Talk to the hand

There are few neighbourly relations between rival countries in Asia

What are the most successful negotiating techniques and where does face-to-face rhetoric come up short?

There are some particular cases in Asia that can show us the antagonisms and stumbling blocks in mutual talks between border rivals.

The Korean peninsula has seen its fair share of back-and-forth demands and conversations. When North Korea and South Korea get together it is normally set against a backdrop of military tensions and civil complaints. It was no different this time.

Both sides had traded artillery fire and Pyongyang put itself in a ‘quasi-state of war’. The South dusted off it border loudspeakers and blared out propaganda and K-pop over the frontier.

So when the aides came to the table to talk, it was on normal, unstable ground with a simmering strain on relations. After marathon negotiations, an agreement was reached and both sides backed down, a laudable agreement and a satisfactory temporary outcome to what had become a dangerous battle of rhetoric, music and shells.

Temporary – because these two nations still have not come to any firm peace agreement for the 1950-53 conflict. That ended in a truce, not a peace deal, and they are still technically at war.

Further west across the other side of the continent there is another infamous case of anxious neighbours. Where India and Pakistan are concerned it is no real surprise when any talks between the two rivals founder.

Constantly looking over their nervous nuclear shoulders, the two countries have once again hung up the phone – this time over peace talks which were meant to be held between the respective national security advisers.

There are examples of regional rivals across Asia and the situation around Iran is of interest. With the Saudis staring dagger-eyes across the Gulf, and the ayatollahs simply returning the glares of mutual distrust, these are two countries that do not get on.

In their positions, representing the powerbases of the two major denominations of Islam, they ought to do better as regards their dialogue duties, areas where they could be more engaged actors in regional and religious disputes.

Iran has been doing a lot of talking lately, but not with its neighbours. The six world powers that reached an agreement with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme have achieved a lot and have cautiously brought a pariah state in from the cold. An example to nearby nations of how to deal with a troublesome neighbour through successful, international chinwagging.

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.

Global face/off

Mini versions of international disputes are being played out in the Olympic Games arenas

We may see the hammers being hurled, the sea being sailed and the roads being run, but throughout the Olympic venues there are interesting quirks, contentious flare-ups and small scenes of wider international political situations.

One of the anomalies of the Games themselves is that the competition begins before the official opening ceremony has taken place. And so it was in Glasgow, two days before the grand spectacular in the Olympic Stadium, where North Korea’s women took on their Colombian counterparts in the football tournament. And the Scottish national stadium Hampden Park was where the North Korean footballers were introduced on the big screen alongside the South Korean flag, a serious mistake and one which was not taken lightly by Pyongyang. After much complaining and apologising the match got under way and the Asian women seemed to have been spurred on by the banner mix-up and saw off the Colombians 2-0.

A few days later, Great Britain’s men played their Argentinian counterparts in the Riverbank Hockey Arena. The tone for this particular game had been set in May when Fernando Zylberberg, one of the Buenos Aires players, took part in a training video (below) on the Falklands Islands (or Las Malvinas) that provoked reactions of patriotism at home and widespread anger in the UK. Ironically, Zylberberg eventually did not make the London 2012 squad because of concerns over his fitness, despite the athletic moves he pulled out in the clip. The controversy over the video unsurprisingly spilled over into the match, with several heavy challenges going in and both teams having players sin-binned.

Source: pupianews, 6 August 2012

The Olympic and Paralympic Games also give smaller nations often disregarded on the world stage the chance to come out and participate. But the process of choosing who is and who is not an Olympic nation is complicated. Hong Kong, Bermuda and Puerto Rico are represented independently of China, Britain and the US despite closer constitutional links. But Kosovo and South Sudan have not been granted International Olympic Committee (IOC) membership yet. Their athletes have to undergo the bizarre but by no means uncommon choice to compete for another country (or, indeed, for the IOC themselves, as in the case of marathon runner Guor Marial) in order to take part in the Games.

Countries which have gone through or are going through the Arab Spring, such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, all still turned out teams and with Qatar and Saudi Arabia selecting women athletes, all competing Olympic nations have now had female representatives on their books for the first time.

Another bone of contention is over Taiwan. China considers the island to be its twenty-third province but the Taiwanese feel very strongly that the two countries are just that – separate nations. However, the islanders have no seat at the United Nations and few official diplomatic relations, although many state have informal ties with Taipei. China, (or the People’s Republic of China), exerts a lot of pressure globally to try to win support for Taiwan just to be seen as part of the larger motherland and the island has had to bow to different stresses in order to be able to compete in the Olympic Games. At London 2012, as at Games past, Taiwan (or the Republic of China), uses the name ‘Chinese Taipei’, which is drawn from the name of its capital city. And an invented flag flies above the athletes; one that combines the Olympic rings and the country’s national sun symbol.

But before the Games had even begun there were protests linking back to geopolitics, some of them more laughing matters than others. Iran claimed that the official London 2012 logo was actually a coded reference to Zion, and therefore a secret way of forwarding Jewish nationalist propaganda on a global sporting stage.

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.