Saturday, February 14, 2009

North Korea diaspora celebrates the "Dear Leader" anniversary

A rare opportunity to approach the DPRK leaders was offered to a small group of western correspondents in Japan for a "diplomatic cocktail" related to the celebration of the Pyongyang leader Kim Jong-Il anniversary. February 16th the North celebrates the 67th birthday of the “dear Leader”.

Kim Jong-Il, the "Dear Leader" was born 16 February 1941 in Vyatskoye, Soviet Union, although the Pyongyang liturgy claims he was born a year later in Baekdu Mountain, on China Korea border. The party was placed under the authority of the Chief Vice Chairman of the (long tittle...) Central Standing Committee of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, Mr. Ho Jong-Man, and the Director of the International Affairs Bureau Mr So Chung-On.

Mr Ho Jong-Man:
"Bush has gone, we hope that the new administration of President Obama will no longer refer to us as part of an "axis of evil"!

Area surrounded by police:

We arrived at the Tokyo headquarters of "Chosen Soren", a lot of police around the gigantic bunker-building had closed the roads. Many policemen, uniform and plain clothes, and secret service, monitored the area, most politely. Some having the face hidden by cotton mask (flu?).

The Japan headquarters of the residents' association in Tokyo serves as the "embassy" in Japan that has no diplomatic relations with the Northern country. Approaching the building I immediately recognized the same rigid and ceremonial protocol I am used to see when I am in Beijing. And when passing through the gates of the building tainted with an oriental elegance I noticed obviously that the Korean people there were interested to see their headquarter visited by some foreign journalists. To my surprise, I was treated with great care in spite of coming from France, being a foreign correspondent of a country that does not recognize DPRK diplomatically.

After greetings and exchange of name cards, we climbed the stairs to enter into a room with a dozen officials on a line, welcoming guests. After greeeting each of them with a : "Pulanso saram or Furansu Hoso" I entered into the party place filled with three hundred guests. Korean, Japanese, a few foreigners specialized as "Korea Watchers", a bunch of diplomats, some Japanese VIPs' and a few "talento" (some were Japanese TV personalities of Korean origins) raising their glass in front of an empty stage where 2 massive portraits of Kim Il-Sung and of Kim Jong-Il his son, were raised facing the flock. Special, very special.

Here was a chance of our access to an unknown world "not-contaminated" by our western culture and "sanitized" by Japanese authorities. Some guests, who obviously were not used to see foreign media in such "quarantined area", had a wet back and sweating face while we did our work, asking questions and comments to the inviting party. Lots of beer and food, sushis, catered by Chinzan-so, lots of cheers in front of glasses emptied as soon as they were filled.

Not a word or question was refused even if the comments were rather ""dogmatic"". The party went on. Atmosphere was more relaxed after a few drinks, statements and jokes. Naturally, I heard the full course of Pyongyang statements that contradict all what can be heard from times to times in Tokyo or Seoul: "There were 17 or 18 abductees" in North Korea an Kim Jong-Il apologized to Prime Minister Junchiro Koizumi. "Our Korean schools in Japan are discriminated by Tokyo Governor Ishihara's policy. We are waiting for the Obama administration to set an envoy to talk with DPRK."

"DPRK will launch a satellite"

I focused on the news that Pyongyang prepares to launch a missile able to carry nuclear warheads. The test could take place on February 25th the first anniversary of the mandate of South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak. The Taepodong-2 missile is 36 meters tall and can contain up to 500 kg of nuclear warheads.

According to my North Korean source at the party, the Pyongyang's rocket is to launch "a satellite", not a missile! An other NK source told our little group of Japan based foreign correspondents that the "South and the US continue their containment" and that "Pyongyang intentions are to open for economic exchanges."

An hour passed, time to leave after this "special" permission to attend this "dear leader"'s anniversary event, which looked like any other celebration event in any capital city. While I left the place, I noticed a refine etiquette and kindness to the foreign media. The last image I kept from this amazing event is the team of two North Korean cameramen using a very old and very noisy movie camera that certainly filmed the Korean war... When I asked if it could be possible to go to report to Pyongyang, Mr So did not refrain to state that "it is a bit difficult but not impossible".

An interesting captive market I told to myself!

The North will celebrate its “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il's 67th birthday on Monday, who seems to have made a full recovery from the stroke he suffered in August. Next week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will make her first overseas trip: the head of US diplomacy will visit Asia and the North’s nuclear agenda will likely take top priority in talks.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Magical "Onsen" under hazardous volcano

When he said that there were prospects for an eruption that could throw volcanic rocks to a distance of around 4 kilometers, Sadayuki Kitagawa, the senior coordinator for volcanic affairs at Japan's Meteorological Agency, knew exactly that the situation was serious. Ten days later, even if the activity of the volcano is worrying, signs appear of a better preparation and a more secure warning system for the local Karuizawa area.

Last August, Japan Meteorological Agency raised the level to 2 from 1 for Mount Asama, which sits on the line dividing the prefectures of Nagano and Gunma near Kita-Karuizawa where I had stayed. Reason is that the agency took this "crisis-management decision" because of an increase in volcanic tremors and smoke discharge. Before Mount Asama last erupted in August, it also was preceded by large outbursts between September and December 2004 as we can see on this picture from a resident:

The agency heightened the warning level after observing signs of an eruption, including ground movements and an increase in the number of earthquakes with a high frequency of seismic waves. Warning and monitoring paid: the authorities managed to issue a warning to local municipalities about 13 hours before the eruption early February 2nd for Mount Asama, achieving its first successful alert since it started up the system in December 2007.

The agency alerted the municipalities of Miyota, Karuizawa and Komoro, all in Nagano Prefecture, and Tsumagoi, Gunma Prefecture, at 1 p.m. Sunday that the volcano warning level had been upgraded to 3 from 2. All four municipalities responded promptly. The warning was described as "the first success of this system".

A level three alert covers non-residential areas near the crater of the volcano and warns people not to approach the volcano. It was the first such alert for Mount Asama since the Meteorological Agency adopted the current volcanic warning levels.

Quite a relief and a satisfaction for the traveller willing to “take the waters” around the famous Asama-san, renown for the curative abilities of its mineral-laden water as reveled in the delights of “onsen”, the hot-spring baths that are the basis of this quintessentially Japanese form of relaxation such as Hoshinoya Onsen:

"Hoshinoya in Karuizawa has been one of the most memorable experiences. The landscaping and grounds provide sensual joy. Lush terraces and man-made waterfalls delight the senses. The Ryokan ("Auberge or Inn") is set amongst Karuizawa’s thick forest of Japanese maple. Architect/designer Rie Azuma highlights leafy canopies and sculptured trunks with subtle illumination; in the autumn, the forest is robed in gold and crimson glory. Stone paths to the baths and dinning room are romantically lit. The room design is based on textured plaster walls the color of green tea and the bedrooms have cathedral ceilings, a sign of ultimate luxury in a country where doorways and ceilings normally challenge tall Westerners."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fears of increasing protectionism in the face of the global crisis

Europe is watching closely to see whether a "Buy American" provision relating to steel will make it into the final version of the US stimulus plan bill to be signed by Barack Obama, fearing it will affect European exports.

At the end of Bush presidency, French government officials turned mad following the announcement by U.S. trade authorities that Washington was tripling the tariff on Roquefort cheese imports from France, among scores of European products targeted by a 100% levy the U.S. imposed in 1999 in retaliation for the European Union's longstanding ban on hormone-treated American beef on the grounds that it may be unsafe to eat.

The Roquefort focus may also backfire because French Roquefort producers say they'll seek financial compensation from France and the E.U., rather than harangue Brussels to lift its beef ban. "The United States is hoping producers will put pressure on Europe," said France's famous anti-globalization crusader and Roquefort producer, José Bové. "But it's clear: at no time will producers put pressure on Europe to open its borders to hormone-treated beef."

Free trade? Hum. Something to re-consider within 2 years...

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, WTO chief Pascal Lamy said he was concerned that countries would increasingly turn to protectionist measures during the economic downturn. "It is natural in such a crisis that there is a big call for protection. But that does not mean there should be protectionism," and he urged world leaders to use April's G20 meeting in London to help conclude the Doha round of trade talks.

Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa warned Tuesday against a return to the protectionism of the 1930s seen as a catalyst for the Great Depression. "We've learnt from the Great Depression that it would lead to disaster if a law similar to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act comes up," Nakagawa said, referring to a law passed in 1930 that imposed sweeping rises in US import duties. "Previous G7 and G20 meetings have confirmed that we shouldn't get mired in protectionism," Nakagawa told reporters. All members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) must abide by its rules, he added.

The United States were recently criticised by trade partners for a "Buy American" clause in a massive stimulus package, which has since been watered down. Supporters of free trade fear that the global economic crisis and the subsequent wave of job cuts could prompt governments to pursue policies that favour national companies and reduce global trade flows.

"There’s no question that the “Buy American” stipulations attached to some of the stimulus mandates involving steel and iron sourcing represent another beggar-thy-neighbor edict that is illegal and immoral under NAFTA and other trade agreements."

Obama is believed to be a free trader, as are many of his advisors, but the world will shortly see how post-political he will be in dealing with the most destructive and commonplace populism around: protectionism.

Quotes from courtesy of newsletters

Monday, February 09, 2009

Kanazawa luxurious elegance

Kanazawa, the biggest city in the Hokuriku region has a
population of 450,000, and is a castle town that was ruled
over by the Maeda family for three centuries after the
first lord Toshiie Maeda entered Kanazawa Castle in 1583.

The development of its special products like rice, sake,
sweets, etc. was due to its temperate and rainy climate
with heavy snow in winter.

The city is surrounded by the Japan Alps, Hakusan National
Park and Noto Peninsula National Park. Two rivers run
through the city; the Sai is said to be a lively masculine
river and the Asano to be a sweet, feminine river. Such a
natural background of great beauty gives the city a relaxed

Since the Kaga Clan invited many artists and craftsmen to
this area, it achieved a high level of craftsmanship that
continues to flourish to this day.

Foodopia Kanazawa is a place for people to enjoy Ishikawa's
food and the regional characteristics that have nurtured
this distinctive cuisine. It is held in winter when many
traditional delicacies are abundant and at their best.
Launched in 1985, this food festival has become a major
attraction of the Ishikawa winter. Foodopia Kanazawa
consists of a number of events spread out over a whole
month. They include the “Shoku-dan”, literally eat and
talk, in which people converse on cultural topics with
famous personalities while enjoying Ishikawa's striking
winter delicacies; and "Foodopia Land", a venue for
traditional hearths, food stalls and stage events at a park
in the heart of the city.

People enjoy their market centuries old and taste the much
controversial sushi of "Kujira".

Asadaya, an old Japanese restaurant and member of the
Association of Kanazawa city and its branch, old and new.

Asada san, my first encounter on the city, owner of
the renown Ryotei where David Rockfeller himself
stayed for a modest 2,5 million yens vintage bill.

Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery, a long-established Kanazawa sake
maker, is now brewing a novel sake aimed at helping to
revitalize the local sake industry.

A 100-year old "o-chaya" tea houses in Kazuemachi, near the
Asano river, Kanazawa, has been renovated and made into a
machiya traditional Japanese house.

At Kenrokuen Garden, the ropes tied to trees “yukitsuri”
to protect them from the snow are themselves are remarkable
sight of the Hokuriku winter. The garden is also
illuminated four times a year. Kenrokuen is especially
stunning in winter.

Located in the center of Kanazawa City, this is a museum of
contemporary arts with a circular design that generates a
uniquely free and open ambience. With its main concept of
“a museum that resembles a park in the city”.

Ishikawa rivals cities like Tokyo and Kyoto when it comes
to thriving arts and crafts. One of the Ishikawa
Prefectural Museum of Art's founding principles was to
focus on Ishikawa's own artistic creativity and it
emphasizes these regional aspects by exhibiting such
cultural properties as the treasures of Maeda Family, which
used to rule the Kaga region, presently Ishikawa

The city is a treasure to discover and to enjoy with
old architecture as the restaurant and museum of
an art collector where I had and excellent diner
and discovered a Chinese poem written by a
painter with lilliputian ideograms in a centuries
old ceramic cup.

A report introduced thanks to Foreign Press Center and the
Prefecture of Ishikawa. Warmest appreciation.