Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Asia Times: Baptism of fire for Park

In the shadow of North Korea's universally condemned third nuclear test, the inauguration this week of Park Geun-hye, Northeast Asia's first female president, is a momentous event.

Her father, former president Park Chung-Hee, was one of South Korea's most iconic and controversial figures. Having lost both her parents to political assassinations, and being targeted herself by violent attacks throughout her career, Park's ascension to South Korea's top spot undoubtedly makes for a highly inspirational narrative.

The sight of the president gracefully donning a traditional hanbok dress after returning to Seoul's Blue House after 33 years speaks volumes of the ever-shifting gender roles in South Korea's traditionally Confucian male-dominated society.

In addition to confronting issues of unaffordable healthcare, crippling school tuition fees and the challenges that come with a rapidly aging society, Park also carries the burden of maintaining inter-Korean stability.

While Pyongyang offered signals of diplomacy when it reportedly requested permission to send a North Korean delegation to attend Park's inauguration ceremony, the North's state media appears to have already made up its mind on Park, likening her to a "political prostitute", in addition to a myriad of other colorfully offensive titles.

Relations between the two Koreas hit a low point during the tenure of Park's predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, and Pyongyang has voiced its discontent at what it views as Park's collusion with the Lee administration.

Following its nuclear test this month, Pyongyang threatened Seoul with "final destruction", and the rogue nation will likely offer more provocative rhetoric in the days to come to undermine the transition process.

Even so, the probability of a military strike from the North is low, and its actions follow a predictable pattern of procuring aid concessions in exchange for dialogue. Park campaigned on advocating a softer-line on Pyongyang, which will be difficult to accomplish in the current scenario she finds in office.

The new president has a new opportunity to roll back the policies of her predecessor by engaging in meaningful dialogue with Pyongyang, ensuring that her country avoids falling into serious military confrontation with the North that could potentially yield vast civilian causalities on both sides.

During his New Year's Address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun struck a conciliatory tone toward the South, voicing intentions to bolster his isolated state's moribund economy. It's no secret that Kim is a figurehead backed by close advisers, the most prominent being Jang Sung-taek, known to be the husband of his late father Kim Jong-il's sister.

Park can best ensure the stability of inter-Korean relations by proposing a new inter-Korean dialogue that should take place with the respective nations' power brokers. Economic exchange would be the core of any genuine reconciliation between the two Koreas, and for that reason, the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) is of prime importance.

Undercover reports claim that smuggled South Korean media has started to subtly erode the regime's ideological grip on people in the North, and Pyongyang will certainly be hesitant to facilitate greater opportunities where North and South Korean civilians can interact.

One of the objectives Park campaigned on was reestablishing trust with Pyongyang, and this can best be accomplished by reestablishing the KIZ as an economic space, not a political one. North Korea provides the cheapest labor rates in Asia, and a new emphasis on the KIZ would benefit South Korea's mass-production economy, in addition to providing the North with much-needed financial incentives.

To ensure security on the Korean Peninsula, Park should not lure Pyongyang with concessions, but offer it a tangible stake in both economic and technological development.

Park has previously stated that the North's denuclearization is a perquisite. Washington continues to station 28,500 troops in the South, controlling all military forces south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). At this point, Pyongyang has very little incentive to disarm. After the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, his son, Kim Jong-il oversaw general economic mismanagement and a series of natural disasters that led to widespread starvation.

To legitimize his tenure, Kim Jong-il introduced Songun politics, a "military-first" policy aimed at appeasing the army and building up national defenses. The attainment of a "nuclear deterrent" has been trumpeted as a major accomplishment in domestic North Korean propaganda - simply put, Pyongyang is not going to cease its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent.

Park may be in a better position to negotiate with Pyongyang when the US draws down its forces and hands over operational control of the South Korean military to Seoul, currently scheduled to take place in 2015.

She has spoken of taking a middle-of-the-road approach with the North, but if her policy rests solely on being open to Pyongyang only on the condition that they disarm, the incoming administration will find itself mired in president Lee's legacy of tension.

One of the stated goals of Park's administration is to begin to construct the foundations for reunification. It would be a practical necessity for both Koreas to eventually come to an agreement on security issues, and as long as the US maintains a presence in South Korea, Park's administration must learn to accept Pyongyang's pursuit of a nuclear deterrent, perhaps on the condition that it vows not to threaten South Korea.

In a 2011 article published in the Council on Foreign Relations' Foreign Affairs website titled, "A New Kind of Korea," Park advocated the formation of a cooperative security regime between Asian states that would "help resolve persistent tensions in the region", in addition to threatening the North that it would "pay a heavy price for its military and nuclear threats. This approach is not new, but in order to change the current situation, it must be enforced more vigorously than in the past".

If Park intends on bolstering the status quo foreign policy direction established under president Lee, her administration's objectives of laying the foundations for reunification will not succeed.

2013 will be a critical year for South Korea; it will assume non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council for the first time in its history. The year will be critical in shaping the conditions necessary to bring about a "second miracle on the Han River" that Park promised in her campaign speeches. As a world leader in the production of consumer electronics and boasting the status of the most-wired nation, South Korea is now focusing on building a dynamic economy focused on digital and bio technologies.

As an answer to South Korea's economic problems, Park has advocated a two-pronged approach that utilizes a "creative economy" to counter slowed growth and "economic democracy" to counter growing income polarization.

Park sanctioned the newly created Ministry of Future Creation and Science to combine information technology with various other sectors to provide entirely new jobs to grow the national economy. Critics have scrutinized the fact that "economic democracy" - one of her main election-time slogans - was absent from a recently published list of governance goals, prompting some to raise serious questions about the substance of her goals and the vagueness of her concepts.

"Since the election, she has not made a single detailed reference to economic democratization. Now, the fact that she even removed the phrase from her administration goals sends a message to bureaucrats and to the finance sector that even Park Geun-hye will back down if you push hard enough. From now on, the lobbyists will push even harder," stated Kim Sang-jo, an economics professor at Hansung University.

Park's stated economic objective is to bring about a climate where large corporations and small and medium-sized enteprises can prosper side by side, shifting the focus from exports and big business to domestic demand, services, and small businesses, and marking a clear departure from her predecessor's neo-liberal policy.

Park has also come under criticism for watering down promises to strengthen the sentencing processes for unlawful activity committed by the directors of family-owned corporations such as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG, referred to as chaebol.

Opposition spokesperson Park Yong-jin for the Democratic United Party took aim at Park on the issue. "Lowering the priority of tasks related to economic democratization is more than just a violation of a key presidential campaign pledge. It is sure to spark allegations that all of the talk about economic democratization during the campaign was a lie. We are seeing the same old politics by politicians who don't keep their word," said Yong-jin.

Park Geun-hye has come to power with the lowest approval ratings of any previous president, hovering at 44%. High dissatisfaction exists among the South Korean public toward Park's nominations for cabinet and other key positions; respondents of surveys published in South Korean media gave "mistaken nominations and the hiring of unscrutinized figures" as their reason for Park's low ratings.

She has also indicated significant increases in the nation's defense spending. Recent polls indicate that two-thirds of the South Korean public support the continuance of humanitarian aid to North Korea "regardless of the political situation", with over half the population supporting direct talks with Pyongyang.

The new leader can recapture public support by delivering on her campaign promises and reducing income equality by leveling the playing field for small businesses, but if she pursues the kind of defense policy that she has advocated, she may find herself in an unpopular position with both Pyongyang and the South Korean people.

This article originally appeared in the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Asia Times: Malaysian polls reflect US-China competition

KUALA LUMPUR - In a bid to garner public support and win back several economically dynamic states lost to the opposition in 2008, Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has introduced a series of populist measures to appeal to voters. But while the upcoming election will be decided mostly on domestic issues, the polls will also reflect rising US-China competition for influence in the country.

Following the 2008 global economic crisis, Prime Minister Najib Razak looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export-oriented economy, emphasizing increased Chinese investment in Malaysian industry. The premier has also moved to expand Sino-Malaysian exchange in areas such as finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, and education.

China is now Malaysia's largest trading partner, with trade reaching US$90 billion in 2011. Malaysia is China's largest trading partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). During a visit to China's Guangxi autonomous region last year, Najib officiated the launch of the China-Malaysia Qinzhou Industrial Park (QIP), a joint development by a Malaysian consortium of companies.

At the event, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid tribute to Najib's late father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, who established diplomatic ties with China in 1974 during his tenure as Malaysia's second prime minister. Malaysia was the first non-communist country in Southeast Asia to establish official ties with the People's Republic of China. Under Najib, 2014 has been designated as "Malaysia-China Friendship Year", while China has loaned two pandas to Malaysia for 10 years to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.

The diplomacy has brought commercial gains. A sister joint-industrial park in Malaysia's Kuantan region was launched in early February 2013. State media said the complex, including a steel plant, an aluminum factory, a palm oil refinery and the expansion of the Kuantan Port, will create 8,500 new jobs once it comes online. Kuantan was chosen as the location for the joint project due to its proximity to the South China Sea, which offers easy access to fast developing ports located in China's Guangxi Beibu Gulf Economic Region.

Najib was quoted at the time as saying, "Now the world is beginning to recognize that Chinese innovation and domestic demand will prove just as potent a force in the global economy, so on economic cooperation and diplomacy, I am proud to say that Malaysia is ahead of the curve."

Najib's and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's children are both Mandarin-educated, reflecting the importance top officials place on China's role as an emerging world power. Malaysia has likely taken a soft line on territorial disputes in the potentially oil and gas rich South China Sea due to deepening commercial cooperation between the two countries.
In light of these close ties, Beijing would no doubt like to see Najib's ruling BN return to return to power at the polls. An administration led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is widely perceived to lean closer to the United States, would threaten to interrupt the past five years of investment and security policy synergy developed under Najib. 

Foreign friends and funds

Local analysts have long criticized Anwar for his alleged history of appealing to foreigners to legitimize his positions. Anwar is widely panned in the Malaysian press for seeking to bolster his own political talking points by harnessing foreign influence, from the hardline Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated theologian Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, known for controversially inciting sectarian divisions throughout the Muslim world, to the likes of former US vice president Al Gore and former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Malaysia's opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition currently controls four state governments and is led by Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the predominately Chinese-led Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the staunchly Islamist Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Those parties are in many ways uncomfortable bedfellows: PAS at one point endorsed the Taliban's insurgent campaign in Afghanistan and turned off many moderate Malaysians with hard-line theocratic discourse advocating the foundation of an Islamic state.

The DAP and Anwar's PKR, meanwhile, have been strongly criticized for accepting funds and training from US government-linked foundations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), now chaired by US Senator John McCain. In the hot-tempered run-up to Malaysia's upcoming polls, several prominent BN ministers have questioned the opposition's links to influential figures in Washington.

Local media reports claim that Anwar maintains connections with neo-conservative thinkers in Washington, in addition to participating in programs organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED has been accused locally of being used by Washington to influence elections and cultivate political forces suitable to US foreign policy.

In 2005, Anwar chaired the Washington-based Foundation for the Future, a think-tank established by Elizabeth Cheney, the daughter of the former vice president, and funded by US State Department grants. While Anwar was on trial for allegedly engaging in sodomy with a male aide (a charge for which he was later acquitted), Gore and Wolfowitz authored a joint opinion piece in support of Anwar in the Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, published an editorial calling for consequences that would affect Malaysia's bilateral relations with the US if Anwar was found guilty. Anwar enraged many Malaysians when he stated that he would support a policy to protect the security of Israel in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. This is particularly controversial in Malaysia, where the majority support Palestine against Israel.

Local journalists have recently uncovered letters written by Anwar, two of which were sent to National Endowment for Democracy President Carl Gershman in Washington, that discussed sending an international election observer team to Malaysia and issues related to electoral reform. Since 2011, Malaysians have shown support for anti-government demonstrations calling for clean elections organized by Bersih, an association of nongovernmental organizations known as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, the ethnic Indian former president of the Bar Council who leads the coalition, has under pressure recently conceded that her organization accepts funds from US government-linked foundations. Malaysian authorities are concerned that these recipients of US aid have based their programs around casting doubt on the nation's Electoral Commission, and thus the very legitimacy of the ruling coalition and the country's democratic process.

Malaysia's Electoral Commission has consistently refuted allegations of electoral discrepancies made against it by several US-funded NGOs. A parliamentary select committee agreed to implement recommended electoral reforms raised by civil society groups and has since passed 18 amendments to the electoral roll.

Meanwhile, Najib has rolled back the Internal Security Act, which controversially allowed for indefinite detention without trial, and has liberalized rules regarding the publication of books and newspapers. BN has long been criticized for curbing dissent and criticism through civil liberty-curbing laws and regulations.

BN has largely delivered on its previous campaign vows to manage fast economic growth and greater freedom of expression, witnessed in a vibrant Internet and critical blogosphere. While Najib also has good rapport with several Western leaders, he is not ready to complicate upbeat Sino-Malaysian ties as Washington moves to "pivot" its military muscle towards the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance China.

Anwar, on the other hand, has long been viewed as a darling of the West, and he would clearly be a more attractive candidate in the eyes of the US. Malaysia's former premier Mahathir Mohamad has insinuated that Washington's democracy promotion amounts to backing regime change through efforts that favor the opposition. NGO and youth activists have been dismissive of such insinuations, viewing them as well-worn pre-election diversionary rhetoric from the ruling coalition.

While many Malaysians have expressed disappointment in BN's leadership, a victory for the untested opposition has the potential to derail many large-scale, growth-promoting development projects, including Chinese-invested initiatives in property, industry and infrastructure. US investment bank JP Morgan recently issued a note of concern over market unpredictability in the case of an opposition win. While voters deliberate between Najib and Anwar, they will also indirectly be choosing between China and the US.



This article originally appeared in the Asia Times.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Xenophon: The Not-so Impartial Observer

Malaysia’s decision to detain and deport Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has become a hot topic of discussion across the nation’s blogosphere. Xenophon came to Kuala Lumpur as part of a seven-member international team of election observers invited by de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Xenophon attended the Bersih 3.0 street rally during a previous visit to Malaysia and criticised the government for being “authoritarian” in handling the demonstrators. Xenophon was barred from entering Malaysia under the Immigration Act 8(3), and the state’s official statement claimed that Xenophon was deported as “a result of his participation in an illegal street protest in Kuala Lumpur last year,” referring to clauses in the Peaceful Assembly Act which prohibits non-citizens from participating in unauthorised public gatherings.

Local analysts have criticized Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s de-facto opposition leader, for his alleged history of appealing to foreigners to legitimize his positions. From the hardline Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated theologian, Yusuf 'Abdullah al-Qaradawi, known for controversially inciting sectarian divisions throughout the Muslim world, to the likes of Al Gore and Paul Wolfowitz – Anwar is widely credited in the Malaysian press with harnessing foreign influence to bolster his own political talking points. Ibrahim previously called on the Australian government to monitor Malaysia’s upcoming general elections, although Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr declined to send observers, stating that Australia had no intention of influencing Malaysia’s elections.


 
Australian responses to Xenophon’s expulsion have varied; Peter Hartcher of the Sydney Morning Herald scolded Malaysia for lacking a “mature democracy,” stating, “The reason [for Xenophon’s deportation] is that he is an international observer campaigning in favor of a free and fair election. This is not a threat to Malaysia's national security, but it is a threat to the ruling party's grip on power." On the other end of the spectrum is senior commentator Greg Sheridan, who questioned Xenophon’s partiality, stating that he is “campaigning for just one side of Malaysian politics – the opposition. He might reflect on the fact that the side he supports contains, as perhaps its strongest element, the most extreme Islamist party in mainstream Southeast Asian politics [PAS].

A vocal minority within Malaysia feels that Xenophon’s deportation was an abuse of power, but the fact is that had Xenophon intended to observe the elections, Malaysian law requires him to formerly submit an observer application to do so. The nation’s Electoral Commission has confirmed that they have not received any application from any international observer. Additionally, representatives of de-facto law minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz confirmed that Xenophon was in fact not included in the bipartisan delegation set to meet government officials, as Xenophon had claimed in his statements to the Australian press. Xenophon’s status as an independent observer in foreign media should not be reported as fact; local analysts have acknowledged his long-standing support and affiliations with members of Malaysia’s opposition – such affiliations would negate the legitimacy of an election observer anywhere in the world.

In the hot-tempered run-up to Malaysia’s upcoming general elections, figures from all sides of the political spectrum have questioned the opposition’s links to foreign-funders in Washington, reinforcing popular suspicion against foreign figures like Xenophon. Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat has bore strong criticism for accepting funds and training from US Government-linked foundations such as the International Republican Institute (IRI), chaired by US Senator John McCain. Bangkok-based analyst Tony Cartaucci writes, “Senator Xenophon’s visit to Malaysia was not one of ‘monitoring,’ but of checking up on a group of clearly compromised, openly foreign-funded, subversive elements operating behind the guise of disingenuous principles – making the Malaysian government’s claims that Xenophon constitutes a security risk absolutely justified.” Bersih coalition leader Ambiga Sreenevasan also conceded that her organization accepts funds from US Government-linked foundations. Malaysian authorities are rightfully concerned that these recipients of foreign capital have based their programs around casting doubt on the nation’s Electoral Commission, and thus, the very legitimacy of the ruling party and the democratic process.

The Electoral Commission has provided consistent and sound refutations to the allegations of electoral discrepancies made against them by several US-funded NGOs. Malaysia’s parliamentary select committee agreed upon implementing recommended electoral reforms addressed by civil society groups and has since passed 18 amendments to the electoral roll. One could deduct that Xenophon’s participation in the Bersih street rally, and his concerns regarding issues pertaining to electoral reforms translate into an attempt to falsely downplay the validity of the Electoral Commission. The United Nations has confirmed that Malaysia is completely in-line with international norms and electoral standards, and commentator Greg Sheridan is quite right to state that Malaysia is “one of the most democratic and freewheeling nations in Southeast Asia. Its elections are certainly not perfect, but they are better than in most parts of the world. Indeed, its very openness allows people such as Xenophon to grandstand there.” 


Opposition backers appear to be quick to dismiss the ruling party via social media, and eager to welcome rhetorical support from ambiguous foreign political personalities without hesitation or distinction. A notable segment of Malaysian society believes that opposition politicians have aligned themselves with civil society figures to deliberately distort political discourse and the legitimacy of the Malaysian authorities. Mr. Xenophon’s expulsion was an unfortunate incident, but as someone with a background in law, he should have adhered to the stipulations required within Malaysian law by applying to be a recognized observer if he sought to be one. A notable excerpt from Peter Hartcher’s opinion piece cites a conversation he had with Ibrahim, where the opposition leader states, ‘‘in a fair and free election, I am absolutely sure we will win.'' Such a statement duly notes the rationale of Malaysia’s fiery-tongued opposition leader and reinforces the opinions of those who accuse the politician of only claiming the game is fair when he himself is the victor.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Monday, 18 February 2013

Malaysia's Najib eyes the Chinese Vote


In the run-up to Malaysia’s pivotal general elections, Prime Minister Najib Razak has put due emphasis on visiting opposition-held states in a bid to shore up support for his re-election. Appealing to the first time voter demographic, now consisting of over five million young people aged 20-29, most of whom with no clear political affiliations, appears to be a priority of the Najib administration. The appearance of South Korean K-pop star PSY at the Barisan Nasional Chinese New Year open house in Penang is seen by many analysts as an attempt by the government to latch onto pop culture rhythms to appease Malaysia’s youth. It is also another reminder of the Najib administration’s lenient and moderate interpretations of Islam, in stark contrast to the Islamist Party (PAS) who have advocated gender segregation, dress code requirements, and a ban on all concerts – a political program that would likely stifle expression and personal freedom to pursue lifestyle choices if the opposition found its way to power.

Najib recently made a landmark visit to the Chinese New Year Open House hosted by Chinese education group Dong Zhong (United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia). The visit is significant because Najib is the first Prime Minister to attend the annual celebration; additionally, capturing the hearts and minds of the Chinese community is a major necessity if Najib is keen to retake Putrajaya in the coming general elections. Dong Zhong has been perceived by many as being somewhat critical of the Malaysian government’s education policy in the past through their outspoken views toward promoting Chinese-language education. The Prime Minister’s appearance was clearly aimed at building better ties between the government and the Chinese community, and Najib will be perceived in a positive light after agreeing to address the grievances of the minority community.

PM in CNY kajang

Najib agreed to reassess the government’s position on allowing recognition of Unified Examination Certificates that are offered in 60 independent Chinese high schools throughout the country, in addition to the building of more Chinese independent schools. “We are sincere in our efforts to improve Chinese education and our relationship with the government is becoming stronger. They are working well to resolve issues,” Dong Zhong deputy chairman Chow Siew Hon was quoted as saying. Najib was photographed with Dong Zhong leaders ceremonially tossing yee sang to top off the appearance. Najib’s effort to extend support to the Chinese education community is a move that will undoubtedly resonate well with Malaysia’s Chinese minority, who view access to educate as a key priority in the coming elections. 

Under Najib’s administration, Malaysia’s relationship with China has expanded tenfold and cooperation has never been better. Following the global economic crisis of 2008, Najib looked to Beijing to revive Malaysia's export oriented economy, emphasizing increased Chinese investment into Malaysia and expanding the base of Sino-Malaysian trade in areas like education and student exchange, finance, infrastructure development, science and technology, yielding lucrative and mutually beneficial results. China has been Malaysia's largest trade partner, with trade figures reaching US$90 billion in 2011; Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner among ASEAN nations. It was Najib’s father, Malaysia's second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, who made the landmark visit to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations in 1974. The children of both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman are Mandarin-educated, reflecting the importance that Malaysia has placed on Chinese-education and toward China as an emerging world power.

Some of the Prime Minister’s comments given in a speech at a separate location created a negative backlash among social media users. Najib was quoted as stating, “The Chinese community’s success is also because the government has created an environment that enables the Chinese to make a good living. If not for the success of BN leaders in maintaining harmony and implementing good policies, even if we were hardworking and had good business skills, we would never have been successful.” Many vocal social media users lashed out at the Prime Minister for downplaying the plight and struggles of the Chinese community in Malaysia’s Muslim-majority climate that grants preferential treatment to ethnically Malay Muslims. One web user commented, “We have done well because we are hard working and taking whatever opportunities available. We do not only look at local environment but also the global opportunities and that is why we do well. It is utter nonsense that we Chinese are successful due to your discriminatory policies.” 

Another social media user stated, “BN [Barisan Nasional] has always been asking us to be grateful for ensuring harmony and implement good policies. In my honest opinion, these are basic responsibilities of a government. We don't owe it to BN, and don’t forget there are unquestionable restrictions in place in our constitution.” Its clear that the Najib administration is pulling out all the stops to appease minority communities and voters in opposition-held states – but is he ready to deconstruct the indigenous-non-indigenous dichotomy that has long been the framework of the ruling party’s ethno-communal policies? Malaysia’s longstanding New Economic Policy (NEP), which grants economic incentives to Malay Muslims, is a sensitive subject and has been consistently perceived by non-Malays to be a discriminatory policy that alienates economically disadvantaged minority communities who struggle to penetrate into circles of higher education and good employment.

PN in CNY kajang

Najib has campaigned on promoting national unity under the auspices of his 1Malaysia platform. To more effectively meet the needs of the citizenry, and to win their support in the process, the ruling party must reassess its support for the kind of policy that reinforces ethnic distinctions rather than doing away with them. Najib’s remarks have been critically interpreted by many, however the point the Prime Minister was attempting to emphasis was that under the ruling party, the Chinese community have been able to practice their culture and religion without hindrance, and pursue their business interests with minimum intervention from the state. Despite the discontent voiced by social media users, it’s difficult to imagine how the Chinese community could fair any better under a hypothetical alternative Malay ethno-nationalist regime, or an Islamist regime. The ongoing perpetuation of Malaysia’s relatively secular and tolerant foundation is a perquisite for any ethnically and religiously diverse state – Malaysians have long recognized this. The incoming leadership must work to phase out ethno-communal policies in favor of a more representative platform to adhere with the current administration’s drive toward national unity.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Nuclear test #3: What will follow Pyongyang's dangerous atomic gambit? (Op-Ed)

North Korea’s nuclear and rocket tests are viewed domestically as essential for national security and prestige. But they alienated even China, and may escalate tensions beyond the point of no return, which would be disastrous for everyone involved.

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ignited once again, marking the most-unstable period of inter-Korean relations since Kim Jong-un began his tenure in December 2011. On February 12, 2013, news surfaced of man-made seismic activity measuring at 4.9 on the Richter scale in North Korea, which was later confirmed to be the result of the third nuclear test Pyongyang promised to carry out.

Following the successful launch of an indigenous satellite into orbit using a long-range missile in December 2012, the UN Security Council recently tightened sanctions on the DPRK that impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals involved in state companies and North Korea's space agency. Pyongyang has recently threatened to respond to the tightened UN sanctions using “stronger measures” than a nuclear test.

 An official of the Korea Meteorological Administration shows a seismic image of a tremor caused by North Korea′s nuclear test, in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)
An official of the Korea Meteorological Administration shows a seismic image of a tremor caused by North Korea's nuclear test, in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)

Drums of war


While bellicose rhetoric is to be expected from Pyongyang, recent statements against the United States and South Korea are unusually high on the Richter scale of belligerence. "We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are aimed at the United States," stated North Korea's National Defense Commission.

Pyongyang has also warned of “physical countermeasures” against South Korea if they participate in the UN sanctions against the North, stating, "as long as the South Korean puppet traitors' regime continues with its anti-DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] hostile policy, we will never sit down with them."

Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn a North Korea flag in front of banners bearing anti-North Korea messages near the U.S. embassy in central Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)
Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn a North Korea flag in front of banners bearing anti-North Korea messages near the U.S. embassy in central Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji)

Reports issued prior to the February 12 test claimed that North Korea has allegedly been placed under martial law, and its people told to “prepare for war” with the South. South Korean sources reported, accurately, that Kim Jong-un issued a secret order to “complete preparations for a nuclear weapons test and carry it out soon.” Seoul-based military sources have also claimed that Pyongyang plans to conduct two simultaneous nuclear tests at once, or in quick succession, based on satellite data monitoring the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

To further complicate matters, General Jung Seung-jo, Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the South could launch pre-emptive strikes against the North if it tried to use nuclear weapons, stating, "if [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked.” North Korea’s plans to test nuclear weapons go against the conciliatory tone struck by Kim Jong-un toward relations with the South in his New Year’s Address, and his intentions to bolster the isolated state’s moribund economy.

Nuclear insecurity

Pyongyang is often viewed as a wildcard, but a closer examination of its domestic affairs in recent years shows that moves towards nuclearization are inevitably linked to extracting as many aid concessions as possible (especially at a time when political changes are taking place in South Korea), in addition to buying time for the regime in Pyongyang to incrementally improve its weapons technology.

Pyongyang is keen to avoid being overly reliant on Beijing, and so North Korea actually has a strong imperative to secure as much aid as possible from the US and South Korea to keep itself afloat. This recent nuclear test does not serve the DPRK’s interests and will only further strain its economic lifeline with China, even possibly inviting preemptive strikes from South Korean forces, leading to open war and a truly unpredictable situation that all regional players should be keen to avoid.
South Korean passengers watch TV news reporting North Korea′s apparent nuclear test, at the Seoul train station on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)
South Korean passengers watch TV news reporting North Korea's apparent nuclear test, at the Seoul train station on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/Kim Jae-Hwan)

From the perspective of the Kim regime, which molds the opinions that North Korean civilians uphold, half of the Korean Peninsula is occupied by the United States. State newspapers such as the Rodong Sinmun routinely refer to the South Korean government as a puppet of the United States, and recently highlighted Pyongyang’s displeasure with increasingly provocative joint US-ROK military drills: “Ultra-modern war means are being amassed in South Korea and in the areas around the Korean Peninsula. The US nuclear submarine and Aegis cruiser entered south Korea to hold combined marine exercises and to show off ‘military muscle’… warmongers are inciting war fever while touring units in the forefront areas.

North Korea routinely complains of discrimination by world powers, compelling it to resort to nuclear deterrence; the fact that South Korea faced no international obstruction over its recent satellite launch only reinforces Pyongyang’s rationale. By acknowledging the “ultra-modern” military capabilities of the joint US-ROK forces, it can be gathered that the North realizes its own arsenal is much less sophisticated, as many military analysts confirm.

The military muscle of the US-ROK forces certainly poses an existential threat to Pyongyang, and as a result, the Kim dynasty sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the only surefire way to guarantee its own security. However, the North Koreans must realize that they can only get away with nuclear adventurism for so long, and it appears that the DPRK may soon be at risk of aggravating the hand that feeds it – literally.


This screen grab taken from North Korean TV on February 12, 2013 shows an announcer reading a statement on the country′s nuclear test. (AFP Photo/NORTH KOREAN TV)
This screen grab taken from North Korean TV on February 12, 2013 shows an announcer reading a statement on the country's nuclear test. (AFP Photo/NORTH KOREAN TV)

Straining ties with Beijing


China is not looking for any additional agitation as it prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Analysts are pondering how Xi Jingping’s administration will treat North Korea. China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the ultimate decision-making and policy-shaping body, and two members of China’s incoming PSC, Zhang Dejiang and Sun Zhengcai, have spent years in close proximity to North Korea, engaging in cross-border interactions with North Korean counterparts aiming to promote economic reform in Pyongyang.

Despite nearly open war between the two Koreas in 2010 after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean military vessel, China’s relationship with North Korea during the incumbent Hu Jintao administration was marked by several victories – noticeable economic cooperation with Beijing during the stable succession of Kim Jong-un, and a general lack of external interference in the DPRK’s affairs.

Much to the surprise of many analysts, China backed the recent UN sanctions on Pyongyang, indicating some disapproval with the Kim dynasty’s hostility. Even so, it is unlikely that Beijing and Washington will begin playing from the same sheet music. China signaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece in the ultra-nationalis newspaper Global Times: "If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea." The editorial went on to say that if the US, Japan and South Korea "promote extreme U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions."


Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn placards of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a protest against North Korea nuclear test in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/(Kim Jae-Hwan)
Activists from an anti-North Korea civic group burn placards of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a protest against North Korea nuclear test in Seoul on February 12, 2013. (AFP Photo/(Kim Jae-Hwan)


China’s position on this issue should be commended for its balanced approach. For Beijing, stability is the name of the game; China does not want any military confrontations or mass refugee spillovers into its borders.

Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, China has a valuable economic stake in North Korea’s development; it continually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has led initiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources (which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore, and others) valued at a staggering $6.1 trillion.

The centerpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy towards the North under Xi Jingping will be encouraging the regime to behave more sensibly and focus on meeting the needs of its people. Perhaps policymakers in Beijing will have an easier time convincing Pyongyang to drop the nuclear rhetoric in exchange for a meaningful security pact in which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from China if things ever get ugly. Given the non-interference stance championed by Beijing, it would be doubtful that Beijing would extend itself in this way.

Conundrum for President-elect Park

This third nuclear test will also put South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye in an extremely uncomfortable position, making it easy for her to enrage those on both South Korea’s left and right depending on how hard or soft a line she toes with Pyongyang.

Park spoke of easing relations with the DPRK, but like her predecessor, she maintains that the North’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for any negotiations; translation – there will be no negotiations and the ROK’s foreign policy trajectory is likely not to differ from that of hardline-conservative President Lee Myung-bak.

Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to comply with the ROK’s demands, and vice-versa. Inter-Korean relations appear to be following a repetitive script, with Washington’s solution to every issue being to tighten sanctions on the North
.

No good from US military pressure


The case has never been stronger for the withdrawal of the 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, a move that would satisfy civilians in both Koreas and yield higher chances of provoking a positive response from Pyongyang.

Analyst Geoffrey Fattig argues in favor of a new approach being taken by the US by highlighting how Washington’s main source of leverage against the North is the military option, citing the friction caused by the mere presence of US troops: “The Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy… it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil.

He adds: “Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually at a time when the cost of maintaining America's global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region.”


South Korean soldiers march during their military drills near the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in Paju, north of Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)
South Korean soldiers march during their military drills near the demilitarized zone separating North Korea from South Korea, in Paju, north of Seoul February 12, 2013. (Reuters/Lee Jae-Won)

Pyongyang must play along


Pyongyang is playing a dangerous game, and its continued belligerence can only be tolerated for so long. At this stage, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric of bringing about a “radical turn in the building of an economic giant” can only be taken as seriously as Pyongyang’s hilarious claims of “conquering space” by launching its satellite. By failing to be a coherent actor in the economic, security and diplomatic realms, the DPRK is doing more long-term harm to its existence than it realizes.

North Korea suffered immense human losses during the Korean War throughout the relentless US bombing campaign that flattened the country; it has legitimate grievances in wanting to safeguard its national security, but its lunatic defiance, odious personality cult, and unwillingness to follow Beijing’s advice by making serious economic reforms only further ostracizes Pyongyang in the eyes of the international community, to the point where its right of self-defense is being infringed by UN resolutions.

North Korea’s controversial nuclear tests carry the very real possibility of a deadly military conflict between the two Koreas – a conflict that must be avoided no matter how provocative, belligerent or infantile either side behaves.


This article originally appeared on Russia Today.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Dangers of North Korea’s Nuclear Test (Op-Ed)

Author’s Note: On February 12, 2013, news surfaced of man-made seismic activity measuring at 4.9 on the Richter scale in North Korea, likely the result of the third nuclear test Pyongyang promised to carry out. The contents of this article examine the various dimensions of the situation, and the consequences it could hold for the region.

Japan Meteorological Agency′s earthquake and tsunami observations division director points at a graph of ground motion waveform data observed in the morning in Japan during a news conference in Tokyo on implications that an earthquake sourced around North Korea was triggered by an unnatural reason May 25, 2009. (Reuters / Yuriko Nakao)
Japan Meteorological Agency's earthquake and tsunami observations division director points at a graph of ground motion waveform data observed in the morning in Japan during a news conference in Tokyo on implications that an earthquake sourced around North Korea was triggered by an unnatural reason May 25, 2009. (Reuters / Yuriko Nakao)

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have ignited once again, marking the most-unstable period of inter-Korean relations since Kim Jong-un began his tenure in December 2011. Following the successful launch of an indigenous satellite into orbit using a long-range missile in December 2012, the UN Security Council recently tightened sanctions on the DPRK that impose asset freezes and travel bans on individuals involved in state companies and North Korea's space agency. Although talk of Pyongyang conducting a highly controversial nuclear test has been in the cards for months, the DPRK has recently threatened to respond to tightened UN sanctions using “stronger measures” than a nuclear test. While bellicose rhetoric is to be expected from Pyongyang, recent statements against the United States and South Korea are unusually high on the richter scale of belligerence. "We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are aimed at the United States," stated North Korea's National Defense Commission.


Pyongyang has also warned of “physical countermeasures” against South Korea if they participate in the UN sanctions against the North, stating, "as long as the South Korean puppet traitors' regime continues with its anti-DPRK [North Korea] hostile policy, we will never sit down with them." Reports claim that North Korea has allegedly been placed under martial law and its people told to “prepare for war” with the South. South Korean sources have reported that Kim Jong-un has issued a secret order to “complete preparations for a nuclear weapons test and carry it out soon.” Seoul-based military sources have also claimed that Pyongyang plans to conduct two simultaneous nuclear tests at once, or in quick succession, based on satellite data monitoring the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site.

To further complicate matters, General Jung Seung-jo, Chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has warned that the South could launch pre-emptive strikes against the North if it tried to use nuclear weapons, stating, "if [the North] shows a clear intent to use a nuclear weapon, it is better to get rid of it and go to war, rather than being attacked.” Analysts have predicted that the upcoming nuclear weapons test could fall on February 16, the birthday of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or February 25th, the inauguration day of South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye. North Korea’s plans to test nuclear weapons go against the conciliatory tone struck by Kim Jong-un toward relations with the South in his New Year’s Address and his intentions to bolster the isolated state’s moribund economy.

Pyongyang is often credited with being a wildcard, but a closer examination of its domestic affairs in recent years shows that moves towards nuclearization are inevitably linked to extracting as many aid concessions as possible (especially at a time when political changes are taking place in South Korea), in addition to buying time for the regime in Pyongyang to incrementally improve its weapons technology. Pyongyang is keen to avoid being overly reliant on Beijing, and so North Korea actually has a strong imperative to secure as much aid as possible from the US and South Korea to keep itself afloat. A third nuclear test does not serve the DPRK’s interests and will only further strain its economic lifeline with China, even possibly inviting preemptive strikes from South Korean forces, leading to open war and a truly unpredictable situation that all regional players should be keen to avoid.

From the perspective of the Kim regime, which molds the opinions that North Korean civilians uphold, half of the Korean Peninsula is occupied by the United States. State newspapers such as the Rodong Sinmun routinely refer to the South Korean government as a puppet of the United States, recently highlighting Pyongyang’s displeasure with increasingly provocative joint US-ROK military drills, “ultra-modern war means are being amassed in south Korea and in the areas around the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. nuclear submarine and Aegis cruiser entered south Korea to hold combined marine exercises and to show off ‘military muscle’… warmongers are inciting war fever while touring units in the forefront areas.”

North Korea routinely complains of discrimination by world powers, compelling it to resort to nuclear deterrence; the fact that South Korea faced no international obstruction over its recent satellite launch only reinforces Pyongyang’s rationale. By acknowledging the “ultra-modern” military capabilities of the joint US-ROK forces, it can be gathered that the North realizes its own arsenal is much less sophisticated, as many military analysts confirm. The military muscle of the US-ROK forces certainly poses an existential threat to Pyongyang, and as a result, the Kim dynasty sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons as the only surefire way to guarantee its own security. However, the North Koreans must realize that they can only get away with nuclear adventurism for so long, and it appears that the DPRK may soon be at risk of aggravating the hand that feeds it – literally.

China is not looking for any additional agitation as it prepares for its once-in-a-decade leadership transition. Analysts are pondering how Xi Jingping’s administration will treat North Korea. China’s seven member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is the ultimate decision-making and policy-shaping body, and two members of China’s incoming PCS, Zhang Dejiang and Sun Zhengcai, have spent years in close proximity to North Korea, engaging in cross-border interactions with North Korean counterparts aiming to promote economic reform in Pyongyang. Despite nearly open war between the two Koreas in 2010 after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of a South Korean military vessel, China’s relationship with North Korea during the incumbent Hu Jintao administration was marked by several victories – noticeable economic cooperation with Beijing the stable succession of Kim Jong-un, and the general lack of external interference in the DPRK’s affairs.

Much to the surprise of many analysts, China backed the recent UN sanctions on Pyongyang, indicating some disapproval with the Kim dynasty’s hostility. Even so, it is unlikely that Beijing and Washington will begin playing from the same sheet music. China signaled its frustration with the North in an opinion piece in the ultra-nationalistic newspaper, the Global Times, "If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea." The editorial went on to say that if the US, Japan and South Korea "promote extreme U.N. sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions." China’s position on this issue should be commended for its balanced approach. For Beijing, stability is the name of the game; China does not want any military confrontations or mass refugee spillovers into its borders.

Even as Beijing becomes more upfront with its discontent, China has a valuable economic stake in North Korea’s development; it continually invests in joint ventures with Pyongyang and has led initiatives to develop the nation’s vast untapped mineral resources (which include deposits of coal, iron ore, gold ore, zinc ore, copper ore, and others) valued at a staggering $6.1 trillion. The centerpiece of Beijing’s foreign policy strategy towards the North under Xi Jingping will be encouraging the regime to behave more sensibly and focus on meeting the needs of its people. Perhaps policy makers in Beijing will have an easier time convincing Pyongyang to drop the nuclear rhetoric in exchange for a meaningful security pact by which Pyongyang is guaranteed military support from China if things ever get ugly. Given the non-interference stance championed by Beijing, it would be doubtful that Beijing would extend itself in this way.

Plans for a third nuclear test will also put South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye in an extremely uncomfortable position, making it easy for her to enrage those on both South Korea’s left and right depending on how hard or soft a line she toes with Pyongyang. Park has spoke of easing relations with the DPRK, but like her predecessor, she maintains that the North’s denuclearization is a prerequisite for any negotiations – translation – there will be no negotiations and the ROK’s foreign policy trajectory is likely not to differ from that of hardline-conservative President Lee Myung-bak. Pyongyang has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to comply with the ROK’s demands, and vice-versa. Inter-Korean relations appear to be following a repetitive script, with Washington’s solution to every issue being to tighten sanctions on the North.

The case has never been stronger for the withdrawal of the 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea, a move that would satisfy civilians in both Koreas and yield higher chances of provoking a positive response from Pyongyang. Analyst Geoffrey Fattig argues in favor of a new approach being taken by the US by highlighting how Washington’s main source of leverage against the North is the military option, citing the friction caused by the mere presence of US troops,the Obama administration needs to realize that it is holding a weak hand and fundamentally change its strategy… it is time for the Obama administration to start withdrawing the American military from Korean soil. Not only would such a move save billions of dollars annually at a time when the cost of maintaining America's global garrison is coming under increasing scrutiny, but it would shift the impetus for negotiating solutions to the long-running dispute squarely onto the shoulders of the key players in the region.”

Pyongyang is playing a dangerous game and its continued belligerence can only be tolerated for so long. At this stage, Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric of bringing about a “radical turn in the building of an economic giant” can only be taken as seriously as Pyongyang’s hilarious claims of “conquering space” by launching its satellite. By failing to be a coherent actor in the economic, security and diplomatic realms, the DPRK is doing more long-term harm to its existence than it realizes. North Korea suffered immense human losses during the Korean War throughout the relentless US bombing campaign that flattened the country; it has legitimate grievances in wanting to safeguard its national security, but its lunatic defiance, odious personality cult, and unwillingness to follow Beijing’s advice by making serious economic reforms only further ostracizes Pyongyang in the eyes of the international community, to the point where its right of self-defense is being infringed by UN resolutions.

Additionally, geologists have warned that further nuclear tests may trigger an eruption of Mt. Baekdu, a dormant volcano, which is located near the Punggye-ri nuclear site. Mt. Baekdu plays an important role in ethno-nationalist North Korean propaganda, being the fictional birthplace of the late Kim Jong-il and an enclave of purity from which the Korean race was born out of. For North Korea’s seasoned propaganda writers, an erupting Mt. Baekdu would be the perfect backdrop for the long-touted “holy war” often evoked to hasten the day when racially-pure North Koreans liberate their southern brethren from the occupying US vampires. In the reality the rest of us live in, the scheduled nuclear test may not only provoke the eruption of Mt. Baeku, but also the very real possibility of a deadly military conflict between the two Koreas – a conflict that must be avoided no matter how provocative, belligerent or infantile either side behaves.

 Location of the Mount Baekdu and the Punggye-ri test site
Location of the Mount Baekdu and the Punggye-ri test site

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com