Category Archives: East Asia

The Overwhelmingness of Asia

In the West, during the last 7-8 years, interest in Asia has surged. Many are referring to China as a potential challenger of Western hegemony, and since the term was coined in 2004 politicians, analysts and enthusiastic headlines alike have been referring to the “Beijing Consensus” as an alternative to the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile India, although lagging behind its neighbour China, is still the only country which can be compared in terms of population, economic prospect or future potential. Now an economic success story, India is also beginning to make its voice heard on the international, as opposed to just the regional stage.

So why has Asia, and in particular China and India, become so important? I’ve been asking myself that question for a while, and looking at it I think that part of the answer is really just that simple.

Asia is the largest continent in the world, bigger even than North and South America put together. It is also the most densely populated. Very soon, the world is set to hit a landmark 7 billion inhabitants. Out of the 10 most populous countries 7 of them are in Asia, which with an excess of 4 billion people is the world’s most populous continent. That is roughly 60 % of the entire population of the world. To give a further sense of proportion, Africa is the second most populous continent just shy of one billion. China and India, with populations of well over a billion each, together constitute about 37 % of the entire population of the world.

I will keep scratching my head, but I think I’ve at least figured out the core reason why China and India are gaining importance. It seems inevitable, really.

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My Cowardly Position on the Question of Tibetan Sovereignty

There are a lot of questions being discussed and not being discussed about the whole Tibetan topic. It is one of those issues that seem to be absolutely dominated by strong, unwavering positions. It is also one that never seems to be going anywhere. In that way I find it similar to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is also very hard to unpack, sore and goes far back in time. In both of these conflicts, I find that each side is always being on the defensive, and very selective in the material that they choose to bring into the debate. As an outsider with no set opinion, I find it very hard to find a place in that debate.

When I was asked for my opinion on the Tibetan sovereignty debate, I honestly did not know what to say. The one who asked, a dear friend whom I respect, obviously presumed that I as a more-or-less educated and engaged member of society would have a ready answer. Problem was, I did not. Of course, I was somewhat familiar with the history and the political and ethical questions being debated, but I had not yet managed to form an opinion. Thus began an increasingly frustrating quest for the answer that I felt was expected of me.

I have found there is a strong pressure in the West to agree with the exiled government. At the same time (perhaps as a reaction to the suffocating political correctness of the “Free Tibet”-stance) there is a will to try to assess things from a more Chinese-friendly perspective. Or should I say less Chinese-hostile. But no matter where I went, whether it was mass media, academic literature or the blogosphere, I always seemed to find this prior partiality. There were bloggers out there who though they were bringing a positive contribution to the debate by plastering an excerpt from sites like onto their blog to ’raise awareness’ while next betraying their ignorance. I was getting more and more confused and more and more fed up. It seems often the more people learn about an issue the more rigid their opinions become. I wonder if that has to do with seeing things from a biased viewpoint from the very beginning. But what are you supposed to do if you, like me, don’t want an opinion shoved down your throat?

I find it just amazingly tiring to read or listen to people who have already made up his/her mind. When somebody has a bolted down position it is both very annoying to know that that person is never going to change their mind (‘cause I’m right, dammit!), and very demanding because they are always trying to channel your mind into seeing things their way. I find it hard to talk to such people. Every word they speak seems to be pre-rehearsed and on the defensive. If they ever ask a question it is merely a rhetorical device, not in order to seek an answer. If you ask questions you’ll be accused of being either dense or in cahoots with the wrong side. Even if you’re sporting a neutral or sympathetic stance, you’re wrong as long as you don’t obediently cave in to their views. A discussion like that can never be productive.

On important questions like Tibet and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict I think it’s important to have a colourful and rich debate. I would love to be part of such a debate, but it seems too difficult. It seems like people are only really given two choices to vote and it is either for-or-against China, Palestine-or-nothing. I think these are false dichotomies, where only two opposite choices are propagated when in fact there are many. Guess which you are supposed to pick! Most definitely seem to end up in the “politically-correct” corner. But we don’t have to think in black-and-white.

This is why I am simply not going to make a judgment. It may seem cowardly to not choose a position, but I think it’s more cowardly to just accept what someone else wants me to believe. So I will not position myself in either corner. At least not yet. Whether I am for or against is going to be my choice, and when I am ready. If I’ll ever be ready. There is no real need as far as I can see. Why do we need to search for a villain anyway?


Filed under East Asia, media, Middle East

Asian Media Darlings

Do you remember back in 2003 when nobody really knew anything about China and didn’t care? Back when most of what you knew of Indian economics belonged to a period in which it was referred to as the ‘crown jewel’?

It has dawned on me that the surge in interest in South-East Asia really only began pretty recently. Before that it had of course been a part of the world which generated a certain amount of interest. The mindboggling reality that the region contained half of humanity was often recalled, yet not fully comprehended. The memory of long gone dynasties and civilizations, fascinating and mystical world religions, plus some kind of grasp on the war in Vietnam was about as much as the average Joe Blow needed to know. In the seventies and eighties the West was forced to acknowledge an emerging economic power in Japan – an anomaly in an otherwise established Western world system. A few miniature ‘tiger’ economies have also been on our radar for a while (Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea). But South-East Asia as a whole still did not seem to hold more importance than any other region until just recently, when that begun to change. Nowadays, people have a real awareness of Asia as an emerging global economic powerhouse. Many believe that a shift in the global economic order is occurring, and no matter how fast or impressive the development is anywhere else, such as in Botswana or Argentina, nobody can steal the limelight like the two major powers of Asia.

I have asked a few people, and while most seem not to have been conscious of it many agree that there has been a relatively sudden change in the common perception and interest about Asia. What is your experience of this? Has there been a change in media attention? Even if you really prefer the sports pages of the paper, or even if you feel like you lack enough knowledge to reply – I still really want to hear what you think!


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The Easy Guide to Why the Six-Party Talks are Not Working

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Personally, I strongly believe in diplomacy as the best, and perhaps only way to resolve the North Korean as well as many other problems. But for that to work, we really need to start thinking realistically about the offers that we present to the other side. Basically, the only offer that has been made to the North Koreans has been a huge aid deal, including food and energy assistance, provided in exchange for them to give up their nuclear enrichment facilities. Like that, for 20+ years, the only debate in the US concerns how we can get them to disarm and through that period the North Koreans have merely scoffed at every one of our attempts to get them to do so.

The suggested answers to this conundrum vary between saying that we need to encourage, bribe, threaten, smooth-talk or harass them into doing as we say. Recently, it has even been proposed to just push to persuade the Chinese to persuade them. All proposed answers are equally ridiculous except the last one, which is even more hysterical, and which shows the growing despair and resignation in the US think-tanks.

There is no reason to believe that anyone could be successful in persuading the North Koreans with the current strategy. That is true for China just as much as it is for the US. In a way, the attempts so far resemble a fly crashing into a window again and again. Attempting to fly towards the clear sky, it will not realize that there is a wall of translucent glass blocking its way; furthermore that it is also going to be there the next time it tries. If one thinks about it clearly, there are two major reasons why the current strategy, which the Six Party Talks have been just a continuation of, have failed. A; we are forgetting who we are talking to, and B; we are forgetting what we are trying to get them to do.

A: We tend to reason since the famine of the 1990s that North Korea would jump at the offer of food. But this would be unreasonable even if the majority of North Koreans weren’t prepared to go through suffering for the sake of the country. However, we are not sitting across the table from a representative cross-section of North Korean society. The people we are negotiating with are not farmers or construction workers. We are sitting across from the people who rule the country, and just to pronounce the obvious – they are not starving. It is absurd to expect them to come waving a white flag just because their enemies are saying they are willing to feed them.

B: To the people we are negotiating with it makes absolutely no political sense to even consider any offers that have been made to them so far. Does anybody realize what it is exactly that we are asking them to do? If North Korea disarms and gives in to demands, it has absolutely no way left to legitimize itself. Economically it is many decades behind South Korea, and soft power alone is never enough to make a regime survive. What we are really asking then, is for a group of people who enjoy enormous power and privilege to give up all that they have and all that they have built since 1948.


To put it simply; what we are offering is too little, and what we are demanding is too much. That is the reason why they wouldn’t flinch even if we offered them a pink elephant with Kim Jong-Il’s glasses on.

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Filed under East Asia, The Hermit Kingdom

What does the Hermit Kingdom look like from the inside?

Does the average North Korean really understand what the rest of the world thinks of them, their country or their leader?

In the North-West of North Korea there is a vast complex cut deep into the Myohyang Mountain. Called the “International Friendship Exhibition” it is dubbed; the world’s biggest treasurehouse. In Korean culture the tradition of gift-giving is deep-rooted, and therefore the museum is filled with gifts that have been presented to the North Korean leaders over the decades, from various foreign dignitaries.

If a North Korean national ever had any doubts in the greatness of his leaders before entering this vast complex as he bows down to images of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, he would not have them when coming out. That is, at least not if the propaganda acted out by this museum had the desired effect. The museum was built with the purpose of giving visitors the impression that the world looks up to North Korea – which would obviously be a horribly misguided conclusion. Yet to the faithful and thoroughly propagandized North Korean visitor it would seem like every leader on the world stage looks up to Kim Jong-Il. They don’t understand that their country is seen as a problem, they don’t get that the Hermit Kingdom is all alone in the world.

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Some Common Misconceptions about North Korea

Love and hate

The regime in North Korea is not at all as unpopular as we would like to believe. The personality cults around Stalin, Mussolini and Mao may seem like a long time ago to the modern mind, but in North Korea it is still very much a reality. People really, really love Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. And they really, really fear the outside world. They are not some angry group of people secretly aspiring to freedom and democracy, holding their tongues out of fear yet crying for help. And if they are suffering materially they are willing to put up with it because they seriously believe in the righteousness of the ruling party.

Media attention

Media is all over it as soon as someone comes to say how they perilously defected from North Korea and how everything is so much better in the US or in South Korea. But why does nobody seem to notice how many defectors actually bribe their way back into North Korea? It is easy to say apologetically that “oh well, they are all brainwashed”, and to think of propaganda as something empty that holds no real meaning. But you can be damn sure that it means something to the North Koreans. Tragically little attention is paid to how the North Koreans actually perceive themselves, or what we can learn from North Korean propaganda.


You hear about “Communist North Korea” and the “Communist Workers Party of Korea”, but the idea of racial superiority is as far from Communism as it can possibly get. It is NOT like Marx’s idea of ”workers of the world unite” AT ALL. The North Korean ideology is a RACE THEORY. That means that the North Koreans view themselves as better than everyone else. They believe themselves to be inherently more pure and morally superior to any other races. They are better than the Americans, they are better than some of their only remaining friends in the world in Africa, and they are better than the Japanese (even though, paradoxically, the Japanese were the ones who introduced the race ideology to the Korean peninsula in the first place). To some degree they are also better than the South Koreans, who belong to the same race but are sullied by foreign influence and are now suffering under the yoke of the US. In that way the ideology in North Korea is actually more similar to Fascism – on the opposite end of the scale from the extreme left Communism. In fact, North Korea has altogether deleted the word ‘Communism’ from its constitution.

Long time view

The broader North Korean view over their own history is all about how their pureness and morality made them into sitting ducks to the evil forces from outside. Over the centuries the Korean peninsula has indeed been subject to invasions numerous times, but instead of focusing on their strategic geopolitical location as the reason why they have been invaded, the North Koreans tend to like to explain it by saying that the people are just too virtuous and too innocent to survive on their own in a harsh and evil world.

Arirang Mass Games

The perception in the West of the spectacular annual Mass Games in North Korea, which is one of the very few aspects of North Korean culture which many people know about, is that it is a sign of how the regime is trying to oppressively stamp out its people’s personal identity and independence. This is not so. The North Koreans feel pride in the homogeneity of their race as the source of its strength and unity and that is what they do to celebrate it, along with the birthday of Kim Il-Sung.


Juche is NOT the main ideology in North Korea. The Juche ideology was created by Kim Il-Sung, and is often translated as “main subject”, always placing Korean interests at the fore. But it does not contain any food for thought whatsoever. In fact, political analyst Brian Reynolds Myers goes as far as to say that Juche is just a “sham doctrine”, which enables North Koreans to place something on the top bookshelf and say “our leader Kim Il-Sung is just as good as Mao was”, and that it exists not to be read but only to be praised.

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ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772)

Today, March 26th, is the anniversary of the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan near the North Korean sea border.

104 personnel were on board when an explosion occurred, causing the ship to break in two. 58 crew were rescued, while the remaining 46 went missing. During the rescue efforts a South Korean naval diver died while another was hospitalized. A fishing boat involved in the rescue operations collided and sank, killing two with another seven going missing. None of the 46 missing crewmembers were found alive.

At that moment the whole world was looking sideways towards North Korea. On May 20th an international commission reported findings that strongly indicated a North Korean torpedo to be the guilty culprit. Yet the country adamantly denied any responsibility.

A few months after the incident, despite denying any involvement, this poster depicting a ship of the same type as Cheonan being crushed into two pieces was distributed in North Korea. The slogan saying: “We’ll take it down with a single blow if it attacks!”

I don’t know who said it first, but it is often repeated with resignation that the only predictable thing about North Korea is – that it is unpredictable. One thing that is for sure is that it is startlingly poorly understood; by the West, by the US – and often even by the South Koreans.

That is why, in the days to come, I’ll grab the opportunity provided by this anniversary to try to explain some of the things we ought to come to grabs with when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom!

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What in the world…

… is a Chinese frigate doing outside the coast of Libya?

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“Be brief, we have to do in decades what Europe achieved over centuries”

After the country achieved independence, a Cameroonian leader said the above.  Kwame Nkrumah promised that with independence Ghana would become a paradise within a decade. Of course we now know it wasn’t going to be as easy as they had thought it would. And I think that illustrates quite nicely how unreasonable it is for us to expect of China, or any other developing country, to be everything we want them to be in a flash. Rome wasn’t built in a day, things like effective legal systems aren’t built in a decade.

We sometimes quite conveniently forget some of the events accompanying the development of Europe and America. Such as a repressive, paranoid church which imprisoned scientists like Galileo Galilei, burned witches, waged Crusades and launched inquisition movements. Or wars that were so frequent that most had lost count before the Muslims brought us paper. Not to forget the near-eradication of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginals, and slavery which was a part of modern Western history into the twentieth century. The things we pride ourselves in having today, came at a price, and it was seldom pretty.

There are a lot of things that I don’t agree with when it comes to civil liberties in China, such as lack of freedom of press and political freedom. Workers rights in China are a particular interest of mine. But if we simply “open the floodgates” I don’t think it will do anyone any good – least of all the Chinese public. The Chinese Communist Party is no longer communist but in name, and it is adapting and gradually loosening up. Already in a few decades it has come far. China is changing little by little, economically as well as politically, and I think it is the way it should be. The CCP is much more competent than the regimes of, say, Syria or Myanmar. And unlike the Soviet Republic, they’re not sitting on their hands waiting for the system to collapse.

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Hiroshima and Fukushima

In what is described as the biggest disaster and challenge to the people of Japan in the post-war era, emperor Akihito has, interestingly enough, appeared on television for the first time to address his people. Reminding many of how emperor Hirohito spoke on the radio to his people for the first time on 15th August 1945 to announce that Japan was surrendering. Although Akihito spoke normal modern Japanese, Hirohito’s speech was in a Japanese so formal that it was unintelligible to ordinary Japanese – so much so, in fact, that they had to wait until his words were summed up by the broadcaster at the end before they understood anything.

Media are increasingly comparing the recent earthquake in Japan to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; sudden devastating disasters with high death tolls, unfathomable destruction, confusion and fear, as well as and the scare of intangible radioactivity.

Minamisariku today, Hiroshima 1945


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