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Rachel Brown, Erik Crouch, Sherry Cho, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. Bird flu outbreak puts Asian nations on high alert. A newly identified spate of bird flu outbreaks has alarmed public health officials across Asia. Bird flu, more formally known as Avian influenza, is a virus that occurs naturally among wild aquatic birds, but can spread to domestic poultry and sometimes to humans. These fears harken back to an H5N1 strain that that killed 450 people throughout the 2000s. In an effort to prevent the recent strain from recombining into a new, potentially more lethal strain, countries such as Japan have culled 300,000 chickens and ducks this week alone, and South Korea has vowed to do the same to 3 percent of its total poultry. Because agricultural authorities in Seoul are concerned that the strain of H5N6 among its wild birds will spread beyond the country’s coast into the mainland, they ordered provincial governments to establish emergency operations centers and strengthen hygiene inspections. Despite the panic, the World Health Organization recently issued a report stating, “Further human infections with viruses of animal origin can be expected, but the likelihood of sustained human-to-human transmission remains low.” Should human-to-human transmission occur, however, it could materialize into a dangerous pandemic.
2. UN puts new crunch on North Korea. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to enact a new round of sanctions on North Korea, ratcheting up economic pressure even more since the last UN resolution on North Korea was issued in March. The recent ruling takes particular aim at North Korea’s coal exports—capping them at 7.5 million metric tons or $400 million, whichever comes first—which are a major source of cash for the isolated nation. The sanctions will also limit North Korea’s nonferrous metal exports, and even prohibit it from selling statues abroad, in the hope of slashing export revenues by 25 percent in the coming year. In 2016, China—supposedly the sole importer of North Korean coal—is expected to import nearly $1 billion’s worth, so it will need to act as the main enforcer of the new policy. Although China supported the new ruling, some are still concerned that it will not follow through with implementation. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding.
3. Three Chinese rights activists vanish. Three Chinese rights activists—Jiang Tianyong, Huang Qi, and Liu Feiyue—have not been heard from since the middle of last month, and are presumed to be detained by police. Liu has been formally charged by authorities, but Jiang and Huang have not. The three are well known for their rights activism: Jiang for representing clients such as Chen Guangcheng; Liu for running a Chinese civil rights organization and website; and Huang for running a website that focuses on civil rights and the legacy of the Tiananmen Square movement. Human rights organizations have called for the lawyers’ release and Jiang’s wife, Jin Bianling, who lives in the United States, has posted pleas online about his disappearance. The trio are hardly the first to go missing since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power—in fact, this isn’t even the first time that any of these three lawyers have been detained over the last several years. The disappearances may be linked to the upcoming implementation of China’s new NGO law, which has the potential to further restrict civil society organizations in the country.
4. Amnesty exposes grim source of Indonesian palm oil. A new report released this week by Amnesty International found that nine major global firms—including the likes of Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, and Unilever—are selling products around the world “tainted by shocking human rights abuses” in Indonesia. Through interviews with 120 palm-oil plantation workers and supervisors, the authors found evidence of systemic abuses: minimal wages, child labor, exposure to a toxic herbicide and pollution from forest fires, and long hours of physically demanding work. A number of the companies issued statements expressing willingness to fix “unacceptable practices,” hold the plantation owners “accountable,” and eradicate any human and labor rights issues from their supply chains.
5. State-issued history textbooks raise controversy in South Korea. In an apparent shift for President Park Geun-hye’s administration, South Korea’s Ministry of Education has indicated that it is considering alternative options to mandating the usage of state-issued history textbooks. Textbooks can be a source of controversy in East Asia, but in South Korea the clamor over the government’s plan to institute a single history textbook is gaining extra momentum because of the corruption scandal that has led to calls for Park’s resignation. Since 2010, South Korean schools have been able to choose freely amid several privately published textbooks approved by the government. However, last October saw Park’s government announce that the government would again write history textbooks and require their adoption by schools, protesting that the privately published textbooks are too “ideologically biased.” Some of the current textbooks describe contentious aspects of modern Korean history, including wartime mass executions of civilians, abuse of pro-democracy dissidents, and Korean collaboration with the Japanese occupation. Opponents of Park and many local education offices have criticized the new textbook drafts, alleging they emphasize the successes of Park’s father, former dictator/President Park Chung-hee, while de-emphasizing his brutal dictatorship and collaboration with Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
Bonus: Something’s fishy at a Japanese ice rink. As the amusement park Space World recently discovered, sometimes life under the waves is not all it’s cracked up to be. In an effort to attract visitors, the park froze five thousand dead fish and assorted marine life into an ice rink and billed the attraction as an “Ice Aquarium.” But potential visitors weren’t so enthusiastic. Many netizens accused Space World, which is located on the island of Kyushu, of animal cruelty and disrespect. In response to the online outcry, the company announced plans to close the rink, melt the ice, and hold a marine memorial for the creatures. The attraction may be have been an original idea, but it doesn’t look like it will be adopted elsewhere anytime soon.