Sunday, April 04, 2004

Welcome: aims and inspirations

Welcome to 'Learning without discrimination'. This is the first post.
This blog is intended as a personal collection of links to news items, articles and other resources on East Asia, particularly ones that deal with East Asian politics. I will also make comments on East Asian current affairs from my point of view, which is anti-authoritarian, internationalist and egalitarian, I think, although readers can judge that for themselves. Therefore this site is somewhat political, but not party political: I am not affiliated to any political party.
I don't intend to try to make this blog a comprehensive source for East Asian news, just a selection of things that seem important to me. One consequence of this selection procedure is that there's probably going to be a lot of bad news on the site, partly as a way for me to let off steam about things which I find outrageous, and partly motivated by the truism that it is impossible to do anything about something unless you know it is happening, so that letting people know is a necessary first step to improving things. I'll also try to post good news, particularly about activist groups such as peace, environmental and immigrant worker movements in the region, although given that these movements struggle against the interests of powerful elites, news about them will include setbacks and failures as well as successes.
This site takes East Asia to include the mainland areas of China, Mongolia and the Russian far east, the Korean peninsula and the islands from the Kamchatka peninsula south through Japan and Okinawa to Taiwan and Hong Kong. I will post items about the neighbouring regions - Central Asia, South-East Asia and Pacific islands - as they seem to bear on East Asia proper.
The coverage is limited to East Asian affairs because of my interest in the region, but also in the belief that the region is integrated and becoming more so, making it worthwhile to consider events in the region together, despite the inevitable distortions that come with any focus on a scale smaller than the whole of everything.
This blog is the successor to a one-off email briefing that I sent out at the end of last year. I want to thank everyone who responded to that email, but particularly Alex Higgins, who inspired that email and the current move to a blog.

For the sake of completeness, I reproduce the email briefing below:
East Asia report

An occasional round-up of news about East Asia, particularly politics and activism.

In the first one:
This weekend saw the deaths of South Korean workers and Japanese diplomats in Iraq. What were they doing there? And are those countries sending troops to Iraq?

Two South Korean electricians died in an ambush in Iraq today, near Tikrit, and a third is in a critical condition. They were employees of a South Korean firm, Omu Electric Company, working on a subcontract for Delta, a U.S. firm.

Yesterday two Japanese diplomats and their driver were killed in similar circumstances, also near Tikrit. In a way this is no surprise: a recent increase in death and mayhem has also seen the first killing of Spanish and Italian troops and a civilian Colombian contractor. At least 104 occupying troops, including at least 75 US soldiers died in November: more than in any previous month of the Iraq invasion or occupation, including April or May, during the war itself. (In a moment of horrific dark comedy, the US military commander in Iraq, Lt-Gen Ricardo Sanchez, tried to put a positive gloss on this by pointing out that the _number_ of attacks was down on previous months, failing to draw the obvious conclusion that more deaths from fewer attacks means that his opponents are getting more efficient at the bloody business specialised in by soldiers everywhere.)

So the deaths of Japanese and South Koreans in Iraq were bound to come sooner or later. It's worth asking - along with many people in Japan and South Korea - what they were doing there at all. The US has put immense pressure on both countries to send soldiers to Iraq, with both Bush and Rumsfeld visiting East Asia in recent weeks to push the message home.

Some 675 Korean soldiers were sent to Iraq in May. They are mainly engineers and other non-combat troops. In addition, South Korea has promised to send 3,000 combat troops, considerably fewer than the 10,000 that the US has asked for. Public opinion in Korea is overwhelmingly against sending personnel to Iraq and there have been large and vocal demonstrations in Seoul and elsewhere, coinciding with massive labour unrest (triggered by government anti-union policy, but sympathetic with the anti-war campaign).

Arguably the South Korean administration has little choice about complying with US demands: although the days of US-imposed military dictatorship are over and the current head of government Roh Moo-hyun is an ex-dissident and human-rights lawyer (imprisoned in the 1980s by the military government) South Korea is still close to being a US client state, with nearly 40,000 US troops stationed there.

Most South Koreans want the US to withdraw from the Korean peninsula, partly because US troops are often badly disciplined and - not being subject to Korean law - may literally get away with murder. There is also considerable awareness and resentment about US policy towards North Korea - that is, roughly, to impose sanctions, block reconciliation between North and South and renege on treaty agreements with the North while complaining loudly that the North has breached the same agreements. Any resemblance to US policy on Iraq in the 1990s is purely non-coincidental. As with Iraq, the US is quite prepared for Koreans to pay the costs of this policy which tends to keep apparently crazy dictator Kim Jong-Il in place while large numbers of North Koreans starve.
The continuation of Kim's regime in the North means South Koreans have to put up with the huge US force 'for their own good' and the US gets to keep its grip on a strategically important location between China, Japan and Russia.

It is not clear what the current South Korean government thinks of the US troops in Korea, but it is clear that they do not want to send their own soldiers to die for the US in Iraq. The irony that Donald Rumsfeld was asking for spare troops in a country which puts up with tens of thousands of US soldiers must have occurred to him and to Roh Moo-Hyun, but I rather doubt they discussed it.

Japan also has a surfeit of US troops - around 60,000 - but the situation there is different. The Koizumi administration is genuinely enthusiastic about sending Japanese troops abroad, but the constitution forbids sending Japanese 'Self-Defence Force' personnel to areas where there is armed combat. Actually, it forbids Japan from officially having an army, navy or air-force, hence their deceptively peaceful name.

The Japanese constitution was written under US supervision after WWII and the US has been regretting the provisions against Japanese rearmament ever since the 1950s when they wanted Japan to contribute to the fighting in Korea, instead of making a huge profit out of supplying the US forces there. Again, Koizumi and Rumsfeld must have been aware of the irony of all of this, but again, I doubt it came up in their meeting. In fact the situation is more ironic still - Koizumi is a nationalist who would like to remilitarise Japan, like most others in his party, the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party, or Jiminto), which is basically several gangs of corrupt businessmen in direct line of descent from the war criminals who ran Japan during WWII. The required changes in the constitution have been prevented for fifty years by considerable public pressure, which has stiffened the spine of social-democratic and Buddhist parties in parliament, denying the LDP the two-thirds majority they would need.

In the past the Japanese public actively fought against remilitarisation. In 1959-60 general strikes and huge street battles between protesters and police backed by gangsters followed an attempt by Prime Minister Kishi (a Class A war criminal) to ratify a changed US-Japan Security Treaty. At one point 15,000 protesters entered the parliament building. After waves of strikes, US President Eisenhower had to be asked by Kishi to cancel his official visit to Japan.

No demonstrations on that scale have occurred since the LDP violently crushed the student movement and militant unions at the end of the sixties, but most people remain opposed to Japanese remilitarisation. The main parliamentary opposition party at the moment, the Democratic Party of Japan (Minshuto), is far from left-wing, but seeing the LDP stuck between US demands, public opinion and nationalist desires, it has made the most of the situation by opposing deployment of troops to Iraq. It may not be a coincidence that the DPJ made large gains in the general election last month.

The LDP has responded by trying to distance itself from the decision to send troops. It has sent a fact-finding mission to investigate the situation in Iraq; conveniently, a preliminary report has stated that the southern area where Japanese troops would be sent is largely peaceful. But public opinion was hardened against deployment by the deaths of Italian soldiers two weeks ago. The killings this weekend, including the Japanese diplomats who may have been part of the fact-finding mission, will make it very hard for Koizumi's government to go ahead with deployment.

Perhaps in the end Japan will not send soldiers, appeasing the US instead with a token presence and a cash payment as they did after the Gulf War of 1991 when they provided minesweepers and $13 billion, a large percentage of the cost of the war. Koizumi has already pledged $5 billion this time, under considerable duress - the announcement was made during Bush's visit to Japan. Much of the Japanese elite as well as the public was opposed to the payment in 1992. It is unlikely that they will be any happier this time.

Neither Japan nor South Korea has much room to manoeuvre out of sending soldiers. A number of commentators have speculated that part of the deal with the US is that in return for their support in Iraq the US will not launch an attack on North Korea. Elites and the public in both countries view the possibility of such an attack with horror, whereas parts of the US elite see it as more desirable than the containment and starvation policy currently practised. (Parallels with Iraq are too obvious to be worth addressing.)

This enthusiasm is present on the right wing of the Republican party, but also among Democrats: the Clinton administration was very close to launching an attack in 1994, according to a 2002 article in the Washington Post by Clinton's Defense Secretary William Perry and Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. They wrote that they “spent much of the first half of 1994 preparing for war on the Korean peninsula.” They “readied a detailed plan to attack the Yongbyon [nuclear power] facility with precision-guided bombs." They expected North Korea to "lash out" if the US attacked. "In the event of a North Korean attack,” they said, “U.S. forces, working side by side with the South Korean army and using bases in Japan, would quickly destroy the North Korean army and the North Korean regime. But unlike Desert Storm, which was waged in the Arabian Desert, the combat in another Korean War would take place in Seoul’s crowded suburbs.”

It appears that the attack was averted by pressure on the Clinton administration from the South Korean government (and probably the Japanese and Chinese) plus concessions from the North Koreans. It is a brink that the South Korean and Japanese governments do not want to revisit; complying with the US 'request' to send troops to Iraq may be partly motivated by a desire to avoid a US war closer to home.

Only one group of people is happy. Extreme nationalists in Japan, who ride around the streets in armoured trucks playing ear-splittingly loud military music, are enthusiastic about exporting Japanese troops to Iraq and the possibility of the US attacking North Korea (which they see as part of a Greater Japan). Traditionally they have hated the US, blaming it for Japan's defeat in the Pacific War and the democratic, pacifist constitution it imposed afterwards. But during the Bush visit, Pierre Pariseau writes, "several buses welcomed George last month by blasting the US national anthem around his embassy compound while roaring their aversion to North Korea."