Wednesday, January 16, 2013

North Korea's Hidden Famine

Recent foreign visitors to Pyongyang are often impressed by the new construction that seems to be sprouting up everywhere in North Korea’s drab capital. New high-rise apartment buildings have been erected, department stores and theaters refurbished and even amusement parks and theme parks opened.
“Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka, a North Korean watching service with numerous clandestine reporters throughout North Korea.

The dark secret behind all of this new capital glitz and glamour has been a raging famine in the two Hwanghae provinces, where by some estimates 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae alone in the year since Kim Jong-il died in December, 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir, the 29-year old Kim Jong-un.
The Hwangwhe provinces, north and south, lie just south of the capital, between Pyongyang and the South Korean border. They are often said to be the “breadbasket” of North Korea, supplying food to both key elements of North Korea’s social order,  the million-man army, many of them deployed along their southern border facing South Korea, and the capital, Pyongyang.

For the past year, however, they have not been able to feed themselves, due in part to the demands of these two powerful groups, In particular he capital has required considerably more of the provincial agriculture output to feed the thousands of workers who were imported to work on the major construction projects underway for the past three to four years.
So to the familiar culprits of food shortages, floods followed by severe drought, can be added a political, and completely man-made dimension to this latest famine that has not been seen as much in the previous food shortages that have plagued North Korea for the better part of the last decade.

The country has only limited resources of capital and foreign exchange, and the much of these funds have been diverted to pay for elaborate entertainment complexes, including roller coasters from Italy and dolphins to stock a theme park instead of food. “You can see where Kim Jong-un’s priorities lie,” said Ishimura.
In order to consolidate his rule the young Kim must have these two important elements of North Korean society on his side. Which is why so much of the food from Hwanghae has been taken away for the “food for the army” and “food for the capital” projects, he said. His organization reports on regime commissary officers ransacking villages and dwellings looking for hidden stockpiles.

The effort to turn Pyongyang into a showcase capital actually preceded the rise of the young Kim by several years. As far back as 2008, North Korea watchers, such as the news site, have reported on new construction in the capital and wondering where the money would be coming from to pay for it all.
The new buildings and restoration projects were aimed to coincide with the “Day of the Sun”, celebrations honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il-sung on April 15, 2012. Indeed, the elaborate funeral for Kim Jong-il, the birthday festivities, and other celebrations of the Kim family have strained the country’s budget.

The exact number of people who have starved to death in Hwanghae is hard to pin down, but is likely in the tens of thousands, Ishimura says, based on reports from his own sources. There have also been numerous reports of cannibalism according to his sources on the ground. The situation is said to be worse than the “Arduous March”, the Korean term for the famines of 1994-1998.
“Kim Jong-un was photographed last summer with his wife visiting one of Pyongyang’s new theme parks, but as far as is known he has not visited the disaster areas just south of the capital or been photographed meeting with victims. Indeed, the government has apparently said nothing about the famine and done nothing to seek additional foreign food aid.

The younger Kim seems to have deliberated scuttled his chances of getting more foreign food assistance by his determination to launch long-range missiles in defiance of UN resolutions and world opinion. Washington declined to consider more aid in the wake of the April launching that fizzled; its position was reinforced by the successful launch in December.
South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye’s position is somewhat ambiguous, but she seems also determined to link food aid on progress in dismantling North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons’ programs. Since there is essentially no progress on these issues, the prospects for more immediate aid seem slim





Beate's Gift

Years before the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution flared and then fizzled, Americans wrote an ERA (actually an article) into Japan’s post-war constitution. To be more accurate, a young woman, Beate Sirota Gordon, wrote the language of Article 24 that guarantees equal rights for women.
Gordon passed away over New Year’s at age 89, the last surviving member of that small cadre of American Occupation officers and civilians who drafted Japan’s post-war charter that is still in force and has never been amended. Her memory lives on with Japan’s feminists, who often refer to her handiwork as “Beate’s Gift.”

The document is best known for its famous war-renouncing Article 9, but even more far reaching in consequence and impact on daily lives of millions of Japanese women is Article 24, which reads:
“Marriage shall be based only on the mutual consent of both sexes, and it shall be maintained through mutual cooperation with equal rights of the husband and wife as a basis. With regard to the choice of spouse, property rights, inheritance, choice of domicile and other matters pertaining to marriage and the family, laws shall be enacted from the standpoint of the individual dignity and essential equality of the sexes.”

Gordon was only 22 when she joined Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo as a translator. The daughter of Russian-Jewish émigrés she had lived in Japan in the years before the war. She recounts that she was motivated in part to write the equal rights article from memories of watching women walking behind their husbands in public. At school in the U.S. when hostilities began, she quickly returned to Japan after the surrender, partly to find her parents, who had been interned, and to take part in the great adventure of transforming Japan.
MacArthur at the time was unhappy with the Japanese politicians’ efforts to write a new constitution. The drafts he saw to replace the 1889 Meiji Constitution did not go far enough, in his opinion, in turning the role of the emperor into a constitutional monarch. In frustration, he ordered his staff to write an entirely new document.

MacArthur’s legal adviser, Courtney Whitney, corralled a dozen members of the staff, Gordon included, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are now a constitutional assembly, and you are now to write a new draft of the Japanese constitution.” They had nine days in which to do it.
Gordon was assigned the task of writing the portions dealing with women’s rights. It wasn’t hard to improve on the Meiji Constitution, which reflected the prevailing Confucian concept of the role of women as subordinate to men, especially husbands and before them fathers. The 1889 document contained language such as this: “cripples, the disabled and wives cannot undertake any legal actions.”

Gordon wrote draft after draft, many of them going beyond strictly women’s rights to encompass, for example, legal rights for children born out of wedlock. Many provisions were thrown out by her superiors, who argued that they could be addressed later as amendments to the Civil Code. She argued that the conservative men who wrote Japan’s laws would not amend the Civil Code in that manner, and 60 years later she seems prescient.
Very few liberalizing changes have been made in the ensuing years. Even today it is a matter of contention in Japan whether a married woman can keep and use her maiden name. The current law stipulates that any married couple must use the same name (it can be the wife’s family name, but it must be the same).

Article 24 was resisted by Japanese government ministers and politicians, who argued, accurately enough at the time, that it did not fit Japanese culture and history, These objections were overruled by the American occupiers, and the Diet ordered to pass it along with the other measures in the document, which it did in late 1946 with the charter going into effect in 1947.

One gets the impression that Article 24 was included in the constitution mainly because Gordon made a pest of herself, and the group was under severe time constraints. In her memoir, she notes that Lt. Col. Charles A. Kadesaw, who headed the drafting team, told her, “My God, you’ve given Japanese women more rights than they have in the U.S. constitution.” To which she replied, “That’s not very difficult to do because women are not mentioned in the [U.S.] constitution.”
Many traditionalists, mostly male, blame the “American imposed” Article 24, not to mention other portions of the document, for all kinds of social ills in modern Japan, everything from the plummeting birthrates to bullying in the school yard.

As recently as 2004 a constitutional panel of the then ruling Liberal Democratic Party denounced the article as “promoting egotism in post-war Japan” presumably as opposed to the purity of purpose and self-sacrifice that they think characterized Japan during the conflict and in years past.
With its landslide victory in the Dec. 16 general election, conservatives have the votes, at least in the lower house, to propose amendments and changes in the constitution, and they have indicated they will do just that, starting with weakening the constitutional barriers that make it difficult to amend the charter.

They would likely be aided by the opposition Japan Restoration Party, which sees things eye-to-eye with the LDP on constitutional issues and is currently led by a man who says he would have ditched the constitution as soon as Japan regained sovereignty in 1952.
It has often been said that of the many reforms undertaken by the U.S. Occupation of Japan after the war, the most lasting was the emancipation of women, exemplified by Article 24 and another provision that gave women the vote. Prior to 1947 women were not only denied the franchise but were prohibited from joining political parties or even taking part in politics.

In April, 1946, even before Japan’s new constitution went into effect, women voted in the first post-war election to the lower house of the Diet. They returned an impressive number of women members, about 8 percent of the total membership. Japan seemed on its way.
Yet this figure was not exceeded until the election of 2005, nearly 60 years later when a number of “Koizumi’s daughters”, named after the former premier Junichiro Koizumi, were elected in the LDP landslide that year. Japan continues to rank low among international legislative bodies in the number of women parliamentarians. The Dec. 16 polls did not change that.

Over the years little progress has been made in women’s rights. In 1985 the Diet passed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act which improved the working conditions for the significant numbers of women entering the workforce.
Japan declines to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the on grounds that it would interfere with Japanese traditions and customs, specifically the requirement that married couples use only one name. It wasn’t until 1999 that Japan even legalized oral contraceptives. Before that it shared with North Korea the dubious distinction of being the only two countries to proscribe the sale of oral contraceptives. But at least Beate got things moving in the right direction; rest in peace.