Friday, April 29, 2011

The Legend of Kim Jong-un

In North Korea it isn’t enough for the supreme ruler to enjoy the support of the communist party apparatus, the army or even to be a member of the Kim family. He must be a person of heroic stature. And if there isn’t enough his real heroism in his life story, then the Kim propaganda machine will invent some.

This was true for the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, whose official biography proclaims that he was born in a secret military base camp located somewhere on the slopes of Mt Paektu, the crater lake along the northern border which is sacred to Koreans even though most of it is in China. His birth 69 (or is it 70?) years ago was, everyone is taught, foretold by a swallow and heralded by a double rainbow.

This anyway is the myth pedaled to North Korea’s population. Most scholars believe that Kim Jong-il was actually born in a grubby Siberian village called Vyatkoye, near Kharbarovsk, where his father, North Korea’s founder and currently “eternal president”, commanded a mixed big battalion of Korean exiles and ethnic Chinese Koreans.

Enter now the third member of the Kim dynasty, one Kim Jong-un, the twenty-something third son of North Korea’s supreme ruler. He was publicly unveiled to the world as Kim Jong-il’s anointed successor at several public events in Pyongyang in 2010.

Many details about Kim Jong-un’s young life, including even his date of birth and place of birth are obscure. He was born in Wonson in Kangwon province or maybe in Chagang province, His birthday is said to be January 8, but the year is unclear: 1982? 1983? Or1984? He is known to have studied in Switzerland.

One undisputed fact is that his mother, Ko Young-hee, was a dancer in the Mansudae Art Troupe, with whom King Jong-il was smitten and whom he married. She died of cancer in 2004 at the relatively young age of 51. All of this is probably to the good, but there is one major blot on her and therefore on her son for North Korea’s mythmakers.

She was born in Japan.

She was ethnic Korean, of course. Her father, Ko Tae-mun had emigrated to Japan in the 1930s, when Korea was a colony of Japan. He settled in the Tsuruhashi district of Osaka, which even today holds probably the largest concentration of ethnic Koreans in Japan, some third or fourth generation. Tsuruhashi is filled with businesses and restaurants run by Koreans.

This is not a detail that the Korean mythmakers will likely dwell on. Don’t look for a Kim Jong-un’s mother-was-born-here plaque. When reporters for the Asahi Shimbun newspaper began poking around in Osaka not long after Kim junior was introduced to the world last year, they discovered that his mother’s actual birthplace was now an empty lot.

The Ko family moved to North Korea in 1961 as part of a Japanese government-sponsored program in the late 1950s and 1960s to repatriate many of the ethnic Koreans then living in Japan. Some 90,000 people, the Kos among them, are said to have relocated to the North.

Many of the returnees, some of whom never before had set foot in Korea, no doubt were disappointed that the streets of North Korean cities were not paved with gold, but not the family of Ko Tae-mun, who prospered in North Korea, eventually becoming part of the intimate inner leadership circle.

In Japan Ko Tae-mun had learned judo and, for a time he formed a touring wrestling group, although he did not prosper in his wrestling career as much as some other ethnic Koreas, and in 1961 he bundled his family aboard a ship in Niigata and sailed to Korea.

If the Japanese public had not fully appreciated Ko’s wrestling skills, the supreme leader, Kim Il-sung, did know of them and recruited him to come and help establish a national judo and wrestling group which he did with considerably more success than he had had in Japan, becoming known as the “father of Korean Judo.”

But Ko Tae-mun had another attribute that may be even more useful for the mythmakers. He was born on the island of Jeju, just off the southern coast of South Korea. For most Americans and other foreigners Korean history begins in 1950 with the invasion from the North. Little is known of the bloody insurrection on Jeju that began in April, 1948, and known to South Koreans from the date as the “4.3 Incident.”

In that year many of Jeju’s 300,000 people rebelled against local authorities. The rebellion was reportedly led by the [communist] Worker’s Party of South Korea (since outlawed) and was suppressed by troops from the mainland. Estimates of deaths range from 14,000 to 60,000. Many people on the island fled to, where else, Tsuruhashi in Osaka.

The whole of the southern Korean coastline was then a hotbed of intrigue and insurrection in the years immediately before the Korean War. Former president and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-jung was a newspaper editor in the southern town of Mokpo then, which may be why conservatives never fully trusted him.

Ko Tae-mun emigrated to Japan well before the Jeju “Peoples’ Uprising” (North Korea’s term) and was not a part of the insurrection. No matter. That inconvenient fact should provide few difficulties for the mythmakers. They can elide or obscure the details to turn Kim’s grandfather into a revolutionary hero in much the same way that his other grandfather, Kim Il-sung, is deified as the liberator of North Korea. It won’t be necessary to dwell on where his mother was born.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Time to Play Ball

The opening game of the 2011 base ball season in Japan pitted the Rakuten Golden Eagles against the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Marines’ home park near Tokyo. All the familiar opening day rituals were on display, cheerleaders in pink satin dresses and hawkers selling hotdogs on a stick and soba noodles.

Still, there were a few discordant notes because of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The national flag was flying at half mast, honoring the tens of thousands killed or missing in the earthquake/tsunami. Play was also halted for a short while during the fourth inning because one of the frequent aftershocks.

Although the earthquake in northeastern Japan left most of Tokyo mostly undamaged, it did cause considerable structural damage to this suburban city of Urayasu because much of it is built on reclaimed land subject to “liquefaction” during a severe quake.

The parking lot was closed because the concrete buckled in many places. The same problem kept the nearby Tokyo Disneyland closed for a month, costing its owner about $250 million in lost revenue. It only recently reopened, but other theme parks along this stretch of Tokyo Bay remain closed.

Back to baseball. The opening game was supposed to have been played two weeks earlier on the Eagle’s home field. But the team’s stadium near the city of Sendai was damaged during the quake and is not expected to be fully repaired for patrons until the end of April at the earliest. So the game was moved to Chiba.

The Eagles are the Tohoku team, using the common Japanese term for the northern part of Honchu island centered on Sendai (Japanese baseball teams are usually named after their corporate sponsors, not home cities – Rakuten is Japan’s largest Internet retailer.) As such, they are the sentimental favorite during this coming season.

In the same way, the Orix Blue Wave (with Ichiro still playing for them), based in Kobe was the sentimental favorite following the 1995 quake that destroyed much of that city. Indeed, the Blue Wave went on to win the league title, although it lost the Japanese Series (local equivalent of the World Series).

The Eagles got off to a good start this season, winning their first game against the Marines on a three- run homer by Motohiro Shima. The team was, as of this writing, in first place in the Pacific League with a 3-1 record, although, of course, the season is still only about a week old.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9-point quake and tsunami which devastated the northeast and precipitated multiple feared meltdowns at four nuclear power stations, it was uncertain whether there would even be a baseball season this year. The quake struck only two weeks before the season was officially expected to get underway.

Questions were raised to whether it was proper to hold such games when so many fellow Japanese are suffering, stranded in earthquake shelters or fleeing from radiation leaking from the Fukushima power plants. Indeed, some questioned whether Japanese should enjoy themselves at all during this crisis.

It may be that the high schoolers decided the issue for them. Spring is also the time for another time-honored rite of passage in Japan. It is the time when the best high school baseball teams meet in their traditional venue, the Koshien Stadium near Osaka for national championships.

High school baseball is to Japan what high school football is to Texas, a national obsession. The games have been played every year since 1924, except for a couple years during World War II, and were not to be canceled this year because of a mere earthquake. If the high schoolers could play, then how could the professionals not play also?

The decision was made to simply delay the season opening two weeks from March 25 to April 15. The time was needed to rearrange schedules and the logistics of moving teams around Japan and accommodating them. After all, travel to the impacted region is still problematic, and much of Tokyo is suffering from electric power shortages.

Most night games are out in order to save on electricity. The Yomiuri Giants will use open stadiums for the time being, instead of the enclosed Tokyo Dome, which is their usual venue. Baseball unions are being asked to bend on their normal opposition to double-headers (two games played by the same teams on the same day) to help complete a 144-game season.

The Eagles are still hoping to play their first home games in the 22,000-seat Kleenex Miyagi Stadium during the Golden Week national holiday, which begins in early May. By that time transportation links and accommodations for the out-of-town teams may have been worked out. .

Meanwhile, there was some debate about whether it was proper to observe another tradition-bound spring rite of passage, the annual cherry blossom viewing parties, which is a time when friends gather together to sit on plastic sheets in city parks to look at the cherry blossoms, eat barbecues and drink sake, Japanese rice wine.

That supreme kill-joy, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, 78, had urged Tokyo folks to forego the traditional hanami festival this year out of solidarity with fellow Japanese struggling in the northeast.”Just because the cherry trees are blooming doesn’t mean we should be drinking and chatting,” The governor said.

But the Tohoku sake brewers complained that self-restraint could go too far, and they urged everyone in Japan to eat, drink, be merry – and buy more sake. The Tohoku region happens to be a major center for brewing Japanese sake, and many of the brewers were hurt by both the tsunami and the falloff in sales of any products coming from the impacted prefectures.

In the end Japanese in the capital flocked to the parks. The weather suddenly turned mild and spring-like, perfect for viewing cherry blossoms and baseball games. The warming weather had the added advantage of lessening the demand for electricity, which allowed the local utility to suspend rolling blackouts. And that was really something to celebrate.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Relevant Again

There was a time when it was easy to discount Japan’s importance to the world economy. The economy was supposedly mired in two-decades of economic stagnation, it had surrendered its second-place as a global economic power to China where all of the action seemed to be taking place. Japan was sliding into irrelevance.

No longer. The impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake last month and the on-going crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant complex has, if nothing else, exposed the important position that Japan still holds in the world economy, especially in making of key components for cars, telephones and electronic products of all kinds.

“Japan is more global than we thought,” remarked Eisuke Sakakibara, a former vice minister for international affairs at the Finance Ministry and a well-known commentator on finances, which earned him the nickname “Mr. Yen.”

Most people in the U.S., for example, have probably learned that foreign-owned and domestic automakers have had to curtail production until the supply chain of critical parts could resume normal operations. But there are many crucial industries in which Japan has monopolies or near monopolies which will disrupt global production for months. Take Xirallic.

Never heard of Xirallic? It is a paint pigment that gives automobiles, especially expensive up market brands, their shiny, metallic look. This product is made by the German chemical company Merck in one factory, which happens to be in the town of Onahama, about 40 km from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plants.

The company estimates that it will be out of commission for at least six to eight weeks, and that assumes that the government does not have to extend the radiation evacuation zone, now set at 30 km (12 miles), another 10 kilometers. Unusually high radiation levels have been observed (though later declining) in at least one other town 40 km away from the stricken plants.

Well, maybe the automobile industry can manage with cars with a duller finish, but can the high tech industries do without semiconductor-grade silicon wafers? Most are made by two Japan-based companies, the Shin-Etsu Chemical Co and Sumco Phoenix Company.

Shin-Etsu has two factories, one of which is located in Nishio village, Fukushima prefecture; the other is in Ibaraki prefecture north of Tokyo. The latter was not badly damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, but is in the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Service and thus subject to rolling power blackouts. It is uncertain when either will restart.

The Sumco company is better off as most of its plants are in the undamaged Kansai region west and south of the capital. It also has a plant in Taiwan, which after the quake issued a message saying it would make an “all out effort” to meet worldwide demand for the wafers without raising prices. Even so prices for silicon wafers were double that of 2008.

Mitsubishi Gas Chemical Co. manufactures roughly half of world’s supply of hydrogen peroxide, used in making of many paper products. Its Kashima plant was knocked out by the earthquake. It has another in the Tokyo metropolitan area, but its operation is severely impacted by the blackouts.

In a way, the situation is similar last summer’s big blowup with China over the disputed Senkaku islands, when Beijing allegedly threatened to embargo rare earths. The world woke up to the fact that China controlled more than 90 percent of these minerals that most people never heard of but are crucial to making of modern electronic products and televisions.

Something similar is happening now. During Japan’s so-called stagnant years, manufacturing companies moved much of their routine assembly to Southeast Asia and the U.S., but during those years it kept an iron grip on its monopolies of dozens of critical but little-known (except to affected industries) components.

The northeast coast of Japan, known locally as the Tohoku region, is not usually considered a major manufacturing center. The quake and tsunami-impacted prefectures account for only about 6-7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

That is not the case with Tokyo, which alone has a GDP roughly equal to Canada or Italy. There was little serious damage from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in the capital itself, but the impact of rolling blackouts caused by dire electricity shortages is an increasing factor in a pessimism over the economic recovery.

“The planned blackout is as bad as the earthquake itself,” in its impact on the economy says Kyohei Morita, chief economist for Barclays Capital Japan Ltd. He estimated that the blackouts alone will shave as much as one percent off of Japan’s projected GDP growth.

The quake/tsunami is estimated to have cut about 12 percent of Japan’s electric power production. More importantly, it has cut nearly a quarter off the power for the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (Tepco), which has a monopoly of power production and distribution in the capital and its environs, serving about 45 million people in total.

Faced with a 10 million kilowatt shortfall, Tepco announced planned rolling blackouts within days of the earthquake. The utility owns 17 nuclear reactors, including the four badly damaged Fukushima reactors with 13 out of service. That doesn’t count the several coal and gas-fired plants that were also damaged in the quake.

Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata last week announced that Tepco planned to scrap Units 1-4. No big surprise here. That has been foreordained from the first day of the. Surprisingly, he made no mention of Units 5-6. Maybe some at Tepco think they will reopen. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano flatly stated they will be closed. Tepco will be lucky to keep the four other Fukushima Daini Plants currently in cold shutdown.

Tepco’s more immediate financial situation was eased temporarily at the end of March with a 1.86 trillion yen working capital loan secured through Japan’s seven largest banks. Combined with the approximately 400 billion yen cash on hand, it will see the company through the immediate crisis. But it faces huge problems.

Even as Tepco’s workers struggle to keep stricken reactor cores cool, the company is working feverishly to get more thermal power plants in operation to meet summer air conditioning demand. Last summer was the hottest in Japan on record; officials are hoping thatr things cool down this summer, in more ways than one.