[The Korea Herald] How can N.E. Asia improve relations?

Chinese protest Japanese activists landing on one of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. (Yonhap News)

By John Power

Northeast Asia has long been a region characterized by uneasy relations between neighbors. This month vividly demonstrated that reality as long-standing territorial disputes involving Japan, Korea and China flared up.

President Lee Myung-bak’s unexpected visit to Dokdo on Aug. 10 began a series of hostile exchanges between Korea and Japan, the conclusion of which is yet to be seen.

Just days after Lee’s visit, a group of Chinese activists sparked a tit-for-tat row with Japan by landing on one of a number of disputed islands ― known as Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan ― in the East China Sea.

Earlier in the year, Korea-China ties came under strain over China’s deportation of North Korean defectors back to their homeland. Korea also has an ongoing territorial dispute with China, and contests aspects of its interpretation of history, including its claims to the Goguryeo kingdom and the folk song “Arirang.”

South Koreans protest against China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors (Yonhap News)
A session of the South Korean National Assembly’s Land, Transport and Maritime Committee addresses the Dokdo issue (Yonhap News

Yet, for all of the apparent tension, the three big players of the region could hardly be more reliant on each other. China is Korea’s biggest trade partner, while Japan is the country’s second-biggest source of imports. Korea received more than 2.2 million tourists from China last year, and some 1.8 million from Japan. Each party has a clear imperative to maintain strong and productive relations.

But despite their interdependence, the three countries’ disputes pose a real risk to ties in the region, warned Sheila A. Smith, a senior research fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“The irony is that all three nations have deep cultural and economic ties, and yet these disputes continue to test their relationships,” Smith told The Korea Herald.

“Diplomatic efforts to protest against actions that are seen as offensive are designed to communicate the depth of displeasure, e.g. the Japanese response to President Lee’s visit was to postpone high-level bilateral meetings. The danger here for both sides is that a diplomatic freeze can make it hard to solve problems.”

Trilateral FTA

Smith highlighted challenges in the security and economic realms that require close cooperation between Northeast Asian states.

“A serious strain in their relationship will make it difficult to cooperate, for example, on crisis management should North Korea decide to yet again test the region. Economic cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul also is vital, and the currency swap arrangements that allow Seoul access to capital from Tokyo have been another type of crisis management mechanism that would be damaging if it were affected.”

It is in the economic realm that perhaps the most ambitious proposals for closer ties have already been put forward. In May, Korea, China and Japan announced their resolve to begin negotiations on a three-way free trade agreement by the end of the year.

“The three governments have a common opinion that they (will) try to start the procedure for the preparatory work this year,” said an official at the North East Asia Cooperation Team at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The official, who noted that his department was not directly responsible for dealing with the pact, would not be drawn on whether the pact would contribute toward resolving historical and other issues of dispute, only saying: “The FTA can facilitate exchanges among the peoples of the three countries, especially in the economic area.”

The theory that greater trade between countries leads to better relations in other areas is long established, however. Academics such as the University of Bonn’s Erich Weede, for instance, argue that countries that trade in great volumes are less likely to go to war.

Choo Jae-woo, an associate professor of Chinese foreign policy at Kyung Hee University, said that closer economic integration for the region is an unstoppable trend, despite recent tensions.

“All these three states ― South Korea, Japan and China ― they are willing to move forward toward integration, especially in the economic area so I don’t think territorial issues are going to hinder that process.But, at the same time, through that integration process they can have a better channel of communication and negotiation over these issues,” said Choo.

History remains a shaper of regional relations, despite the reality of trade today. Animosity over the past and how it is remembered continues to run deep across the region. The Seoul-based Asia Peace, History and Education Network works to form a consensus on the shared history of the countries in the region, as well as correct what it sees as historical inaccuracies in school textbooks. Yang Mi-gang of the organization said that providing an objective view of history could heal old wounds.

“We have worked and focused to create a shared consensus of history through making common history books, a youth history camp and exchanges of citizens and teachers,” Yang said. “That means we have fostered cooperation of the private sector in Northeast Asia. This work we have done contributed a certain part in resolving the conflict among Korea, China and Japan.”

But cynical opportunism by politicians from all sides, often exploiting nationalist sentiment, makes moving forward a problem, according to both Choo and Smith.

“Whenever there is a stalemate, whenever a conflict of interest arises, then they can always resort to that kind of measure to acquire bigger bargaining power. The potential of these issues becoming political tools to (the) integration process is one scary thing,” said Choo.

The circumstances of how peace was secured in the aftermath of World War II continue to affect Korea, China and Japan’s perception of each other, Smith noted, with neither China nor Korea now recognizing normalization treaties they signed with Japan.

“Changes in both South Korea ― democratization ― and in China ― economic growth and the growth of citizen activism including the Internet netizens ― have allowed many with their countries the opportunity to voice their concerns over treaties and agreements they had no influence over or perhaps even interest in during the peace treaty negotiations between South Korea, in 1965, and the PRC, in 1978,” Smith said.

“The challenge really is for the political leaders of all three nations to find a way to resist the nationalist impulse that seems to be taking hold over these disputed territories. Domestic elections and leadership transitions may make it tempting to allow citizen activism to dominate the agenda on sensitive issues of international relations, but the resolution of these tensions still rests with those who lead the government.”

Resisting populism

For Kim Yong-soon, a professor at the Institute of East and West Studies at Yonsei University, nationalism is only tangentially connected to regional tensions.

“Territorial issues are not about emotion, but about national core interests, territory and sovereignty. Nationalism plays a limited role in straining the cultural, political and economic ties among Northeast Asian countries. Greater and wiser diplomatic strategy is needed to reconcile the differences in each country’s perception toward territorial disputes,” Kim said.

Some analysts favor not just greater regional cooperation, but some level of integration as well. The feasibility of a Northeast Asian union, in a region where feelings of nationalism run high, is open to debate. Any European Union-style centralization of political power would inevitably raise concerns in individual countries about the erosion of national sovereignty. But whatever form integration might take, said Kim, the region must embrace greater cooperation beyond just the economic realm.

“Not only to improve relations, but to create more room for strategic partnership, greater integration is needed, especially in security cooperation. Debates about regional communities like the EU have been limited to primarily economic cooperation in Northeast Asia. Nowadays, however, debates on these communities should consider various aspects, including security and culture. Economic or security cooperation among regional countries will enhance individual interests as well as serve as a desirable trend for building mutual trust and promoting prosperity.”

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[The Korea Herald] Is Korea’s drug policy working?

By John Power 

If law enforcement figures are any guide, Korea’s illegal drug problem pales in comparison with much of the rest of the world. There were 7,011 arrests for drug offenses in 2011, according to the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office, a 7 percent drop from the previous year. The U.S., by way of comparison, in 2010 made more than 1.6 million drug arrests, more than 36 times Korea’s figure, even after differences in population are accounted for.

“Korea is a relatively drug-free country,” said Hwang Sung-hyun, a professor of criminology at Cyber University. “Internationally, the qualification of a drug-free country is whether there are more than 10,000 narcotics-related convicts. In the case of Korea, from 1999 to 2002, the number reached more than 10,000 for four consecutive years, but from 2003 to 2006, the number was reduced to 7,000 and in 2007, the numbers again reached more than 10,000.” 

(Jakub Jirsah/123 rf)

Korea’s relationship with illegal substances, however, has evolved in the last two decades to present new challenges to the authorities. From the 1990s, the range of available drugs increased to include Yaba, LSD, Ecstasy and Nalbuphine hydrochloride, according to “Drug Control Policy in Korea,” a 2004 report by Cho Byung-in, a senior research fellow at the Korean Institute of Criminology. The profile of the average user also became harder to predict. Where drug abuse had been seen as largely confined to the criminal and entertainment worlds, by the turn of the century drug users included significant numbers of salaried workers, housewives, students and farmers. The response from the authorities to these trends has been tough by the standards of almost anywhere. The Act on the Control of Narcotics of 2000 allows for habitual sellers of banned substances to receive the death penalty, while smuggling can carry life imprisonment.

War on drugs

Tough punishment is an important part of the country’s anti-drugs strategy, according to the KIC’s Cho, who described the country’s drug laws as “sufficiently strict and effective.”

“Despite the fact that no state has yet been fully successful in the ‘war on drugs,’ I believe that not onlyillegal drug traffickers but also illegal users should be strictly punished to maximize the deterrence effect,” said Cho, who pointed to last year’s drop in drug arrests as evidence of effective enforcement. 

Social pressures may also play their part in keeping drug use relatively contained. That Korea could be classified as drug-free may be down to culture more than effective law enforcement.

“(The) war on drugs is almost an annual event whenever drug usage becomes a social problem,” said Hwang. “(But) I don’t think it’s necessarily effective. The reason why Korea is a drug-free country is the result of the people’s strong rejection of dealers and suppliers, not because of a strong and effective drug policy, necessarily.”

Whatever their effectiveness, punitive legal approaches to fighting drugs remain the source of ideological debate across the world. Critics of the war on drugs in the U.S. and elsewhere argue that harsh laws do more to put non-violent people in prison than reduce drug abuse. 

In recent years, liberalization has taken place in a number of jurisdictions including California, Argentina, the Czech Republic and Portugal, which in 2001 became the first country in Europe to end all criminal sanctions for personal drug use.

Hwang said it was necessary to form a social consensus about what substances should and should not be legal. But, he said, Korean society was not ready for the kind of liberalization seen elsewhere. 

“Marijuana is illegal in Korea and the States but many European countries legalized it for a time, and even in the States, criminologists have been discussing legalizing it recently. In the case of Korea, (choosing) which drugs should be (considered) psychotropic drugs must be considered with the general consent of the citizens, like the case of marijuana. It is too early to legalize marijuana considering the mood of citizens.”

Part of the impetus for liberalization worldwide has been a drive to treat drug abuse as primarily a public health issue, an approach taken in Portugal and the Netherlands. Too much of a focus on criminal justice, the argument goes, impedes access to treatment for those who need it. 

Lack of drug court

Lee Tae-kyung, a doctor at the Department of Mental Hygiene at Seoul National Hospital, said that the scale of drug abuse here may have reached the point where criminal justice solutions are no longer effective. 

“While the scale of the illicit drug market is confined to a small level, law enforcement is an effective way to control it,” said Lee. “However, if the number of addicts has increased beyond a certain level, law enforcement is not enough to prevent the drug addiction epidemic. 

“Korean society is now entering into a stage that drug abuse should be considered a public health issue. Because drug addiction is a chronic progressive disease, there is a need to support its treatment and rehabilitation.”

Lee said that the absence of a drug court and inconsistent treatment of addicts are major impediments to tackling drug abuse. 

“As we don’t have a drug court in the judiciary system, the decisions of courts are inconsistent in illicit drug cases. Although the most important thing in the treatment of drug abuse is that the decision should be timely given, our system does not have contingent plans in order to provide an effective response.”

Convincing people with drug problems to come forward for treatment of their own volition is another challenge, according to Hwang Jae-uk, a professor of psychiatry at Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital in Seoul. 

“Most drug abusers do not have insight into their mental illness ― substance abuse or substance dependence. However, some drug abusers want medical and psychiatric treatment voluntarily. But they are afraid of exposing their identity to the authorities … although all the medical records would be kept secret.” 

Treatment deficit

Everyone convicted of a drug offense should have access to treatment, added Soon Chun Hyang University Hospital’s Hwang, something that is not currently happening. 

“Although there is some medical and psychiatric treatment (available) during punishment, most drug-related criminals are not given the treatment. I think all the drug-related criminals should be evaluated by a psychiatrist and if needed, the treatment for drug abuse and dependence and other psychiatric disorders should be provided by the authorities.”

Cyber University’s Hwang said it was misguided to see drug abuse simply in terms of law and order and not recognize it as a matter of addiction. 

“Drug addiction is a psychological, mental phenomenon, thus punishment is not the only answer but treatment must come first. Thus, an effective probation system must be put into place for drug convicts.”

But it is not just in officialdom that change is needed in the response to drug abuse, according to Lee of Seoul National Hospital. A societal change must happen in perceptions of drug addiction. 

“People need to change the way they regard those with drug addictions,” said Lee. “People think that drug addiction is just phenomena by which a chemical makes a pharmacological effect in our body.” 

However, addiction is a psychiatric disease, which has a variety of symptoms and it is a progressive, chronic, primary disease characterized by compulsion, loss of control, continued drug use despite adverse consequences and distortions in normal thinking, such as denial.” 

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea ensure energy security?

By John Power

An unusually hot summer is raising fears of a repeat of last year’s country-wide blackouts. The Korea Power Exchange last week issued a number of power shortage warnings as scorching weather pushed people to crank up their air conditioners, causing reserve levels to drop below 3 million kilowatts. While Korea’s longest heat wave since 1994 has certainly stretched energy reserves, the country’s energy security challenges go much deeper than unseasonable weather. The world’s ninth-largest energy consumer, Korea imports about 97 percent of its energy sources due to a lack of fossil fuels and uranium needed to run its nuclear power plants. With the grid already stretched thin and high economic expectations for the future, Korea has to be able to rely on a stable and affordable energy supply.

Much of that responsibility falls on Korea Electric Power Company, the country’s main electricity provider. KEPCO assured The Korea Herald that it has measures in place to deal with potential shortages.

Officials at the Korea Power Exchange keep an eye on power levels after a shortage alert earlier this month. (Yonhap News)

“KEPCO has strengthened information sharing with the concerned organizations and established a framework for prompt response to address power supply emergency situations,” the company said in a statement. “To be prepared for low reserve margins, we have increased demand-side management resources and their implementation. Also, we have reviewed our manuals for addressing power supply emergencies and performed various drills.”

Roots of the problem

KEPCO also plans to increase its reserve rate from the current 6-8 percent to 13-20 percent by 2014, which it says will remove the need for emergency conservation measures seen this and the previous summer.

Korea’s energy crunch has been a long time in the making. Past predictions of future energy demand have proved far from accurate. At the same time, above-expectations consumption over the last decade has not been accompanied by any significant expansion of the grid’s capacity.

“In 1999, we expected 2011 consumption to be 351 terawatt-hours but the actual consumption was 455 TWh,” said Roh Dong-seok, a senior research fellow at the Korea Economic Energy Institute. “On the other hand, in 1999 we expected the capacity of our facilities (in 2011) to be 76 gigawatts and the actual was 77 GW, only a marginal difference. The reason why the expectation was quite precise is because it is impossible to build facilities in a short amount of time. Especially something like a nuclear power plant takes about 10 years at least to build.”

With increasing capacity a long term project, encouraging a reduction in consumption remains one of the government’s few immediate options for avoiding shortages. Recently, the government duly asked businesses and households to voluntarily rein in consumption. Low electricity prices, at almost half the OECD average, are seen by many as driving over-consumption. Last year, electricity was sold at less than 88 percent of the optimal price as determined by KEPCO.

“The grand campaign the government has launched this year of saving energy can hardly achieve anything without being accompanied by an actualization (increase) in electricity prices,” said Roh.

“The only (other) way to secure the supply at the moment is to enforce strong consumption monitoring.”

In the long term, Korea simply needs a greater energy supply. One essential step toward this, according to University of Seoul international relations professor Ahn Se-hyun, is to secure resources overseas.

“From Korea’s standpoint, Russian natural gas and shale gas access on the North American continent are the most important tasks to deal with, along with African and Australian resources,” said Ahn.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade last year allocated about $9 billion for the purpose of securing natural resources in developing countries. Such a strategy brings with it the potential for controversy. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last summer warned against a “new colonialism” in Africa, by which rich countries strip poor countries of their resources with little regard for the wellbeing of the local inhabitants.

Regional rivals

While this is potentially a concern when it comes to Africa, Ahn says, Seoul has done a good job of avoiding a vulture-like image overseas.

“Specifically, the Republic of Korea put more emphasis on helping out local communities by using more of a local labor force and eventually creating the Seoul consensus, which is distinct from Beijing or Washington Consensus. As an example, providing medical social care services could be most tempting for the ROK considering the high quality of human resources within the ROK.

“Not only in Africa, but also in Central Asia, the ROK is using a strong network grid and historical ties and ethnic Koreans to avoid the neocolonial approach, which China (has) failed to do.”

The sentiment fostered in poorer nations is just one consideration in exploiting resources abroad. Another is how the behemoths of the region will affect Seoul’s energy strategy. Negotiating regional rivalries and security issues will be a crucial task, Ahn said.

“Russia is a very important energy partner for both Korea and Russia, especially regarding massive natural gas in the Siberian region and a transfer mechanism, possibly a pipeline scheme.

“Therefore, in the next few decades, an energy alliance among three countries, possibly four countries including North Korea, is realistic and essential. However, on the African continent, ROK and China will turn out to be strong competitors in the next few decades. Also, as far as energy aid to the North (goes), I would expect severe energy competition or conflict between ROK and China in the next several years.”

But fossil fuels are no less finite overseas, and KEPCO has committed itself to investment and research in renewable energy. Among its focuses are wind energy, photovoltaics, thermal energy and integrated gasification combined cycle, a technology used to turn carbon fuels into gas. KEPCO formed KEPCO-Uhde Inc. with German engineering company Uhde to foster this latter technology in July last year.

Questions about renewables

“Currently a feasibility study is being performed on building a photovoltaic energy station using idle land at Shin-Namwon Substation,” KEPCO said. “Most notably, KEPCO’s new head office in Naju, where it is to be relocated, will be Korea’s number one energy-conserving building as it uses various renewable energy sources such as building integrated photovoltaics and thermal energy.”

Yet, many remain skeptical of the economic viability of such renewable energy sources. Roh said that renewable energy can cost up to six times as much as nuclear energy, which currently produces more than 31 percent of the country’s energy needs. The government aims to raise that share to almost 50 percent by 2024.

“Many who support the use of renewable energy ― including civic organizations ― think if we take into account the trend of decreasing prices of renewable energy, by 2020, we can reach grid parity (the point at which renewable energy is as cheap as fossil fuels),” he said. “By and large, I agree that the cost of renewable energy will decrease but I doubt a dramatic decrease will be possible like they argue.”

KEPCO, whose subsidiary Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Corporation handles nuclear energy operations in the country, is betting otherwise.

“Renewable energy is presently increasing mostly among advanced countries, but after 2020, when renewable energy sources are expected to reach grid parity, the renewable energy market is forecast to exponentially grow,” the company said. “KEPCO is also looking into the future in this area and is seeking to develop a specialized business model and establish a business fleet with Korean companies to enter the global market.”

[The Korea Herald] How can Korea nurture better Olympians?

By John Power

It has been a tumultuous first week for Korea at the 2012 London Olympic Games. The disqualification of four of its badminton players, a number of controversial judging decisions and underwhelming performances have led to an at times rocky competition for the nation.

Nevertheless, team Korea had by Sunday easily met its goal of 10 gold medals and looks certain to make a top-10 finish in the medal standings. Korea has made the top 10 at six of the last seven Games, an impressive accomplishment for a country competing among a host of richer and more populous nations. The country is expected to bag more medals with the start of taekwondo, the national sport, at the Games on Wednesday.

It is entirely possible that Korea could best its record of 13 gold medals that it took home at the last Olympics by the competition’s end. Koreans, however, are not known for resting on their laurels, and expectations are ever growing.

Jin Jong-oh stands on the podium after winning gold in the men’s 50-meter pistol on Sunday. (Yonhap News)

“When considering the Korean population, a top-10 medal standing is a surprising goal in the Olympic Games, yet many people still want a higher medal rank. Recently, we can see the change of attitude about it,” said Ko Seong-kyeong, a professor at the Department of Physical Education at Daegu University.

Facilities

Better medal rankings require better athletes ― how to nurture them is the question. The Korean Olympic Committee declined to comment, but part of the answer must come down to the country’s facilities for its national athletes, which have seen major development in recent years.

The country has two national training centers for its athletes: the Korea National Training Center in Taeneung in Seoul and the Jincheon Training Center in North Chungcheong Province, which only opened last year at a cost of 184 billion won ($163 million). Neither of the two centers responded to requests for comment in time for publication. The government also provides considerable incentives to high-performing athletes: medalists can receive exemption from military service, as well as benefit from a special government pension.

“We have continuously improved athletes’ training conditions, with two national training centers for competitive sports prepared and many other training complexes also established by local governments,” said Ko.

Advances in the science of sports have also had a big impact on Korea’s sporting success, Ko added.

“The sports science has developed with hardware during that period. Korea Sports Science Institute was established in 1980, in which a lot of sports scientists have contributed to improving athletic performance. Especially some sports like archery, gymnastics and skating have achieved great results.”

Chung Jae-yong, a sports journalist with Korea Broadcasting System, believes that Korea can realistically aim higher in the medal rankings in the years to come. But first, the country needs to change its “authoritarian” approach to fostering athletes.

“I definitely think a top five instead of top 10 is a possible goal in the future. However, to achieve this, Korea should change its approach to athletics. The state sport system’s authoritarianism limits the number of participants in athletics. Korea should launch a balanced system between athletics and academia so that it can expand the number of participants and also draw better talent.”

In his paper “The Authoritarian Policy in South Korean Sport: A Critical Perspective,” published in the European Journal of Social Sciences, Chung argues that much of the present system for selecting and training athletes retains the authoritarian basis of its establishment during the Park Chung-hee era. Park and subsequent leaders’ focus on using international sporting events as a tool for propaganda, Chung says, has led to a system which neglects the educational needs and well-being of athletes and the sporting needs of the general public.

“Especially for those student athletes who represent the country, their rights to be educated as normal kids are extremely limited once they are in the national training center,” said Chung.

“This issue should be addressed. Regarding athletes in general, the numbers of gyms and fields are not enough.”

Education issues

The student-athlete code, by which colleges and high schools allocate up to 3 percent of admission places to student athletes regardless of test scores, is one controversial legacy of the Park era. For young athletes, a majority of whom do not attend class regularly according to research, pursuing an education while training and competing remains a challenge. Having missed out on their education as young competitors, athletes can risk an uncertain future upon retirement.

“Many school (-aged) athletes have been absent from regular classes for their training and preparing for the Games, and some of them seem to record very low results in their school reports,” said Ko. “Athletes have to participate in the regular classes and sports leaders must guarantee it.”

For the long term, Chung sees that fundamental change is inevitable.

“Although there are signals that show the sport system is on the verge of change, the Korean government needs to keep pushing sport reform with a long-term plan … Major sports reform is inevitable not only for the human rights of athletes but also for better performance. The authoritarian system which was pretty effective in the old days is now hurting the growth of participants and blocking the best talent to dedicate their career to sports.”

Providing post-retirement opportunities and more facilities for the general public would go some toward better athletes in the future, according to Cho Young-han, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who has writen papers on sport and nationalism.

“More infrastructure is needed: in terms of infrastructure, I mean more sport facilities ― not only for elite athletes, but also for general practitioners ― balanced education for elite athletes, and possible job opportunities as elite athletes and as trainers after retirement,” said Cho.

“If they are provided enough, more youth will get into sporting activities, which in turn (will) produce more talented athletes at the Olympics.”

Areas for growth

While it has shown Olympic prowess in recent decades, Korea’s success has not extended evenly across disciplines. Though Korea has excelled at archery and taekwondo, and had success in swimming, among other events, there remains obvious room for improvement in track-and-field.

“These track-and-field events, gymnastics and swimming are not popular sports in Korea,” said Ko.

“So many promising athletes have changed to popular sports because they can increase their possibility of success as a sports star.”