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Japan’s Fistfights and Foreign Wars

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe campaigning for defense policy changes

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been an unabashed advocate for changes in Japan’s defense policy, seeking the goal for his country what he calls “proactive pacifism.” Increased regional tensions, most notably with China, and internal political posturing have fueled the fire for a more outwardly minded Japanese military. A key change is underway with the ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution of 1947, which states:

Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.

In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.  

The above renunciation of war has been in effect for over 70 years, and Abe proclaimed that within the framework of Article 9 Japan has the right to collective self-defense, which includes engagement in the defense of an ally. Controversial legislation that is set to pass resulted in a physical scuffle on the floor of the National Diet, Japan’s parliament, but has failed to reverse the inevitable. The new set of bills are expressed in a way that allow for the government justify the use of combat action abroad for the first time since World War II. Abe states that it will give Japan a more “normal” position militarily, while his detractors have voiced fears of being co-opted into American combat intervention overseas. While the Prime Minister and his coalition have the votes on their side, some opinion polls say only 30% of Japanese surveyed support the change and large public protests have dogged the proceedings.

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

A physical scuffle broke out on the floor of the Japanese Parliament

Due to the restrictions of the constitution and Article 9, Japan has for decades relied heavily on its alliance with the US for defense while becoming very accustomed to the American military presence. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are expressly prohibited from conducting combat missions, and according to recent statistics they amount to one-sixth the size of North Korea’s armed forces and approximately a tenth the size of China’s.

Japan’s defense budget increased in 2013 for the first time in 11 years, and has increased every year since in a reversal of trend that has gained both significant traction and provoked worried criticism. Additionally, beginning in 2013 Abe was instrumental in the successful adoption of a five-year plan to procure new military hardware and capabilities, including drones and amphibious assault vehicles. While still paling in comparison to the defense budgets of China or the United States, the move has drawn ire from the former yet welcome from the latter.

China has openly and harshly criticized Japan’s new laws, with the official Xinhua news agency arguing,Japan‘s military stance has potentially become more dangerous as its hawkish and historical revisionist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now holds an active war button following the country’s parliament in the early hours of Saturday enacting laws that could usher Japan into war again for the first time in 70 years.” On the other hand, many US and UK officials applauded the move towards more international assistance and a greater Japanese role in global peacekeeping operations.

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

Japanese and American armed forces in joint exercises

So far unfettered by a critical China, Abe’s moves away from strict pacifism will test the regional relationship further over time. Japan will likely use the changes as a bargaining chip on the strategic table, especially regarding the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands, and perhaps even North Korea. The US now has a unique opportunity to scale back its forces to let Japan reassert its own military future, but it should also seek to resolve conflict with both Japan and China on the diplomatic table simultaneously.

Ambiguity in the new military laws will be a testing point of contention domestically for Japan, and any foreign military action will almost assuredly come with more protests and demonstrations. Japanese defense policy is set to change in a way that will usher in a new chapter for Japanese relations abroad, and it must navigate carefully if it wishes to achieve new regional and global goals.

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Testing the Waters of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the Senkaku Islands

Japanese plane flying by Uotsuri-shima, the largest of the disputed islands

Referred to as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea have been a serious source of contention in the region since the 1970s. The historical claims to this area that encompasses only seven square kilometers date back to the 14th century according to the Chinese claim, and the late 19th century via Japanese incorporation and later administration. Taiwan also lays claim to the island group and refers to them as the Diaoyutai Islands, though their stake has been less incisive. Located southwest of the Ryukyu Island chain of Japan, northeast of Taiwan, and southeast of China, the islands are important today because of nearby oil reserves, busy shipping lanes, and regional power projection. Outright control of the islands would signal a key strategic loss for the opposing side, and thus there have been many incursions both directly and indirectly to test the waters.

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

Map of the Senkaku/Diayotu

The debate over the islands is most importantly reflective of the greater battle for regional influence between China and Japan. In 2010, a Chinese fishing vessel’s skipper was detained by Japanese Coast Guard officials prompting a diplomatic crisis. After initially refusing to set the skipper free, China ceased exportation of rare earth minerals to Japan and Japan capitulated by releasing the sailor. The fiery incident was short-lived, but the escalated tensions persisted in the aftermath.

In 2012 the Japanese government further asserted its control over the islands via purchasing and nationalizing three of the islands from their private Japanese owner for over $16 million dollars. In response Beijing released a scathing criticism denouncing the move and reiterating their own claim. That year also saw a wave of official proclamations from high ranking officials on both sides noting the importance of how the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands were integral to the sovereignty of their countries.

The Japanese in 2012 and Chinese in 2014 both launched websites purporting their respective justifications for the reasoning behind their claims. According to the magazine The Diplomat, in early 2015 both countries were quietly posturing around the islands in a sign of military buildup, which included the construction of a new Chinese base that could potentially be used for greater military readiness. An official from the US Naval Institute concluded after analyzing the situation that China may perform a “short, sharp war” against Japan to snatch the islands quickly. Furthermore, nationalist rhetoric surrounding the claims has increased the stakes and brought greater attention in East Asia to the sparring factions.

Japanese protestors

President Obama in 2014 clarified the US stance supported the Japanese claim, declaring that the Senkakus are covered by the US-Japanese bilateral security treaty. While Japan has de facto administered the islands for decades, the Chinese claim contains more historical justification behind it. In a way the controversy is similar to how Beijing politically approaches Taiwan: it would undermine their authority to recognize anything other than the stance they have held on to for so long. Likewise, Japan sees the islands as a symbolic possession that they would be devastated to lose. Regardless of the justification behind the ownership or control of the islands, their significance comes because they are at the crux of Japanese and Chinese foreign policy goals. 

Chinese protestors

In the time of a geopolitically rising China, the controversies over such islands as the Senkaku and similar areas, such as the Spratly Islands, are microcosms of how relations between China and its neighbors will play out. If China continues to become more aggressive, as it has in the past few years in response to Japanese saber-rattling and the positioning of resources around key shipping lanes, both its neighbors and the world at large should take note. As was seen by the Russian action in Crimea, there are definite benefits and consequences to flexing strength near strategic points. It should come as no surprise that the Senkaku Islands will continue to play a unique role in the South China Sea.

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Hong Kong’s Defiant Youth

Student rally at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

For more than a week, tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists have engaged in civil disobedience to call for constitutional reform in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.The demonstrators, primarily students and other well-educated youth, are sounding off against creeping Beijing control and have called for the head of government in Hong Kong, Chief Executive CY Leung, to resign. Through the occupation demonstrations beginning in late September, protestors forced the shutdown of many businesses and government institutions. The latest round of demonstrations have seen diminished numbers, but the implications of the standoff are tremendous. The masses of students taking a stand for democratic reform have highlighted a younger generation at odds with the central government in Beijing. The conflict is reflective of Hong Kong’s unique and often strained relationship with the People’s Republic of China (hereafter China), as well as the tension within the country and its political systems.

Hong Kong2

Clashes between pro- and anti-government demonstrators

A regional economic powerhouse home to over 7 million people, Hong Kong was previously a British colony for most of the 20th century. Hong Kong was officially restored to Chinese control in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration established in the 1980s. The agreement allows for Hong Kong to operate under a high degree of autonomy, retaining its own domestic affairs and giving an exception to pursue free-market capitalism in contrast to mainland China’s single-party socialism. Beijing maintains the authority and responsibility of managing defense and foreign affairs. The other Special Administrative Region of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999, shares a similar relationship with Beijing. This policy referred to as ‘one country, two systems’ is set to remain in force for Hong Kong until 2047, and Macau until 2049.

The current confrontation was sparked by the passage of a recent law that eliminated civil nominations for the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Per the new rule, the next leader of Hong Kong may be voted through universal democratic process, but only from a list of candidates selected and vetted by Beijing. In response, Occupy Central along with the student-led Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Scholarism student activist group, vowed mass action to counter the decision. After days of peaceful protest, pro-government groups staged counter-protests. Before negotiations were set to begin, student leaders called off talks with the government due to violence carried out against peaceful demonstrators by pro-government individuals in Mong Kok. Police announced that several of the arrested attackers have links to Triad gang syndicates, and pro-democracy activists have accused the government of paying thugs to provoke fear. After the cancelled talks, the protests have continued with lower numbers though group leaders have voiced their commitment to persist.

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

Protestor holding sign denouncing Chief Executive CY Leung

The key crux of the ongoing debate is to what extent will Beijing allow Hong Kong to govern itself and decide its future within the ‘one country, two system’ model. At present, the system is designed so that the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between pro-regime loyalists. Revealing this facade of universal democracy is an accomplishment in itself for the pro-democracy camp, but in order to actually revamp the process they must win concessions from Beijing, which is unlikely. What will come next will likely be talks that ultimately deflate the waning energy of the protests for a less than ideal compromise.

The most important takeaway from the wave of civil disobedience can be found in its composition. The young and the educated of Hong Kong have overwhelmingly shown their contempt for Beijing’s interference in their front yard. This level of activism is likely to continue to play a part in the ongoing political story of Hong Kong regardless of the outcome of today’s movement.

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North Korea: Predicting the Unpredictable (Part II of II)

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim il-Song's birth, 2012

North Korean soldier commemorating the 100 year anniversary of Kim Il-Sung’s birth, 2012

(Part I on the background of North Korea can be found here)

North Korea, (the DPRK) is willing to reject modern globalization and completely separate itself off from the rest of the world in most aspects of society. As a result, the truth on the ground in North Korea is one of, if not the most, difficult to come across in the world for any sovereign state today. The saber-rattling and constant propaganda within the DPRK isolates their people and their government from the outside world to an alarming degree so predicting the next course of action that North Korea will take may seem like a fruitless endeavor. There is no simple and straightforward way to resolve the humanitarian crisis that has plagued the north half of the Korean Peninsula since the end of World War II. Nonetheless, a better understanding of recent North Korea history coupled with continued engagement, diplomacy, and patience can serve to unravel the options in how best to approach the Hermit Kingdom.

The Six-Party Talks involving North Korea, South Korea, US, Japan, China, and Russia that began in 2003 have fallen far short of their goals of stopping or even slowing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. North Korea walked out of the negotiations in 2009 and has refused to return to the table unless the talks begin without preconditions, which is unacceptable to the other participants. North Korea previously made gestures toward denuclearization, but each time soon after reverted to moves showing they were clearly continuing to advance their programs covertly or overtly. In total there have been three confirmed nuclear tests conducted in the DPRK (2006, 2007, and 2013), and estimates on their stockpile of nuclear weapons vary, though most reports cite between several to two dozen. Critical to remember is that separate from the amount of nuclear material and warheads available is the ballistics systems, which North Korea consistently has invested in improving.

North Korean field laborers

North Korean field laborers

Though virtually no aid has been given to the DPRK from the United States since the former walked out of denuclearization negotiations in 2009, between 1995 and 2008 the US gave North Korea over $1.3 billion in foreign assistance; over 50% in food aid, and about 40% in energy assistance. Since 2009, nearly all other countries with the exception of China have given minimal aid. The DPRK continues to suffer devastating levels of widespread malnutrition and food shortages, but even when aid was high the unequal distribution failed to adequately address the problems. The fact that Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have ignored the economic infrastructure and treated the well-being of the common citizen as second rate is clear. However, the balance between turning a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis, and outright exacerbating the problems are unclear.

Though perhaps the least impactful on policy directly, sports and cultural exchanges have opened interesting windows into North Korea and Kim Jong-un. When Dennis Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters visited North Korea for a trip which included a game with national players, it drummed up considerable discussion and no shortage of controversy. The strange relationship between North Korean leaders’ love for American basketball and western consumerism (Kim Jong-il reportedly was the largest buyer of Hennessy) underlines a kind of hypocrisy in dealing with the outside world. While only very few are exposed to foreign culture, if that double standard of political opposition, but indirect adoration can be highlighted then perhaps changing North Korean’s perspectives on their situation could be possible. While Dennis Rodman may have accomplished little more than inflating Kim Jong-un’s ego, other individuals like Rob Springs with Global Resource Services, who has devoted time and resources to humanitarian causes within the DPRK have been able to make more positive, though very limited, change outside of elite circles.

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Official DPRK state news announcing the rediscovery of a unicorn lair

Attempting to normalize relations or interact within North Korea without care can have the consequences of legitimizing the leadership and ignoring or setting aside the wider problems the country faces on a daily basis. The limited projects and NGOs from the West that are allowed to engage with North Koreans directly, such as the GRS and the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology should be further explored, while being aware of the opportunity for the government to manipulate such positive exchanges.

Dealing with North Korea directly, either via economic/military pressure and intimidation, or through incentives and aid, has thus far proven unsuccessful in making lasting large-scale progress. Despite that, the US, South Korea, and West should continue to monitor and track the military threats and nuclear ambitions of North Korea, while also keeping relevant avenues of dialogue open if the DPRK will return to negotiations. Part of the reason the DPRK has found relative success by its own right in shaking its fist at the outside world is because it has done so often spontaneously. Small scale aid and projects through private groups have been able to achieve limited goals, and working to help North Korean citizens directly could help chip away at decades of mistrust.

Approaching the DPRK from not just a macro level, but also through smaller initiatives opens up more possibilities for the people of North Korea to interact with the outside world. The Kim Jong-un regime is firmly in control, though hopefully in time there are real alternatives available for the North Korean people to make their own decisions.

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North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom (Part I of II)

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military leaders

Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un in front of military servicemen

(Part I of II)

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is a country of 25 million that has been effectively  trapped in a Cold War mindset since the 1950s. Like his father Kim Jong-il who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has run the country through a policy of desperation, repression, and isolation, the last of which has given way to its label as the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea is governed by Juche, a political ideology of self-reliance used to justify the totalitarian military dictatorship and the idolization of its hereditary leadership. Kim il-Sung, the father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of Kim Jong-un, is the founder of Juche and still the Eternal President of North Korea despite the fact that he has been deceased for over 20 years. Worshiped like a God, the leadership of Kim il-Sung and his successors are treated as infallible, and their policies have driven the country to a draconian state in a constant humanitarian crisis with alarming similarities to George Orwell’s 1984.

Reverence to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

Reverence toward Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il is compulsory

North Korea’s leaders have perpetuated a mentality of mortal fear through decades of pro-regime propaganda. The country has instilled into its populace the idea that at any moment South Korea and the ‘evil American imperial empire’ would annihilate them if not for their hard work and the sacrifice of their armed forces. The North Korean active armed forces are the fifth-largest in the world by manpower, a staggering feat considering North Korea is barely in the top 50 of countries by population. Bizarre reports from North Korea such as an official released happiness index placed them at #2 most content behind China, South Korea at #152, and the US at #203 (though the criteria and full rankings are unclear). After a trailer for the movie, “The Interview” featuring James Franco and Seth Rogen was released, North Korea’s UN Ambassador made an official complaint to the United Nations, declaring the film as “the most undisguised act of terrorism as well as an act of war.”

The conclusion of the Korean War (1950-1953) resulted in a cease-fire though not a formal peace treaty, thus technically the two countries have been at war for more than six decades. The sinking of the ROKS Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean servicemen, and the shelling of Yeongpeong Island, also in 2010, are recent skirmishes that prove North Korea is willing to push the envelope on what is acceptable in terms of brash maneuvers to embolden their own military situation. Though the rhetoric and threats far exceed the reality of the situation, North Korea has shown it is an unpredictable and temperamental thorn in the region. For example, despite an extensive array of measures, sanctions, and incentives offered to give up its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea continues to develop and test its weaponry and nuclear capabilities.

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

Map showing common routes taken by North Korean defectors

The reality for many North Koreans is far from the front lines, despite hosting the most heavily militarized border in the world with South Korea. Millions of North Koreans live and work in labor camps which have been compared to Nazi labor camps and Soviet gulags. The inhumane conditions are coupled with the extent of service in the camps, which can span past one’s life onto their future kin. In the relatively short span of several generations malnutrition and starvation has resulted in a marked difference in stunted health and growth between North Korean children and their neighbors in South Korea. The health emergency has become the norm in the country and the state has taken great effort to hide the scale and extent of the atrocities. The average North Korean knows next to nothing about the modern world, living in a caged country and with minimal hope for change.

Most comparable humanitarian disasters are troubled by a lack of governing authority and distribution networks. Uniquely, the North Korean government has defiantly rejected food aid many times because of the conditions dependent on halting or ending its nuclear ambitions, and its stance on the donors themselves. Its adherence to the Juche self-reliance ideal has created a paradox of being unable to sustain itself without outside help, while being ideologically  against accepting most assistance with the exception of its closest quasi-partner, China. China has seen North Korea as a buffer zone between a united Korea under Western influence, and has desired internal stability in the Hermit Kingdom over an even worse humanitarian disaster that would inevitably come with state collapse. Recently, the United Nations has tried to put additional pressure on China to change its policies towards repatriating North Korean defectors, many of whom must travel to Southeast Asia before being accepted as refugees in South Korea. The transition into the modern world for North Korean defectors is so shocking that assimilation is an extremely difficult task in itself.

While a total reformation of the North Korean political system seems the best way forward for the people of the DPRK, total state collapse would inevitably bring about chaos and tremendous consequences for the millions of refugees that would find themselves in a totally new world they have been taught to fear their entire lives.

(Part II covers the contemporary relations and future of North Korea and can be found here)

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