Gangnam style

South Korea joins neighbours with a renewed nationalist outlook and agenda

“A classy girl who knows how to enjoy the freedom of a cup of coffee” – at least this is how South Korean rapper Psy describes his stereotypical woman from Gangnam, a smart neighbourhood of the capital, Seoul. It is unclear what Park Geun-hye, the new South Korean president (who comes from the celebrated suburb), thinks exactly about the phenomenally successful ‘Gangnam Style’ music video that satirises her home streets.

But for better or worse, that video unquestionably raised her country’s profile across the world. Such an unforeseen but welcome publicity drive came at the perfect time for Ms Park.

Her election last month was a landmark moment for South Korea: the nation had its first female leader. It also meant that a controversial bloodline was back in the hot-seat as Ms Park’s father, the authoritarian Park Chung-hee, ruled the country from 1961-1979. (At least this time Ms Park was voted in democratically – her father got into power via a military coup.)

Ms Park brings a zealous patriotism with her into the presidency – and this is a policy that is in vogue at the moment across the region. South Korea has joined China, Japan and North Korea in having either a new appointed, elected or inherited leader in the last year. They are all bristling with nationalist fervour, a nerve-wracking agenda that mostly involves ‘chicken and egg’ arguments over rocky outcrops in their shared seas.

For Japan and China, the dispute comes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and for Japan and South Korea, their argument relates to the Takeshima/Dokdo rocks. (Territoriality forms the background of their bilateral relationship, stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the peninsula.) Last week, the two countries held bilateral ‘quad’ talks. The vice-foreign ministers got together along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Ms Park. This was the twelfth meeting of its kind since the two nations launched the framework in 2005. The US is particularly anxious that its regional pals Tokyo and Seoul get back together again – both sides let a $57bn currency swap agreement lapse because of the recent flare-up over the disputed islets.

On the part of North Korea, its jostling jingoism is nothing new and is more to do with its behaviour towards the international community as a whole, rather than on any one specific issue.

The election of Ms Park could have brought the space and hope for a new relationship (or, at least, a new outlook) to develop between the North and the South. Kim Jong-un is relatively new to his dictatorial position but he dismissed any faint chance that he would start his rule in a reformist manner by maintaining his father’s close links to the army and maintaining the country’s preference for stage-managed grand-standing over proper reform that will change the lives of his suppressed people.

North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket in December last year, and while it was timed to mark the anniversary of the death of the despot’s dad, Kim Jong-il, it was also not a coincidence that it happened ten days before South Koreans went to the polls in the presidential vote. It was an inflammatory act and the US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell warned Pyongyang against further provocations in meetings with South Korean officials today (Wednesday 16 January).

Mr Campbell held talks with Ms Park, underscoring the alliance between Washington and Seoul. Both the US and South Korea, along with Japan and the EU, want further sanctions imposed on the North for its rocket launch last month.

But there is more lift-off talk in the South. Seoul will try again to launch its own rocket between 30 January and 8 February. In 2009 and 2010, its attempts to send a satellite into space failed.  The 140-ton Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1) will be ignited at the Naro Space Centre. The rocket was built jointly by Russia and South Korea, and would give Ms Park a triumphant boost of pride ahead of her swearing-in. It would also be a snub to North Korea – showing how to win global plaudits when it comes to launch-pad politics.

Ms Park will not only have to deal with overt North Korean bounciness. Police in Seoul today said that Pyongyang was behind a cyber-attack that disrupted operations at the conservative JoongAng newspaper last year. Hackers attacked the newspaper’s database from an overseas server. Police said that server had the same make-up as one from North Korea through which previous cyber attacks were staged on the South.


Trading complaints

Argentina has been irritating a lot of countries with its global commerce policies

On Monday 3 September Argentina lodged a complaint against the US with the World Trade Organisation. This is the latest of a long line of recent grievances either filed by or against Buenos Aires. The newest protest came from the South Americans who claim that US laws are blocking the imports of lemons from the north-west of the country. Quite a few states have been weighing in at the WTO with Argentinian problems of their own for a while now. Here is a rough outline of what has been going on:

April: Argentinian government takes control of oil firm YPF from Spanish parent company Repsol

May: European Union files WTO complaint against Argentina over import licensing rules

June: Argentina pulls out of car trade pact with Mexico

August 21: US and Japan file WTO complaints against Argentina over import licensing rules

August 27: Mexico files WTO complaint against Argentina over protectionism claims

August 30: Argentina files WTO complaint over US beef and lemons

September 3: Argentina files WTO complaint against US over import of lemons

There has been a lot of activity involving the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at the WTO headquarters in Geneva: more than 20 WTO members have objected against Argentinian trade laws which have taken a more protectionist direction in the recent months of la presidenta‘s second administration.

Regarding the latest complaint in these tit-for-tat international commercial arguments, the World Trade Organisation states on its website that:

“Argentina claims that the prohibition of imports of lemons to the US for the last 11 years, and other restrictive measures, lack scientific justification. Argentina also claims that the measures of the United States appear to cancel or impair the benefits for Argentina derived, directly or indirectly, from the relevant WTO Agreements”

As soon as a WTO complaint is lodged the two opposing sides have 60 days in which to settle the dispute through bilateral talks. If these fail or if the deadline is not met then the WTO is usually called upon to adjudicate on the argument.

It is certainly true that the Latin American nation has been increasing its trade surplus in the past few years as its export market grows, with its soybeans, beef and motor parts the most popular items on foreigners’ shopping lists. However, where the countries listed above have a problem is over trying to export goods back into Argentina.

Brussels, Mexico City, Tokyo and Washington have all got hot under the collar over the South Americans’ import licence applications which they claim are subject to lengthy and illegitimate delays. What really gets their goat is that Argentinian companies normally do not face similar bureaucracy when they are carting cereals and chemicals off to their main buyers, which include most of the regional neighbours along with their own nations. Cecilia Nahón, the Argentinian ambassador to the WTO, has defended her government’s policies, saying that Buenos Aires cannot be accused of restricting imports when the national intake of foreign goods rose by 31% last year.

Many of these ‘Somebody v Argentina’ disagreements have the look of global points-scoring about them, with one side claiming that their hand was forced by their opponent’s move. Where they are all the same is that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s abrasively defensive style of government seems to be rubbing many nations up the wrong way. She may pass the others’ grumbling off as sour grapes or as envy at her soaring positive trade balances, but in order for her to achieve record surpluses she has to have easy import licensing rules available to her nation’s firms.

Argentina must now come clean about the accusations levelled against its own import licences for other countries’ companies and the way their exporters’ applications are handled.

Pacifying the Pacific

Can US Pacific policy provide Barack Obama with a much needed political boost?

The US president’s quiet international diplomacy has been too calm for most voters to notice. With the economy in such a parlous state trumpeting overseas adventures and turning a blind eye to domestic pain would buy him a certain exit from the White House in November next year. But the US is still a global superpower and the president is still a global president: he has to have a coherent and active foreign policy.

We have seen his Republican rivals stumble when it comes to discussing affairs abroad, most infamously Herman Cain, who was all at sea when pressed on the Libya conflict. Mr Obama himself has had some problems in this department, the most notable of which has probably been his failure to uphold his promise to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre. But, largely, overseas policy is faring much better than life back home.

Looking west, Washington is always anxious to achieve the right policy when it comes to North Korea. The oddball state has friends in China, another country with which the White House has to get the attitude right (and a rising worldwide threat to the US’s position at the top of the global tree). Relations will never be completely free from problems but what is to be commended is the more patient and positive path this administration is trying to take towards tricky overseas matters.

The US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, is currently on a tour of the region. He has been to South Korea (7-11 December) and Japan (11-13) and is presently in China (until tomorrow, Thursday 15) meeting politicians to discuss Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are seen as friendly nations in a turbulent region. China holds the keys to North Korea and the US would like to know that they are in safe hands.

That area of the world is finely balanced. South Korea twitches daily over the sheer unpredictability of its northern neighbour. The government in Seoul has been forced to tighten monitoring of Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to combat an upsurge in illicit propaganda from Pyongyang. South Korea is also having its own spat with China at the moment: it has asked Beijing for security guarantees after its embassy in the Chinese capital was hit by a projectile. Earlier in the year, a South Korean coastguard was killed by a Chinese fisherman. Further to the south, the Philippines has launched its biggest warship yet, the Gregorio de Pilar (a former US Navy cutter), in what has been seen as a show of strength to China. (The two countries are arguing over fishing rights and sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.)

Either way, the US has many interests in the western Pacific, most notably the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. In November Australia agreed to the deployment of a full US Marines task force. As the examples above point out, the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are continuing to be international flashpoints. The US is a player in the regional game and must proceed wisely with purpose. This is the sort of delicate diplomacy which can define an administration’s overseas record. It is also the sort of diplomacy that is rarely celebrated from the rooftops and, as such, must not be relied upon to guide a presidential campaign.

Time for a Latin lesson

Despite the disaster in Japan and the alternative power sources, dozens of countries have an unstoppable thirst for nuclear power. They should have a look at what is going on in Latin America and the Caribbean.

70% of the electricity that Latin America and the Caribbean region use comes from renewable energy sources, according to a report published last week by the Inter-american Development Bank (BID). The BID has ploughed millions of dollars into energy development projects across the regions in the last decade or so, and the results have been admirable.

Arnaldo Vieira de Carvalho, an energy specialist at the BID, said that, after the conferral of the loans:

“The only obligation that they [national governments] have with us is to work in two areas: on the generation of renewable energy and on climate change. These are long-term loans for more than 30 years, and this gives them more freedom for their work.”

After what happened in Japan, Germany, (which has 17 reactors on the go at the moment), announced an immediate review of its nuclear programme. The UK and Indian governments (19 and 20 reactors respectively) both asked for safety reviews. Even China (13 reactors) postponed the approval of any more for the time being. It has plans lined up for an astonishing 160 new reactors.

But the desire for nuclear energy is weak in Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are only six reactors in total (Argentina, Brazil and Mexico have two each). The three major players in the region are leading the way in their renewable ambitions and the BID is excited about what has been achieved so far from its support. According to Vieira de Carvalho, the renewable energy output of Brazil and Costa Rica is more than three times the global average.

What is also pleasing is that others seem keen to follow. Nicaragua, dotted with volcanoes, has just secured a $30.3 million loan to overhaul a geothermal energy plant in the west of the country.

According to the Financial Times, coal and gas make up 62.2% of the annual global energy consumption, whilst nuclear (13.5%) lags behind hydroelectric (15.9). And although more than 20 countries have more than 400 new reactors in the pipeline, none of them are in Latin America or the Caribbean, where nuclear power is used sparingly. There the plans are very much for a greener, cleaner future.

An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.