Monday, September 20, 2010

Gwanghwamun Restoration

Robert Koehler:
After a lengthy restoration process, Gwanghwamun Gate — the main entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace and a major downtown landmark — was finally unveiled to the public yesterday, the Liberation Day holiday.

The Cultural Heritage Administration brought in some heavy hitters for the restoration, including calligraphic engraving master Oh Ok-jin (Important Intangible Cultural Property No. 106) to paint the signboard and dancheong master Yang Yong-ho to paint the superstructure. For those of you wondering, dancheong is the colorful painted designs found on many of Korea’s historic wooden public building — not only is it decorative, but it also protected the wood from the elements.

Gwanghwamun Gate has had a tumultuous contemporary history, making it something of a microcosm of Korea’s contemporary history as a whole. The gate was first constructed in 1395, making it — along with the rest of Gyeongbokgung Palace — one of the first buildings constructed in the new royal capital of Seoul. Also like the rest of the palace, it was burnt down during the Japanese invasion of 1592, and left in ruins until Heungseon Daewongun‘s grand restoration of the palace in 1867.

Then things started to get funky. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. In 1926, the Japanese — great preservationists of Korea’s cultural heritage that they were — had Gwanghwamun Gate torn down and moved to the east side of the palace, all so it wouldn’t restrict the view of the massive Japanese Government-General Building (demolished in 1996), which they had oh-so-sensitively placed right in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace, blocking the view the historic palace from downtown Seoul. The demolition of the gate sparked protests from not only Koreans, but also from Japanese intellectuals, most notably Yanagi Sōetsu, the founder of Japan’s Craft Art movement and an admirer of Korean traditional art.

Still noticeable is the decision to reverse the Chinese script on the gate from left-to-right to right-to-left as it had historically been. I guess this is the ever existing problem of translation, whether a strict, literal interpretation is better than a more liberal interpretation. In this case, I think it looks funny. Modern Korean when written horizontally doesn't read from right to left. 

Doubts about "How North Korea was lost - to China"

Add/Update: For clarity. Sept. 20th, '10

There's an interesting article here that looks at how Seoul and Washington "lost" North Korea;  I don't find it very agreeable

Aiden Foster-Carter has written an long piece in the Asia Times on North Korea’s geopolitics.  It is a fairly long piece, so here is the punch line:
So there’s our winner. Its rivals’ missteps have helped, but Beijing has long played a skillful, patient game. Like Moscow, it irked the North by recognizing South Korea (in 1992), but unlike the abrupt Russians it worked hard to soothe sensitivities.
Eighteen years on, guess which power is the top trade partner of both Koreas? Now, there’s subtle hegemony for you. No prizes either for guessing who’s snapping up North Korea’s mines, and beginning the lengthy, costly process of modernizing its decrepit infrastructure.
Face it: who else has the motive, or the means? As all agree, China’s overriding worry about North Korea is not Kim’s nukes but fear of collapse, and the chaos this could cause on its own borders. Beijing’s consistent strategy is not to paint Kim into a corner, no matter what.
Knowing that, how did policymakers in Seoul or Washington delude themselves that China would hurry to join a chorus of condemnation over the Cheonan? No way. Beijing squirmed a bit, but the game was worth the candle. Let Washington and Seoul huff and puff. All that achieved was to push an ever-more isolated North Korea further into China’s orbit and influence.
Nothing is certain, especially about North Korea where forecasts (this writer’s not least) have a habit of turning out wrong. I expected North Korea to collapse long ago: guilty as charged, m’lud. I understimated this tough regime’s staying power, or the horrors it would impose on its people – including famine – to cling to power while refusing to see sense.
But this can’t go on forever. The old game of militant mendicancy is finally up. Kim Jong-il’s frail health, a delicate succession, and an empty treasury – United Nations sanctions have hit arms exports, and crime doesn’t pay like it used to – make defying the entire world just too risky.
North Korea needs a sugar daddy. There is only one candidate left standing, and one who fits the bill perfectly. It may not be a marriage made in heaven, mind you. Pyongyang will keep squawking, and even try the old game of playing off its interlocutors – as in its latest thaw with Seoul.
But at the end of the day Beijing is making an offer no one else can match, and which North Korea can’t refuse. It goes roughly like this: Okay, we’ll bail you out, we’ll guarantee your security, we’ll even stomach your weird monarchical tendencies – unless the kid turns out to be a complete klutz, in which case you know what to do. Jang Song-taek (brother-in-law to Kim Jong-il) knows the score.
You can count on us too not to shame you by spelling all this out and giving the game away. But yes, we do need something in return. Two things. First: markets. For goodness sake just leave them alone, nay let ‘em rip – as we’ve been telling you to, ever since Deng Xiaoping.
Look where we are now, and where you are. We’ll do the heavy lifting of investment, so you have functioning factories and railways again. But you have to let it happen. No going back.
Second: no more trouble. We know it may take time for you to give up your footling pesky nukes. But we need an absolute guarantee of no more tests, or else. No other provocations, either. Our People’s Liberation Army will teach your Korean People’s Army how to adapt and how to make money. The new North Korea will be a good global citizen, trading like we do. The returns are good. It beats mugging any day.
And guess what? You’ll love it, all of you. You’ll prosper. No more worries. Your people will eat; your elite will make money. What’s not to like? Just stop all that shouting and marching; what a relief, eh? The rest of the cult can stay, if you must. All hail the young general Kim Jong-eun, finally fulfilling grandpa’s dream of peace and prosperity for all! (With a bit of help from his friends, but we’re modest.) You’ll love him. You really will.
This seems to me a plausible scenario for North Korea’s future. In fact, I struggle to imagine any other. Korean reunification? Maybe in the very long run – but right now, who wants it?
Not the North, whose elite know the fate of their East German counterparts after unification. Can we really expect them to put their faith in the tender mercies of Lee Myung-bak? Even under Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun it would have been tricky. What place would there be for most of them, frankly, in a reunified peninsula? Not a privileged one, that’s for sure.
Ordinary North Koreans, too, have learned, from the trickle who have made it to Seoul, that South Korea is no land of milk and honey. True, they’d like a life, and to eat. But China, or a North Korea open to and learning from China, might look a better bet on that score.
Nor is the South enthusiastic, despite all the rhetoric. It would be embarrassing and galling to see the North become a Chinese satellite – yet perhaps also a huge relief. Let Beijing bear the brunt, the burden, and the costs of transforming the madhouse they have long sustained.
Further down the line, blood could prove thicker. By 2040 or so, a by then semi-transformed North Korea may tire of great Han chauvinism, slough off the Chinese yoke, and embrace the cousins south of the demilitarized zone (which would long ago have become more permeable). They’d be easier to absorb, too, now smoothed by a few decades of Chinese-style modernity.
Speculative, to be sure. But what other scenarios are there? And though from one viewpoint China has edged out rival powers as argued above, presumably to their chagrin, might some of them in truth be quietly relieved to be spared the responsibility?
Let China take it on and deliver a new-style North Korea, vibrant and fit for a new century. It could last a long time, and spare the region and world much headache and risk. Does anyone have an alternative?
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over 40 years.
In its entirety, Aidan Foster-Carter writes:
Knowing that, how did policymakers in Seoul or Washington delude themselves that China would hurry to join a chorus of condemnation over the Cheonan? No way. Beijing squirmed a bit, but the game was worth the candle. Let Washington and Seoul huff and puff. All that achieved was to push an ever-more isolated North Korea further into China's orbit and influence.
I mean just as much as China likes to make deals with military juntas -- primarily North Korea and Burma,
"But at the end of the day Beijing is making an offer no one else can match, and which North Korea can't refuse."
I think Washington and Seoul expected, well, more from China. 

But, what I'd like to ask is why is China settling on North Korea when the country should be eying South Korea? In the past few months, China has basically pushed Vietnam, South Korea, and, now, Japan to the arms of, well, the United States. 

It's not as if China  has just won a strategic competition against other countries for the great prize that is North Korea. Rather -- and I think many (e.g. Scott Snyder) have argued that this is how North Koreans see it as well. It is not the case of a calculating China defeating the U.S. and the other countries in some grand chess game for influence in North Korea, but rather just a simple case of China looking to gratify its own immediate desire -- "Chinese stability."

Consider that as a result of the Cheonan fiasco -- from none other than a Sinocentric point of view --  the huge cost for China has been South Korea. I would think the ultimate end game for China  -- again from a Sinocentric point of view -- is to dominate East Asia, which includes kicking out or splintering the U.S.-Japan and U.S-ROK alliances and unifying with Taiwan. The end game for China is not about paying for North Korean food, roads, and ports and extracting natural resources that North Korea may have. The real gold is elsewhere.

I'd bet that North Korea surely sees this too and would love at any cost to get the United States to guarantee the security of the country any day over the Chinese. In the meantime, China will continue to feed North Korea, build North Korean roads and ports, and bring the northern half of the peninsula out of the dark ages all of which North Korea will not be grateful for. After all, China is doing this for self-serving reasons.


This is the logic behind why despite China's growing economic clout over the Korean peninsula  -- China is also Japan's number one trade partner, this has not translated over into political clout.  I  think that this type of reasoning underlying the original article could come to only feed the doubt of those that think South Korea and the United States have become too confrontational with North Korea and think that perhaps reverting back to some form of the now bankrupt Sunshine Policy  may not be that bad of an idea.

Andrew Lankov:
A senior South Korean diplomat described this problem in a private conversation by a good allegory: "China does not have leverage when it comes to dealing with the North. What China has is a hammer."
I would also recommend Scott Snyder's China's Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security here.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

There seems to be a problem with the Economist's Map...

In an article outlining heightened tensions between China and Japan (again), the map on the article by the Economist seems to label the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima) as part of Japanese territory or being part of Japan's exclusive economic zone. The Senkaku/Diaoyu island chains are demarcated as such, whereas the Kuril Islands -- including the lower two --  are marked as Russian territory. So, it's a bit puzzling that the Liancourt Rocks are labeled to be a part of Japan. Clearly this is a matter of grave concern as, well, heaven forbid if fifty years later Japanese -- or for that matter any nationalist "historian"-- were to say, look here, we found an old map by the Economist clearly showing that Takeshima is a part of Japan.

And, by the way, a quick look at the second map shows exactly why the Liancourt Rocks seem to be so important. It takes up such a huge chunk of the seas east of the Korean peninsula.

Anyways, here's the map over at the Economist:
And, here's a map that shows the area of the East Sea (Sea of Japan) that is disputed. 

(disputed waters in the East Sea/Sea of Japan)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

[U.S. Capitulation to the Chinese] Japanese Currency Intervention

For the first time since 2004...

Economist's Free Exchange:

AMONG today's big news items is the word that Japan is now actively selling yen in order to improve its exchange rate against other major currencies. The yen has risen sharply in recent months, dealing a blow to Japanese exporters and slowing Japanese recovery.
The columnist looks at the development in a positive light.
Doom and gloom, but I feel more positive about this development. Consider Buttonwood's take:
As David Bloom of HSBC points out in a note responding to the move, the costs of intervention to the Japanese are not great. Selling yen and buying dollars results in more yen being created, which might be inflationary, but a bit of Japanese inflation wouild be a good thing.
My thought concerns the general tendency of countries to want their currencies to depreciate. Everyone would like to boost their growth by letting their currencies slide and increasing exports. Of course, not all can succeed. Someone must increase net imports and let their currency appreciate. The obvious candidate is the Chinese, but they are unwilling to let it happen (at least at a pace desired by the rest of the world).
The result is like a game of deflationary pass the parcel in which the countries with appreciating currencies eventually feel the pressure, and try to reverse the trend.
But, I wonder if this development is in fact simply the realization that China will not fairly value its currency -- irrespective of what this may or may not do with respect to the U.S. trade deficit -- and that rather than waiting for a time that will not come, Japan has decided the country could wait no longer.

Consider the South Korean Won. South Korean exports compete directly with many Japanese exports, and South Korean exporters have historically looked at a 10 KRW : 1 JPY ratio as the level where South Korean exports would still remain competitive with Japanese exports. However, this changed in 2008 as the South Korean Won collapsed. (Its performance was the second worst that year after, well, Iceland's currency.) Since that time, rather than the South Korean Won tracking the performance of the Japanese Yen -- which it historically has, the currency now seems to be tracking the performance of, well, the Chinese Yuan. Until the just announced Yen Intervention, the currencies have been trading at about 14 KRW : 1 JPY. (The link to a chart is here.) The story seems to be the same with respect to the New Taiwanese Dollar (TWD). (The link to a chart is here.)

So, doesn't it seem to be the case that the Japanese have decided that the expense of waiting for the Chinese to revalue is just too great? In this sense, it's hard to be optimistic when it seems to be a capitulation on the part of the U.S. to Chinese mercantile practices, which in the process seems to have dragged the rest of East Asia along with Beijing. What will it take before the U.S. "takes action"? (By the way, in this sense, I miss President George W. Bush. His ability to "take decisive action" -- whatever the costs or logic may be -- seems to be ostensibly missing right now. (I think with respect to defense issues I'm a huge supporter of current U.S. policy of re-engaging the East Asia region, but I think this would be there regardless of who is in power. e.g. Consider the Guam naval buildup since 2006.)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Recently, it appears that Japan has taken into custody Chinese fishermen in disputed waters as Japan and both Chinas all claim a string of islands called the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands. The funny thing about these islands is that, well, after the Second World War -- or the second Sino-Japanese War -- they were first occupied by Americans not unlike the Liancourt Rocks (Dokdo/Takeshima), which Japan and both Koreas also claim as their own. This is East Asia...

I understand that North Korea and much of the rest of the world likes to say that Americans are a crazy nation that likes war, but I find it interesting in what America did with the "islands" when they were under U.S. control -- both became places that American planes would bomb. 

Anyways, Japan has recently released most of the fishermen except for its captain as, well...

The fishing boat reportedly rammed Japanese coast guard patrol boats which had been trying to intercept it.
And, in another example of Beijing's respect for her East Asian neighbors, BBC News also reports:

On Sunday Chinese diplomat State Councillor Dai Bingguo warned Tokyo to make a "wise political decision" over the matter.
The Chinese foreign ministry said any evidence collected by Japan on the collision would be "illegal, invalid and in vain".
Of course, it's interesting to see this considering recent naval exercises in the region by the United States Navy and, of course, the magnanimous decision of the U.S. to facilitate territorial disputes between China and Vietnam. Maybe, the talks, if they ever materialize, could also include the Philippines, the other China (Taiwan), and maybe Japan as well, to make for new round(s) of six party talks. I'm sure they would have a better chance at arriving at a solution than those talks held in Beijing or even those talks of having the talks in the first place.

[KORUS Free Trade Pact] A Pony to an Equus...

A couple days ago, I was driving -- and while waiting for the lights to turn green, of course, no idea why the light there is green...-- there was this dated Toyota truck right in front of me. Interestingly enough, all the letters from the word Toyota fell off except for, well, "YO." And, well, it sure enough perked my interest to the point where I took a picture of the car. The picture is symbolic of Toyota's fading presence recently; Toyota has apparently recalled over 11 million vehicles in the past ten months.

Now, flip back a couple decades and many car American buyers thought that, well, Japan makes affordable, quality passenger cars so what's different with South Korean cars. Of course, they gap in quality was at that time a gulf. Shoddy brakes on Hyundai cars left a perceived gap in the quality of Korean cars that for some even continues to the present. It also took Hyundai almost two decades to recover its U.S. sales back to that of its heyday in the late 1980s. It's well past that now as Hyundai looks to introduce the Equus.

When I first heard of Hyundai's Equus I thought the name to be pretty funny. The first passenger car that Hyundai ever built was called, well, the Hyundai Pony. In Korea, for some time now, the largest and most expensive car that Hyundai sold has been, well, the Hyundai Equus. The Equus is, well, in latin, horse. So, I thought it a bit funny and somewhat representative of how Hyundai together with its subsidiary Kia Motors has come to be I believe the fifth or sixth largest car manufacturer in the world. They have gone from building ponys to well horses. Hyundai has also opened a factory in Alabama where American workers now assemble many of the cars that are now sold to, well, Americans.

The threat that cheap Asian imports from Korea would displace American jobs seems to be overblown.The cars that South Korea produces compete directly with Japanese car manufacturers more so than it does with American manufacturers. Hyundai -- along with Kia -- seems to be poised to displace Nissan this year as the third largest Asian auto seller in the U.S. after, well, Toyota's slip up in quality. In this sense, the idea that passage of the KORUS free trade pact would displace American jobs seems to be overblown. 

Moreover, much of GM's success in China -- probably the only place in the world where GM's sales have been competitive and consistently profitable in the past decade is due to in large part to the expertise gained from GM taking a stake in what used to be an insolvent South Korean car manufacturer, Daewoo Motors. (By the way, perhaps America's labor unions could see how their South Korean counterparts have come to see the introduction of a large American presence in South Korea's domestic market. Whereas the Chinese takeover of Ssangyong Motors has resulted in, well, disaster, GM's investment in GM Daewoo has come to be seen as a successful merger, if it could be called that, in an industry where successful takeovers are, well, excluding Nissan, for the most part non-existent.)

Moreover, South Korea really likes American beef and they like to buy a lot of it.

So, perhaps, it's time to pass that KORUS.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Time to amend presidential term limits in South Korea

Apparently, South Korea has grown over 7% on a per annum basis for two consecutive quarters now. I can't believe this presidential pledge is coming through.

Paul Eckert:

The IMF -- which again revised the growth forecast of Asia's fourth-biggest economy upward, to 6.1 percent from 5.75 percent in a July report -- said expansion was increasingly led by private sector demand and was at or near full growth potential.
I think it's about time South Korea amends her constitution to make way for two term presidencies. Currently, South Korean Presidents are restricted to one five year term.

[California] The Senate Race

It appears that in the upcoming elections in November, polls show a tie between Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican Party candidate Carly Fiorina. When I read this, I thought this in and of itself is pretty crazy as I thought California is at least in the 21st century a solidly Democratic state. But, it gets even more unbelievable, so I kept the article in the back of my mind to share.

The Los Angeles Times summarized some "key points" of a debate held on Wednesday between the two.

Assault weapons ban: Fiorina restated her opposition to the federal assault weapons ban, saying the law is vague and ineffective. "We have loads of laws, and most of the time, criminals are breaking those laws and we are curtailing citizens' lawful rights to carry guns," she said. "The assault weapons ban is extremely arbitrary about what qualifies as an assault weapon."
Now, I've been a registered Republican since I was 18 except in 2008, where I switched to  independent for the presidential primaries in California, but say what? "Assault weapons ban is extremely arbitrary?"

(I very much wanted Obama to win, so much so that I made international friends watch Obama's acceptance speech when he nominally won the general election in 2008... there was a lot of American flags on that broadcast... when you're excited about something you genuinely want those around you to be excited about the same thing as well...)

Anyways, why on earth is there a need to repeal the assault weapons ban or even talk about it. There's no way that the assault weapons ban will be repealed in California and I don't know exactly where this Republican candidate lives, but if I'm in suburban Los Angeles I buy meat at usually Ralphs. If I'm in Northern California, I buy my meat at Safeway (I think Vons bought out all the Safeways in Southern California. I remember seeing them as a kid and I thought they were a relic of the past until, well, I ventured north.) But, anyways, I usually buy my meat at either Safeway or Ralphs, and definitely don't go out and hunt my dinner. So, where is this candidate from?

I also don't worry about bandits coming over from a nearby village and robbing me... In my hometown, I do get uninvited and unwanted door-to-door solicitations once in a while though. I think visitors from the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints stopped by a while back. There's a significant Mormon community in my hometown. On the other hand, girl scout cookies are pretty good. This district, by the way, is also represented by a Republican congressman.

So, what on earth are these candidates talking about? Apparently, the article also covers the politicians' respective positions on some other key issues... global warming (whether one believes it, though Prop 23 does look like a substantial issue), abortion, gays in the military, same-sex marriages, what stem-cells should be used for research... The issue of the economy seemed relegated to the mere parisan litmus test that has become of President Bush's tax cuts, which by the way seems to me at least have been enacted for purely "ideological" reasons and also a little bit out of hubris and spite.  
Talk about a disconnect. 
Oh and for those that read this. I'm not sure where I stand on the political spectrum anymore, but I do believe more strongly in equality of opportunity and working hard than on equality in outcomes. This extends only to the point where everybody should have the opportunity to say, go to school, but not where there I think there should be rigid quotas along socioeconomic classifications determined by government or by abolishing standardized (and to some degree coachable) test results that studies may suggest show are positively correlated with income.
But, on issues, I like the status quo on abortion, think the defense department should have the final say on who they want in the military, same sex marriages are not marriages, all stem cells should be used for research... But, these are purely social issues that don't really affect each and every person in Calfironia.. I guess there is where the disconnect comes in...
And, I'm against President Bush's tax cuts which seemed to be an exercise in Republican hubris more so than anything else.