Rachel Brown, Sherry Cho, Gabriella Meltzer, and Gabriel Walker look at five stories from Asia this week.
1. New president, new approach? Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s new president, has pledged to pursue dialogue with North Korea and stated that he was willing to meet with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, if it would bring about lasting peace to the Korean peninsula. In comparison with Moon’s two conservative predecessors, who stressed a united approach with the United States in attempting to isolate North Korea through sanctions and pressure, Moon has often called for South Korea to take the lead in diffusing tensions through negotiations and dialogue.The last inter-Korean summit meeting occurred in 2007 between the previous North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the president of South Korea at the time, Roh Moo-hyun, a longtime friend and ideological ally of President Moon’s. Roh’s “Sunshine Policy,” which focused on engaging North Korea through dialogue, joint economic projects, and humanitarian aid, is generally expected to serve as the basis of Moon’s North Korea policy. Its successful implementation remains to be seen, however, as Moon has also vowed to reinforce South Korea’s relationship with the United States and President Trump, whose diplomatic overtures and fractious military posturing toward North Korea have led to general bafflement in the region.
2. Philippines faces new extremist threats. Alarms rang this week over the possibility that terrorist groups would kidnap tourists at popular destinations in the Philippines. In particular, Western embassies warned of plans to target tourists at two locations on the island of Palawan. The threats emanated from the southern Philippine terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, which has a decades-long history of kidnapping foreigners and locals for ransom. Now Abu Sayyaf, which claims allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State group, is increasing its power as it uses the high-value ransoms to finance new weapons purchases. And the group’s influence is rising despite Philippine President Rodrgio Duterte’s military operations against them. Earlier this month, the Islamic State also claimed responsibility for explosions in Manila, although Philippine officials denied that the group had been involved. President Duterte has pledged to take an aggressive stance against terrorism. Never one to shy away from coarse language, he even said that he would eat militants—“give me salt and vinegar and I'll eat his liver.” As threats from both the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Southeast Asia mount, President Duterte would do well to pursue a more comprehensive strategy than just sharpening his knife and fork.
3. Taiwan vies to join World Health Assembly. Despite objections from Beijing, Taiwan is pushing to be included as an observer in this year’s World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly in Geneva, which will take place from May 22 to May 31. This seventieth annual gathering will include the election of a new director general from a finalist pool of three candidates. China has consistently tried to block Taiwan’s participation in international agencies due to its claims of sovereignty over the island. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Beijing continues to wield strong political influence at both the UN and WHO. President Tsai Ing-Wen has remained vocal on Twitter, writing “Taiwan should not be excluded from W.H.A. this year for any reason… Health issues don’t stop at border & Taiwan’s role is impt to global health.” Taiwan’s minister of health and welfare, Chen Shih-chung, has told the press that Taiwan plans to send a delegation to Geneva even without a formal invitation.
4. Japan and South Korea hit impasse over comfort women dilemma. South Korea’s newly elected President Moon Jae-in has cast doubt on a 2015 deal with Japan over the issue of wartime sex slaves known colloquially as “comfort women.” On Thursday, Moon told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that a 2015 deal to resolve a dispute over Korean women forced into sexual service for Japanese soldiers during World War II was “unacceptable” to most South Koreans. Moon’s remarks are likely to reignite the emotionally charged issue between Japan and South Korea during a time when cooperative efforts against the North Korean nuclear threat are more significant than ever. Under the 2015 agreement, Mr. Abe offered his “most sincere apologies and remorse” to all former “comfort women,” and the two countries agreed to “finally and irreversibly” settle the comfort women issue; additionally, Japan disbursed 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) last year to a South Korean fund designated to help former comfort women and their families. However, victim advocacy groups have protested that the apology did not do enough to address the Japanese government’s role in forcing tens of thousands of women in Asia into sexual slavery as part of the “comfort women” program. Such groups have also pointed to Japanese history books that underplay Japan’s war crimes. Moon had promised to seek a renegotiation of the agreement with Japan as one of his key election pledges but it remains to be seen if this historically fraught issue will impede the bilateral relationship between South Korea and Japan and joint efforts to address the North Korean nuclear threat.
5. Chinese millennials snap up foreign properties via smartphone. According to an HSBC survey published earlier this year, 70 percent of Chinese millennials (born between 1981 and 1998) are home-owners—twice the rate in the United States. And many millennials are shopping for foreign properties on their smartphones with mobile apps like Uoolu and SouFun, just two examples of the Chinese mobile fintech boom. Uoolu reports that 80 percent of its active users are between 20 and 39, and that 20,000 customers have already purchased or are purchasing properties outside of China through their app. The company even encourages prospective customers to “hurry to invest” in Southeast Asia as part of Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road development strategy. A few factors are driving the scramble for overseas real estate: foreign investments as a hedge against a depreciating yuan; ever-climbing real estate prices in Chinese cities; and an interest in living abroad in a clean city rather than enduring China’s worrisome environmental pollution. Despite China’s strict capital controls (including a $50,000 annual limit on investments or money transfers abroad), buyers seem undaunted and leverage family members or other smurfing techniques to make their purchases. As Uoolu’s COO stated, “The more the government limits people, the more they want to invest overseas.”
Bonus: Once upon a time on the Silk Road… The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative entered its next frontier this week: bedtime stories and bubblegum pop. In a series of videos released by China Daily, American father and journalist Erik Nilsson regales his daughter with tales of Xi Jinping’s vision for OBOR. Before he joins guests from nearly one hundred and thirty countries at this weekend’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, he explains that the project is about more than just new transportation routes—it’s about “people and cooperation.” Meanwhile in a new music video from the ever-entertaining Fuxing Road Studios, children from Belt and Road nations, accompanied by a ukulele and cartoon backdrops, extol the virtues of the initiative in song. While it is unclear why China Daily or Fuxing Road feel they need to convince children that OBOR is not a bore, at least this is one audience unlikely to pose thorny geopolitical questions about the initiative’s future.