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Propaganda balloons burst Inter-Korean relationship

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After eight years of silence between the two Koreas, North Korea’s leader Jong-un Kim unexpectedly decided to resume highest-level bilateral talks during his nationwide New Year’s speech. However, on Jan. 9, North Korea issued an ultimatum declaring that South Korea must either stop the release of propaganda balloons or sever all diplomatic ties.

In the early 1970s, in an attempt to persuade North Korean citizens to defect, the South Korean government created propaganda balloons, which included propaganda leaflets, food, dollar bills and Christian messages. Over the years, activists have increasingly taken on this role, as they feel morally obligated to help the North Korean citizens through progress in Inter-Korean relationships.

“While propaganda balloons have been controversial, they have created a positive change in the way we approach North Korea,” said Nuri Choi (9), Forensics team member. “We have pressured the regime by exposing the loopholes in its propaganda system and showing them a better world.”

While the purpose of the balloons is to assist North Koreans, opponents emphasize threats that balloons may pose on South Korean citizens. According to the Korean Herald, North Korean citizens only receive five percent of all the balloons sent because most are shot down at the border. Furthermore, propaganda balloons stimulated North Korea to reactivate offensive military practices on Jan. 9 and triggered a round of crossfire between the two countries in October 2012.

“If you think about it, these balloons are generally ineffective and instead only provoke the regime even more,” said Alex Lopez, Asian Studies teacher. “Most of the external information that is given to the North Korean citizens is through smuggled DVDs and USBs from China.”

As of now, opinions are split even between South Korea’s executive and judicial branch. Although the South Korean government had maintained that it has the responsibility to protect the right to free speech, the Uijeongbu district court decided on Jan. 10 that because activists created an unstable environment, their activities could be restricted. While talks are planned to continue later in the month, human rights organizations currently show no desire to stop sending their airborne messages of freedom.

China, Japan agree to hold talks

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Holding formal talks for the first time since May of 2012, Chinese President Jinping Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took steps to improve Sino-Japanese relations on Nov. 10 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting held in Beijing, China. The high-level dialogue followed an announcement on Nov. 7 that the two countries would hold talks about their differing positions on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and work to establish crisis management mechanisms. According to the New York Times, this meeting marked a departure from Japan’s past refusals to cooperate and even resulted in the country’s acknowledgement of Chinese claims to the islands’ sovereignty.

“Japan is realizing that they cannot continue being aggressive towards China, and are thus trying to reconciliate” said Alex Lopez-Barton, Asian Studies teacher. “The government does not want these controversies to hurt economic ties and trade between the two countries, especially as its economy has been struggling over the last two decades.”

However, according to the Wall Street Journal, tensions may emerge yet again between the two countries as a result of Japanese politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where dead soldiers, including war criminals from the Second World War, are enshrined. Because these visits strained diplomatic relations and ignited Anti-Japanese sentiments in the past, China requested that Prime Minister Abe not pay homage at the shrine. However, Abe has not responded to China with such a promise.

“I think that politicians honoring war criminals enshrined at [Yasukuni Shrine] is a big deal because it gives off the impression that the Japanese government is not repenting for its past aggressions,” said David Cho (12), Asian Studies student. “But [Prime Minister Abe] is not going to stop them from doing so because his party uses such provocative actions as a way to attract the support of conservative voters.”

The reconciliation of the two countries could put pressure on Korea due to fears of being sidelined, according to the Financial Times. Korean President Geun-hye Park has not held formal talks with Prime Minister Abe yet due to territorial rows and historical disputes. According to Mr. Lopez, US officials would welcome signs of improving ties between Korea and Japan as they hope to enhance a trilateral security alliance.

“The US has been wary of China’s growing influence and power,” Mr. Lopez said. “At the same time, it is concerned that territorial and historical disputes are creating conflict between major powers in the region, as it wants to avoid becoming embroiled in the confrontations.”

North Korean leader reappears amid tensions

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Making his first public appearance in more than five weeks, Jong-un Kim, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, inspected a newly constructed residential area for scientists on Oct. 14. According to the BBC, this visit quelled rumors of his removal from power. The speculation started after it was reported that he was not present at a celebration for the anniversary of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party on Oct. 10. Rather, according to the New York Times, his use of a cane in the photographs released by state-run Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) gives credence to reports of Mr. Kim’s physical discomfort due to leg injury or gout.
“There is so much speculation about North Korea because it is so mysterious, and off-limits to the rest of the world,” said Elizabeth Huh (12), MUN member. “Because people are worried that the collapse of [Mr. Kim’s] regime will lead to instability in the region, they are analyzing everything that they know to get a better idea of what is actually happening in the country.”
At the same time, the two Koreas exchanged gunfire across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) for the first time in four years. According to the New York Times, North Korean soldiers fired first in response to South Korean activists sending large balloons filled with anti-North Korea propaganda over the border. After several bullets landed in South Korea, its military fired back. High-ranking military officials from both countries met at the DMZ on Oct. 15 to discuss these border altercations, but could not resolve their differences. In fact, the two sides exchanged gunfire again on Oct. 19.
“Since the activists are exercising their freedom of speech when they release the leaflets into North Korea, it is difficult for the South Korean government to stop them,” said David Ahn (12), Government and Politics student. “But as long as North Korea reacts to the leaflets as if they are provocations, it is a risk to the safety of citizens living near the border. It is sometimes easy to forget that we are still technically at war.”
Despite these increasing tensions between the two countries, South Korean authorities have urged North Korea to stick to the plan to hold the high-level government talk, previously agreed upon on Oct. 4. However, North Korean authorities rejected South Korea’s offer to hold the talks on Oct. 30, according to Reuters.
“I do not think that North Korean officials want to move forward with negotiations as long as the health of their leader is in question, because it puts them in a relatively weaker position,” said Steven Smith, history teacher. “The conflict could be an excuse to delay talks until [Mr. Kim] is healthy enough to play a larger role in the discussions.”

Ebola outbreak kills thousands, sparks paranoia

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In contrast to previous Ebola outbreaks, the most recent outbreak has affected cities in four West African countries. Because it has caused more than 1,500 deaths as of Aug. 28, the World Health Organization designated it as an public health emergency of international concern. Various aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, have been supporting efforts to counter the outbreak, which could last for at least six more months.

“One of the most important things is educating the public,” said Khadijah Mumtaz, science teacher. “Just by washing your hands or practicing good hygiene, the ebola virus can be easily killed and infections can therefore be prevented.”

Simultaneously, the South Korean government has enacted contingency measures. According to Channel News Asia, quarantine checks at airports have been heightened; visitors are now required to pass through infrared cameras. Those travelling from West Africa will also be required to submit a questionnaire upon their return. The Ministry of Health is considering purchasing an experimental anti-viral drug from Japan.

“It is the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens through any possible means, even if the threat has not physically materialized yet,” said Youngjoo Lee  (10), Forensics member. “But I think that individual citizens also need to be vigilant, especially by avoiding travelling to West Africa.”

Local Korean media outlets and blogs have also been covering the issue extensively. Such reports prompted more than 15,000 citizens to sign an online petition demanding that Duksung Women’s University cancel an international conference co-hosted with the United Nations due to the fear that African univesity students could spread the disease. Eventually, public pressure resulted in the invitations for three Nigerian students being rescinded, sparking debate over whether the petition was an overreaction.

“I understand why people were so concerned about a large international conference being held in Korea,” said Justin Han (12), Government and Politics student. “But I am afraid that the fear present in society may make people more xenophobic against Africans, who they will assume to carry the disease.”

Radical Sunni jihadists seize territory, hostages

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Fleeing from the Islamic State (IS), which seized dozens of villages to establish control over the Middle East, more than 60,000 Syrian refugees fled into Turkey over a 24-hour period on Sept. 20. According to Michael Stanton, history teacher, the group is taking advantage of both the funding it receives from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims and the instability in the Middle East to take political control of parts  of Iraq and Syria.

“A power vacuum exists in Syria due to the civil war,” Mr. Stanton said. “As [President Bashar al-Assad] has lost practical control over the majority of Syria, any group that wants to take territory can do so. Similarly, in Iraq, there have been political and sectarian divisions between the Sunni and Shia fractions.”

Simultaneously, IS has released videos depicting the execution of American and British hostages. The group has also violated human rights by killing the Kurds, an ethnic minority in Iraq. Thus,  it has been widely condemned by both secular and religious leaders worldwide. On Sept. 14, British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to take action against the group, while over 100 British Muslim leaders called upon IS to release the hostages on Sept. 17.

“[IS] has attracted a lot of media attention, especially because the hostages they beheaded were from powerful Western countries,” said Dustin Yoon (12), MUN member. “Though the gruesome nature of the actions might alienate possible supporters, it is still a way for the group to publicize its efforts to create a theocracy and recruit similar-minded jihadists.”

According to the BBC, a total of 40 countries, including 10 Sunni Arab states, have responded by agreeing to take part in an international coalition against the IS as of Sept. 15. More specifically, on Sept. 17, the US House of Representatives approved a plan that pledged to provide training and equipment to the moderate Syrian rebels opposing the group.

“I think that military containment will prevent [IS] from taking control of the oil fields,” Mr. Stanton said. “But the primary focus should be on battling the fundamentalist beliefs of [IS], especially as the organization cannot offer the ideals [people want], like middle class prosperity and health.”

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