Ashlyn Anderson, Rachel Brown, Lincoln Davidson, Ayumi Teraoka, and Gabriel Walker look at the top stories in Asia today.
1. Bombing in Bangkok. On Monday evening a bomb exploded within the popular Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, killing at least twenty people and injuring over 120 more. Thai authorities are investigating a suspect identified as a foreigner, who was caught on CCTV footage leaving a large backpack near the shrine, in connection with the blast. A motive for the attack is still unclear, but Thai officials have suggested that it may have targeted foreign tourists in order to hurt the economy. Although the bombing was likely planned by a team of at least ten people, officials declared it was probably not connected to international terrorism. This week’s bombing was the worst in a number of attacks in Bangkok since the Thai military seized power in a 2014 coup.
2. Cyanide and censorship in Tianjin. Since a massive chemical explosion killed at least 114 people and damaged over 17,000 homes in Tianjin last week, environmental and political fallout has shaken the city even more. According to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, levels of deadly sodium cyanide are hundreds of times higher than safe limits in some areas near the blast site. And although city authorities confirmed that air and water in the rest of the city are safe, thousands of dead fish washed up on a riverbank six kilometers from the explosion, and recent rainfall produced a mysterious bubbling foam throughout the city. Other reports have indicated that political misconduct and safety violations played roles in the accident—most notably that over seventy times the permitted quantity of sodium cyanide was in storage at the warehouse that exploded. Although some public criticism of the disaster has been permitted, at least one whistle-blower has been arrested for "fabricating facts and disturbing public order," over 360 social media accounts have been suspended, and online censorship has spiked since the blast.
3. The two Koreas exchange fire across the DMZ. On Thursday, North and South Korea exchanged fire across their fortified border. The North fired single aircraft guns as well as artillery shells, which fell on the southern side of the border. The South Korean military retaliated with dozens of 155-millimeter artillery rounds. Tensions continue to rise as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered front line units to enter “a wartime state,” while South Korea issued an evacuation order to some residents. The result of the scuffle remains to be seen, but some experts are reassured by the lack of response from the North after South Korea’s shelling. Issues came to the fore last Saturday, when Pyongyang demanded South Korea stop its anti-North propaganda, which Seoul restarted after it found two of its soldiers had been injured by a landmine secretly planted by the North. The United States and South Korea are currently conducting the annual military exercise "Ulchi Freedom" from August 17 to August 28, yet the direct causality, if any, between the exercise and the exchange of fire is unclear.
4. Double losses for Mahinda Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. In high-turnout parliamentary elections, the incumbent premier Ranil Wickremesinghe emerged victorious over former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party winning 106 out of 225 seats. Wickremesinghe was chosen to lead the opposition in parliament in January after the surprising snap presidential election in which Maithripala Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa, his former colleague. Although Wichremesinghe and Sirisena hail from rival parties, the two are committed to reforming many of the policies implemented during Rajapaksa’s tenure. The new government is also considering options to resolve ethnic tension between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. Rajapaksa faces not only double losses this year, but also a possible investigation into corruption scandals.
5. Obama administration demands China withdraw covert operatives from United States. The U.S. government has recently warned Beijing about Chinese government agents working secretly in the United States to pressure Chinese expats to return home, as part of a government initiative known as “Operation Fox Hunt.” Many of those targeted by Chinese law enforcement are wanted in relation to China’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign; this includes both those targeted for economic corruption and what the Chinese government calls political crimes. The PRC’s state news agency called the order a “regrettable move” and claimed that the U.S. government had agreed to cooperate with the operation when Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson met with PRC Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun earlier this year, although U.S. officials dispute any such agreement was made. Because the campaign is a high priority for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese agents in the United States are reportedly resorting to coercive measures to convince the wanted individuals to return to China, such as threatening the family members of their targets. The United States and China do not have an extradition treaty, so Chinese efforts to have fugitives repatriated through legal channels are unlikely to be successful given concerns about the lack of transparency in China’s legal system. Chinese government agents aren’t just operating in the United States to track down corruption fugitives, however; in recent years, counterintelligence officials have been catching increasing numbers of economic spies trying to steal industrial secrets—even from corn fields.
Bonus: Kim Jong-un turns back time. North Korea, a nation already perceived as behind the times, literally turned back the clock on August 15. The government established a new time zone, “Pyongyang Time,” which differs by thirty minutes from that used in Japan and South Korea and returns the nation to the time zone used prior to Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. The date of the change coincided with the seventieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency proclaimed that the action was necessary because “the wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time.” Given North Korea’s relative isolation the change is unlikely have major global effects, but it may cause disruptions at the Kaesong industrial plant, a joint economic project with South Korea. North Korea also operates on its own calendar, which begins in 1912, the year Kim Il-sung was born.