Last week in East Asia, several top North Korean officials were demoted after being held responsible for the country’s “great crisis” — related to the failure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (The New York Times, 29 June 2021). In South Korea, the parliament passed a resolution demanding that Japan consult neighboring countries regarding the disposal of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Meanwhile, in South Korea, police intervened to disperse protesters opposing an anti-missile defense system amid increasing tensions. Protests were held in Mongolia over wage increases for health workers and the government’s plan to hold a national festival amid a surge in the number of COVID-19 infections. Lastly, the Communist Party of China (CPC) held celebrations for its 100th anniversary on 1 July, while pro-democracy rallies held annually on the same day in Hong Kong were muted amid heavy police deployment.
In North Korea, several senior officials were replaced during a meeting of the Politburo, convened by leader Kim Jong Un last week for failures related to the implementation of COVID-19 measures (The New York Times, 29 June 2021). Among those demoted are two Korean People’s Army Marshals believed to be close confidants of the leader (NK News, 1 July 2021). Kim accused the officials of creating a “great crisis” by neglecting their duties (Reuters, 30 June 2021). While it is unclear what constitutes the crisis, experts assume that it may refer to an outbreak of COVID-19 infections or severe food shortages (NK News, 1 July 2021; Reuters, 30 June 2021). Although North Korean authorities officially claim that the country is free of COVID-19, experts are skeptical (The New York Times, 29 June 2021). Strict restrictions implemented by authorities to contain the spread of COVID-19 — including closing the border with its main trade partner, China — have contributed to severe food shortages in the country (Foreign Policy, 11 June 2021). Recent reports indicate that soldiers have engaged in theft and other criminal activities amid food shortages and orders to release military grain rations to the civilian population (NK News, 1 July 2021; Daily NK, 2 July 2021).
In South Korea, the National Assembly adopted a resolution last week condemning Japan’s unilateral decision to release treated contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean (The Korea Times, 29 June 2021). The resolution demands that Japan consult neighboring countries on the method chosen to treat the radioactive water. ACLED records over 100 demonstration events against the release plan across South Korea since Japan announced the decision on 13 April. Relations between South Korea and Japan remain strained over issues, including historical and territorial disagreements.
Also in South Korea, police dispersed residents and activists protesting the transport of materials into a military base in Seongju last week (Segye Ilbo, 1 July 2021; Seoul Shinmun, 29 June 2021). Demonstrators oppose the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system established at the Seongju military base in May 2020, citing environmental and safety concerns. ACLED records an increase in the number of events related to this issue over the past two months. Regular demonstrations at the THAAD battery in Seongju often involve police interventions or clashes between police and activists. Such violence is unusual in South Korea, where demonstrations are largely peaceful.
In Mongolia, several protest events took place last week in the capital, triggered by the worsening COVID-19 situation in the country. Health workers demand the government double their salaries to reach the country’s average wage, as the pandemic has caused a significant increase in their workload (Ikon.mn, 2 July 2021). Meanwhile, business owners and youth groups protested, demanding the government cancel celebrations of the national festival ‘Naadam’ amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and to support businesses instead (BBC, 6 July 2021). On the other hand, horse trainers and horse riding fans demand the government allow ‘Naadam’ celebrations to keep the tradition alive (News.mn, 2 July 2021). ‘Naadam’ is a national festival celebrated every year from 11 to 13 July across Mongolia that focuses on traditional games such as horse racing, wrestling, and archery.
In China, the CPC celebrated its centenary on 1 July with an elaborate ceremony in Tiananmen Square. President Xi Jinping delivered a defiant speech aimed at China’s detractors, expressing China’s commitment to ensure “social stability” in Macau and Hong Kong, and reunification with Taiwan (BBC, 2 July 2021; Nikkei Asia, 1 July 2021). 1 July also marks the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, traditionally commemorated by pro-democracy activists in the form of mass rallies. However, this year, authorities banned the annual pro-democracy rallies for the second consecutive year, citing COVID-19 restrictions (HKFP, 28 June 2021). Despite the deployment of a reported 10,000 police officers to prevent unauthorized protests, four members of the League of Social Democrats staged a protest march to the site of the annual handover flag-raising ceremony, calling for the release of political prisoners (AP, 2 July 2021).