 per capita GDP proposal, Seoul once had no limits on assisting North Korea. Today, Park Geun-hye is the first president facing an aid restriction. It comes in the form of UN Resolution 2094 of March 2013, which bans “bulk” cash transfers to North Korea, in the hope of impeding its nuclear weapons development. (This sanction is less restrictive than the May 24, 2010 measures, but being international is more binding). As Seoul is the primary beneficiary of the sanction, it has reason to actively implement it. However, the Park regime – which entered office about the same time as the resolution – has been passive when it comes to determine the practical levels of allowable cash transfers, and slow to search for aid ideas that meet those levels. It has also been laggardly in educating the public as well as Pyongyang on the need to uphold the mandate. Consequently, North Korea expects the same sort of high cash-content aid projects as before, while Southern businesses with vested interests urge the government to oblige. A case in point is tourism to Mount Kumgang, located in the North. This was a cash cow for Pyongyang from 1998 to 2008, until the killing of a tourist who went astray led to a suspension. Domestic pressure to resume the tours has been mounting. In July, a senior tourism industry representative complained that “It is not just North Korea that loses out on this suspension.” Thirty-five South Korean lawmakers urged Park to “make efforts to revive the tour program through dialogue in line with her drive for unification.” The government’s responses have been passive, saying there must be “an assurance that any reopening of the tour would not violate the international sanctions.” Assurance from whom? The administration should rather have put out a policy, and persuaded the public as well as Pyongyang of its justification under the reality of Northern nuclearization and the accompanying Resolution 2094. Instead, tourism has been left dangling and keeping hopes alive for both. One approach might be for Seoul to consult with allies on starting tourism on a small scale of several million dollars worth a year, in place of the $40 million industry prior to the suspension, and use it as an incentive for Pyongyang to accept another aid offer.
Before this passivity did its damage, Park was doing well with her Trustpolitik, which entailed slowly building trust with Pyongyang for inter-Korea cooperation. The policy gained strong domestic support and even Pyongyang’s indulgence. Understanding that trust takes time to build, South Koreans supported Park’s firm responses to the bellicose actions of the North during the first year of her presidency.
(…) All this came crashing down on March 28, 2014 when Park delivered a speech on her North Korea policy in Dresden, Germany. In the speech, dubbed the Dresden declaration, Pyongyang may well have looked for an opening, partly because it had made a concession of sorts in the agreement a month earlier allowing a round of family reunions, whereas Seoul gave up nothing. The declaration was a letdown for Pyongyang, however, as it made no reference to the Mt. Kumgang tourism. Though there were several aid offers in the address, Pyongyang became so upset that it denounced the offers as the “daydream of a psychopath,” and followed with personal attacks in increasingly sexist terms, which have continued. If the anger was prompted by a continuing suspension of tourism, what aid possibilities might exist to end it? (The Diplomat)
Americans Detained in North Korea Call for U.S. Help
North Korea gave foreign media access on 1 September to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and — watched by officials as they spoke — called for Washington to send a high-ranking representative to negotiate for their freedom. Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller said they expect to face trial within a month. But they said they do not know what punishment they could face or what the specific charges against them are. Kenneth Bae, who already is serving a 15-year term, said his health has deteriorated at the labor camp where he works eight hours a day. The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand. All said they believe the only solution to their situation is for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal. That has often been North Korea’s bargaining chip in the past, when senior statesmen including former President Bill Clinton made trips to Pyongyang to secure the release of detainees. North Korea says Fowle and Miller committed hostile acts which violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing for the trial, but has not announced the date. (Associated Press)
How North Korea May be Using U.S. Detainees as ‘Bargaining Chips’
The setup was bizarre. North Korean officials whisked a CNN team away in a van, purportedly to go meet with a high-ranking government official. Hours later, they arrived in the capital and were presented with three Americans held captive in the reclusive country. Like virtually everything in Pyongyang, the interviews were carefully managed by the regime. Each man had exactly five minutes to speak. Some of their statements seemed eerily similar. So what was the government’s motive in letting Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle address the world? “First of all, their motivation always behind these interviews has been to gather U.S. attention and then try to pave a way for high-level dialogue with Washington,” said Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. During their interviews on 1 September, all three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to help get them out of their situations — similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009. “I do believe that (a) special envoy need to come in order to resolve the situation I am in right now,” said Bae, who is serving 15 years at a labor camp after North Korea claimed he was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime. What might North Korea want in return? “Their negotiating ploy with the U.S. is to try to get us to agree to nuclear arms control, to sort of accept them as a nuclear weapons state — which we can’t do,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Another possibility: That North Korea wants sanctions against the regime lifted. (CNN, emphasis added)
IAEA: Signs North Korea Reactor May Be Operating
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said it has seen releases of steam and water indicating that North Korea may be operating a reactor, in the latest update on a plant that experts say could make plutonium for atomic bombs. North Korea announced in April of last year that it would revive its aged five-megawatt research reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, saying it was seeking a deterrent capacity. The isolated and poverty-stricken state defends its nuclear program as a “treasured sword” to counter what it sees as U.S.- led hostility. In an annual report posted on it website, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said North Korea’s nuclear program “remains a matter of serious concern”. The U.N. agency said it continued to monitor developments at Yongbyon through satellite imagery. “Since late August 2013, the Agency has observed, through analysis of satellite imagery, steam discharges and the outflow of cooling water at the 5 MW(e) reactor, signatures which are consistent with the reactor’s operation,” the IAEA said. “However, since the agency has had no access to the 5 MW(e) reactor since April 2009, it cannot confirm the operational status of the reactor,” it said.
North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors in 2009 and the agency has had no inspectors in the country since then. The Yongbyon reactor has been technically out of operation for years. North Korea destroyed its cooling tower in 2008 as a confidence-building step in talks with South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia. When North Korea said it planned to revive it, experts said it would probably take about half a year to get it up and running, if it had not suffered significant damage from neglect. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued an assessment in January saying that North Korea had expanded its uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and restarted the reactor there previously used for plutonium production.
The U.S.-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said in August that commercial satellite imagery from late June showed that the reactor was active. While North Korea has long boasted of making strides in acquiring a “nuclear deterrent”, there had been general skepticism that it could master the step of miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to mount on a ballistic missile. But there has been a shift in thinking since it conducted a nuclear test in February last year – its third since 2006 – and some experts have said it may be closer than previously thought to putting a nuclear warhead on a missile. Yongbyon is also the site of other nuclear facilities and the IAEA said in its report that it had “observed ongoing renovation and new construction activities at various locations within” the complex. (Voice of America)
North Korea’s Capital, With its Water Parks and New Buildings, Coddles The Elite
This is not a city on the ropes. Cars, for instance. A recent visitor, in the capital for the first time since 2008, found many more of them on the streets — and not just the locally produced “Pyonghwa” brand or Chinese BYDs, but Lexus sport-utility vehicles and late-model BMWs and Audis. And shoes. Many women are dressing more fashionably, and brightly colored, shiny high heels, often with jewels, appear to be the trend du jour. Changjon Street, in the heart of the city, near Kim Il Sung Square, is unrecognizable from a few years ago. Rows of round apartment towers line the street. Lit up at night, they are festooned with neon bands, giving them the appearance of giant fireworks. By day, the towers are reflected in the glittering river, making the city look “just like Dubai,” in the words of one government-appointed minder. Pyongyang, always a showcase city, has become even more of a Potemkin village. (…)
But the situation in the cities outside the capital, and even more so in the countryside, remains extremely dire. The state does not provide anything like the kinds of rations it once did, and hunger remains widespread. Even in Pyongyang, there are still many more signs of extreme poverty than wealth. Bent-over elderly women carry huge sacks on their backs, men with weathered faces sit on their haunches by the roadside, and North Korean children appear noticeably smaller than their South Korean peers. Foreign visitors to Pyongyang are driven along the same routes from their hotels, no matter where they are going, leading them to conclude that only certain streets are fit for foreign consumption. (…)
“Our great leader Comrade Kim Jong Un gave instructions to build this park for our people to teach them about our history from ancient to modern,” said Kim Hyung, a state-appointed tour guide who was selling maps of the park. “We are very proud of our North Korean nation.” (…) Construction still abounds. The Pyongyang airport is getting a new terminal — although foreign residents here say it’s taking a long time — and new riverside parks feature basketball courts and picnic areas. (…) Then there are the facilities for the elite that have been added to the revolutionary monuments of the standard visitor’s tour. There’s the Munsu water park in Pyongyang — a huge indoor space with water slides — where the North Korean patrons all seemed to be in large groups and many were wearing what appeared to be standard-issue swimsuits. Meanwhile, the shop, selling Nike shoes and SpongeBob water guns, was empty. At a fancy new equestrian center on the outskirts of the capital, with its faux-log-cabin buildings and manicured tracks, the “horse trainers” were all 20-something men with crew cuts, looking as though they had come straight from their barracks. There was not a “customer” — or, for that matter, any horse poop — in sight. (…)
It’s part of what Evans Revere, a former U.S. diplomat with a long career spent dealing with North Korea, calls the “bread and circuses” approach. “The theme parks, amusement parks, water parks, equestrian parks — these are all directed at the elite, while people in the rest of North Korea are not doing well at all,” Revere said. “The regime is making every effort to present an image of economic success.” (Washington Post, emphasis added)
North Korea ‘To Repatriate South Man’
North Korea says it will repatriate a South Korean man who entered the country illegally. He was detained after entering via a third country, North Korea said, adding that he wanted to live in the North after “finding it difficult to live” in the South. North Korea said it would return him via the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone on 11 September. South Korea said it was happy to take the man back. There is a significant flow of people from North Korea to South Korea via China, but movement the other way is very rare. North Korea has returned South Koreans in the past. In October last year it repatriated six men. Their names were not released and details surrounding their detention in the North remain unclear. That repatriation was seen as a conciliatory gesture by the North. (…)
In South Korea, meanwhile, officials are investigating a parcel containing a knife and a threatening letter sent to the country’s defence minister. The parcel, which also contained a white powder later identified as flour, was found by a delivery man. It was addressed to Han Min-koo and a letter inside accused the minister of bringing “a fire cloud of a nuclear war to the Korean peninsula”. A possible suspect had been seen on CCTV footage, Yonhap news agency said. The man, in his 20s or 30s, was seen sending the parcel via a delivery service at a convenience store, the agency said. “We are open to every possibility, including the suspect’s possible linkage to North Korea,” it quoted a defence ministry official as saying. (BBC)
North Korea’s Suicide Rate Among Worst in World, Says WHO Report
South Korea‘s problem with suicide has been well documented. But a World Health Organisation report has found that the problem is even worse in its northerly neighbour, making the peninsula one of the most suicidal regions in the world.
The report, entitled Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative, estimates that in 2012, 9,790 suicides took place in North Korea, with roughly equal numbers of males and females killing themselves. The report acknowledged that acquiring data was difficult, and that it had arrived at its North Korean estimate by factoring in a range of statistically predictive factors. Analysts say North Koreans may be driven to suicide by poverty, and the psychological stress of living in a restrictive environment. “I heard economic hardship was the main reason, but really, for anyone who is gay or lesbian or has mental health issues, life in North Korea is really tough,” said Sandra Fahy, assistant professor at Sophia University in Tokyo and author of the forthcoming monogrpah Marching Through Suffering: Loss, Survival and North Korea. The director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, Sokeel Park, said some deaths reported as suicides could have been people who died while in state custody. “It might be like in East Germany under the Stasi, where if someone died during an interrogation or while detained they just called it a suicide,” Park said.
The WHO’s findings do not align with a paper released last year by the Unification Medical Centre at Seoul National University, which found that suicide was rare in North Korea, in part because people who take their own lives are labelled traitors and put surviving family members at risk of punishment. The study was based on interviews with three doctors who fled the North and now live in South Korea. In North Korea, punishment can extend to three generations of the accused’s family. Fahy says North Korean escapees have told her of entire families killing themselves to avoid collective punishment. Financial hardship is a common motivator for suicide. South Korea’s suicide rate began climbing around the economic crisis of the late 1990s and has continued to increase. Many who take their own lives had expressed hopelessness in a society that has stiff competition for a limited number of white-collar jobs. Experts also point to taboos about seeking assistance. A psychiatrist at the National Medical Centre in Seoul, Kim Hyun-chung, said: “Koreans are reluctant to speak openly about their problems out of fear of being considered weak or unstable, and that just makes their situations worse.” (…) In North Korea, mental health care is scarce and suicide is among the many negative aspects of society that the government tries to keep quiet domestically, and hidden from the outside world. (The Guardian, emphasis added)
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