North Korea and Thailand are warming diplomatic ties

Warming diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea could mean a lot more investment into the country by one of Southeast Asia’s wealthiest nations.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, left, shakes hands with his Thai counterpart Thanasak Patimaprakorn in Bangkok, Thailand.

North Korea is always looking for ways to break out from international sanctions and US-led diplomatic isolation.

But now a Thai military leader, a man who also leads the country’s foreign ministry, is encouraging his country to invest in North Korea.

Thai Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn in August 2015 (about two weeks ago) said he wants Thai businesses and individuals to invest in North Korea, and suggested Thailand could be a bridge between the hermit country and the international community.

(FYI, Thailand military overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of Thaksin Shinawatra. She was elected in August 2011 and was overthrown by a military junta in May 2014.)

Thailand is working to upgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea, and has already said it will soon open an embassy in Pyongyang “soon.”

“To open an embassy in any country is a good sign, but all related processes must be carefully considered, including staff and budgets,” General Tanasak said.

Gen. Tanasak discussed a number of bilateral issues with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Su-yong, including a “trade cooperation deal.”

If a deal does get worked out, it would facilitate Thai investment in North Korea’s special economic zone, among other things. But actually, Thailand has a history of investing in North Korea.

Thai-based corporation Loxley Pacific invested massively in North Korea’s IT infrastructure and, in particular, the country’s internet, namely in the Star Joint Venture Company.

The Star JV is a joint venture between Loxley, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, which is one of the country’s most powerful family-owned conglomerates, and North Korea’s Post and Telecommunications Corporation, and Star JV took control of North Korea’s Internet address allocation system on Dec. 21, 2009, the country’s single Internet Service Provider.

Loxley company

Loxley Pacific Thailand

Gen. Tanasak said the two ministers talk a lot about IT, as well as other issues like health, education and regional issues.

The general also said that Thailand “offered to facilitate talks between North Korea and any country it had conflict with,” according to reports coming from Thai media outlets.

Thai kidnap victim

Mr Ri reportedly told General Tanasak that authorities would follow up the case of Anocha Panjoy, a Thai national who was abducted from Macau by North Korean agents back in 1978.

Former US serviceman Charles Jenkins and his wife told the media they said they saw Ms Anocha alive and well in North Korea.

Before the meeting of the foreign ministers, Phil Robertson, Human Right Watch’s deputy director for the Asia division, pressured Gen. Tanasak to press North Korea for the return of Anocha. There are other human rights issues  stunting diplomatic ties from warming up.

Thailand is one of the countries used by North Korean defectors as a transit point to resettle in South Korea. The number of North Koreans who traveling into Thailand has decreased from around 2,000 in 2011 to under 500 in 2015, according to a Thai media report.

The powwow between the two foreign ministers was filled with many niceties, however. North Korea’s Ri Su-yong passed on good wishes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to Her Majesty Queen Sirikit on her 83rd birthday.

He invited Gen Tanasak to visit North Korea as part of the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two East Asian countries.

An exchange of diplomatic visits began in May 2015 when deputy foreign minister Don Pramudwinai visited Pyongyang. Ri Su-yong is the first high-level North Korean diplomat to visit Thailand in a decade, when its then foreign minister Paek Nam-sun visited in 2005.

During his trip in Thailand, Ri Su-yong visited Thai royal family’s pet projects and agricultural pilot programs. Two weeks ago, the North Korean official was on an Southeast Asian diplomatic mission that included trips to Brunei  and meetings with ASEAN officials.

The Basmati Rice Issue

Earlier this year, the North Korean ambassador to Thailand, Mun Song-mo, asked the government to set up a diplomatic compound in Pyongyang. However, a government source said this would not happen in the near future.

Five of 10 ASEAN countries — Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam — have diplomatic missions in the North Korean capital.

Diplomatic ties between Thailand and North Korea were quite smooth, especially as Thailand had played a key role in bringing North Korea to the ASEAN Regional Forum back in 2000, when Thailand held the ASEAN chairmanship.

Two sticky Thai-North Korea issues include not only the kidnapping of Thai national Anocha back in the 1970s, but also North Korea’s outstanding rice debt payment. The Thai foreign minister said the issue of rice debt payment was not touched upon but would be discussed in later talks.

North Korea owes Thailand about $300 million after Thailand exported 750,000 tons of rice to North Korea from 1993 to 2002 when the country suffered devastating famine and floods.

Bilateral trade between North Korea and Thailand $42 million in the first half of this year, nearly of that in the form of  exports from Thailand ($39 million). Two-way trade was $126 million in 2014 and in 2013 it was $114 million. Thai exports to North Korea including rubber, chemicals and plastics, and Thai imports comprising mainly chemicals, iron and steel, and electrical machinery.





Envoy says South Korea must end rice quotas to see real Thai food in Seoul restaurants

Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.
Thai Ambassador to South Korea Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open the South Korean rice market, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country. I interviewed him at his office in Hannam-dong, in Seoul, on Sept. 16, 2013.

[This article was written originally for The Korea Herald in September 2013.]

Ever eat out at an authentic Thai restaurant here in Seoul, South Korea? It is doubtful that you have, according to the Thai Embassy in South Korea.

There is a dearth of restaurants in South Korea serving real Thai cuisine made from real Thai ingredients at the moment, according to the Thai Ambassador to South Korea. But he is keen to change that.

Kittiphong na Ranong sees improving Thai food restaurants as a way of prying open markets here, which he sees as too closed to agricultural products from his country.

The embassy is determined to upgrade Thai restaurants and the popularity of Thai cuisine here with a number of promotional campaigns, such as one this week: “Thai Restaurant Week” from Sept. 23-29.

“When we launched a promotional campaign earlier this year at a restaurant at Lotte Hotel, we found it extremely difficult to even buy domestically-sold Thai rice,” he said in an interview with The Korea Herald on Sept. 16.

Thailand exported 90 tons of kitchen table rice to South Korea in 2012, a fraction of a percentage point of the 30,000 tons of rice exported from here to Thailand. The vast majority of Thai rice exported to South Korea is low-grade brown rice destined for industrial uses, such as in the manufacture of store-bought makgeolli, Korean fermented rice wine.

Put simply, Thai restaurants cannot make the grade if chefs cannot get their hands on quality agricultural products from Thailand, according to Kittiphong.

Of the 172 restaurants that the embassy determined serve Thai cuisine, 71 were selected to participate in this week’s promotional campaign.

The problem, according to Kittiphong, rests with South Korean import quotas. The permitted amount of Thai rice, poultry, fruit and other agricultural shipments ― which made up about 20 percent of its total exports of 13.6 billion won ($12.5 million) in 2012 ― is limited. Kittiphong wants the quota lifted.

South Korea and Thailand agreed to seek preliminary discussions and a joint study on forging a comprehensive economic partnership agreement when former President Lee Myung-bak met with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Bangkok in November 2012.

The two nations also agreed to seek to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2016. Such an enormous increase in trade ― a doubling over the next three years ― could only be met by lifting South Korea’s import quotas on Thai rice, poultry and such Thai fruits as longan and pomelo, the ambassador said.

Thailand currently has a huge rice surplus stockpiled by the government as a result of a recent price support scheme, meant to help out small farmers.

If sold at current market prices, however, the stored rice would result in profit losses and government deficits. Thailand is aggressively searching for untapped markets.

The Thai government’s new intervention began with the landslide electoral victory of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party in 2011. In the subsequent two years, it has allocated $18.7 billion to buy rice and shore up support for farmers. The government currently has 10 million tons of rice in storage. This month, the government extended the policy, which could lead to an additional 10 million tons after the 2013-14 harvest due to start in October.

A career diplomat, the mild-mannered Kittiphong expressed frustration at the pace of Thailand-South Korea talks on lifting restrictions on imports, saying that the preliminary FTA talks and a joint feasibility study should take place in tandem with lifting the Thai rice quota.

“When we raised the issue last year, they said that it was a bad time because it was the end of the previous government, that we had to wait for the new government to settle into place,” he said. “But when the new government came in, they said it is the restructuring the ministry, that trade is being separated from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The issue of rice, chicken and fruits has been on the table for years, so we should be able to resolve that issue separately,” he said.

Why certain imported food items are not available on grocery store shelves in South Korea is debatable. According to proponents of the current restrictions, it is a matter of weak demand for Thai agricultural products.

Critics of the restrictions point to stiff non-tariff barriers here, such as sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures that they say are unfairly leveraged by the government to limit imports.

Discussions on lifting the quota on Thai rice appear slow. So, the embassy is focused on stimulating demand for Thai kitchen table food items through promotion drives such as its current effort.

In “Thai Restaurant Week,” diners are entered into a lucky draw with every minimum purchase of 50,000 won or more on a single receipt. The embassy will announce the winners in mid-October. Four grand-prize winners will receive round-trip flight tickets to Thailand.

Six restaurants are participating in the Thai Select program: Golden Thai in Songpa, Sala Thai’s Jamsil branch, Sala Thai’s Bundang branch, Siam at Seoul Station, Thai Orchid in Itaewon, and Wang Thai, also in Itaewon.

Madam President a real possibility in South Korea’s ‘year of woman’

Former envoy to Russia describes how she became the nation’s first female ambassador


Lee In-ho, former ambassador to Russia and current chair of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gestures during an interview with The Korea Times at her office in downtown Seoul.
Lee In-ho, former South Korean ambassador to Russia and current chair of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, gestures during an interview with The Korea Times at her office in downtown Seoul.

[This story was written originally for The Korea Times in February 2012, after Park Geun-hye took the helm of the conservative Saenuri Party and Han Myeong-sook was leader of the more progressive Democratic United Party.]

This could very well be a year of firsts for women in South Korea, as the East Asian nation has seen women take the helm of its two major political parties for the first time in its history.

It was not since 1996 — some 16 years ago — that South Korea saw a similar first for women, when a woman for the first time was appointed as ambassador to a foreign posting.

It was then that Lee In-ho, a Russian expert with a long professional and academic pedigree, was tapped by former President Kim Young-sam as part of an election pledge running on the now-defunct conservative Democratic Liberal Party ticket to include more women at the highest levels of government.

Now women have taken charge of both major political parties. The Saenuri Party is led by Park Geun-hye and the Democratic United Party (DUP) by Han Myeong-sook.

Lee credits her appointment to “a triumph” of what she loosely described as a “women’s lobby” in the late 1990s, a zeitgeist or general buzz in the air that Korean society “in spite of its vaulted achievements in economic development had been neglecting women’s capabilities.”

That public opinion swept South Korea in the wake of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The world conference on women was a catalyst in building pressure on the South Korean government to include women, and utilize the talent of women, Lee said.

“There was a pressure in the air that women were underutilized, and a growing women’s movement took hold of that feeling of the time to call for more women to be represented in government at the highest levels,” said Lee who now chairs the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank on foreign affairs and economy.

She also actively serves on a slew of university boards and public commissions.

The DUP’s Han in a high profile meeting with the GNP’s Park declared this year “the year of women,” but whether this year can generate the general sentiment for women that the 1995 Beijing conference did remains anyone’s guess.

Lee was first sent abroad as Korea’s ambassador to Finland from 1996 to 1998, and then to Russia from 1998 to 2000 during the presidential administration of Kim Young-sam’s political rival, the late former President Kim Dae-jung.

How Lee ascended to the highest levels of South Korean diplomacy 16 years ago could be instructive in assessing the role of women on the national political stage today.

“It was a moment in our history when the society realized it had been neglecting women as human resources,” Lee said in an interview with The Korea Times on Feb.1. “There was still a lot of prejudice in the Korean diplomatic community.”

She said that her ambassadorial appointment to Russia resulted from the fortunate combination of two men who were free of prejudice against women because of their extraordinary wives: Lee Hee-ho, the wife of Kim Dae-jung, and Lee Beom-joon, the wife of the late former Foreign Minister Park Jeong-soo.

“There was unseen resistance at first to appointing a woman as a top diplomat,” Lee said. “The presence of these wives, the influence they had on their husbands, was exceptional. They had influence on their husbands.”

But since the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) sent its first woman ambassador abroad in 1996, only one other person has had an opportunity to serve a foreign posting. South Korean Ambassador to Paraguay Park Dong-won is the only female ambassador serving abroad among MOFAT’s more than 120 foreign diplomatic missions.

[I added this youtube vid clip from a 2006 lecture organized by the Royal Asiatic Society. In it, Lee In-ho discusses Korean history from the late nineteenth century to the present. She claims “leftist historians” (her words) are trying to re-write Korean history from their point of view, one in which the U.S. is to blame for Korea’s post-liberation trials.]

Diplomatic service

There was real resistance from the “old boy’s network” at MOFAT to appointing a woman as ambassador in the late 1990s, Lee said.

Overtures were made to many high-profile women, after Kim Young-sam’s election, including to Lee who was offered various government positions.

“Lee Hee-ho was one of the people who persuaded me to accept a post as ambassador to Finland,” she said.

Lee said Finland’s extensive Russian archive appealed to her academic interests. She received her Ph.D. in Russian history from Harvard University, and is fluent in Russian and English.

Actually Finland shares many similarities with Korea, she said. Now Finland is a model social democracy, but it also had a difficult history, sandwiched between two large nations, Russia and Sweden, which influenced Finland throughout its history. Finland suffered from a grinding poverty that is little appreciated now, but the country managed in pulling itself into affluence.

Lee said her experience as ambassador to Finland was good “because it afforded me an insight one gets only from experience and is impossible to get from books.”

When her posting came to an end in 1998, when Kim Young-sam’s political rival took office, she finessed a new appointment as ambassador to Russia.

Again she faced stubborn opposition from career male diplomats jealous of a woman envoy. Rumors were constantly circulating against her, she said. “Women are outsiders” to what she described as the “all boys club of Korean career diplomats.”

But her impressive resume and expertise in Russian history and culture defied all the criticisms the MOFAT men could muster.

Korea and Russia established diplomatic relations in 1990. Lee became Korea’s fifth envoy from 1998-2000. In addition to being Korea’s first female ambassador to Russia she was also the first Korean envoy fluent in Russian.

Her fluency made her popular among Russian officials and Russian fluent European diplomats. “I understood and enjoyed the Russian language and culture, and that allowed me to be admitted into certain circles that a Korean envoy had never been admitted into before,” Lee said.

It made her an effective diplomat for Korea, too. She secured a presidential summit for Kim Dae-jung in spite of the tumult that characterized the Russia of Boris Yeltsen, especially in the late 1990s.

“I brought with me to the post a Korean understanding, as well as an American one, by virtue of my many years of studying and living in the United States,” she said.

The highlight of her posting was the presidential summit between Kim Dae-jung and Boris Yeltsen.

Yeltsen was sick from ill health and alcoholism and was constantly hospitalized at the time. “It was not at all certain the summit would happen,” Lee recalled about the Korea-Russia summit.

“Chinese President Jiang Zemin had only 10 minutes with Yeltsen in a meeting in his hospital room,” she said, and with less than a week before the Kim’s presidential visit, “the Dumas tried to impeach him.”

All the while, rumors and machinations against her persisted. Near the end of her term, she said rumors circulated that she “would either be kicked upstairs” this time, instead of being kicked out, or be put up as a National Assembly candidate.

After her four-year diplomatic service in Finland and Russia, she led the Asia Foundation for three years.

Early life, end note

Lee said that equality in the family and in the work place was the focus for women’s rights activists in the male-centered Korean society that Lee grew up in, one that simply preferred boys over girls.

Lee said she sees a lot of achievements for women, but also an unfinished project.

Lee grew up in a distinguished yet conventional 4-generation Confucian family in Myeongryoon-dong in Seoul.

Her father worked at a reputable bank (later it became Shinhan Bank), and she attended an experimental co-educational high school that was a part of Seoul National University (SNU) called, College of Education.

Lee was a junior high school student when she briefly experienced living under communist rule. That’s when in the summer of 1950 Korea North crossed the DMZ and seized control of Seoul. Seoul changed hands that autumn, and then in the winter of 1950, Lee and her family fled to Busan when control over Korea’s capital city was again seized by the communist North.

She was admitted into SNU’s history department in 1955, but then was afforded the opportunity to finish the remainder of undergraduate work at Wellesley College in the U.S. She went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Russian history at Harvard. She would not return to Korea until 1972.

“Because my name sounded like a man’s, however, people often read my articles thinking I was one,” she said. In addition to her male-sounding name of In-ho, her pedigree and American education gave her breathing room to pursue a career in academia without the moniker: “Her writing is good for a lady.”

From 1972-1979 she taught at Korea University, and from 1979-1996 at SNU.

Lee said more needs to be done to level the playing field for women in Korean society, but also insisted progress has been achieved, from obtaining the franchise with the founding of the republic to, in recent years, reforming family law.

However, the prospect of South Korea electing its first female president is mixed. Reforms could open doors for political office beyond the presidency.

The country’s two major political parties are led by women. Han of the DUP has called for 15 percent of the candidates that her party fields in the coming April general elections to be women, and the ruling Saenuri Party under Park’s leadership is mulling over a proposal of an even more robust 25-percent female candidate quota.

For now, women’s representation remains sparse. The number of women cabinet ministers can be counted on one hand. 2008’s National Assembly elections saw 41 of 299 seats, about 13 percent, go to women, some allotted by their party’s proportional representation system, others in direct elections.

“When I returned from my diplomatic service, the floodgate was opened at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for young women diplomats,” Lee said. “Now what is important is to fill that upper-middle section at the ministry.”

South Korea suffers 110,000 cyberattacks in five years

​South Korea was the target of over 110,000 cyberattacks in the past five years, according to a report submitted to the country’s National Assembly.

It’s perhaps important to emphasized how nearly impossible it is to locate the country of origin for these many cyber attacks. While that doesn’t point the finger at North Korea, it should not remove the country as a suspected country of origin.
[This story was written originally for ZDNet on Sep. 21, 2015]

North-South tension causes internet censorship in Korea: Is it justified?

South Korea can boast one of the world’s fastest average internet connection speeds, but the country also rates highly in censorship stakes.

Korea Security Standards in Telecommunications Commission
Korea Communications Standards Commission is located in Mokdong in Seoul, not far from the immigration office (which many foreigners residing in South Korea might be familiar with).
[This story was written originally for ZDNet in August 2015.]

South Korea has the world’s fastest internet with connectivity clocked at 25.3MBps by Akamai Technologies last year. That’s over two times better than the 11.5MBps measured in the United States. Such a wired environment, coupled with wide internet use, seem optimal grounds to foster free, creative discussions among peers in a democracy.

But it is another matter as far as internet freedom goes. The country’s internet censorship body, which watches over the comings and goings of South Koreans’ online activities, recently ordered 13 pieces of content on websites to be scrubbed that it determined were “misleading”.

The main cause was the recently ratcheted up tension between North Korea; the hermit state accused of planting mines in the borders that injured two South Korean soldiers. South Korea responded by playing loudspeaker propaganda, and the two Koreas exchanged fire last week. It ended when the two sides reached a deal to diffuse the tension.

“The deleted websites were neither ‘pro-North Korean’ websites nor included ‘pro-North Korean’ messages. They included misleading content on the North’s recent provocations — land mine blasts, firing of a shell into Yeoncheon — falsely accusing the South of fabricating provocations,” said a spokesperson from the Korea Communications Standards Commission.

The KCSC refused to identify by name the websites affected by its decision or say what it censored specifically.

“Deleted or blocked URLs are not open to [the] public by law,” said the spokesperson, but the censorship body did forward general descriptions of the “false accusations” and “misleading contents” in question.

Many South Koreans took to the internet to raise questions on some of the allegations that South Koreans made against the North.

They covered a handful of topics, including that “North Korean soldiers did not plant the land mines and it was the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS)”. Another “misleading” piece of content claimed that the NIS and the country’s main conservative party are trying to divert attention away from a domestic hacking scandal.

The KCSC deletes or blocks online content concerning North Korea regularly. Criticism of government infringement on internet freedom in South Korea is not new either. Freedom House last year ranked the country’s internet as “partly free” for shuttering websites through IP blocking and forcing ISPs to scrub content.

In 2013, 22,986 webpages were deleted, and another 62,658 were blocked at the request of KCSC, according to a US-based non-profit.

South Korea’s censors believe they are protecting against threats to national security, and comments they see as praising North Korea, and denouncing the U.S. and/or the South Korean government raise red flags.

The KCSC also censors pornography and gambling, which are illegal in South Korea, as well as content deemed as harmful to minors. Online games are odious, too. South Koreans have to enter national identity numbers to play online games and, until last year, minors 16 years old or younger were banned from midnight to 6:00 am. The so-called “shutdown” law was amended last year with a parental consent clause.

Nearly 85 percent of the population had access to the internet in 2013, and a significant number of young people get their news exclusively from online sources.

As a result of considerable interference by the government into people’s online lives, many use VPNs. According to Global Web Index’s 4Q 2014 report, 10 percent of South Koreans aged between 16 to 64 years old use a VPN to access content online, meaning 3.3 million people use the internet with a VPN.

All this raises the perennial question — especially when North Korea is the issue — of what comes first: Freedom of speech or national security? Outside of South Korea, the best example is the Snowden leaks.

This seems a question that the global community will continue to debate going forward.

South Korea’s problem with how foreign brides are treated

The government tries to tackle the thorny issue of migrant brides and domestic violence.

A foreign bride dressed in a traditional Korean wedding outfit.

[This story was written originally for The Diplomat in January 2015.]

When she agreed to marry a foreign man 20 years her senior introduced to her through a local marriage broker, Do Thi My Tien was optimistic she could create a comfortable life for herself abroad.

Tien married Lee Geun-sik, a South Korean, and traveled a world away from her small village in Tay Ninh, a province 100 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City. In 2005, the newlyweds settled down in South Jeolla Province in the southwestern corner of the country.

But what began 10 years ago with so much hope and promise, ended last year on July 24 in a sordid murder. Police pulled Tien’s body from a deep gorge. She was 27 years of age.

A Vietnamese neighbor told police the couple was fighting days before Tien disappeared, according to local reporting. Lee admitted to killing Tien, and to tossing her body and scooter over the side of a mountain road in a half-baked attempt to conceal his crime. Lee apparently believed he could make it appear like a traffic accident, but the police immediately suspected foul play.

Tien’s death is an extreme and tragic example of the domestic violence that afflicts many families. In South Korea, a total of 123 women were killed by their husbands or partners in 2013, according to the Korea Women’s Hotline, a nationwide women’s group that works to stop domestic violence.

Foreigners account for just 2.5 percent of the population in South Korea, but with a comparatively high number of deaths involving foreign women since 2012, experts from government and nongovernment organizations agree that migrant women here are particularly at risk to domestic violence.

They disagree on much else. According to a senior official at the Gender Equality and Family Ministry, language and cultural barriers are largely to blame for the domestic violence that caused the slew of disturbing killings.

The above pie chart illustrates the number offoreign residents in South Korea as of the end of 2014. Note the majority of foreigners living in Korea at 53.7 percent include both ethnic Korean-Chinese and non-Korean Chinese Nationals.

“Think about it. Several decades ago, Korean women emigrated to Japan or America. They were poor. They didn’t even know who their husbands were. They didn’t speak English, so they couldn’t really often get out of the house. Their husbands started to ignore them. The wives didn’t work, they couldn’t cook American food,” said Choi Sung-ji, director of multicultural family policy at the Ministry of Gender Equality & Family, in explaining the domestic violence faced by migrant women in South Korea.

“The situation is similar in Korea now. Women from Southeast Asian countries come here for a better living without really knowing who they are getting married to. They didn’t get married out of love.”

“Rather, they met them but through marriage brokers,” she said, adding “If they don’t speak the Korean language and do not understand Korean culture, then they are at a disadvantage. There cannot be an equal relationship. “

Love and Marriage

The number of internaitonal marriages in South Korea has skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 2005, for instance, just 250,000 international marriages were registered in South Korea. But nearly as many – some 238,000 –  were registered in just six years, from 2006-2012.

The increase in international marriages started from 1990 for a specific reason: The Cold War ended. South Korea established diplomatic relations with Cold War foes China and Vietnam in 1992, opening up travel and communications for ordinary Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese.

Although international marriage accounted for only 1.2 percent of marriages in 1990, they represented 13.6 percent in 2006, a ten-fold increase.

As of September 2013 the single largest group of marriage migrants was Vietnamese women, nearly 40,000. Non-Korean Chinese and ethnic-Korean Chinese women formed the second and third largest groups, with women from Japan, the Philippines and Cambodia following them.

In 2007, South Korea’s Multicultural Families Support Act came into force and ushered the opening of multicultural centers around the country. The centers aim to provide various classes and services for migrant women and their families.

Though the act has seen a number of revisions over the years, a reliable constant is the steadily growing number of these government-run multicultural centers. The country has seen 50 such centers set up on an annual basis since 2007. In the past eight years, 217 centers have opened under the Gender Equality Ministry and the budget for multicultural families ballooned to $120 million, a 20-fold increase.


The proper role of these multicultural centers is a point of contention between the Gender Ministry and women and migrant rights groups.

While the centers provide practical classes, such as Korean language instruction, they do so only marginally. For example, only 400 hours a year of language education is guaranteed at any particular center, about an hour a day.

The centers appear more focused on delivering esoteric sounding services for migrant women, such as the so-called “multicultural perception improvement project;” the “family integrated education service,” which is described as providing “culture understanding education;” and the “bi-lingual environment promotion project.”

Choi, a director responsible for overseeing policy on multicultural families, said the programs are designed to foster respect for the mother’s culture in the home and in society.

Critics of that effort and the centers say the government is too focused on “cultural assimilation” and believe the government should instead emphasize legal protections for migrant women, preventing domestic violence and raising the awareness by married couples of human rights.

“Why are we having these classes? It’s a culture show of these women. These [217] multicultural centers are spending their money putting on culture shows. These classes should be fundamentally about raising awareness and teaching migrant women what their rights are,” said Heo Young-sook, secretary general of Women Migrant Human Rights Center of Korea. “Even though we are spending a lot of money on these centers, discrimination against migrant women is getting worse.”

Heo led a street demonstration in Seoul on Dec. 30 that eulogized the seven migrant women killed last year, during which she decried the failure by the government to protect migrant women from domestic violence. She outlined a number of needed changes, including a crackdown on exploitative marriage brokers and a better social system for preventing domestic violence in the country.

“One thing that has to change is the rules preventing new brides from obtaining South Korean citizenship,” she added.

Marriage Visas

If an F6 marriage visa is extended to a migrant newlywed, then he or she can stay in the country for two years. The biannual renewal of his or her visa status depends on the sponsorship of the South Korean spouse, as well as eligibility for permanent residency and naturalization.

The visa system makes marriage migrants vulnerable to domestic violence, insists Heo.

The system makes many marriage migrants dependent on their husbands for their visa status, which can lead abuse both physically and also emotionally, through isolation and seclusion.

To illustrate her point, Heo cited one of the seven women killed last year, a 22-year-old Vietnamese woman identified by the surname Nguyen. The migrant rights activist said she was undocumented because she was estranged from her husband. Nguyen was murdered by a 37-year-old male friend in a motel in Jeju City on Nov. 30.

The Gender Ministry’s Choi acknowledged that multicultural centers need to do a better job educating migrant women about their legal rights. She said a new class focusing on migrant rights will be introduced at centers starting from this year.

The Ministry of Justice also responded to high number of women killed and other reports of domestic violence by tightening requirements for obtaining marriage visas.

Those tougher requirements were welcomed by both inside and outside the government. Both Heo and Choi agreed with the stricter immigration measures.

Since April 2014, Korean spouses have had to meet income and other wealth minimums – an annual income of 14.8 million won ($14,000) – and stiffer language requirements for marriage migrants.

The new rules could have an effect on curbing the increasing rate of new international marriages. A study on marriage migration in South Korea found that over half of 945 multicultural families surveyed in 2006 earned less than the minimum wage (about $8,000 per year).

Whether making international marriages more difficult will decrease domestic violence and, indeed, decrease the number of migrant women killed through 2015 remains to be seen.

Nanjing’s 70-year-old ghost story

This essay was the Third place winner of the Iris Change Memorial Essay Contest in 2007.


Memories stay with people. Bad memories can haunt you like a ghost. History works like this as well, like an Asian horror movie. The history of the Pacific War torments China and Japan – indeed, all of Asia and the Pacific. But like a Japanese onryo, or vengeful spirit, the ghosts of Nanjing indiscriminately torment the innocent and the guilty. Karl Marx’s observation that “The history of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” is as true for 21stcentury East Asia as it was for 19th century Europe. The only problem is, the ghosts of Nanjing are for real, so how do we exorcise them? How can China and Japan rid themselves of the nightmare of the Nanjing Massacre and finally put the past behind them?

In East Asia, historical wounds are still festering. Seventy years on, and the memories of Nanjing continue to haunt the Japanese, as well as the Chinese. The ghosts of Nanjing feed an increasingly bitter competition of nationalisms. But Japan’s leaders only hurt their country with jingoism, as a perception of Japan’s former aggression is revived and overshadows the country’s many accomplishments.

The bitterness of the war years is frequently summoned to the present by Chinese feelings of injustice and a Japanese sense of being unfairly singled out for wrongs committed decades ago. When the re-certification of a history textbook in Japan can spark weeks of riots across China in April 2005, sending crowds thousands strong vandalizing Japanese businesses and consulates, it is clear the value of history in East Asia is palpable.

The waves of anger were touched off by Tokyo imbuing credibility into claims made in the New History Textbook, published by a right-wing Japanese group. In one demonstration, some 10,000 angry protesters surrounded Jusco supermarket run by Japanese firm Aeon in the bustling port city Shenzhen, a hub of foreign investment in South China. Many saw the government as sanctioning a whitewashing of the history of Imperial Army atrocities in Nanjing during Japan’s 1937 invasion of China.

The riots vividly illustrate how the memories of Japan’s former aggression, seared into minds of present-day Chinese as feelings of injustice, are unwittingly resurrected as expressions of patriotism. China sees a Japan that is boorish and unapologetic. In fact, hardly any of Japan’s junior high schools have actually adopted the text – just 18 out of more than 11,000, according to one news report. But to the Chinese, it’s enough that the government even extended its seal of approval to such a book.

Now, the ghosts of Nanjing will be channeled into a number of new films. In December, as the world observes the 70thanniversary of the “Rape of Nanjing,” at least three films are starting or are already in production this year (by directors Yim Ho, Stanley Tong and Lu Chuan), in addition to the American production Nanking, which screened at Sundance in January, and focuses on the point-of-view of Westerners in Nanjing when the city succumbed to the Imperial Army’s onslaught. With that, 10 years after the publication of Iris Chang’s incisive work, the Nanjing Massacre has become a cinema sensation.

Unfortunately, extremists in Japan have a film of their own: The Truth About Nanjing. Its theme is predictable, as will be the reactions. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), too, exacerbates bitter feelings, inflaming painful memories with peremptory remarks that deny Japan’s responsibility for atrocities committed by the country’s Imperial Army in the 1930s and ’40s.

But ironically, the caustic remarks of mainstream Japanese leaders hurt themselves most. Japan has the most to pay for its recalcitrance, not China. The more these LDP politicians run their mouths the more they drag Japan’s national image through the mud, soiling what would otherwise be an inspiring record of peace, prosperity and freedom.

By denying the past today, Japan will be condemned to forever re-live the shame of what it did in the 1930s and ‘40s. Thoughtless behavior and insensitive quips overshadow Japan’s accomplishments and re-cast the nation in its image of two generations ago. Who will be able to identify with an image of a Japan calloused by a shameful history?

Expressions of Japanese nationalism, even now, make headlines and incite emotional demonstrations. This is because the images that it invokes in the minds of Chinese – and in the minds of people all over Asia – are invariably informed by haunting recollections of the country’s wartime atrocities, such as the images summoned from Tokyo’s incursions into China. The rape and massacre of civilians in Nanjing upon the city’s collapse in December 1937 – including women, children and the elderly – are quintessential examples of the Japanese Army’s brutality.

These images provoke anxiety over the safety of loved ones and a visceral desire to protect the vulnerable. And these same images prevent the Japanese from demonstrating old-fashioned patriotism. What’s more, Chinese nationalism gets a boost.

In 1972, Asia’s greatest cinematic hero became the champion of everyone who recognizes right from wrong and yearns to defend the downtrodden. That was the year Bruce Lee’s breakthrough film, “Fist of Fury,’’ titled “The Chinese Connection’’ in the U.S., screened for the first time in San Francisco.

Who was not outraged by the Japanese man mocking Lee’s character, Chen Zhen, at a park entrance, as he pointed to a sign reading “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed?’’ And who was not stirred when Chen – inspired by a real-life patriotic insurgent – broke the sign in half with a jump-spinning dropkick? Or when he destroyed a framed calligraphy penned by Japanese imperialists declaring China the “Sick Man of Asia?’’

The actor Bruce Lee and the symbols he destroys in the film are vital to Chinese nationalism. Indeed, every country’s nationalism is about piecing together images that the people can be proud of and rally around. These images inculcate patriotic feelings; in patriotism, symbolism is everything.

In a way, Chinese nationalism became more compelling than Japanese nationalism because appeals to universal sentiments. Anyone can identify with defending the downtrodden against unprovoked aggression. Japan’s denial of the past retards the country’s ability to recover from the war just as it stunts the country’s relations with China and Korea.

Japan’s denial of the atrocities it committed in Nanjing inflames an infection the Imperial Army left more than 70 years ago. Leaving historical wounds to fester makes demonstrating Japanese patriotism impossible.

In one incident between December 1937 and March 1938, some 350,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were slaughtered by the invading Japanese troops, according to mainstream historians. Tens of thousands of victims were beheaded, burned, bayoneted, buried alive or disemboweled.

Worse than that, an estimated 80,000 women and girls were raped. Many were then mutilated and tortured before being murdered. It is in recognition of them that we call this inhumanity the “Rape of Nanjing.’’ The gruesome details are rendered compellingly in Iris Chang’s 1997 book, likely the first written in English. Even sworn Nazi John Rabe was so horrified by Japanese sadism, he urged Adolf Hilter to intervene.

To this day the Japanese government has refused to apologize for these and other World War II atrocities. But unlike Holocaust deniers, the revisionism of the Rape of Nanjing has been largely successful in Japan, where a large swath of Japanese society believes they never happened. This has had consequences for Japan, even while it continues the charade.

In fact, soon after the war 28 men went on trial in an international criminal court in Tokyo for the Nanjing Massacre and other crimes. And during the trial, it became clear that Tokyo had known about the atrocities but ignored them. Of the 28, 25 were found guilty on one or more of the charges. All were sentenced in 1948 either to death by hanging or life imprisonment, but by 1956 every one of them had been paroled.

Decades after the massacre, Japan began to deny and distort the history of Nanjing. In books and columns in Japan, a revisionist perspective of the incident began to emerge, including outright denials that it had ever taken place. Ikuhiko Hata’s “Nanjing Incident’’ is considered by the Japanese Ministry of Education to be the definitive historical text on the subject. This book puts the official death count at between 38,000 and 42,000.

In the 1990s, some top Japanese government officials claimed that the massacre was fabricated. Shocked by this, conscientious professors and parliamentarian ministers tried to set the record straight, but they were thwarted at every turn. Official apologies or compensation have, as a result, not been forthcoming.

In 1997, Japan’s former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama apologized to the victims of Japan’s unprovoked aggression. His apology a decade ago, as well as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s in Indonesia in 2005, should be welcome. However, their apologies are personal ones, not government recognitions of atrocities.

The majority of Murayama’s colleagues in the Japanese government did not share his feelings. And he failed to make a formal and official apology in the so-called “No War Resolution.’’ Only 26 percent of the members of Japan’s Diet supported the resolution. Shockingly, 47 percent voiced opposition. Furthermore, Seisuke Okuno, the former education minister, managed to organize a national campaign collecting 4.5 million signatures against the resolution.

The gaff prone Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara said in a 1990 interview: “People say that the Japanese made a holocaust but that is not true. It is a story made up by the Chinese. It has tarnished the image of Japan, but it is a lie.’’ He has been the top political leader of Japan’s most important city since 1999 and has a realistic chance of becoming Japan’s next prime minister.

In the battle of competing Japanese and Chinese nationalism, the struggle over the re-construction of Japan’s national identity, and whether it will incorporate its past into that re-construction, will determine whether a “normal” Japan can be accepted by its Asian neighbors. It behooves Japanese people everywhere to join in the reconstruction by acknowledging what really happened 70 years ago. Otherwise, the country will remain stuck in the past, preventing itself from taking the leadership role it deserves.

Japan pays dearly in denying this history, a fact poignantly illustrated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the United States in April. He reacted defensively to a salvo of questions on “comfort women” and Japan’s wartime responsibility. Contrast that with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder joining with his French, American and British counterparts in D-Day ceremonies in France in June three years ago. These two pictures starkly show how far Japan is behind Germany in coming to terms with its past – and how far Asia is from exorcising the ghosts of Nanjing as compared to Europe’s exorcism of the memories of Auschwitz.

Japan also pays with its international reputation. Japan’s denials cost it permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. China’s Premier Wen Jiabao specifically said in April 2005 that Beijing would wield its veto power to block Japan’s U.N. aspirations until Tokyo “respects history, takes responsibility for history and wins over the trust of peoples in Asia.” If strained relations with its neighbors have such real political costs for Tokyo, then why do Japanese leaders cling to their delusions?

One possible reason is that they hinge pride in their country on the sacrifices their fathers and grandfathers made fighting in Japan’s Pacific War. Many Japanese have falsely conflated Japanese slogans of “support the troops” with supporting the country’s past militarism. For them, to apologize for Japan’s wars of aggression in Asia, and indeed, to acknowledge war crimes the Imperial Army committed during its invasion of China in 1937, would be tantamount to believing the lives of millions of their countrymen were sacrificed in vain, and that the lives of those enshrined at Yasukuni were wasted.

The vast majority of the interred at the Yasukuni Shrine were fighters in the Pacific War, or what many on the right in Japan continue to call the “Greater East Asia War” – a term banned by the American General Headquarters during its post-war occupation due to the name’s association with Japan’s wartime policies, namely the notion of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.

Suspicions about the role of Yasukuni in Japanese nationalism are due in part to Shrine priests secretly adding 1,068 convicted war criminals to the “Book of Souls,” Yasukuni’s official registry. If Japan’s leaders honestly acknowledge the past, the ghosts of Nanjing would be finally laid to rest.

Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the United States has done a lot to support intellectuals and artists suppressed in China or forced to escape their country. And Japan? The oldest democracy in East Asia, and perhaps its freest society, has been conspicuously silent on free speech in China. This is not just a matter of Tokyo prioritizing economic relations over political rights. Do Japanese perhaps feel they have no right to criticize China because of some historical guilt?

Japan’s national image depends on its people’s pride and sense of self. Japan, without building a base of credibility through acknowledging its wartime aggression, has failed to effect true reconciliation with its neighbors. The efforts of Japanese volunteer doctors, engineers and students from NGOs and charities working in many countries in Asia are undermined by the denials their country harbors. Their moral dedication is misdirected by Tokyo’s denial of the past and the value of their work is cheapened. Without that credibility, Japan cannot take on the international role its people can be proud of, a role commensurate with the country’s greatness.

Japanese denials and distortions of history hurt Japan itself. Moreover, those distortions of history make it easier to identify with nationalist Chinese protests, and harder for Japan to join the world in remembering a shameful chapter in its history as Germany does in remembering World War II and the Holocaust.

 In May 2005, I attended a public dialogue in Seoul in which Nobel prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe spoke on the importance of Japan acknowledging its historic wrong doings. He said for Japan to be a full and proper member of the community of East Asian nations, it must properly face its former militarism. Oe observed that true national pride cannot be founded on misrepresenting the past and encouraging collective amnesia about war responsibility.

Until the ghosts of Nanjing are exorcised, Japan cannot achieve its national goal of “normalcy;” it won’t be free from the nightmare of its wartime guilt, until it faces Nanjing’s ghosts. In Asian horror movies, onryo are borne out of a brutal murder. The haunted protagonists in these films free themselves from these maligned spirits only after first acknowledging the crime that made these bitter ghosts. Upon a foundation of honesty and contrition, Japan, too, can free itself, build a solid relationship with its neighbors and take its rightful place as a beacon of freedom in the region.