Darcie Draudt, Will Piekos, and Sharone Tobias look at the top five stories in Asia this week.
1. Japanese prime minister pays his respects to Yasukuni Shrine. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid his respects at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including over a dozen “Class A” war criminals. It was the first visit to the Shinto shrine by a serving prime minister since 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi went. Abe tried to play down the visit, saying it was an anti-war gesture, but Abe’s actions were widely and swiftly condemned; the Yasukuni Shrine is seen by the region as a symbol of Imperial Japanese aggression. China called the visit “absolutely unacceptable to the Chinese people”; South Korea expressed “regret and anger”; and the U.S. embassy in Tokyo said in a statement that it was “disappointed” and the prime minister’s actions would “exacerbate tensions” with Japan’s neighbors.
2. Move of U.S. base at Okinawa gains approval. After years of disagreement, Governor Hirokazu Nakaima of Okinawa approved the relocation of the U.S. Marine base on the island to a less populous area. Residents of Okinawa, where about half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based, have long complained of base-related crime, noise, and accidents; some protestors still seek the complete removal of U.S. troops from the island. It could take close to a decade to build the new base, which will be located on a landfill. The agreement comes at a crucial time for both Tokyo and Washington, as the former seeks to strengthen ties with the United States amid rising tension with China and the latter continues the U.S. rebalance toward Asia.
3. Satellite images indicate further development at North Korean nuclear plant. A facility for producing fuel rods at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, north of Pyongyang, now appears to be operational. Last month, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Yukiya Amano said the agency has observed activity at a North Korean nuclear site that indicates effort to restart a reactor. Since April this year, North Korea has repeatedly asserted it is strengthening its nuclear weapon capabilities. The five-megawatt reactor, which was verified to be shut down by IAEA inspectors in July 2007, has previously supplied sources of plutonium, a component for nuclear weapons. Though IAEA has not had access to the site since North Korea banned IAEA inspectors from entering in October 2008, the IAEA continues to monitor the Yongbyon plant via satellite imagery.
4. Protesting garment workers and police clash in Cambodia. Violence broke out between police and protesters in the capital Phnom Penh on December 27, as military police attempted to move the striking workers. Police fired warning shots into the crowd, which incited the protesters to throw rocks in response; about ten police officers and ten protesters were injured. Thousands of garment factory workers have been protesting nationwide for weeks, upset by inadequate minimum wages. Unions have demanded a raise to $160 minimum monthly wage, but the national government decided to raise the minimum wage for the garment and shoe industry to $95 (a 19 percent increase on the status quo). In addition to calling for increased wages, the striking workers have joined the Cambodian opposition movement that demands the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
5. Thai election body calls for delayed vote amid violence. The Election Commission of Thailand is urging the country’s February 2 vote to be postponed as protests and chaos continued to grip Bangkok. One police officer was killed and dozens injured on Thursday in the first violent incidents in almost two weeks. Protestors were trying to stop election preparations, as the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra most likely will win another term; the protestors’ ultimate goal is her resignation and the establishment of an unelected “people’s council.” The government has rejected the proposed postponement, citing concerns that it could lead to “prolonged violence.”
Bonus: Rodman visits North Korea, but doesn’t see Kim Jong-un. Retired NBA player Dennis Rodman wrapped up his third visit to North Korea this week, during which he trained North Korean basketball players and helped plan a proposed exhibition game in early 2014, allegedly coinciding with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebrations. He did not, however, see the supreme leader this time, whom he has previously called a “good friend” while distancing himself from the issues dealing with security, politics, or human rights in North Korea. Rodman’s corporate partner, the Ireland-based online betting site Paddy Power, announced on December 23 it would no longer support Rodman or his planned game, citing increased international concern over the North Korean regime. Likewise, the U.S. Department of State has distanced themselves from Rodman’s “basketball diplomacy.”