East Asia

South Korea Cuts University Tuition

Educational Attainment Map Wikipedia

Educational Attainment Map WikipediaThe Korea Herald announced last week that South Korean Universities would be reducing their tuition by an average of 4.5 percent. Almost all schools cut their fees, some by more than 20 percent. The move was in response to a series of well-organized student protests over the mounting costs of higher education, which were particularly intense last summer. Fee cuts are possible because the South Korean government “set aside 1.75 trillion won for tuition support in 2012 as part of its move to help relax tuition burdens.” Most universities in South Korea rely extensively on such fees, although, at an average level of US$ 8,000, they remain low by U.S. standards.

South Korea has one of the world’s most rigorous educational systems. The desire for a university education is intense, and the competition to get into the best schools can be overwhelming. Political leaders in the country have recently claimed that too many Korean students are opting to pursue higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, President Lee Myung-bak claimed last autumn that, “Reckless entrance into college is bringing huge losses to families and the country alike.” The same article adding that, “Mr. Lee has raised eyebrows, and hackles, by suggesting that fewer people should go to college from a population of 50 million that sustains 3.8 million undergraduate and graduate students.”

Japan: An Egalitarian Society?

Income of Japan's Prefectures

Income of Japan's Prefectures
Income of Japan’s Prefectures

Japan is commonly perceived as an egalitarian society. It is a well-developed country commonly thought to have limited poverty; and as such, Japan is often grouped with the egalitarian Nordic countries. For example, in The Spirit Level: Why Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson* argue that equal societies are better for all citizens, using Japan as an important example. In actuality, inequality in Japan runs deep. Japan may be more egalitarian than the United Statues, but it is still beset by many layers of inequality.

Proportion of Population Living on Welfare

My previous blog entry explored three distinct layers of geographic inequality, focused on China, which all apply to Japan: regional disparities, the rural/urban divide, and the existence of an urban underclass. The map posted here shows the percentage of the population defined as living on welfare. The prefecture with the greatest proportion of welfare households is Osaka, with 4.35 of every 100 people in this category (colored red in the map).  However, throughout Japan, more families live under the poverty line than live off welfare, as nearly one in six lives on less than $1,830 a month for a four-person family. The map highlights significant regional inequalities across Japan. In general, the north and the south (including the island of Okinawa) are poorer, whereas the center of Japan is better off. In particular, the area between Tokyo and Osaka has the lowest rates of households living on welfare.

Like most other countries, Japan also has a significant rural/urban divide. Cities have a much higher levels of development and economic vitality. This economic divide manifests itself in several forms, particularly education. The cities tend to have more student funding and are able to provide better educational opportunities, especially in regard to English language instruction. Although cities are generally better off than rural areas, there is a significant poor urban population across Japan, even in the wealthiest cities such as Tokyo. As seen in the map of households receiving welfare, the highest rates tend to be in large metropolitan areas.

Another form of inequality significant for Japan is the gender disparity. Among well-developed countries, Japan’s gender inequality is pronounced, as measured by several different indices. Although Japan is often compared to the Nordic countries, it has comparatively much higher levels of gender inequality. Opportunities for Japanese women may be better than those found in less-developed countries, however,  Japan’s gender disparity is unique for its level of development.

In many regards, Japanese culture tends to value humble and reserved behavior. This tendency directly relates to perceptions of economic disparity across Japan. Although many people live below the poverty line, such poverty is often hidden. As poorer people are often ashamed about their socio-economic status, they commonly work hard to “keep face” by seeming to be better off than they actually are. Such behavior makes economic inequality in Japan particularly easy to overlook. Furthermore, reserved attitudes make it difficult for the poorer population, as Japanese society as a whole is against inserting themselves in other’s lives, and hence often refrain from helping others economically. In contrast to many other countries, Japan tends to keep poverty out of sight and mind (the victims of the recent tsunami are an exception here.) Japanese culture is conducive to maintaining an illusion of greater equality than what actually exists.

Another major difference between Japan and most other countries is that the Japanese tend to not discuss or identify with a particular “social class.” Although people often know who is “binbo” (poor) and who is “okane-mochi” (money-holding, rich), politics are generally not based around such distinctions. As a result, the government’s ability to pursue class-based policies is limited, leaving poorer citizens’ interests neglected.

Percentage of Children in Poverty

A 2006 OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report on inequality in Japan provides insight on inequality in Japan. It shows that inequality has been increasing recently, linked to the stagnation of the Japanese economy. The report demonstrates that in some ways, Japan may actually have a less equal distribution of wealth than the OECD average. Although income disparities in Japan are lower than in most OECD countries, taxes and transfers do not always benefit those in need. In particular, the system of financial reallocation has been slightly regressive; as a result, the percentage of children living in poverty in Japan has increased since the 1980s if one takes into account taxes and transfers. In fact, Japan now clearly is above the OECD average in terms of percentage of children living in poverty. As this demonstrates, Japan is characterized by many significant hidden elements of economic inequality.

Note: Maps are taken from this map database. Also, special thanks to Tyler Mantaring for his insight.

* The Spirit Level: Why Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press, April 2010, by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson

Global Inequality: Where is it Found?

Poverty and inequality are contentious topics whose geography is often oversimplified. When many people think of extreme poverty and aid, they often focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, but global inequality and poverty are much more complex issues. Overall, it is increasingly apparent that a country-based framework that generalizes levels of income over entire national territories is inadequate, as inequality exists in at a variety of spatial scales. In many parts of the world, inequality is increasingly experienced at local levels.

In The New Geography of Global Income Inequality, Glenn Firebaugh makes several key claims with regards to global trends in income disparity. He focuses on two components of income inequality: between-country inequality, and within-country inequality. I previously explored the challenges of measuring income disparity, but Firebaugh uses different statistical methods to successfully demonstrate that inter-country inequality has declined recently, whereas intra-country inequality has dramatically increased.

Currently, inter-country income inequality accounts for approximately two-thirds of total global inequality. However, this figure is decreasing as many poorer countries are experiencing more rapid economic growth than wealthier countries. This trend leads to gradual convergence and hence less disproportion of wealth between countries. As can be seen from the PPP per capita GDP map above, between-country inequality exhibits distinct world regional patterns, but disparity within regions is also notable.

As The New Geography of Global Income Inequality acknowledges, much of both the decline in inter-country inequality and the increase in intra-country inequality stem from China’s recent economic development and parallel growth in internal wealth variation. With around one sixth of the world’s population, China significantly affects global levels of income inequality. During and immediately after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), China had relatively high levels of income equality: in 1978 its Gini index was even around 0.3. Although China was extremely poor at this time its population was fairly equally impoverished. Due both to China’s large population and its extreme deprivation, its standing at this time significantly heightened inter-nation disparities. With industrialization and the movement to market-based economics, China grew much wealthier, but its newfound riches have not been equally distributed, greatly increasing inequality within the country. China is thus a major factor in, and a great example of, the shift from inter-country inequality to intra-country inequality.

The general trends of inequality in China are similar to those found in many other countries. China has regional divides, rural and urban splits, as well as a significant urban underclass in the cities as well. Geocurrents has previously explored the regional differences within China itself, noting that the coastal provinces are significantly better off than provinces inland. However, it is important to note (as Geocurrents has), that even within the coastal provinces large economic distinction are found between different provinces. The rural/urban divide adds a separate layer of inequality in both coastal and inland provinces. The urban areas, on average, are much wealthier than rural areas, across all provinces. China’s hukou system of laws, moreover, seeks to prevent rural people from moving to cities unless they have official documentation. This system not only contributes to the inequality between urban and rural areas, but it also results in large migrant populations of undocumented rural workers in Chinese cities, generating rapidly increasing inequality and a large urban underclass in cities across China. Even though major Chinese cities have experienced breathtaking growth and are generally much wealthier than rural areas, a large portion of their population remains in severe poverty. The development of China has thus been linked with increasing inequality across the country, and has become a cause for concern within China.

China, as the world’s most populous country, exhibits high levels of economic differentiation, as is explored by this selection of interactive maps from the Economist. China is a good example of how increasing development is leading to greater intra-country disparities across the world. As China continues to economically expand, more areas of the country will become similar to the well-developed regions of Western Europe and the United States, symbolic of decreasing differences between countries. However, there will likely continue to be an increase of inequality within China, visible from multiple viewpoints, from the macro perspective across regions to the micro scale of individual cities and their neighborhoods.

Mapping Economic Disparities in Coastal China

As we saw in Wednesday’s post, China’s coastal belt is far more economically productive than the rest of the country. But even in this prosperous zone of China, a vast gap separates richer and poorer areas. Hong Kong is seven times more productive that Hebei. Take out the extremes, and Shanghai is still two and a half times more productive on a per capita basis than Fujian.

Such discrepant figures, however, are not exactly what they seem, as they partially mask China’s other major economic divide, that separating urban from rural areas. At the top of China’s economic charts are metropolitan areas that are not part of the regular provincial framework: Hong Kong, Macao, Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai. They are generally tabulated and mapped as if they were provinces, which makes them seem unduly productive, as they lack extensive rural hinterlands. If other Chinese cities were separated from their surrounding provinces, they too would appear significantly richer than their neighbors. (In China, four separate categories constitute “province-level” administrative districts: provinces, autonomous areas, special administrative regions [SARs], and direct-controlled municipalities. Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai are direct-controlled municipalities, as is Chongqing in the interior, even though it includes vast rural areas. Hong Kong and tiny Macao in the south are classified as SARs*.)

Across China, the economic gap between urban and rural areas is large and growing, vexing Chinese officials. According to a March 2010 article in China Daily, “urban per capita net income stood at 17,175 yuan last year, in contrast to 5,153 yuan in the countryside, with the urban-to-rural income ratio being 3.33:1.” Similar urban rural divergences are visible in almost all aspects of life, including public health, accident rates, and infrastructure. According to one recent report, the discrepancy in internet penetration “continues to increase. In 2007 there was only a 20% difference in urban and rural Internet usage, but that grew to 24% in 2008 and 30% in 2009.” To be sure, economic and social disparities between cities and the countryside are common features of most sovereign states, but the gaps are especially pronounced in China.

On the economic map of coastal China posted above, five inordinately productive non-provinces stand out, three direct-controlled municipalities (S=Shanghai, B=Beijing, and T=Tianjin) along with two SARs (HK=Hong Kong, along with unlabeled Macao). But even if one were to ignore these deviant metropolitan units, economic disparities within the coastal belt remain pronounced, with Zhejiang’s figure of $11,591 besting Hebei’s 6,387 by a healthy margin – almost exactly the same margin by which first-place Connecticut beats last place Mississippi among U.S states.

Hebei’s level of per capita economic production would, of course, be much higher if the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin were included within its territory. But then again, Zhejiang’s output would increase by a similar margin if it included Shanghai, just as Guangdong’s would surge if it encompassed Hong Kong and Macao. In overall macro-regional terms, it is clear that China has three economic hubs: a north coastal core around Beijing and Tianjin, a central coastal core encompassing Shanghai and much of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, and a southern core focused on Hong Kong and central Guangdong. But as this analysis indicates, it is actually the two southern core areas that form the economic focal points of contemporary China.

*To add to the terminological confusion, the two special administrative areas have actual autonomy, with their own political, monetary, and legal systems, whereas the officially demarcated autonomous regions do not.

Mapping Regional Economic Disparities in China

In mid August 2010, global news outlets reported that China had just surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. The comparison was in nominal terms, based on the relative values of the two country’s currencies. If measured by PPP (purchasing power parity), which ignores exchange-rate values to focus on what can actually be purchased in the domestic market, China’s economy outstripped that of Japan almost a decade ago. As social scientists usually favor PPP over nominal assessments of Gross Domestic Product, the news of China gaining second-place status was not really news at all.

Although its booming economy is vast, China is still not a wealthy country. In terms of GDP per capita, it ranks (by one assessment) 84th out of 194, just below El Salvador and Turkmenistan and just above Namibia and Ukraine. But speaking of the relative wealth of China as a whole is misleading. Not only is China a country of continental scope, but its regional economic disparities are the largest in the world. In 2009, per capita GDP in Hong Kong was more than 16 times that of Guizhou ($42,748 vs. $2,682 in PPP). Even if one excludes China’s rich “Special Administrative Regions” of Hong Kong and Macao, the discrepancy remains pronounced; Shanghai ’s per capita GDP is over $20,000.

Available maps of per capita economic production in China fail to adequately convey its geographical distinctions. The Wikipedia map posted above makes it seem as if the difference between China’s most productive and least productive regions is only around five-fold. It also downplays total Chinese production by using nominal rather than PPP figures, and it depicts Taiwan as part of China, rather than a de facto independent country. The map’s main problem, however, is the way it minimizes the profound gap between coastal and interior China. The overall impression a reader might gain from glancing at the map is one of relative wealth across China’s northeastern quadrant, with a narrow extension of prosperity reaching along the coast to the southeast. (I have modified the Wikipedia map accordingly, using a thick black line to show how it neatly bifurcates China into richer and poorer halves.) In actuality, it is this narrow southeastern strip that forms the truly prosperous part of China, not the greater northeast.

Some of the difficulties of mapping economic differences in China are unavoidable. Per capita GDP data is the standard information source, yet its use results in systematic distortions. Mining regions, for example, often yield elevated GDP figures due to the high value of the minerals extracted, yet may remain relatively underdeveloped by most criteria. In China, the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia appears to be one of the more prosperous parts of the country on the maps above, and it has certainly experienced blazing economic growth in recent years. But as it relies heavily on coal, natural gas, rare earths, niobium, zirconium, and beryllium, Inner Mongolia is not as broadly productive as official figures might seem to indicate. Inner Mongolia is also a vast area, larger than all of China’s southeastern coastal provinces put together, and economic output varies greatly from one part of the region to another. Mapping Inner Mongolia as a single unit masks this diversity. The same may be said of other administrative divisions, but the larger the unit, the larger the distortions generally are.

Another problem stems from the data themselves. Economic statistics from China are notoriously uneven, as even the Chinese government admits. According to a May 2010 story in People’s Daily Online, local official often exaggerate growth: “problems with statistics were exposed after regional gross domestic product (GDP) figures ended up surpassing the national GDP growth.”

Over the next few days, Geocurrents will post several alternative depictions of the geography of Chinese economic production, using the same data source that was used to produce the Wikipedia map posted above. By employing more categories and by turning to PPP rather than nominal data, the first Geocurrents map highlights the disparity between the poorest part of China, Guizhou, and the richest, Hong Kong (marked with an offshore “HK”). It does not, however, adequately depict the discrepancy between the coastal and interior regions of the country, largely because of the inclusion of Inner Mongolia as a single unit of analysis.

The second Geocurrents map above addresses the coastal/interior divide head-on. To avoid the problem of Inner Mongolia, it maps only the area sometimes called “China Proper,” excluding the so-called Autonomous Areas that are home to most of the non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities. By using PPP data and placing the cut-off line at $8,000, this map shows a clear coastal-inland divide. All but one coastal province* falls above this figure, and even the excluded one, Heibei, comes fairly close to it. Interior China, on the other hand, lags well behind. Aside from excluded Inner Mongolia, no major political division in China located farther than 100 miles from the coast exceeded a per capita GDP figure of $6,000 in 2009. A peculiar feature of China’s province-level economic data is the missing middle; relatively few provinces report per capita GDP figures in the mid-income $6,000 to $9,000 range. (China’s overall GDP was reported at $6,568 in 2009.) The coastal-interior split thus divides China starkly into a relatively prosperous zone and a relatively poor one; so does the urban-rural divide, but that operates at a different scale of analysis, and calls for a different kind of mapping.

* The insular province of Hainan is treated as distinct from the coastal zone.

The China-South Korea History War

“South Korea is fighting a battle with China over ancient history using one of the most powerful weapons in its arsenal — sappy TV dramas watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in Asia.”

-Jon Herskovitz, April 24, 2007.

In the late 1990s, South Korea emerged as a massive exporter of cultural products, from popular music to films and television shows. The dramas that it exports are not all sentimental, and the surge is by no means limited to Asia. Russia, Latin America, and eastern and northern Europe have also been highly receptive. China provided an early and especially enthusiastic mass market, where the phenomenon was dubbed hallyu, or the “Korean Wave.”

In 2006-7, however, the popularity of Korean shows plummeted across China, as nationalist suspicions came into play. South Korean screenwriters were accused of portraying the borderlands of southeastern Manchuria as historically Korean, whereas the Chinese government insisted that it had always been Chinese. Two shows, portraying respectively the founders of the northern Korean kingdoms of Goguryeo and Balhae, were banned by Beijing in 2007. South Korean nationalists responded online, “sparking a massive flame war between Chinese and Korean netizens.” As the Korea Times reported, “The falling exports of Korea’s cultural products are also attributed to China’s increasing hostility to Korea … [the] Chinese people began to believe South Korea tried to settle its historical views and even its cuisine culture through dramas, which nurtured antipathy toward hallyu …”

It is no coincidence that the Sino-Korean history spat would focus on Goguryeo and Balhae, two kingdoms whose territories spanned the border. Goguryeo (37 BCE-668 CE), from which the term “Korea” derives, has long been viewed as the locus classicus of Korean civilization. In South Korea it shares that position with Silla and, to a lesser extent, Baekje, but in North Korea it has no peer. Balhae (698-926 CE) is generally regarded as a less important successor state of Goguryeo, founded by one of its generals after the original kingdom fell to a Tang-Silla alliance in 668 CE.

Beijing objects to the classification of Balhae and Goguryeo as ancestral Korean states. In 2002, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences launched the “Northeast Borderland History and the Chain of Events Research Project” to claim both kingdoms as its own. According to the zhonghua minzu ideology that underwrites the project, the Chinese nation encompasses all ethnic groups that have ever lived within the current boundaries of the People’s Republic of China. As the bulk of Goguryeo’s and especially Balhae’s territories lay to the north of the modern border, their history, the Academy insists, rightfully belongs to China.

From the perspective of contemporary historical scholarship, both positions in this “history war” are misconstrued. On the Chinese side, the notion of a pan-Chinese national identity infusing all of the country’s ethnic groups even today is problematic, as many Tibetans and the Uyghurs would surely attest. To contend that such conditions obtained in the distant past throughout China’s modern territorial extent is deeply anachronistic. Moreover, the Chinese Northeast Borderlands Project elides the inconvenient fact that (except for a brief period under the early Ming dynasty) the “borderlands” in question lay far outside successive Chinese empires’ reach until 1644, when China fell under the rule of the Manchus.

The Korean claims are more solid. But it is still a stretch to regard the kingdoms of Balhae and Goguryeo as straightforward political expressions of the Korean people. The aristocracy of Balhae is generally viewed as having been of Korean stock, but most of the kingdom’s people seem to have more closely related to the Manchus, speaking a language of the Tungusic subfamily of Altaic. Some scholars doubt the “Korean” nature of not just Balhae but also Goguryeo, arguing that the latter’s language was not an early form of Korean, and may have been more closely related to Japanese.

In the end, attributing any kind of modern-day entho-national category to pre-modern peoples or states is a troubling exercise. As Andrei Lankov explains, “Describing Koguryo [Goguryeo] as ‘Chinese’ or ‘Korean’ is as misleading as, say, describing medieval Brittany as ‘French’ or ‘English’ or ‘Irish’ (even though all three modern nations have something to do with the long-extinct Celtic duchy in what is now France). Europeans loved such things before World War I, in the days when the textbooks told about ‘our ancestors the Gauls.’ In East Asia, such historical nationalism is still a powerful instrument of politics and a source of deep and explosive emotions.”

Lankov goes on to offer a possible geopolitical rationale for China’s attempt to arrogate the history of Goguryeo. An impending collapse of North Korea, he argues, could force the “installation of a pro-Chinese puppet regime in Pyongyang. … Such actions will require psychological and cultural justifications, not least within China itself. Thus presenting what is now North Korea as an ‘ancient’ and ‘integral’ part of China might serve such interests very well.” Lankov’s thesis is intriguing, but seems unduly alarmist. China, after all, regards all polities that have ever occupied parts of its current national territory as intrinsically Chinese. Beijing’s historical project seems to be rooted in national consolidation, rather than potential expansion.

China’s Troubled Korean Border Zone

The Korean language extends well beyond North Korea’s boundary into Manchuria in northeastern China. Roughly two million Koreans live in China, mostly in the border zone. Almost half of them reside in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, where Korean cultural institutions receive official support. Although the area was part of several historical Korean kingdoms, its current Korean population stems largely from northward migration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During this period, Korea was falling under Japanese domination, while southeastern Manchuria beckoned as a lightly populated area of pioneer farming.

China has long had a number of concerns about its Korean-populated area. It worries that a united Korea might someday claim the region as part of its national patrimony, owing both to historical patterns of rule and to the ethnic background of its inhabitants. More immediately, it fears that a collapse of North Korea could generate a massive northward surge of desperate refugees across its border, where they would seek shelter in Korean-speaking communities. The border zone is already a place of tension and intrigue. Hungry North Koreans have been slipping into China for years, causing headaches for Chinese authorities and complicating already tense relations among Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. Fewer people cross in the opposite direction, a far more perilous undertaking, but it does occur. In early June 2010, North Korean border guards shot and killed three Chinese citizens who were trying to cross the border, claiming that they were either seeking to conduct illegal trade or to spy for South Korea.

Concerned about the security of its Korean border zone, China has sought to incorporate its Korean-speaking minority into its larger national community while continuing to respect its basic cultural rights. This endeavor has proved relatively successful. Enrollment in Korean schools is rapidly declining, as education in Mandarin Chinese is increasingly desired, mostly for its economic advantages. Han Chinese and other non-Koreans have also moved into the Korean zone in large numbers, just as large numbers of Korean Chinese – almost half of a million in 2009 – have moved to South Korea. As a result, the Korean proportion of the Yanbian Autonomous Prefecture has dropped from almost two-thirds in the early 1950s to about a third at present.

By all indications, China’s Korean community seems reasonably satisfied with its political situation, showing few signs of wanting to separate from China. But general strains between Korea and China still focus on the border region, many of which concern historical representation (to be explored in tomorrow’s post). One particular flashpoint is Mount Baekdu, located on the China-North Korea border. Widely viewed as the place of origin of the Korean people, Baekdu is one of Korea’s three most important sacred mountains. Many South Koreans believe that the entire volcanic peak is rightfully Korean territory, arguing that its northern slope was illegitimately ceded to China by the northern regime during the Korean War. In 2007, South Korean athletes at the Asian Winter Games infuriated Chinese officials by holding up signs proclaiming Korean sovereignty over the entire peak. South Korean nationalists are angered by China’s development of a tourism industry on its side of the mountain, as well as by its use of the term Changbai Mountain, which some see as an attempt to pry away a key natural symbol of Korean identity.

Professor Guofan Shao of Purdue University has recently determined, through Google Earth analysis, that North Korea is massively logging its slopes of Mount Baekdu, despite its status as a Biosphere Reserve. Such activities are not surprising, as a largely deforested North Korea faces severe lumber shortages. But the situation is tragic: according to some experts, “Mount Paekdu [Baekdu] along with adjacent areas in China possesses the world’s highest plant diversity found in a cool, temperate zone.”

The Korea-Uzbekistan Connection

Both North and South Korea are among the most ethnically homogenous and strongly nationalist countries in the world, but that does not mean that they are nation-states, in the strict definition of the term. In an ideal nation-state, the state and the nation cover the same territory, but the land of the Korean nation is governed by not just two but three states: North Korea, South Korea, and China. The contiguous Korean culture area extends well beyond North Korea, encompassing more than two million Koreans living in northeastern China, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

The Wikipedia language map posted above also shows a tiny Korean zone in southeastern Russia, a remnant of what was once a large area. In the 1930s, roughly a quarter of the rural population in the Vladivostok region was ethnically Korean. By the end of the decade, the community had been scattered across Central Asia in the first of several Stalinist waves of mass deportation. An estimated 40,000 of the almost 200,000 deportees died in the process, but the community eventually adapted to its new environment and began to expand. Today their descendants number roughly half a million, with almost 200,000 in Uzbekistan and more than 100,000 in both Russia and Kazakhstan.

When Russia pushed its southeastern boundary into Chinese territory in 1860, it found only a few thousand Koreas living in the area. Korean migration accelerated over the next several decades, owing both to poverty and oppression at home and to opportunities in the resource-rich, sparsely populated Russian Far East. The migration stream intensified after the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910. By the 1920s, the community supported almost 400 Korean-language schools and seven Korean newspapers.

Soviet authorities initially viewed Koreans positively, favorably contrasting their position under Soviet rule with that under Japanese authority. Accommodation ended in the 1930s, as Stalin’s paranoia increasingly set Soviet policy. In 1937, fearing Japanese influence through Korean agents, the Soviet government opted for mass exile. The idea that local Koreans would have served the Japanese cause is ludicrous; in any struggle with Japan, the population would almost certainly have been a Soviet asset.

Koreans in Central Asia acculturated into the Russian-speaking culture of the Soviet Union, not to that of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the union republics. By the end of the Soviet period, Russian vied with Korean as the community’s main language. As tensions between immigrant and indigenous peoples mounted after independence in 1991, many Koreans followed other Russian speakers in moving to Russia. As a result, Russia now has more Koreans than does Kazakhstan.

The position of Koreans in Central Asia has improved markedly in recent years, propelled in part by Korean corporate expansion. Korean firms are attracted both by the markets and resources of Central Asia and by the presence of local Koreans, who can serve as cultural intermediaries. Thousands of Uzbekistani Koreans have also been recruited to work in South Korea; in 2005, their remittances reportedly injected $100,000,000 into Uzbekistan’s economy. The Korean image in Central Asia has also been enhanced by the wave of South Korean popular culture that has washed over the region, just as it has over much of the world. By 2005, Korean had reportedly become the second most popular foreign language among college students in Uzbekistan, trailing only English. As South Korea’s ambassador in Tashkent put it, “Young people in Uzbekistan dream of driving a Daewoo car, and watch Korean television shows on an LG TV set hooked up to a Samsung DVD player.” Since then, South Korea’s connection with Central Asia has strengthened. Korean firms, like those of China, are thirsty for the energy and mineral resources of the region, leading reporters and government officials alike to write about a “new Silk Road.”

Such developments could influence global geopolitics. As Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College argued in March 2010, “The growing East Asian projects in and with Central Asia come at the expense of Russia, which has steadily sought to monopolize Central Asia’s international relations and serve as an interlocutor between those governments and the world. These projects highlight both Central Asia’s heightened ability to diversify its individual and collective foreign and foreign economic relations beyond Moscow and even Beijing.” If Blank’s thesis is correct, the decision by Soviet leaders to exile the Korean population to Central Asia is now helping to sap Russia’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, Russia’s Far East continues to lose population, leading to long-term concerns about Russian control over the area.

Jeju Island, A Korean Cultural Variant

The two Koreas, South and North, are among the world’s most ethnically and linguistically homogeneous nations. Excepting recent immigrants to South Korea, people throughout the peninsula speak the same language and unambiguously consider themselves to be members of the same nation. The Ethnologue lists exactly one language for both North Korea and South Korea: Korean. The only other Asian country portrayed as unilingual is the Maldives.

The Ethnologue is an indispensible font of information on the world’s languages. For every country, it enumerates the indigenous languages, the number of their speakers, their dialectal variations, and their linguistic relations; it also provides information on immigrant communities. Ethnologue linguists tend to split rather than lump, chopping linguistic continua into separate languages. As a result, countries commonly regarded as linguistically homogenous appear surprisingly diverse. Japan, for example, is shown with 14 languages, most limited to the Ryukyu Archipelago in the south.

The Ethnologue does divide Korean into several separate dialects, noting that one is problematic: “comprehension of Standard Korean may be lower on Cheju [Jeju] Island.” Jeju, off the southwest coast, is sometimes said to have its own language. Wikipedia notes that the Jeju-do dialect “differs greatly from the dialects of the mainland,” and links to a rejected article on the Jeju language. Jeju island’s speech is noted for archaic terms, borrowings from Mongolian, and striking informality. The polite forms of address showing deference to age and authority that characterize standard Korean are largely absent on Jeju.

Jeju’s cultural distinctiveness extends beyond the linguistic sphere. Its historical matrilineal family structure has not entirely disappeared, its cuisine is unique, and so is its architecture. Owing to its differentiation from the rest of South Korea, Jeju was designated a special autonomous province in 2006, the only such zone of self-government in the country.

Jeju Island emerged as a significant tourist destination after the Korean War. Its warm climate and relaxed atmosphere especially appeal to South Korean honeymooners. In addition to its waterfalls and lava caves, Jeju has South Korea’s highest mountain and its most extensive lowland forest. When the leaders of Japan, China, and South Korea convened in late May 2010 to discuss the crisis with North Korea, they did so at a Jeju Island resort.

Jeju’s most bizarre tourist destination is appropriately open only to visitors over the age of 18. Love Land, which opened in 2004, is a sexual theme park and outdoor art museum, “featuring 140 sculptures representing humans in various sexual positions. It also has other elements such as large phallus statues, stone labia, and hands-on exhibits such as a ‘masturbation-cycle.’” For images of Love Land, check out the August 12, 2007 post on the blogsite “Accelerated Decrepitude: The pointless ramblings of an aging hipster on a collision course with his own mortality.”

South Korea’s Shifting Economic Geography

South Korea is conventionally divided into three main regions: a dominant northwest (greater Seoul); a prosperous, conservative, and politically favored southeast; and an underdeveloped, disgruntled, and left-leaning southwest. Recent economic data, however, reveals more complicated geographical patterns. South Korea’s economic advance over the past few decades has evidently begun to unsettle its ancient tripartite division.

In terms of per capita income, the old patterns are still evident; Seoul is the wealthiest region of South Korea, with Ulsan and South Gyongsang (Gyeongsangnam-do or Gyeongnam) in the southeast coming in second and third. But when it comes to economic production as measured by per capita GDP,* a different map appears. Here South Korean economic development seems relatively evenly balanced; the southwest (Jeolla/Honam) does not appear underdeveloped, while the supposedly privileged Southeast (Gyeonsang) has the lowest as well as the highest levels of output. Seoul is demoted from first place, outclassed not only by Ulsan in the southeast but also by Jeollanam-do (South Jeolla, Jeonnam) in the allegedly marginalized southwest. More astounding is the last-place showing of Daegu, the seat of the old-guard political establishment. Southeastern Busan (Pusan), South Korea’s second largest metro area and the site of the world’s fifth largest port, also ranks surprisingly low.

Overall, South Korea exhibits pronounced variation in regional economic output. On a per capita basis, Ulsan produces 3.6 times more goods and services than does its near-neighbor Daegu, both of which are located in the Gyeonsang region. Regional economic disparities in other technologically advanced countries tend to be less pronounced. In the United States, for example, Connecticut produces not quite twice the economic output per person of Mississippi ($56,000 vs. $29,600). Developing countries, in contrast, often show extreme variation. In Brazil, São Paulo out-produces Piauí by a factor of five; in India, Goa’s per capita GDP outranks that of Bihar by almost an order of magnitude.

The huge gap between Ulsan and Daegu is rooted in the changing fortunes of their main industries. Nicknamed “the textile city,” Daegu thrived when low-wage South Korea profited from massive exports of inexpensive clothing and fabric. But as South Korea climbed the value ladder, it ceased to be internationally competitive in mass-market textiles. As the industry declined, so did Daegu, both economically and demographically. Since the late 1990s, city leaders have pushed high fashion, hoping to emulate Milan, but evidently with little success. Ulsan, in contrast, has prospered from South Korea’s export boom in transportation equipment. Headquarters of Hyundai, and site of the world’s largest shipyard, oil refinery, and automobile factory, Ulsan produces more goods and services on a per capita basis than all but about three or four countries, outpacing the United States by a comfortable margin ($63,800 vs. $46,000).

Although it is relatively easy to explain the discrepancy between Ulsan and Daegu, other patterns on the South Korean regional GDP map seem more perplexing. Why does South Jeolla exhibit such high levels of economic productivity yet maintain a reputation for marginalization? If any Geocurrents readers can help explicate the South Korean GDP map, I invite them to do so!

Although per capita GDP is the most commonly employed metric for economic standing, it is a flawed indicator, especially at the sub-national level. An area can generate high levels of value, yet lose much of the resulting income stream to other places. By the same token, places of concentrated political power can maintain higher levels of per capita income than their GDP figures would indicate.

GDP is coming under increased criticism, but largely because it ignores environmental degradation and non-financial aspects of social development and human satisfaction. Last fall, French President Nicolas Sarkozy “called for a ‘great revolution’ in the way national wealth is measured today, throwing his weight behind a report which criticises ‘GDP fetishism’ and prioritises quality of life over financial growth.” But even if one focuses exclusively on economic issues, GDP figures often paint a misleading picture. Among other things, they can vary tremendously depending on whether they are measured in nominal or purchasing power parity (PPP) terms; thus China has the world’s third largest economy by one measure (nominal GDP), and the second largest by another (PPP GDP). In the end, GDP does not measure “wealth” any more than it does happiness. All that one can conclusively say, as the Wikipedia puts it, is that Gross Domestic Product “is often positively correlated with the standard of living.”

* Gross Domestic Product, the total value of goods and services produced annually.

South Korea is Divided Into Three Parts

“In South Korea …, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposed superior nationalist credentials. … Sympathy for Pyongyang is especially widespread in the peninsula’s chronically disgruntled southwest.”

B. R. Myers, “South Korea’s Collective Shrug.” The New York Times, May 28, 2010.

Nationalism and regionalism often seem to be contrary phenomena. Countries with strong regional identities and stark regional disparities tend to have weak national foundations. But nation and region do not always counteract each other. South Korea in particular is characterized by both deeply rooted regionalism and intense nationalism.

Korean nationalism has evolved into different variants in the North and South. Under Pyongyang, the enforced cult of patriotism has veered in the biological direction of classical fascism, emphasizing the racial purity of the Korean – and especially the North Korean – people (see R.B. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters). South Korean nationalism is much more cultural and historical, and thus accommodates streams of foreigners marrying into the Korean population. More than 5,000 Vietnamese women immigrate every year, generating some cultural tensions to be sure, but helping to maintain otherwise depopulating rural areas.

Despite its intensity, South Korean nationalism has by no means erased the country’s regional distinctions. South Korea’s basic divisions are often said to date back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), when the peninsula was divided between Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo (Gaya, seen on the map, was not nearly as significant as the other three.). In the 600s, Silla, based in the southeastern part of the peninsula, unified the country. After Silla collapsed in the 900s, Goguryeo, based in what is now North Korea and northern South Korea, reunified the peninsula. Goguryeo was eventually supplanted by the Joseon Dynasty (or Chosun, 1392-1897), governed from Seoul. Baekje in the southwest, unlike the other two ancient kingdoms, never served as the hub of a unified Korea.

In modern South Korea, the southwest has been the focus of regionalist antipathy to the central government. Through the early decades of the postwar period, the region remained relatively poor and agrarian, its people suspecting that they had been intentionally marginalized by a hostile government. In 1980, the southwestern city of Gwangju rose up against the authoritarian South Korean regime, only to be crushed by the military. Official reports at the time linked the rebellion to a communist plot, but today it is officially commemorated as part of the national movement for democratization. A major breakthrough occurred in 1998, when a southwesterner, Kim Dae Jung – the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” – was elected to the presidency.

Since Kim left office in 2003, South Korea’s presidency has been filled by men originating in the southeast. Homeland of the former kingdom of Silla, the area known today as the Gyeongsang region has produced six of South Korea’s eight most recent presidents, including the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak. Critics claim that the conservative-leaning southeast receives undue favor from the central government, with infrastructural investments nurturing its industrial development. The city of Daegu is particularly noted for its political influence, being the seat of the powerful center-right Grand National Party.

Unlike the southeast and southwest, northern South Korea is not identifiable with an ancient kingdom, having been merely the southern portion of Goguryeo. But it was the site of the capital city, and it has remained the seat of political power. Development has continued to gravitate around Seoul and its greater metropolitan area – an hour’s drive from the North Korean border. Ten million people now live in Seoul itself, while more than 24 million – almost half of South Korea’s population – live in the officially demarcated National Capital Area. Northeastern South Korea, by contrast, is lightly populated (see map), and barely figures in discussions of South Korean regionalism.

South Korea’s basic geographical structure is thus conventionally conceptualized around a three-fold division: the northwest is the administrative, economic, and demographic core; the southeast is the prosperous heartland of the old-guard political establishment; and the southwest is a marginalized area of leftist politics. Electoral maps generally bear out this division. In 2007, Chung Dong-young of the left-liberal United New Democratic Party took the southwest, while Lee Myung-bak of the conservative GNP triumphed elsewhere, particularly in North Gyeongsang, the core area of the one-time kingdom of Silla.

But if the tripartite division of South Korea still obtains politically, it no longer does so economically, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

Mongolia and Taiwan: Geopolitical Ambiguity Squared

As noted yesterday, Taiwan is recognized as the legitimate government of “China” by some two dozen countries. Most are small states in the Pacific, the Caribbean, and Central America. Taiwan has had no success in securing or maintaining recognition by other Asian countries. Most Asian states are too large to be swayed by aid incentives—and too close to China to deny Beijing’s power. But Taiwan is also disadvantaged in its quest for recognition by the fact that it claims not just the whole of China but parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Burma – as well as Mongolia in its entirely (see map). Officially, Taiwan maintains that all territories controlled by China at the time of the 1911 revolution are rightfully its own.

Despite its formal claims, Taiwan has bent to the demands of reality to recognize Mongolia’s independence. In 2002, it opened an informal embassy in Mongolia, officially called the “Taipei Trade and Economic Representative Office in Ulaanbataar.” It simultaneously excluded Mongolia from the purview of its Mainland Affairs Council, in effect recognizing Mongolia’s sovereignty. As a result, Mongolians wanting to visit Taiwan now have to obtain visas, which were not necessary so long as Taipei regarded Mongolia as one of its (temporarily) lost provinces. Still, Taiwan has never formally dropped its constitutional claims to Mongolia. The situation remains ambiguous to say the least.

Nonetheless, Taiwan and Mongolia have developed reasonably close relations. As a sign of friendship, Taiwan recently gave Mongolia a three-story high portrait of Genghis Khan, made out of 437,000 mosaic tiles, based on a rare portrait of the world-conqueror held in Taipei’s National Palace Museum. But the potential for discord has not vanished. In 2008, a Hong Kong-based company posted a map on its website showing Mongolia as part of China (see map above); when Mongolia protested, China’s embarrassed government responded by claiming that the original map had been made in Taiwan. Whatever its provenance, the cartographer who made this map was geographically challenged. The label attached to the independent country reads “Inner Mongolia,” which actually refers to an autonomous region within China itself, rather than “Outer Mongolia,” the term that was used for Mongolia proper when it was part of the Chinese empire.

Taiwan and the Pacific: Contracting for Recognition

On March 15, 2010, a number of newspapers announced that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-Jeou would visit his country’s allies in the South Pacific: Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Palau, Tuvalu, and Solomon Islands. Such headlines were doubly wrong. The region specified is not exactly in the South Pacific, and the countries mentioned are not exactly allies of Taiwan.

To be sure, much of the territory of the six countries on Ma’s itinerary is in the South Pacific, but roughly 40 percent actually lies in the North Pacific (see map). This minor error is extremely common; Palau and the Marshall Island (along with the Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Northern Marianas) are almost always conceptualized as being in the South Pacific, despite the fact that they are entirely north of the Equator that divides the ocean into its northern and southern halves. This unmoored usage of the term “south” stems from a time when the entire Pacific was called the South Sea (or Mer du Sud; see map above), referencing the fact that mariners usually entered the ocean from the south, sailing around the tip of South America.

Additionally, regardless of where they are situated, it is not quite accurate to describe these countries as allies of Taiwan. An ally, according to the common definition, is a “state formally cooperating with another for military or other purposes.” It is difficult to imagine Nauru, a mined-out semi-wasteland of eight square miles and fourteen thousand people, coming to the aid of Taiwan for military or any other purposes. The relationship between these countries and Taiwan is actually one of clientage rather than alliance. In essence, Nauru, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Palau, and Solomon Islands sell their diplomatic recognition to Taiwan in exchange for aid. Taiwan thereby gains a small measure of international legitimacy, while these small Pacific countries gain much needed financial resources. A couple of them have switched their recognition between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China on several occasions, rewarding the more generous patron with their acknowledgement. Nor are they alone in the practice; Taiwan maintains the diplomatic recognition of 23 countries in total.

Nauru was once a rich little country with vast phosphate deposits. But the mines have been played out and the trust fund looted, putting Nauru in a desperate situation. Its only real resource now is diplomatic, based on its status as a recognized sovereign state. In 2009, it received $50 million from Russia in exchange for recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Such recognition may seem to mean little in practice, but it evidently has value.

Jiangsu and Zhejiang: The World’s Most Important Ignored Places

The standard geographical model of the world, as this blog seeks to demonstrate, unduly emphasizes the sovereign state (or “country”). States, of course, are vitally important, but so too are other geographical entities. The fixation on the independent country, compounded by the myth of continents, elevates some parts of the world while slighting others. China and India in particular are short-changed. These two are not merely large Asian countries, as France and Germany are large European countries. China and India are rather subcontinental landmasses comparable to Europe as a whole. In terms of population, they are roughly an order of magnitude larger than most other large countries, dwarfing anything in Europe. As a result, individual Chinese provinces and Indian states are comparable not to provinces of European countries, but rather to those countries in their entirety. Thus the Indian state of Maharashtra is analogous to Germany in terms of its area, population, cultural distinctiveness, and so on. Yet Maharashtra, like other Indian states, is little noticed outside of India, regarded merely as a local area within a rather monolithic country.

The slighting of first-order administrative divisions in the world’s two mega-countries is strikingly evident in the case of the Chinese provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang. To say that these provinces are little known in the rest of the world would be a gross understatement. Yet they are China’s two wealthiest provinces (excluding the province-level municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai; see map above). Both are slightly smaller than England in area; Zhejiang’s population (47 million) is a little less than that of England, whereas Jiangsu’s (77 million) is substantially larger. For most of the past several hundred years, northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu have formed the economic and, arguably, the intellectual heartland of China; today, together with Shanghai, they form one of the country’s three core areas (the other being Beijing-Tianjin in the north, and Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou in the south). The Jiangsu-Zhejiang region is now one of the main engines of the world economy; no matter how one examines it, it is a tremendously important place. Yet outside of China, neither province receives much notice. Instead, they vanish away into an almost undifferentiated China.

The slighting of these two provinces is evidenced by their low visibility in the global media. On March 14, 2010, the indispensible Google News aggregator listed 1,377 stories containing the word “Zhejiang” and 1,365 with “Jiangsu.” These are not large numbers: a similar search for “Netherlands” (a much smaller European country) yielded 35,290 hits, while “England” (a comparable European sub-state entity) gave 166,624 returns. Asian countries of similar population also returned vastly more news articles (27,755 for Thailand). Even the smallest states in the U.S. are mentioned far more often in the news sources surveyed by Google, with Rhode Island receiving 16,271 mentions on March 14, 2010. (Note: surveying the Google news aggregator is far from perfect, as it searches for the word rather than the place; as a result, “Hunan” is somewhat over-represented due to the prevalence of “Hunan restaurants” in the United States.)

Not only are Zhejiang and Jiangsu generally overlooked in the global media, but when they are discussed the stories seldom go beyond narrow business concerns. Today’s top Google news story for Jiangsu is “AOU Submitted Application to Establish Subsidiary in Kunshan, Jiangsu,” and for Zhejiang it is “Toyota Should Compensate China Drivers, Official Says.” Areas of comparable significance in other parts of the world are generally reported on more comprehensively.

News from China, of course, is limited by China’s own restrictions on the press. But it is notable that other Chinese administrative divisions are covered much more extensively than Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The map above shows how many Google news stories were returned on March 14, 2010 for each of China’s main administrative divisions. Yunnan, Tibet and few other areas are relatively well covered; on a per capita basis, Tibet is reported on much extensively than the rest of China. The key provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, however, receive scant notice.


January 1, 2010, saw the emergence of the world’s largest free trade area in terms of population, linking China with the ten countries belonging to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Disagreements remain as to what to call the new organization. In the English-language press, the favored term is ACFTA, the ASEAN–China Free Trade Area; Chinese newspapers more often call it CAFTA, the China–ASEAN Free Trade Area. “CAFTA” is a potentially misleading term, as the same acronym was used for the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Officially, however, that CAFTA became CAFTA-DR in 2004, when the Dominican Republic joined the club.

Controversies that go deeper than nomenclature riddle the new free trade pact. On January 7, thousands of workers took to the streets of the Indonesian city of Bandung to demand a delay in implementation of the agreement. The protestors, the JakartaPost reported, “expressed fears that once the FTA came into effect it would trigger mass layoffs, as well as Indonesian products’ inability to compete on international markets.” Similar concerns have been expressed in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries concerned about competing with the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut. In the Philippines, highland vegetable farmers are worried about cheap Chinese carrots and cabbages. In response to such concerns, China announced on January 22 that it was willing to work with ASEAN countries to make adjustments to the agreement.

Enthusiasm for ACFTA, on the other hand, runs high in the relatively poor regions along the border between southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. The governments of Laos and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China have been holding high-level talks to figure out how to take advantage of the free trade area. On January 7, direct flights began between Laos and Guangxi’s capital, Nanning. Officials in China’s Yunnan province are equally excited about the new economic possibilities. As the website GoKunming reports, the region will soon see “a vast network of highways and rail which will provide cities in Yunnan with cheap overland access to markets in Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.” The article goes on to exclaim that, “difficult as it may be to imagine, Yunnan’s days as an economic and political backwater are officially over.”


Economic ties between southern China and the rugged lands of northern Southeast Asia have already been surging in recent years. Such developments have both positive and negative consequences, as was briefly explored in an earlier post on Burma’s United Wa State. Environmentally, the biggest issue is the massive dam-building projects undertaken on the Mekong, Salween, and other rivers that flow across the international boundary. But that is a subject for a later post.