East Asia Theater
North Korea's leadership is moving efficiently to portray Kim Jong-un, chosen heir of his late father, as the country's unchallenged ruler, with state TV repeatedly broadcasting images of senior military leaders pledging fealty to the son. The military is on alert amid a choreographed spectacle of thousands of mourners filling the cold streets of Pyongyang. The border with China—North Korea's only real link to the outside world—has been sealed. While the order for the military alert was officially issued by Kim Jong-un, it is expected that the top generals will actually rule as a sort of regency in the transition period. (Kim Jong-il himself, selected as Kim Il-sung's successor in the 1970s, did not officially assume power until three years after the death of his father in 1994. Kim Jong-il's leadership saw the most difficult times in North Korea since the Korean War, with a great famine known in the North as the "arduous march" claiming perhaps 2 million lives in the mid-1990s.) Some observers point to Kim Jong-un's uncle Jang Song-thaek as a "technocrat" who will wield real power in the transition—and perhaps seek to open the country. Inevitably drawing a comparison to Deng Xiaoping, it is pointed out he was purged in 2004 only to be restored to the ruling elite 18 months later—and to become the key figure in the de facto caretaker government after Kim Jong-il first suffered a serious stroke in August 2008. (NYT, NYT, WSJ, Dec. 21; National Post, Dec. 20; Korea Policy Institute, Dec. 19)
Even as villagers at Wukan in China's Guangdong province announced an agreement to negotiate with authorities and began dismantling their barricades after a 10-day stand-off on Dec. 20, clashes were reported between security forces and thousands of protesting residents at Haimen, an industrial city about 100 kilometers up the coast in Shantou prefecture. The protests were sparked by plans to build a coal-burning power plant in an area where numerous factories have already polluted local waters and harmed the fishing economy. Protesters reportedly surrounded a government building and blocked an expressway before police used tear-gas and batons to clear them. Online accounts of the incident said hundreds were savagely beaten, and that two people were killed. Authorities denied any deaths in the incident. (FT, Reuters, McClatchy, Dec. 21; AGI, Dec. 20)
Security forces have since Dec. 11 blocked roads leading to the village of Wukan, in China's Guangdong province, after residents chased out police. Residents have gathered in the center of the village, the scene of a peasant protest movement over a land grab by local officials. They are demanding negotiations with the central government to resolve the dispute. Chinese authorities have again resorted to pre-emptive electronic action, blocking Internet searches for "Wukan." Users of micro-blogging site Sina Weibo say searches for "Wukan" returns a message reading: "According to relevant law, regulations and policies, search results for Wukan cannot be displayed."
In a frightening development that has received appallingly little coverage in English, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) released the results of a study Nov. 30 finding that melted fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi No. 1 reactor has nearly reached the bottom steel wall under the concrete at the base of the containment structure. TEPCO estimates the fuel rods have already melted through the concrete base of the reactor container by up to 65 centimeters. If the melt-through continues another 37 centimeters, it will reach the steel wall. If it melts through that, it will be released into the soil, and likely the groundwater.
Waves of wildcat strikes continue to spread across China's industrial heartland. More than 200 workers at a Singapore-owned electronics plant in Shanghai remained on strike for a third day Dec. 2 to protest a management plan for mass layoffs and a plant relocation. Blue-jacketed workers, chanting slogans and holding banners demanding management accountability, blocked the entrance to the factory owned by Hi-P International, whose customers include Apple and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. (Reuters, Dec. 2)
In factory towns across China's Pearl River Delta industrial zone in Guangdong province, thousands of workers walked off the job this week in response to belt-tightening measures imposed by slowing orders from the West. Some 1,000 workers are striking at the Jingmo Electronics Corporation’s Shenzhen factory, located in the industrial district of Shajing township and owned by the Taiwan-based Jingyuan Computer Group. Workers are protesting mandatory overtime with no overtime pay, as well as the high rate of workplace injuries, abusive treatment by managers, mass layoffs of older workers and the lack of any benefits. At Yue Yuen Industrial Holdings' giant shoe factory in Huangjiang town—a major supplier for sports brand New Balance—some 8,000 workers took to the streets Nov. 24, blocking roads, overturning cars and clashing with police. The Federation of Hong Kong Industries has warned that up to a third of around 50,000 Hong Kong-owned factories in Guangdong and elsewhere in China could downsize or close by the end of the year, putting at risk hundreds of thousands of jobs. (Reuters, The Telegraph, Nov. 25; China Labor Watch, Nov. 23)
Inspired by the global Occupation movement, a group of mostly women protesters from all over Japan are camping in front of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district to oppose nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The camp, established Oct. 30, also embraces the economic demands of the wider movement. (Panorient News, Nov. 5)
US President Barack Obama announced his decision to send 2,500 troops to be stationed in Australia in a speech before the parliament in Canberra Nov. 17—a move widely seen as a counter-balance to China's growing power in the Asia-Pacific region. China's People’s Daily warned in an editorial: "If Australia uses its military bases to help the US harm Chinese interests, then Australia itself will be caught in the crossfire." Obama's announcement symbolically comes on the 60th anniversary of the Cold War-era Australia-New-Zealand-United-States (ANZUS) defense treaty. Obama did hold previously unscheduled and seemingly amicable talks two days later with Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. But Obama's Australia move also comes days after a congressional advisory panel, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, warned of Beijing's growing military presence in Asia.