Friday, April 30, 2021

The Japan-Korea History Wars

Will Not End, For Now

By Daniel Sneider,  Lecturer, International Policy at Stanford University and APP Member

Toyo Keizai, April 30, 2021

Inside the Biden administration, there is a deepening frustration over what is described as a “painful” breakdown of relations between Japan and South Korea. In meeting after meeting, American officials from the President on down are preaching the importance of trilateral cooperation between the United States and its two key allies in Northeast Asia.

That cooperation is a key piece of the Biden administration’s broader strategy to confront China. The administration’s North Korea policy, nearing the end of its review, depends in part on the three countries lining up together.

Publicly, the U.S. extracts ritual statements of support for trilateral coordination, and holds meetings of senior officials, focused on forging a joint response to North Korea, and hopefully China. Privately, senior U.S. officials are pushing Korea and Japan to make real progress in restoring working relations, even to resolve the issues of wartime history that continue to plague their relations. So far, however, there is no evidence of serious talks on the history issues.

The recent decision of the Seoul Central District Court to dismiss a suit by Korean victims of wartime sexual servitude, so-called military comfort women, has generated some hopes that both governments might find a route out of the current impasse.

The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in has been signaling some flexibility and interest in improving relations. Senior Korean officials have gone out their way to tell their American counterparts that it is the Japanese who are holding up any progress.

The Japanese government has indeed offered a cold response to the Korean signals, arguing that they first need to see actions to shut down the legal challenges over comfort women and forced laborers. Japanese officials have written off the Moon government and place their hopes on a conservative government coming to power next year in South Korea.

Both Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon are weakened politically and their room to maneuver is even less than previously.

“It is unlikely that the Korean government would change its positions and suggest mutually agreeable solutions to Japan,” says former South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung Hwan, a key bridge between the two countries. The losses by the ruling progressive party in the Seoul and Busan mayoral elections, and Moon’s plummeting popularity, make it highly unlikely there will be a breakthrough until after the presidential election next March, predicts Yu, who previously served as Korean Ambassador to Japan.

The recent Japanese parliamentary by-elections have similarly weakened Suga and made him even more under the sway of hardline conservatives in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who oppose any concessions on wartime history issues. Japanese public opinion, shaped in part by conservative media in Japan, reflects the view that Korea is an unreliable partner.

“Suga has to pay attention to public opinion because the LDP is facing difficulties in the coming election of the House of Representatives this year,” observes Tokyo University Professor Kawashima Shin, an expert on wartime history issues. “If Suga makes any positive response to Moon’s approach, it would be a negative factor for Suga and for the LDP.”

The war for Washington’s favor

At the moment, the two American allies are engaged in a fierce, though undeclared, the war in Washington, trying to convince the new administration to take their side.

The latest exchange of fire took place when Prime Minister Suga visited Washington in April. The attention of Japanese and American media was focused on the discussion of China, and on Taiwan. Most observers missed the rather blunt statements on Korea issued by Suga, first at his joint press conference with Biden and then again in an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

While making a nod toward trilateral cooperation, Suga pointedly pressured the U.S. not to retreat from a commitment to complete denuclearization of North Korea, using a term favored by the Trump administration, calling for “CVID,” or Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization.

Suga’s remarks were a clear effort to head off any move by the Biden administration, after its policy review, to seek an arms control style deal with Pyongyang that would leave its shorter-range missiles, and its existing nuclear arsenal, intact.

He called recent tests of short-range ballistic missiles by the North Koreans a “clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions” and a “threat to the peace and security” of Japan and the region. Negotiations, he said, must eliminate the threat of “ballistic missiles of all ranges possessed by North Korea.”

President Moon, who is heading to Washington in May, responded with an interview with the New York Times. Moon laid responsibility on Donald Trump for the failure of the summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. His message to Biden was to resume direct talks with the North Koreans as early as possible, a goal that is central to Moon’s own political agenda.

The court ruling opens a door – will Suga and Moon walk through it?

Despite the battles for Washington’s favor, the April 21 decision by the Seoul District Court could have a significant positive impact on the history wars. The decision effectively contradicted the decision by a similar level court in early January which had ruled that the Japanese government had to provide compensation to 12 former comfort women, supporting the argument that principles of international human rights overrode claims to exemption from such suits based on state sovereignty.

The April decision in a suit by a separate group of women was in line with established international law, say Korean legal experts and likely to be upheld over the earlier decision.

“The court came back to the classical authentic attitudes on the sovereign immunity issue,” Seoul National University legal scholar Heo Seongwook told me. “Most probably, this conclusion will be maintained at the appeals court.”

In his ruling, Justice Min Seong-Cheol also significantly referred to the 2015 agreement reached by Japan and the previous conservative government of Park Geun-Hye in South Korea to attempt to settle the issue of compensation and apology to the Korean women victims.

That agreement created a Japanese-funded Fund which provided compensation, accepted by two-thirds of the surviving victims, along with an expression of apology. The suits were filed on behalf of supporters of the Korean organization representing those who rejected this settlement.

Justice Min acknowledged that the results of that agreement may not have been “fully satisfactory compared with the pain they had to suffer through in the past,” but that it did have validity as an existing agreement and was a Japanese offer of a “remedy for the violation of rights.”

The progressive government had unilaterally dismantled the 2015 agreement, closing down the operations of the Fund in support of activists who opposed the deal. But following the January court decision, which triggered a harsh response from Tokyo, Moon reversed course slightly. He expressed dismay at the decision and acknowledged that the 2015 agreement remained in force as an official pact.

Moon’s shift seems to have set the stage for the reversal in the District Court. “President Moon’s remarks…indirectly influenced the decision,” says Professor Park Cheol Hee, a prominent expert on Japan at Seoul National University. “Still there is no evidence that Blue House gave any guideline to the court.”

By reaffirming the 2015 agreement, the Korean court and Moon have “opened the door to diplomatic negotiation between Korea and Japan,” says Professor Park. But the obstacles remain considerable. On the Korean side, Moon is reluctant to take the next obvious step and reopen the comfort women fund established in 2015, accepting that as the basis for dealing with those victims who remain to be included.

Japanese official response to the court decision has been extremely cautious, led by the Prime Minister’s Office and the LDP.

“I think that now it depends on Suga,” says former foreign ministry official Togo Kazuhiko, who has been a voice for compromise on history issues. “If Suga sees this verdict as an opportunity, he has a room to move.” And if the April ruling loses on appeal, Suga can always argue that he did his best to improve relations, says Togo.

The other time bomb hanging over this is the potential decision of the Korean courts to dissolve the assets of Japanese corporations which were judged to have to pay compensation to former Korean forced laborers from the wartime period.

That case is legally more solvable as it involves individual plaintiffs and private firms but the Japanese government has pressured the firms not to yield, arguing it is a violation of the 1965 treaty which normalized relations between the two countries and settled, in principle, such wartime claims.

In Japan, there are voices in favor of improving relations with South Korea, echoing American officials who see the strategic importance of bringing Korea in with Japan in the broader response to China. But Suga personally opposes any concessions and shares a deep mistrust of the Moon administration, based on his eight years as Chief Cabinet Secretary to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, says Professor Kawashima.

That leaves Washington waiting for an opening to help repair these damaged relations.

“President Biden fully understands the delicate history issues between Korea and Japan,” former South Korean foreign minister Yu told me. Biden played the role of mediator on these issues during the Obama administration, setting in motion the diplomatic engagement that led to the 2015 agreement, in which Yu played a key role. But conditions may not yet be ripe to repeat that effort.

“I believe President Biden will wait until next year, when a new team is installed in both Korea and Japan and ready for compromise,” the Korean diplomat says, “a compromise for the sake of their legacy and also for the betterment of all involved, including the United States.”

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Clyde Prestowitz takes issue with George Koo

Response to Asia Times critique of my book on China by George Koo

click to order

By CLYDE PRESTOWITZ, President of the Economic Strategy Institute and APP member

Asia Times April 26, 2021

I must begin by thanking George Koo for his interest in and important commentary on my recent book, The World Turned Upside Down: America, China and the Struggle for Global Leadership.

By way of introducing the reader to this book, Koo mentions my earlier book, Trading Places (1988), that dealt with the trade frictions and negotiations between the US and Japan in the 1980s when I was the chief US negotiator with Japan’s key trade officials and CEOs like Sony founder Akio Morita.

There were many trade issues between Japan and America at that time including Japanese displacement of US producers in industries like consumer electronics, steel, autos, and semiconductors. With the US trade deficit soaring and hundreds of thousands of US workers losing their jobs, I was under enormous pressure to fix what we called the Japan problem.

Japan’s game

There were many causes behind this problem, but two factors were fundamental. One was Japan’s yen policy. The Bank of Japan constantly intervened in currency markets to buy dollars and sell yen, thereby holding the value of the yen down versus the dollar and indirectly subsidizing Japanese exports while also imposing a hidden tariff on imports.

I and my colleagues negotiated what became known as the Plaza Agreement under which Japan agreed to halt currency-market intervention and to allow the yen to float to its true value. Ultimately it rose by more than 50%. 

The second factor was what I called “the name of the game.”

The US was playing a game called “free trade” without special subsidies for targeted industries, or industrial development targets, or hidden barriers to imports and foreign investment, or compulsory transfer of technology as a condition of market entry, and without export subsidies that could enable predatory dumping of products in foreign markets aimed at driving foreign producers out of business.

Japan was playing a game called “catch-up industrial policy.”

There was much talk at the time of fair and unfair trade, but that was all a misunderstanding. It was as if the Americans were playing baseball and the Japanese were playing American football. No one was cheating and everyone was trying as hard as possible. But football is a rougher game than baseball and the baseball players were taking a licking. 

When I recognized this reality, I urged the US government to begin playing like the Japanese. Then-president Ronald Reagan listened to me and the US government changed its policies to be more like those of Japan.

It established a government-industry joint venture called Sematech that funded development of more advanced semiconductor production equipment. Rather than waiting for industry to complain, it self-initiated anti-dumping legal procedures against the Japanese industry, and it also provided additional funds for semiconductor research and development.

It also negotiated what came to be called the Semiconductor Agreement, under which Japan pledged to halt all dumping of chips in the US market and to enable full opening of the Japanese market for US chips. 

I could go on with other details but suffice it to say that the US trade deficit with Japan declined, Japanese auto companies began producing their cars in America, and the US semiconductor industry remains the overall world leader. Taiwan’s TSMC has become the leading chip fabricator, but it is now building major fabrication facilities in America. Thus the US will remain the leader in this industry for the foreseeable future. 

China’s game

Regarding China, Koo says I accuse it of rampant theft of intellectual property, but this is not an accusation. It is merely a statement of a simple fact.

I do not chastise China for doing this, because obtaining intellectual property by whatever means necessary is what all countries that have ever achieved industrial development, including the United States, have done.

Few today realize that there was a debate at the founding of America in the 1790s. Thomas Jefferson foresaw a country of yeoman farmers exporting agricultural products and raw materials. Alexander Hamilton saw Britain becoming the workshop of the world through industrialization and wanted America to do the same. Eventually, Hamilton won the debate because America nearly lost the War of 1812 for want of weapons-manufacturing capacity.

It grieves me that Koo thinks I hold a zero-sum attitude such that I see any gain for China as a loss for the US and vice versa. I must emphasize that such is not my attitude. As it happens, my wife is Chinese. Through her I am related to many Chinese both in America and in China. I wish nothing but the best for those relatives of mine and for all Chinese people. 

Helping China

Indeed, I was one of the leaders of the first US trade mission to China in 1982. I brought with me to Beijing a group of American business leaders who were interested in investing and starting businesses in China.

I and the rest of the US government urged them to invest, to transfer technology to China, to build factories in China and thereby contribute to the development of China as they had contributed to the development of Europe and Japan after World War II.

During my time as a leading official, the US Commerce Department strongly promoted US investment in China as well as Chinese exports to the United States.

Later, as a consultant I helped Intel Corporation and other US companies establish themselves in China. I do not harbor any fear of China’s economy becoming bigger than that of America. Indeed, I believe it should be bigger in view of the fact that China has four times the US population. Objectively speaking, its economy should be four times as large.

Having said that, I do believe that China, like Japan in the 1980s, is playing a different game than the US. Like Japan then, China today is playing “catch-up,” and this involves the government in obtaining technology, subsidizing and/or protecting the development of certain industries.

The best example is the program called “Made in China 2025.” This aims for essential autonomy for China in a long list of key high-technology industries such as semiconductors, robotics, aviation, and many more. These industries are receiving special assistance from the Chinese government.

Let me emphasize that I think Beijing is right to give these industries special help. I would do likewise if I were running China. 

However, this “catch-up” policy is at odds with many of the rules of the World Trade Organization. This leads officials in the US and elsewhere to accuse China of playing unfairly. I do not so accuse. Rather, I say America should do the same. It should have a Made in America 2025 or 2030 program.

Rather than complain about China’s “unfair trade.” the US should copy the smart things China is doing.

Belt and Road

For example, China has undertaken the Belt and Road project. It is a brilliant concept that I deeply admire because it is meeting a major global need while also promoting China’s global strategic expansion and influence. I am advising the United States to launch a similar program along with other countries as partners. It should be a real win-win effort.

The Party

George Koo suggests that I have problems with China because it is governed by a Leninist political party, the Communist Party of China.

A Leninist party is one formed on the principles dictated by Lenin when he established the Bolshevik Party in 1917. Such a party is completely dedicated to holding complete power in a society and to concentrating that power in the hands of a very few people at the top of the party.

It is a party that recognizes no limits on its power and no untouchable rights of the individuals it rules. It is a totalitarian party that trusts no one and suspects and surveils everyone.

I make a distinction between the people of China and the Communist Party of China. I wish the people only the best. I have concerns about the Party. I admit it has achieved many positive things. Yet it has also made its driving values quite clear in Document 9, the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere On the Ideological Sphere.”

Here the CPC quite clearly states its opposition to “Western constitutional democracy,” to the concept of “universal values” (such as “all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights”), to civil society, and to journalism “not subject to Party discipline.” This, in effect, is a denunciation of everything for which America and the rest of the free world stands. 

If the CPC’s doctrine were applied only to China, the conflict might not be too serious. But Beijing has been using its increasing wealth and power to extend the reach of these anti- liberal doctrines.

Of course, the crackdown in Hong Kong is technically an internal matter, but because Hong Kong has always been an international city, the overthrow of its one country-two systems regime far short of the 50 years initially promised by Beijing is having global repercussions, as is the expulsion of most foreign journalists from China.

Increasingly, foreigners have no knowledge of what is happening in the world’s most populous country. Beijing’s halt of the showing of professional US basketball games in China because of a tweet by the Houston Rockets coach supporting demonstrators in Hong Kong seems to be an effort to halt free speech not only in China but in the US as well.

The sudden, unannounced suspension by Beijing of various imports from Australia because Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 virus appears to be an attempt to impose censorship on Australia.

The advice from Beijing to Mercedes-Benz that it had best remove the Dalai Lama from any advertisements, even those outside China, if it wishes to continue doing business in China is just another example of the attempt to export censorship by the CPC abroad.

The militarization of South China Sea reefs and the swarming of Chinese fishing and para-police boats around Philippine, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Indonesian islands and reefs sends a hostile, threatening, bullying message. 

I wish China peace, prosperity, and happiness. I also wish for the free world to continue enjoying free speech, rule of law, and human rights. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Monday Asia Events, April 26, 2021

 9:00-10:15am (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsor: China Environment Forum, Wilson Center (WWC). Speakers: Clay Nesler, Global Lead, Buildings and Energy, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities; Carolyn Szum, Program Manager, Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory; Jing Hou, Director, International Cooperation Department and Assistant to the Secretary-General, China Association of Building Energy Efficiency and Associate Researcher, Doctor of Management Science and Engineering; Luke Sherlock, Head, China Engagement, C40 Cities; Moderator: Jennifer L. Turner, Director, China Environment Forum and Manager, Global Choke Point Initiative. 

A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO PREVENT AND MITIGATE THE RISK OF DIVERSION. 9:15-10:45am (EDT). ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsors: Stimson Center; Small Arms Survey; Conflict Armament Research; United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research; Mission of Sierra Leone to the United Nations in Geneva. Speakers: Ambassador Lansana Gberie, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone, Geneva; Hayley Gill, Conflict Armament Research; Himayu Shiotani, Programme Head of the Conventional Arms Programme, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research; Rachel Stohl, Vice President, Stimson Center; Moderator: Paul Holtom, Senior Researcher, Small Arms Survey.

U.S.-ROK RELATIONS: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES UNDER THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION. 10:00-10:45am (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsors: Institute for Korean Studies and East Asia National Resource Center, George Washington University (GW). Speakers: Congressman Andy Kim, Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-NJ); Moderator: Jisoo M. Kim, Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History, International Affairs, and East Asian Languages and Literatures, Director, Institute for Korean Studies and Co-Director, East Asia National Resource Center, GW.

US-CHINA COMPETITION: A DISCUSSION WITH KEITH KRACH. 11:00am-Noon (EDT), WEBINAR. Sponsor: CSIS. Speakers: Keith Krach, former Undersecretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment; Daniel F. Runde, Senior Vice President and William A. Schreyer Chair and Director, Project on Prosperity and Development.

SCHIEFFER SERIES: THE FUTURE OF VOTING IN AMERICA. 12:30-1:30pm (EDT). WEBCAST. Sponsor: CSIS. Speakers: Andy Bernstein, Executive Director, HeadCount; Aditi Juneja, Counsel, Protect Democracy; Amber McReynolds, Chief Executive Officer, National Vote At Home Institute; H. Andrew Schwartz, Chief Communications Officer, CSIS. 

THE FUTURE OF AFGHANISTAN. 1:00-2:00pm (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: School of International Service (SIS), American University (AU). Speakers: Rahmatullah Nabil, former Head, National Directorate of Security; Bruce Valentine, former Associate Deputy Director of the CIA for Operations (ADDO); Eric J. Novotny, Hurst Senior Professorial Lecturer and Director of the MA programs in Comparative and Regional Studies (CRS), Global Governance, Politics & Security (GGPS), and US Foreign Policy and National Security (USFP), SIS, AU.

THE FUTURE OF US EXPORT CONTROLS. 2:00pm, WEBCAST. Sponsor: GeoEconomics Center, Atlantic Council. Speakers: Matt Borman, Acting Assistant Secretary for Export Administration, Bureau of Industry and Security, United States Department of Commerce; Chris Chew, Head of Export Control Policy, Export Control Joint Unit, the United Kingdom’s Department for International Trade; Kit Conklin, Director of Global Client Engagement, Kharon; Annie Simpson Froehlich, Director and Senior Counsel for Sanctions and Export, Carrier Corporation, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Moderator: Julia Friedlander, C. Boyden Gray Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of GeoEconomics Center, Atlantic Council.

RUSSIAN AGGRESSION IN THE BLACK SEA: REGIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL RESPONSES. 2:00-3:00pm (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Middle East Institute (MEI). Speakers: Gen. (ret.) Philip Breedlove, Distinguished chair, Frontier Europe Initiative, MEI; Yörük Işık, Non-resident scholar, Frontier Europe Initiative, MEI; Iulia Joja, Senior fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative, MEI; Mamuka Tsereteli, Non-resident scholar, Frontier Europe Initiative, MEI; Moderator: Gönül Tol, Director, Turkey Program and Senior Fellow, Frontier Europe Initiative, MEI.  

OPEN-SOURCE ANALYSIS OF IRAN'S MISSILE AND UAV CAPABILITIES. 3:00-4:00pm (BST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Speakers: Mark Fitzpatrick, Associate Fellow and former Executive Director of IISS–Americas and Interim Manager, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme, IISS; Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow, Military Aerospace; John Krzyzaniak, Research Analyst, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy, IISS; Fabian Hinz, Independent OSINT Expert and Consultant, IISS. 

VULNERABILITY AND RESILIENCE: THE FUTURE OF EAST ASIAN SUPPLY CHAINS. 8:00-9:00pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsor: Brookings. Speakers: Tain-Jy Chen, Professor Emeritus, National Taiwan University; Etel Solingen, Distinguished Professor, University of California, Irvine; Kristin Vekasi, Associate Professor, University of Maine; Moderator: Mireya Solís, Director and Senior Fellow, Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Brookings. 

RULE OF LAW AND GRAY ZONE ACTIVITIES IN THE EAST AND SOUTH CHINA SEAS. 8:30-10:00pm (PDT). WEBINAR. Sponsors: Pacific Forum; Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies; Maritime Programs. Speakers: Yurika Ishii, Associate Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan; Cmdr. Jonathan G. Odom, Military Professor of Int'l Law, Marshall Center for Security Studies; Moderator: Jeffrey Ordaniel, Director, Maritime Programs, Pacific Forum.  

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Japan’s Looming Climate Showdown

Tokyo Has a Chance to Break Its Coal Addiction—and Spark a Regional Energy Revolution

By Richard Katz,  Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and is writing a book on reviving entrepreneurship in Japan. He is an APP member.

Foreign Affairs, April 21, 2021

In October of last year, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced that Japan was shifting course. The country—which in 2020 came in a miserable 45th out of 61 countries in addressing climate change—would now commit itself to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, a goal the country had once hoped to achieve sometime between 2050 and 2100.

That Tokyo’s record on climate change has been so dismal might surprise observers who associate Japan with technological innovation. But almost a third of the country’s electricity derives from coal—the single largest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. Worse yet, Japan is currently constructing 15 new coal-fired plants and is planning another seven, all to be finished within the next five years. Its carbon tax is a mere $3 per ton of carbon dioxide, compared with $33 in France and $126 in Sweden.

That makes Suga’s new stance a significant reversal for Japan. To reach the country’s new benchmark, the prime minister has pledged to “fundamentally shift” Japan’s policy on coal-powered electricity, initiate a study on the feasibility of carbon pricing, and phase out gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2035. “[Responding] to global warming is no longer a constraint on economic growth,” he explained.

Strong and rapid measures will not only decrease Japan’s own emissions but might also help induce other countries in the region to take similar steps. Just days after Suga’s speech, South Korea, the world’s ninth-largest emitter, committed to net zero by 2050. Activists in Australia, a major coal exporter, have called on Canberra to match Tokyo’s shift. Whether or not Japan delivers on its lofty promises, however, will depend on the policy battles now raging in Tokyo.


Japan’s feeble response to climate change has its roots in a national trauma. In 2010, carbon-free nuclear energy supplied a third of the country’s electricity. That number was supposed to increase to 40 percent by 2017 and 53 percent by 2030. With an additional 20 percent to be derived from renewables such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric, Japan was on track to cut overall emissions by 30 percent from 1990 levels.

Then came March 11, 2011. A horrific tsunami ripped through Fukushima prefecture, killing 20,000 people and causing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that narrowly missed spewing radiation on millions. Had the utility company TEPCO simply followed global best practices and its own engineer’s recommendations, the meltdown would never have occurred. Worse yet, TEPCO had falsified safety data while government regulators turned a blind eye. The disaster destroyed nuclear energy’s credibility. All of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors were shut down, and public opposition has thus far prevented most from reopening. In response, Japan turned to coal.

Today, however, a combination of what the Japanese call gai-atsu (foreign pressure) and nai-atsu (domestic pressure) is shifting Tokyo’s response to climate change. Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president also bolstered those in Japan who were already urging robust action. During their April 16 summit in Washington, Biden and Suga announced a new Climate Partnership, which includes measures to help other countries decarbonize.

Meanwhile, global companies have begun to include the practices of their suppliers in their net-zero commitments, and Japan’s leading corporations are feeling the heat. Apple, for example, will stop buying from suppliers that do not use 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Some Japanese producers have European facilities that could meet this goal, but those located inside Japan cannot. Only 19 percent of the country’s electricity comes from renewables, and the government’s current goal for 2030, set in 2018, is for that number to rise to between just 22 and 24 percent. The CEOs of Sony and three other major Japanese companies warned Administrative Reform Minister Taro Kono that failure to reach at least 40 percent renewable electricity by 2030 could compel many Japanese firms to shift some production offshore.  

At the same time, extreme floods and disastrous heat waves over the last several years have visited the direct effects of climate change on Japanese citizens and companies. An astonishing 90 percent of voters supported Suga’s October declaration to reach net zero by 2050. In 2018, several leading companies—including heavy hitters such as Sony, Nissan, SoftBank, and Mitsubishi Estate—created a new alliance called the Japan Climate Initiative (JCI). The group was designed to pressure Tokyo into meeting the decarbonization goals set in the Paris climate accord, and today it has almost 400 corporate members. This January, 92 member companies urged the government to expand renewable electricity generation to between 40 and 50 percent of overall production by 2030 as part of the Strategic Energy Plan to be released in June. Keizai Doyukai, a separate federation of executives from 1,000 leading corporations, urged similar action last summer.

Climate-minded politicians are also rising through the ranks of the country’s perennially dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). This includes Suga and two potential future prime ministers, Kono and Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi, both of whom support aggressive action on climate change. According to a source close to Suga, the prime minister was frustrated by the slow pace of decarbonization under his predecessor, Shinzo Abe. Suga believed that Abe was too reliant on advice from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI), which—according to the same person—was “not aggressive about carbon neutrality because the business world was reluctant to make a big change.”

Kono, for his part, told the JCI in November 2020 that he planned to remove regulatory obstacles to renewable electricity production—an important step toward Suga’s 2050 goal. Japan’s regional utility companies, for instance, can currently give their own power plants priority access to transmission lines. Kono has cited cases in which the utilities blocked new companies from transmitting wind-generated electricity, even on unused lines. Similarly, land use laws prevent abandoned farmland from being used for nonagricultural purposes, such as solar and wind farms.

With a combination of these regulatory shifts, current technology, and an upgraded grid, the country could generate between 40 and 45 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, according to Mika Ohbayashi, a member of the JCI secretariat and a director of Japan’s Renewable Energy Institute. Net zero by 2050, however, will require what she called “revolutionary technologies.”


Although Japanese efforts to decarbonize are gathering strength, there is still strong resistance. In a “Green Growth Strategy” document published on December 25, for instance, METI included hybrid gas-electric vehicles as part of Japan’s plan to eliminate gasoline-powered transportation by 2035, contradicting Suga’s talk of fully electric cars. And in April, a METI advisory committee proposed that coal should supply 26 percent of Japan’s electricity in 2030, the same goal set in 2018. If accepted, the target would defy Suga’s promise to “fundamentally shift” the country’s coal policy.

Similar opposition to change also exists in parts of the corporate world. The Toyota chieftain Akio Toyoda railed against Suga’s talk of ending sales of gasoline cars by the mid-2030s, inaccurately asserting that “the more electric vehicles we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets.” Separately, Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business federation, has endorsed net zero by 2050 but opposes many of the measures needed to reach that goal. The federation insists that coal is necessary until reliable battery storage and hydrogen fuel become commercially feasible. “Energy security means Japan must have diverse sources of energy, including coal, at least in the short term,” said Masami Hasegawa, a Keidanren director.

Keidanren also prefers the current lax emission enforcement system, where industry associations voluntarily create goals for their member companies and the government reviews the results. Although Keidanren points to progress in reducing emissions, at the current pace, Japan will not even come close to net zero by 2050. Keidanren also opposes a carbon tax, which Hasegawa contends “would deprive companies of the funds needed to develop indispensable revolutionary technologies like hydrogen fuel and CCS [carbon capture and storage].” It will take at least two or three decades, however, before hydrogen and CCS become commercially competitive.

In reality, carbon pricing would have a dramatic effect even with current technology. Steelmaking, for example, is responsible for about ten percent of Japan’s total carbon emissions—mainly because 80 percent of the country’s crude steel output is still made in carbon-intensive coal-fired blast furnaces, compared with 33 percent in the United States. A carbon tax would make steel from blast furnaces uncompetitive in the marketplace, forcing companies to switch to cleaner alternatives.

An important factor in the outcome of this dispute is Suga’s waning political capital. His mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and poor communication skills have tanked his popularity. In September, he will have finished filling Abe’s term as the LDP president and must run for reelection on his own. Suga’s vulnerability could weaken his leverage over resistant bureaucrats. If he falls, the pace of progress will depend on the LPD’s choice of a successor. Polls currently show that the public overwhelmingly prefers Kono, who is strongly committed to fighting climate change.


Despite the opposition to change among some leading companies, others have already altered important practices. Until last spring, Japan’s three megabanks—Mizuho, Sumitomo Mitsui, and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ—provided a third of all global financing for new coal-fired power plants. Last spring, they decided to stop underwriting new projects (although some loopholes remain). Several giant trading companies have also stopped investing in coal mines, and JCI member Toshiba announced that it will not build new coal-fired plants.

These actions are a good start. But Tokyo’s long-term goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 will be unreachable unless the government commits to sufficiently ambitious short-term objectives in its forthcoming Strategic Energy Plan, which sets targets for 2030. To succeed, Japan will need a much larger cut in emissions than the current and fiercely criticized target of 26 percent from 2013 levels. The Environment Ministry is advocating for a 45 percent reduction, while METI is pushing for a more modest 35 percent. Washington, for its part, is reportedly urging 50 percent.

Turning any eventual target into reality, however, will require a dramatic increase in the renewable electricity supply (potentially between 40 and 50 percent), along with Suga’s pledge to phase out gasoline vehicles. Japan, moreover, would need to immediately stop building new coal-fired plants and phase out all existing facilities by the 2030s. The government will also need to take advantage of market forces by adopting a more demanding carbon price or tax.

Tokyo’s ability to deliver on these measures will have a vital impact on global efforts to address climate change. Some argue that Japan’s actions make only a marginal difference since the country produces just three percent of global carbon emissions. That number, however, makes Japan the world’s fifth-largest emitter—behind only China, the United States, India, and Russia. And unless each nation does its share, addressing climate change will be an impossible task. If Japan stops shirking its responsibility, its behavior might pressure others to follow suit—accelerating global action on decarbonization and hastening the adoption of climate friendly technologies. The next signal will be the specifics that Suga announces, or fails to announce, at Biden’s April 22–23 climate summit. The world awaits Tokyo’s decision.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Monday Asia Events, April 19, 2021

10:00-11:00am (EDT). WEBCAST. Sponsor: Global Europe Program, Wilson Center (WWC). Speakers: Hans-otto Pörtner, Researcher of Marine Ecophysiology, Co-chair Working Group II IPCC; Pascal Chabenet, Coral Reef Specialist, Director of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, La Reunion; Mark Driessen, Manager of Public Affairs, Stakeholder Management, and Communications, Porthos Rotterdam; Jenny Brown, Coastal Oceanographer, National Oceanography Centre, UK; Moderator: Ambassador David Balton, Senior Fellow, Polar Institute, WWC, and Former Ambassador for Oceans and Fisheries, U.S. Department of State.

NATIONAL SECURITY COMMISSION ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (NSCAI) "BLUEPRINT FOR ACTION” REPORT. 10:00-11:00am (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). Speakers: Hon. Robert O. Work, NSCAI Commissioner; Hon. Jose-Marie Griffiths, NSCAI Commissioner.

SUSTAINABLE US PRESENCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST: BALANCING SHORT AND LONG-TERM NEEDS. 10:00-11:00am (EDT). Sponsor: Brookings Institution (Brookings). Speakers: Michael E. O’Hanlon, Director of Research, Foreign Policy, Brookings, Co-Director, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Africa Security Initiative, Brookings, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, Brookings, and The Sydney Stein, Jr. Chair; Becca Wasser, Fellow, Center for a New American Security; Emma Ashford, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council; Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago; Moderator: Daniel L. Magruder Jr., Colonel, U.S. Air Force, and Federal Executive Fellow, Brookings.

DOES THE UNITED STATES NEED CHINA TO FIGHT CLIMATE CHANGE? 10:00-11:00am (EDT). WEBINAR. Sponsor: Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). Speakers: Michael Klare, Secretary, Arms Control Association Board of Directors, and Senior Visiting Fellow, ITIF; Robert D. Atkinson, President, ITIF. 

NEW TOOLS FOR NEW THREATS: JOHN RATCLIFFE ON STRENGTHENING U.S. INTELLIGENCE CAPABILITIES. 11:00-11:45am (EDT). WEBINAR. Sponsor: Heritage Foundation. Speaker: The Honorable John Ratcliffe, Former Director of National Intelligence; Moderator: David R. Shedd, Visiting Fellow, Heritage Foundation.

NUCLEAR ISSUES ACROSS THE UNITED STATES. Noon-1:15pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsors: Heritage; Ronald Reagan Institute. Speakers: Representative Dina Titus (NV-01); Erica Fein, Advocacy Director, Win Without War; Yasmeen Silva, Partnership Manager, Beyond the Bomb; Denise Duffield, Associate Director, Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles; Moderator: Naomi Egel, Janne Nolan Nuclear Security Visiting Fellow, Truman Center.

BIDEN’S NORTH KOREA POLICY REVIEW: PERSPECTIVES FROM THE REGION. 2:00-3:00pm (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Stimson. Speakers: Yun Sun, Co-Director, East Asia Program and Director, China Program, Stimson; Yuki Tatsumi, Co-Director, East Asia Program and Director, Japan Program, Stimson; Jenny Town, Senior Fellow, Stimson and Director, 38 North Program, Stimson; Moderator: Brian Finlay, President and CEO, Stimson. 


Friday, April 16, 2021

Any Value to the Suga Visit

SS Vyner Brooke
Why Comfort Women Matter to the U.S.-Japan Values Summit
Getting history right matters and Washington needs to hold its allies to the same moral values and standards that America and its allies claim to represent.

The National Interest, April 12, 2021

by Tessa Morris Suzuki, Professor Emerita of Japanese History, School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University and Mindy L. Kotler, Director of Asia Policy Point in Washington, DC.

In February 1942, after sinking the SS Vyner Brooke off the coast of Bangka Island near the Java Sea, the occupying Imperial Japanese gave the Australian and European women who survived a choice: they could starve in a prison camp on Sumatra or sign a document to provide sexual services on demand for Japanese troops.

This episode and many others like it during the war in the Pacific have reverberated over the generations. On Friday, nearly eighty years later, this history will underlie President Joe Biden’s summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The White House apparently invited Suga to be the first foreign leader to visit the White House in order to mirror Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe’s pre-inauguration meeting with Donald Trump in 2017—and to cover for the impending conflict over values. Although the U.S.-Japan Alliance is heralded as rock solid, opinion writers have been quick to point out the mercurial state of American foreign policy. They try to brush aside what the President might ask of Suga by saying that Americans change course very quickly and unexpectedly. In other words, Japan does not need to take the meeting over values too seriously.

All of this is a deflection from Japan’s responsibility for the rift in the Alliance. The Suga Administration has accelerated a project started under the Abe Administration to manipulate and rewrite the history of the Pacific War, and particularly of women and girls trafficked and coerced into military brothels throughout the areas occupied by Japan during World War II—known as Comfort Women.

Despite well-established history of the many ways in which women and girls of multiple nationalities were forced into sexual slavery to Imperial Japan’s military, the Japanese government tries to present the issue simply as one between Japan and an overwrought, never satisfied South Korea. The result has eroded trust between these two major American allies, and frustrated Washington.

At the heart of the problem lies the question of whether or not the Japanese government admits that Japan’s military was responsible for the Comfort Women system, and accepts that the women and girls involved were recruited by deception or coercion. A 1993 statement issued by Japan’s then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledged the role of the military in the comfort women system, including the fact that “at the time administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments,” and admitted that some women had been recruited through coercion.

The Japanese government states that they have “inherited” the Kono Statement, carefully avoiding any promise to “uphold,” “commit to” or “fulfill” the promises of the Statement. Instead, conservative governments have steadily promoted the view that there are no documents that show forcible removal of any women by military or government officials. A review of the history of the Statement, supervised by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga in 2014, implied that Japan had caved in to pressure from the Korean government, undermining public confidence in the Statement’s content.

The Statement, in fact, has been so diminished that the government has recently announced it will no longer use the term “military comfort women” or “so-called military comfort women” (the expressions used in the Kono Statement): the word “military” has been removed from this phrase because it highlights the role of Japan’s armed forces in the comfort women system.

A recent academic article by Harvard Law Professor Mark Ramseyer has helped to fuel Japan’s development of a revisionist narrative that depicts the Comfort Women as willing prostitutes. Astonishingly, this article presents all Japanese and Korean Comfort Women as contractual workers under Japan’s prostitution system, in which (Ramseyer suggests) children as young as ten-years-old knowingly and voluntarily negotiated prostitution contracts. Some Japanese ruling party politicians have enthusiastically promoted this version of history, while the Japanese Education Minister has publicly suggested that Ramseyer’s article is part of the process by which we “approach the truth” of history.

Tokyo’s position is so antithetical to any contemporary understanding of trafficking and sexual violence in warfare that American policymakers must be stunned. The Japanese government’s blanket denial of forced recruitment of comfort women not only contradicts irrefutable evidence of force in multiple cases; it also shows a fundamental lack of understanding of sex trafficking and sexual slavery. This is because the Japanese authorities do not see the skewed power relationship nor comprehend the psychology of coercion.

The dispute itself is the tip of much larger and troubling “history wars”: part of a push to revise memories of the Asia Pacific War as a whole. Last month, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced that one of its main strategic objectives for 2021 was a further expansion of the government budget for telling its version of history internationally. With Tokyo demanding the removal of Comfort Women memorials from sites in America and Germany, and using pressure to have one ripped out of its foundation in sight of the Bayview Hotel in Manila where hundreds of Filipino women were gang-raped by retreating Japanese troops, this “war” is not confined to South Korea.

In releasing the 2020 Human Rights Report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken lamented that “the trend lines on human rights continue to move in the wrong direction.” A concerning part of this trend are denials in Japan and the United States of the terror that compelled women like some Vyner Brooke survivors to “choose” to join a Comfort Station. Blinken said in his remarks: “standing for people’s freedom and dignity honors America’s most sacred values.” The U.S.-Japan Alliance is said to be based on those shared values. Now Washington and Tokyo need to discuss what this means in practice. The Biden-Suga Summit will test the U.S. Administration’s ability to be fair, but firm with allies as well as with those it sees as rivals and security threats.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Monday Asia Events, April 12, 2021

DO US-CHINA EDUCATIONAL EXCHANGES SERVE AMERICAN INTERESTS? 9:00-10:30am (EDT). WEBCAST. Sponsor: John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution (Brookings). Speakers: Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch, President, US-China Education Trust; Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, Founding Director and Distinguished Scholar, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; Richard Stengel, Strategic Advisor, Snap Inc. and Former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University; Jeffrey Lehman, Vice Chancellor, NYU Shanghai; Kurt Dirks, Vice Chancellor for International Affairs, Washington University in St. Louis, and Director, McDonnell International Scholars Academy; Ted Mitchell, President, American Council on Education; Moderators: Cheng Li, Director, John L. Thornton China Center and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings; Susan A. Thornton, Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School, and Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings. 

GOVERNMENT POLICIES RESHAPE THE BANKING INDUSTRY: CHANGES, CONSEQUENCES, AND POLICY ISSUES. 10:00am-Noon (EDT). LIVESTREAM. Sponsor: American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Speakers: Charles Calomiris, Henry Kaufman Professor of Financial Institutions, Columbia University; Bert Ely, Principal, Ely & Company; Alex J. Pollock, Distinguished Senior Fellow, R Street Institute; Richard E. Sylla, Professor Emeritus of Economics, New York University; Moderator: Paul H. Kupiec, Resident Scholar, AEI. 

ADVICE FOR PRESIDENT BIDEN: DEALING WITH PUTIN’S RUSSIA. Noon-1:00pm (EDT). ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsors: Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Security Studies Program, MIT; MISTI MIT-Russia. Speakers: Andrey Kortunov, Director General, Russian International Affairs Council; Angela Stent, Director, Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, and Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University. 

INSIDE PUTIN’S RUSSIA: A TURNING POINT IN DOMESTIC POLITICS? Noon-1:00pm (EDT). WEBINAR. Sponsor: Chatham House. Speakers: Joanna Szostek, Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme, Chatham House; Natalia Antonova, Writer and Journalist; Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, Finnish Institute of International Affairs; Henry Foy, Moscow Bureau Chief, Financial Times; Denis Krivosheev, Deputy Regional Director and Head of Research, Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, Amnesty International. Members only 

SOLARWINDS AND COZY BEARS: HOW RUSSIAN HACKERS COMPROMISED THE U.S. GOVERNMENT AND HOW WE CAN REDUCE THE CHANCES OF IT HAPPENING AGAIN. 1:00-1:45pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsor: Heritage. Speakers: Chad Wolf, Visiting Fellow, Davis Institute; Scott Jasper, Lecturer, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School and Captain, U.S. Navy (Ret); Moderator: James Di Pane, Research Associate, Center for National Defense. 

BEYOND EXIGENCY: INSIGHTS ON SUPPLY CHAIN VULNERABILITIES AND BUILDING GLOBAL RESILIENCE. 1:00-2:00pm (EDT). WEBCAST. Sponsors: Asia Program, Wilson Center (WWC); Canada Institute, WWC. Speakers: Ambassador Mark Green, President, Director and CEO, WWC; The Honorable Mike Gallagher, United States Representative from Wisconsin's 8th District; The Honorable Elissa Slotkin, United States Representative from Michigan’s 8th District; Christopher Sands, Director, Canada Institute, WWC; Shihoko Goto, Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and Senior Associate for Northeast Asia, Asia Program, WWC.

THE FUTURE OF US SECURITY IN SPACE. 1:30-3:15pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsor: Scowcroft Center, Atlantic Council. Speakers: Gen James E. Cartwright, USMC (Ret.), former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense; Hon. Deborah Lee James, former Secretary of the Air Force, US Department of the Air Force; Hon. Charles F. Bolden Jr., MajGen, USMC (Ret.), 12th Administrator and Astronaut, NASA; Scott Pace, former Executive Secretary, US National Space Council and Professor, George Washington University; Debra Facktor, Head of U.S. Space Systems, Airbus U.S. Space & Defense, Inc.; Ellen Chang, Head of Naval Portfolio, H4X Labs & Retired Officer, U.S. Navy; Gregg Maryniak, Co-Founder and Director, XPRIZE Foundation; Matthew Daniels, Senior Fellow, Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) and Research Faculty, Georgetown University; Jana Robinson, Managing Director and Space Security Program Director, Prague Security Studies; Moderators: Jennifer Griffin, National Security Correspondent, Fox News; Jacqueline Feldscher, National Security and Space Reporter, POLITICO. 

NATURE-BASED SOLUTIONS IN CHINA: RESEARCH AND POLICY. 5:00 - 6:00pm (PST), WEBINAR. Sponsor: California-China Climate Institute and The Nature Conservancy. Speakers: Huo Li, Climate Change and Energy Director, The Nature Conservancy, China; Dr. Gao Xiang, Director of International Policy Research, National Center on Climate Change and International Cooperation; Dr. Wang Binbin, Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, Tsinghua University; Dr. Christina McCain, Associate Director of Programs, Climate and Land Use Alliance.

WHAT CHINA'S S&T MODERNIZATION MEANS FOR THE U.S.: A STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVE. 7:00-8:00pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsors: Center on Science and Technology Policy and Asian/Pacific Studies Institute, Duke University. Speaker: Richard P. Suttmeier, Professor of Political Science, Emeritus, University of Oregon; Moderator: Dennis Simon, Senior Adviser to the President for China Affairs, Duke.

Behind North Korea’s Olympic Decision

– The “Worst-Ever Situation"Facing Kim Jong Un

By Daniel Sneider, Lecturer, International Policy at Stanford University and APP member

Toyo Keizai, April 11, 2021

The North Korean announcement that they would not participate in the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo was undoubtedly disappointing news for both South Korea and Japan. The South Korean government hoped to use the Games as a platform to reinvigorate its desperate efforts at engagement with the North. For Japan, the danger is that this may be a harbinger of other dropouts, also citing Covid-19 fears.

The North Korean move, however, should not have been a shock. The Olympics decision is only the tip of an iceberg of troubles that have been surfacing in recent months. At the top is the pandemic which triggered the shutdown of almost all cross-border trade and exposed a health system incapable of dealing with the spread of the virus.

Underneath is an economy crippled by systemic failure and international sanctions which have shut off much of the regime’s precious hard currency revenue. Least visible, but most dangerous, is the spread of anti-regime feeling, prompting a tightening of internal controls and a fierce ideological campaign to stamp out potential resistance.

There is significant evidence of this mounting crisis, gathered from recent defectors, anecdotal reports coming out of North Korea, and the just-released annual report of the United Nations Panel of Experts to the UN Security Council. But the clearest confirmation comes from the regime itself which, since the congress of the Korean Workers’ Party in January, has been frankly acknowledging its failures.

On April 7, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un called on the ruling party to face “the worst-ever situation in which we have to overcome unprecedently numerous challenges.”

Last week’s meeting of party cell leaders, the network of party officials down to the smallest units of North Korean economic and social life, featured Stalinist style exhortations to increase production and calls to counter disaffection in the population. “The party cells should be the first movers in actively sweeping away anti- and non-socialist practices and launch an intensive drive for establishing moral discipline,” a North Korean news agency reported.

In his closing remarks to the party gathering, Kim called on the party to “wage another more difficult ‘Arduous March’,” referring to the famine of the mid-1990s, clearly worried that the party was losing its legitimacy with the beleaguered North Korean population.

Official propaganda provides evidence of shortages and a breakdown of key sectors of the economy, cut off now from spare parts and other inputs. The huge chemical fertilizer plants in Hamhung and Anju are no longer working properly, with efforts to make up the gap with transports of “urban manure,” a polite euphemism for human waste, to collective farms.

The country is short of fuel and electricity to power obsolete and broken equipment, recounted William Brown, a respected former U.S. intelligence community analyst of North Korea.

The regime has cut the enlistment period for the military from 10 to 7-8 years because the military is short of rations, reported Daily NK, which has provided reliable accounts from inside North Korea. Released soldiers are being rerouted into work assignments in mines and factories.

Foreign diplomats and aid workers are fleeing Pyongyang, where conditions are relatively better. A departing Russian Embassy staff member wrote on Facebook about “the sharp deficit of essential goods, including medicine, and the lack of any possibility to resolve health problems.”

“North Korea’s decision not to attend the Tokyo games is a health and a political one,” said a Western aid specialist with long experience in North Korea, “and to me, not surprising.” There are only a handful of Westerners left in the country, the aid worker told me. “Direct contacts with North Koreans have become very difficult and nobody really knows what’s going on.”

Anecdotal information from the border region with China provides some sense of the deepening deprivations. “There is barely any food going into the country from China for almost two months now,” a missionary who clandestinely helps people in need inside North Korea told Lina Yoon, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, last September.

“There are so many more beggars, some people died from hunger in the border area and there’s no soap, toothpaste, or batteries.” Without AA batteries, households can’t even keep track of time, he said. Their clocks have died.

The border closure that began more than a year ago, designed to head off the pandemic, has accelerated the breakdown of the command economy and also undermined the operation of the parallel market economy that had filled the gap for North Koreans.

At the party congress in January, Kim Jong Un and his leadership signaled a partial retreat from the market and a return to state-run planning, accompanied by tighter controls over a populace infiltrated by information and ideas from the outside, mostly via China.

The country’s economy is shrinking, with little investment and severe shortages of imported parts and materials for production, Brown wrote recently.

“Basic food supplies appear to be sufficient to ward off famine but much of the population is suffering from the lack of the most basic comforts, usually imported from China, while a few entrepreneurs appear to get rich, bribing officials who are paid next to nothing by the regime. And after eight years of currency and pricing stability, much volatility is now seen, creating a speculative environment for cash. A troublesome brew to be sure.”

Some relief may be on the way as there are signs of preparations to reopen border trade with China, though perhaps not imminently. Even then, “they are afraid to open the border with China not because of the virus but because they are afraid of the outflow of dollars, RMB, and maybe people,” Brown told me.

The health crisis

There is some debate among North Korean watchers about the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on the country. Claims that there are no cases of infection are dismissed by experts and it is also evident that the regime is terrified of the spread of the disease.

A senior U.S. military official in South Korea with regular access to the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone, where North Korean soldiers usually patrol, told me that the North Korean personnel have largely retreated into their complex. When they emerge, the North Koreans are dressed in full orange-colored hazmat suits and there has been no face-to-face contact with them since January 2020.

In interviews that this official conducted in recent months with two lower-level defectors who crossed the border mainly because of economic deprivation, they recounted widespread scare theories spreading in North Korea, including that the disease could be passed from consuming fish.

Despite these health fears, the regime has refused to talk with South Korea or international agencies which have offered humanitarian health-related assistance. It has contracted to receive vaccines from the World Health Organization’s global program but it is not ready to admit international personnel.

Instead, the UN Expert panel report says, the regime focused on “white elephant” projects like the construction of a showcase hospital in Pyongyang.

“Construction was started, apparently, without a comprehensive plan for even completing the building,” the UN report, issued last month, said. “Construction was rushed to meet an artificial political deadline (which it did not meet). Also, the regime began construction without securing the equipment and supplies needed to run it.”

The sanctions are hurting

The ‘worst-ever’ conditions are underlain by the impact of international sanctions, particularly since broader restrictions were imposed after 2017 by the UN Security Council.

According to a recent defector who served as a high-level North Korean official closely involved in global money-earning operations, these sanctions have actually been surprisingly effective. A number of African countries which had been long-time buyers of North Korean arms and employed their workers – including doctors, engineers and construction laborers – cut off their connections under UN pressure, beginning in late 2017.

Countries such as Namibia, Uganda, Angola and Guinea shut down these flows of money to Pyongyang under Western pressure, sending Kim Jong Un into ballistic displays of anger at what he saw as acts of betrayal, the former official recounted to a small group of American specialists recently.

The UN sanctions shut down the revenue flow from thousands of North Koreans deployed as laborers in Russia and the Persian Gulf. Some 35,000 such workers, whose earnings went to the regime in large part, left in the last 2-3 years, the defecting official says. They were employed on construction sites, in factories and even as cooks and restaurant workers.

The remittances were transferred to North Korea via elaborate cutouts where money was wired to exchange offices in China and converted to hard currency for transport into North Korea, where it was used to finance the missile and nuclear programs and prestige projects for the regime like a fancy ski resort.

“All the money ends up in the hands of Kim Jung Un and he uses it as he sees fit,” the former senior official told the experts. “That’s the system they have.”

The defector believes that the sanctions are working. “The country is about to bankrupt,” he says. “I don’t think that the regime is sustainable at this rate.”

Hanging on

That assessment may be more a reflection of a defector’s hopes than a reliable prediction of collapse. The regime has found other ways to survive. The UN report details ongoing sanctions-busting exports of North Korean coal to China, and a flow of oil and other goods coming back in, with levels increasing in recent weeks but not reflected in official trade statistics.

The impact of sanctions on hard currency flows has been mitigated somewhat by extensive cybercrime carried out by the regime’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, its headquarters for cyber operations.

Hacker units under the RGB, such as the Lazarus group, the BeagleBoyz and the Bluenoroff Group have carried out successful thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges and other financial institutions, with revenue from such operations totaling at least $316 million from 2019 to November 2020, the UN report says.

Experts warn against expectations that Kim Jong Un is anywhere close to yielding his grip on power. “Despite pressures, which must be getting intense, Kim likely feels he has keys to solutions and is thus not desperate to negotiate,” Brown told me. He can still play a waiting game and count on China to keep him and his regime in place.

When it comes to the Olympics, however, Kim can always change his mind. “Since Japan and South Korea want them to participate in Olympics, he gets some leverage by withholding his team,” says Brown. The North Koreans, even at the last minute, may “change their minds if they get something in return.”

What won’t change are the underlying problems that have now converged into a “worst-ever” threat to Kim’s rule.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Monday Events, April 5, 2021

8:30-9:30am (EDT) WEBINAR. Sponsor: CSIS. Speakers: Rumi Aoyama, Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University; Masafumi Iida, Head, America, Europe, and Russia Division, Regional Studies Department, National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS); Asei Ito, Associate Professor, Institute of Social Science, University of Tokyo; Ichiro Inoue, Professor, School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University; Matthew P. Goodman, Senior Vice President for Economics and Simon Chair in Political Economy, CSIS; Michael J. Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair, CSIS. 

DOES A TRANSITIONAL GOVERNMENT OFFER THE LAST PATH TO AN AFGHAN PEACE? 9:30-11:00am (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Middle East Institute (MEI). Speakers: H.E. Javid Ahmad, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates; non-resident senior fellow, Atlantic Council; Lisa Curtis, Senior Fellow and Director, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security; William Maley, Emeritus Professor, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University; Ahmed Rashid, Pakistani journalist and writer; Moderator: Marvin Weinbaum, Director, Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies, MEI. 

PRESIDENT BIDEN’S BUDGET REQUESTS FOR SCIENCE. 11:00am-Noon. Sponsor. National Press Club Virtual Headliners. Speaker: Dr. Sudip Parikh, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION IN ANTARCTICA: WHAT SHOULD BE THE PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW BIDEN ADMINISTRATION? 1:00-2:30pm (EDT), WEBCAST. Sponsors: Polar Institute, Latin American Program and Global Europe Program, Wilson Center (WWC). Speakers: Hon. Sheldon Whitehouse, U.S. Senator (D-RI); Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, European Commission; Ambassador Helen Ågren, Ambassador for the Ocean, Ministry For Foreign Affairs, Sweden; Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence, National Geographic Society; Moderator: Evan T. Bloom, Senior Fellow, Polar Institute, WWC.

STRUGGLES FOR THAI DEMOCRACY: POLITICIANS’ POINTS OF VIEW. 4/5, 2:00pm (EDT) WEBINAR. Sponsor: Center for Southeast Asia Studies, UC Berkeley. Speakers:Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Parit Wacharasindhu will discuss the current state of Thai politics from their perspectives as key participants in the pro-democracy movement. 

SERVANTS OF THE DEVIL: FACILITATORS OF THE CRIMINAL AND TERRORIST NETWORKS. 2:00-3:00pm (EDT). WEBINAR AND FACEBOOK LIVESTREAM. Sponsor: Institute of World Politics (IWP). Speakers: Author, Norman A. Bailey is Professor of Economic Statecraft, IWP; Author, Bernard Touboul, International Expert in Customs Administration and Enforcement, Border Management, and International Trade Facilitation. PURCHASE BOOK:

AMERICA'S RISE TO SUPREMACY. 3:00-4:15pm (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. Speakers: Paul Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History at Yale; Stephen Wertheim, historian of U.S. foreign relations who directs grand strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy (Harvard University Press); Moderated by Graham T. Allison. PURCHASE BOOK:

TRANSITIONS TO PEACE: THE PHILIPPINES IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE. 6:30-7:45pm (EDT), ONLINE. Sponsor: Center for Global Affairs at NYU's School of Professional Studies. Speakers: Armi Beatriz E. Bayot, Doctoral Candidate, University of Oxford; Nikki Philine C. de la Rosa, Country Manager International Alert, The Philippines; Anne Marie Goetz, Clinical Professor, Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University; Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan, Member, Bangsamoro Transitional Authority and Executive Director, Al Qalam Institute, Ateneo de Davao University; Rob Jenkins, Professor of Political Science, Hunter College, City University of New York. 

KIKKOMAN CORPORATION: A CONVERSATION WITH YUZABURO MOGI, HONORARY CEO AND CHAIRMAN. 8:00-9:00pm (EDT), ZOOM WEBINAR. Sponsor: Center on Japanese Economy and Business (CJEB), Columbia Business School. Speaker: Yuzaburo Mogi, Honorary CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors, Kikkoman Corporation; Moderator: David E. Weinstein, Director, CJEB), Columbia Business School and Carl S. Shoup Professor of the Japanese Economy, Columbia University.