Last week in East Asia, a new prime minister was appointed in Mongolia after his predecessor resigned one week prior amid public outrage over the ill-treatment of a COVID-19 patient. Also in Mongolia, the government took steps to take an important mining agreement to New York Supreme Court following a lawmaker’s hunger strike protest in the capital city. Reports emerged that the former North Korean acting ambassador to Kuwait defected to South Korea in September 2019, suggesting growing fragmentation among the country’s elite. In Hong Kong, staffers of a public broadcaster held a silent protest against the broadcaster’s decision to shorten a reporter’s contract for grilling government officials at press conferences. In Taiwan, a major rally was held to protest against the imports of US pork containing ractopamine and to drum up support for the removal of a city councilor. In South Korea, women’s rights activists took to the streets to ask the National Human Rights Commission for a resolution to allegations of sexual harassment involving the late Seoul mayor. Also in South Korea, the ruling party announced plans to provide a new round of emergency relief funds to compensate small businesses for losses suffered due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In Mongolia, the parliament appointed Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene as the new prime minister of Mongolia at the proposal of the ruling Mongolian People’s Party (MPP). He succeeds Ukhnaa Khurelsukh, who stepped down on 22 January under public pressure over mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic (The Diplomat, 22 January 2021). It is believed that Oyun-Erdene was appointed to his new role due to his close association with the outgoing prime minister. Khurelsukh is expected to seek the support of the MPP in the upcoming presidential elections. The recent shift can be interpreted as a move by the MPP to strengthen their influence and increase their chances of winning the upcoming election (The Diplomat, 27 January 2021).
Additionally in Mongolia, a Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) lawmaker staged a hunger strike at Sukhbaatar Square in the capital, demanding that the new prime minister file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice to revise the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement (The UB Post, 27 January 2021). Oyu Tolgoi is one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world and represents a vital resource for the Mongolian economy (Mining.com, 15 January 2021). Since the agreement was signed in 2009 between the Mongolian government and Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining corporations, people have been calling for the deal to be adjusted in Mongolia’s favor. As people gathered to support the lawmaker, police tried to disperse the protesters due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19 (The UB Post, 27 January 2021). As a result of the hunger strike, the new prime minister took steps to take the case to New York Supreme Court (News.mn, 29 January 2021).
In North Korean developments, it was reported last week that Ryu Hyun-woo, former acting ambassador to Kuwait, had defected with his wife and child to South Korea in September 2019 (NK News, 25 January 2021). The South Korean government did not officially acknowledge his defection. If confirmed, this would make him one of the most senior North Korean officials to defect in recent years. Other recent high-level defections to South Korea include the former acting ambassador to Italy in 2018 and a former deputy ambassador at the North Korean Embassy in London in 2016 (AP, 26 January 2021). It is assumed that the main reason for Ryu Hyun-woo’s defection was his concern over his child’s future (NK News, 25 January 2021). Experts argue that defections by high-ranking North Korean diplomats reflect a growing feeling of uncertainty among the country’s elite about the future of the country (AP, 26 January 2021).
In Hong Kong, the government imposed a community-scale lockdown in several districts. Dubbed as “restriction-testing declaration,” residents within the boundaries of the restricted areas were required to stay at home and undergo mandatory coronavirus testing. The unprecedented lockdown measures were aimed at strengthening mitigation measures following a moderate trend of new daily infections in these areas (Government of Hong Kong, 23 January 2021). While the number of demonstrations remained low, over 60 staffers of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong staged a silent protest to show support for a fellow reporter in one of the largest protests since the start of the year (HKFP, 28 January 2021; RTHK, 28 January 2021). The reporter had been subject to months of investigations for her ‘tough questioning’ of government officials at press conferences during the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations. Subsequently, the reporter’s contract was shortened by the broadcaster.
In Taiwan, between 1,500 and 3,000 demonstrators — including Kuomintang (KMT) members — staged a protest rally against the import of pork containing ractopamine from the US (New Talk, 23 January 2021; Liberty Times, 23 January 2021). Demonstrators also expressed support for the removal of an independent Kaohsiung city councilor through an upcoming recall election. At the rally, a campaign spokesperson urged voters to support the recall to “teach the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a lesson” (Taipei Times, 24 January 2021). Critics claim that the upcoming recall vote is a tit-for-tat strategy by the KMT, following the removal of the former KMT Kaohsiung mayor last year. Meanwhile, the KMT continues to ramp up campaign efforts around these two issues. Campaigning booths were set up across the island to gather signatures in support of a referendum against the US pork imports, and to call on residents to vote to recall the city councilor. The two recent recall votes — separately campaigned for by both the DPP and KMT — have raised concerns about further bipartisan tensions between both parties.
In South Korea, women’s rights activists staged a protest to urge the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) to complete its investigation into sexual harassment accusations against the late Seoul mayor (Yonhap News Agency, 25 January 2021). Following the protest, the NHRCK concluded on 25 January that the allegations were convincing (CNN, 27 January 2021). The former mayor, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and an advocate of women’s rights, committed suicide in July 2020 after his former secretary accused him of sexual harassment. Since then, women’s organizations have staged a series of protests urging the NHRCK to conduct a thorough and fair investigation into the case. It is believed that harsh criticisms over the government’s handling of this case will have an impact on the ruling party’s popularity ahead of the upcoming Seoul mayoral elections in April (Dong-a Ilbo, 27 January 2021).
Also in South Korea, owners of travel agencies, internet cafes, karaoke rooms, and other small businesses continued to protest against extended coronavirus restrictions. They urged the government to extend their opening hours and to fully compensate their losses during the ongoing restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 (The Korea Herald, 28 January 2021). Meanwhile, the ruling DPK announced a plan to introduce a fourth round of emergency disaster relief funds. The plan is likely to improve the economic situation of small businesses, which could alleviate the business owners’ concerns (The Korea Herald, 29 January 2021). The government of Gyeonggi province, the most densely populated province in the country, also announced a second round of relief funds (The Korea Times, 28 January 2021).
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