Archive for January, 2016


HRW – World Report entry on North Korea’s human rights situation (spoiler: its bad)

Human Rights Watch has issued its annual report on the human rights situation in some selected countries. As usual, North Korea is one of the countries worthy of attention for its abysmal human rights record. Like last year’s entry there is more about civil and political rights than economic, social and cultural rights – that’s not necessarily a criticism as much as an observation.

The introduction section gives us a run-down of events at the UN, including the Commission of Inquiry report and developments in the Security Council, Human Rights Council (HRC) and the UN General Assembly (UNGA).  Key developments are the recommendations by the HRC and the UNGA that North Korea be referred to the International Criminal Court and the opening of the UN Office in Seoul dedicated to documenting human rights violations in North Korea.

The report then focuses on six topics:

  1. Freedom of movement – Kim Jong-un’s increased measures to prevent people leaving North Korea and China continues to send people back. Women are at risk of forced marriage and trafficking.
  2. Freedom of Information – the risks of accessing information or using technology to communicate with the outside world
  3. Labour Rights – North Korea refuses to join the International Labour Organisation and there are sub-par labour standards in Kaesong Industrial Complex
  4. Political Prisoner Camps – they still exist and they are still awful places where lots of people suffer and die
  5. Forced Labour – even if you aren’t in a political prison camp doesn’t mean you are free from the risk of punishment through forced labour
  6. Key International Actors – very brief mention of issues/events with the UN (already discussed), Japan (abductees), South Korea (family reunions) and US (sanctions and the Sony hacking case)

This is all very similar to last year’s entry. Last year’s entry had headings on torture and inhumane treatment and executions which are not in this year’s report. This year adds the new heading of forced labour. Updates of what has been happening at the UN level are new but the information about human rights violations is all familiar stuff. I’m a bit disappointed that there is no video to go along with this year’s entry.


bank loans and court rulings – update

Earlier this month I commented about the dispute about mortgage loans in Mongolia. The government has now amended the rules and apparently things are back on track to offer the lower 8 per cent mortgage loans to the public.

However, not everyone sees these loans as a good idea. Jargal, a prominent economist in Mongolia who has a regular news column which is translated in English and published by the UB Post, has dedicated his latest column to highlighting key problems with the private apartment market in Ulaanbaatar, including corruption, lack of transparency and poor planning.

2 Songino 6 construction site I

(Photo: construction of apartment buildings in Songino Khairkhan district)

Diverging a little from the private side, the UB development plans also includes the re-housing of those who exchange their land on which the new apartment buildings are built. The government wants it to seem that everyone who exchanges their land for an apartment is super-happy about getting a new apartment. But this is not always the case. A lot of the development projects have run into serious delays. Like the private market, a weak legal framework, an inexperienced and corrupt government, and lack of transparency are all contributing (among other factors) to delays and disputes. The result is continually expanding ger areas and all the problems that go along with that, including serious air and soil pollution.


Boom, Boom, Bomb – North Korea welcomes the new year

The big news today is that North Korea has claimed to have successfully tested a Hydrogen Bomb!

First signs of this came in the form of ‘earthquake’ readings coming from the northeastern North Korea. This was followed by an official statement issued by the North Korean regime around mid-day northeast Asia time announcing a successful H-bomb test.

The timing is thought to coincide with the upcoming birthday of Supreme Leader and with the New Year. Hip, Hip, Hooray!

My top 3 quotes from North Korea’s official statement:

It was confirmed that the H-bomb test conducted in a safe and perfect manner had no adverse impact on the ecological environment.


Since the appearance of the word hostility in the world there has been no precedent of such deep-rooted, harsh and persistent policy as the hostile policy the U.S. has pursued towards the DPRK.

The U.S. is a gang of cruel robbers which has worked hard to bring even a nuclear disaster to the DPRK, not content with having imposed the thrice-cursed and unheard-of political isolation, economic blockade and military pressure on it for the mere reason that it has differing ideology and social system and refuses to yield to the former’s ambition for aggression.


Nothing is more foolish than dropping a hunting gun before herds of ferocious wolves.

Before we all send our congratulatory messages to North Korea, however, some noted that we can’t be certain that North Korea did actually successfully test a H-bomb. The size of the explosion is also making some wonder if it is actually a H-bomb or that it might be just a small one. Tests in the coming days may help determine the authenticity of the claim but it could be that we won’t know for sure if this is true or if the North Korean regime is just trying to impress/scare the pants off everyone.

The epicentre of the earthquake that hit North Korea at 12:30pm AEDST

(picture sourceUSGS)

What is certain is that we can expect a lot of speculation and punditry on this in the next few days, or until some other more terrible/exciting news comes along to sweep it off the headlines.


What is the point of the Japan-South Korea ‘comfort women’ deal?

The early English twitter and media coverage of the announcement that Japan-South Korea had brokered a deal to resolve the issue of reparations for South Korean ‘comfort women’ was couched in mostly positive language with some journalists expressing the hope that, this time, the apology would be sufficient to end the issue once and for all. Yet, even a basic knowledge of the issue and a small amount of common sense should be enough to see that this deal is as bad, if not worse, than the previous failed apology attempts.

A deal only covering South Korean victims reeks of realpolitik. Given Japan and South Korea’s economic relationship and the strength of the comfort women movement in South Korea it is not surprising that this deal was wrangled with South Korea and not Indonesia, Taiwan, or the Philippines, etc.

But even putting that aside, here are three obvious reasons why this deal is fatally flawed:

  1. The women, their families or representatives weren’t at the negotiating table

The picture attached to most of the stories gave us the first clue that the deal was bogus. Two Asian men shaking hands standing in front of their respective national flags is not a picture that encapsulates the story of an historic acceptance of an apology to female victims of wartime sexual slavery.

(picture source)

As the picture does suggest, none of the women, families or representative organizations were included, consulted or involved in the discussions and negotiations for agreeing the deal. Nor were the women alerted or briefed about the deal prior to it being made public. This is even more evident in the fact that the deal fails to include key asks that the ‘comfort women’ have been calling for and is as equivocal as previous apologies that failed to gain the acceptance of the victims, their families or representatives.

  1. It’s a deal, not an apology

Rather than an unequivocal apology and reparations, this agreement is very much a political deal – South Korea removes the statue across from the embassy and Japan will pay out 1 billion yen of government funds and repeat the same carefully worded apology that avoids acknowledgement of legal responsibility. The deal is already coming under threat as South Korea seeks to take advantage of the vague wording in the deal to avoid moving the statue.

As for the money, it already looks like the proposed Fund is in trouble. A few years ago, two South Korean former ‘comfort women’ set up their own fund, the Butterfly Fund, which works to provide support for victims of wartime sexual violence in conflict areas around the world. This genesis of this fund was the position taken by these two women that the apology counts for more than the money. They said that, if the Japanese government ever paid reparations, they would use that money to support other victims of sexual violence in conflict. In the absence of any apology or financial compensation from the Japanese government, the women set up the fund from private donations. Hankyoreh reports that the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) is refusing to engage with the proposed fund which will effectively make it impossible for the new fund to get established.

  1. Victims accept an apology, not governments.

States have the right to apply for reparations on behalf of survivors. However it seems inconceivable in this day and age that a government would apply for reparations without including, consulting and getting the explicit support of the women themselves to accept the agreement. This is especially true when the victims, their families and representative organization are so well organized with the ability to garner public support to back up their position. As we already saw, the Wednesday demonstration following the agreement attracted much larger numbers than usual and the group enjoys widespread public support in opposing the removal of the statue. The failure to involve the victims and gain their support to publicly accept the apology offered by the Japanese government is what will ultimately doom this agreement like all the ones before it.

The victims, their families and representative have made it very clear over the years what they believe would constitute an acceptable reparations package. Given that both the Japanese and South Korean government would have already known that this deal would be unacceptable to the women and that the public support in Korea would inevitably support the women, it is unclear what both sides hope to achieve by this endeavor.



Bank loans and court rulings

A story came out in Mongolia just before the end of 2015 that the Constitutional Court had ruled a program of 8% mortgage loans as unconstitutional. The Court found that the loans violate Articles 171 and 171.2 of the Mongolian Civil Code as well as the Constitution.

Civil Code

Article 171. Non-restriction of owner transaction right

 171.1. Transaction, obligating the owner not to use the immovable property serving as a hypothec, not to transfer it to ownership of others, and not to otherwise entitle rights to it to third party, shall be invalid.

 171.2. Validity of the transaction concluded by hypothec owner with a third party shall depend on the creditor’s permission.

After checking the dictionary, I learnt that hypothec means:

A mortgage or security held by a creditor on the property of a debtor without possession of it, created either by agreement or by operation of the law

However, neither the laws, nor the definition of hypothec were enough for me to understand why the 8% mortgage loans were deemed illegal/unconstitutional. It would seem that there are provisions in the loan scheme which I don’t know about and which run afoul of the law.

But the story doesn’t just end with people being denied cheap mortgage loans. It seems that the State Housing Corporation has built some apartment blocs on the basis that they would be able to offer people the 8% loan to buy new apartments. The sale of the apartments would then cover the construction costs. However, with the denial of the 8% loans, this whole scheme has collapsed and the State Housing Corporation can’t afford to pay for the construction.

(picture source)

In response to this set back the Speaker of the Parliament, while attending the official opening of the apartment blocs, announced that the government would annul the Court’s ruling and continue as planned without changing the law. Its unclear how he will do that in practice since all banks offering the loan scheme suspended them on the basis of the court ruling. Annulling the law would also, presumably, involve convincing the banks to offer the loan in violation of the court ruling.

The tussle between judicial and legislative powers could heat up, especially as we have just entered a parliamentary election year. Combined with the approved amendments to the election law, protests over the use of voting machines and the slump in economic growth, tensions are already running high.

Mongolia generally has peaceful elections. Although there is thought to be some amount of election mismanagement and fraud in each elections, most election pass without too much controversy. The exception was the 2008 parliamentary election which led to a violent protest, the first state of emergency declared since the transition to democracy and 5 people were killed. Nobody is expecting anything like that but we could be heading for a very feisty election period.


January 2016
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