On North Korea and Escalating Tensions

Tensions have increased exponentially in the past one month both within the Korean Peninsula and around it. I received this emergency alert in the morning from the Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications signalling a North Korean missile that flew past Hokkaido and landed into the Pacific.

However it is not the missile launches that are to be feared but it is the escalating tension and growing public insecurity that needs to be challenged. The international media has unanimously failed at shaping public opinion on this matter in what I would go so far as to call a breakdown of journalism. A simple google search of North Korea would yield headlines such as:
“6 ways North Korea will lash out against America”
“The North Korean Threat Beyond ICBMs”
“Nuclear blast IMMINENT, warn security services”

This is not the first time the world has seen events like these. In fact tensions between the US and North Korea have gone through almost cyclical phases in the past 30 years. By ignoring any historical context and circling around the “threat of war” catch phrase like vultures to increase their TRPs, the media has on this occasion succumbed to blatant fear mongering and unproductive journalism.

First off, it must be acknowledged that the North Korean regime is one of the most brutal regimes in the world (if not the most) and there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis within its borders that needs to be solved. That said, the media framing of the situation as a battle of Good vs Evil/Hero vs Villain is an incredibly dangerous one because it justifies any actions taken by the forces of “good” and denounces every action of the forces of “evil”, thereby closing the universe of political discourse and enforcing one dimensional thought. The ends do not always justify the means and certainly not when the ends are uncertain. At this point, this one dimensional thought is what has led to the escalating tensions and a slow death of diplomatic reasoning in favour of more aggressive and less effective methods.

Also, don’t get me wrong. The threat of nuclear war is definitely imminent and is one of the two greatest threats to humanity (the other being climate change). But this threat of nuclear war is massively misdirected as the 13800 warheads that lie between two of the largest superpowers of the 21st century (US and Russia) go vastly unchallenged despite rising tensions between the two along the Russian border. A fact not many are aware of because of the media apathy.

Coming back to North Korea, I mentioned that tensions between the DPRK and US have gone through almost cyclical phases and are by no means a tension between the forces of “good” and “evil”. The distinction between the two is blurred when it comes to the modern state. The question that must be asked is can something be done about it?  Therefore it is important to take historical context into account when looking at the situation at hand and learn from it.

In 1993 under the Clinton administration, North Korea made a deal with Israel to terminate the North Korean supply of missiles to the Middle East, namely Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya. In return, Israel would recognise North Korea. This was unacceptable to the Clinton administration and Israel was pressurised by the US to back out of the deal. In response, North Korea fired its first intermediate range missiles.

Going back a little further, North Korea joined the Nuclear Non proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1985 and 7 years later in 1992, the safeguards agreements of the NPT came into effect for North Korea. In reports submitted to the IAEA shortly thereafter several inconsistencies emerged between North Korea’s declarations and the reports. The IAEA after investigating the reports suggested that there was an excess of undeclared plutonium in North Korea. To investigate further, it asked North Korea for access to two of its nuclear sites. North Korea denied any access and in 1993, it withdrew from the NPT. This was then taken up to the Security Council. Later that year,  North Korea proposed to open negotiations with the United States on all problems between the two countries. The Clinton Administration agreed as long as inspections by the IAEA were allowed. There is no time to go into the detailed history but in 1994 the Agreed Framework between North Korea and the US came into effect. According to this framework, North Korea’s nuclear power plants would be replaced with light water reactors to prevent its development of nuclear weapons amongst other things. In return, the US would cooperate in a step by step normalisation of relations with North Korea. The agreement was not perfect but was certainly a step forward.

Notice that a regime as brutal as North Korea was open to and in fact proposed negotiations  for the easing of tensions, revealing the possibility and success of non aggressive diplomacy. A fact that seems to have been forgotten now. Also interestingly, reports suggested that the U.S. regarded the Agreed Framework primarily as a non-proliferation agreement, whereas North Korea placed greater value on measures normalising relations with the U.S. And it was also reported that the Clinton administration agreed to such an agreement primarily because it believed that North Korea was on the verge of collapse after the death of its ruler, Kim II Sung anyway.

This agreement was destroyed completely in 2003 by the Bush administration when Bush labelled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil”. Relations once again deteriorated until the six party agreement came into being in 2005. According to this, North Korea would completely dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile systems in return for a non aggression pact with the US. Light water reactors would be developed to be used for peaceful purposes instead. It didn’t last very long. The Bush administration undermined the agreement shortly after signing it. It dismantled the consortium that was supposed to provide the reactor. And it immediately imposed pressure on North Korea. Financial transactions of North Korea were blocked including perfectly legitimate trade. In retaliation, North Korea once again started producing its nuclear weapons and missiles.

So this has roughly been the situation for the last 30 years. North Korea is one of the most brutal regimes on earth but the fact is, it is instilled with a self preservation instinct. There is even general agreement that it wants to carry out economic development in whatever limited definition of “development” it adheres to, which it can’t do if it is pouring all its scarce resources into arms production, thus reasserting the importance of diplomatic agreements. It is the people in North Korea that ultimately suffer in the see-saw of state powers.

There are proposals being made even now that the media has chosen to ignore or be apathetic to that can help ease tensions to a great extent. China and North Korea proposed to freeze North Korea’s missile and nuclear systems (which is the crux of the whole issue anyway) in return for non aggression by the US close to its borders. Trump instantly rejected it. But this isn’t just a case of Trumpean absurdity. Similar proposals were made to Obama as well which were instantly rejected. The reason for this rejection is because it calls for a quid pro quo. The US has made several threats to the DPRK, like the DPRK has in the Korean Peninsula and today morning. Under Trump, these threats include dangerous manoeuvring of nuclear capable B-52s right near the North Korean border.

This may or may not seem like much to people outside Korea but it is important to remember that the Koreans are still scarred by the Korean War. North Korea was absolutely flattened. I would urge all of you to read the reports from the war. There were no targets left. And it was also a war which saw one of the worst war crimes of its time. American B29 bombers under US orders and UN permissions dropped 150 tons of 2000 pound bombs on the Toksang irrigation dam which flooded the entire valley all the way to the Korean Bay and Yellow Sea – thereby “Helping to destroy North Korea’s ability to feed itself” as the war report stated. The last time an act like this was carried out was by the Nazis in Holland in 1944 and was deemed a war crime in the famous Nuremberg trials. One needs to read the reports to truly realise the despicably gleeful descriptions given of the bombings and the racist rhetoric used.

This brings me to the culmination of the points I’ve been trying to make. The fact of the matter is, North Korea’s development of weapons systems has historically been a deterrent against foreign aggression. So when Nuclear capable B-52s whiz across its borders, the horrors of its wars are relived by it’s people and simply aids the North Korean media to reinforce fear into it’s people. I am in no way in support for the brutal regime but the point I’m trying to make is that escalating tensions in the region is perhaps the worst path to take because it is the North Koreans that are deprived of whatever scarce resources that are allocated to them in the first place.

Secondly, the threat of war is in all possibility highly unlikely, from both sides. A fact the media doesn’t seem to realise. It doesn’t take a foreign policy expert to note that North Korea doesn’t stand a chance in a war against any of its neighbours or the US especially given that China has stated it would withdraw support for North Korea if the situation escalates to a war. The North Koreans are aware of this too. On the other hand despite having a President with an IQ comparable to a rock, the White House certainly does not want to enter a war in the region mainly because of the closeness of the South Korean seat of power – Seoul to the Korean Border. The threat of any war and especially a nuclear war in the region (as the media has blindly chosen to focus it’s energies on) is unlikely because an attack on North Korea would most likely see significant artillery bombardment of Seoul and could have several repercussions for the whole region.

So what can be done? I believe that the only way forward also happens to be historically the most viable and simplest one, which is laying emphasis on diplomatic proposals. When the US raises tensions, North Korea raises them too. When the US lowers tensions, they do so too. There has always been a mirror reaction to US policies surrounding North Korea. Therefore it must be the US and the international community that must step in to resume diplomacy as the modus operandi instead of escalating aggression. Most importantly, pressure to defuse the tensions in the region must come from civil society and the public. When I was in Sydney a week ago, I participated in a rally to call for negotiations to resolve the Korean crisis without war and so I stand instilled with hope and realistic optimism that civil society can help prevent the ongoing tensions from escalating further.

With the Ulchi Freedom Guardian War exercises in effect, the US and South Korea are exploring the possibilities that they may encounter in dealing with North Korea. Sadly none of these possibilities include the possibility of non aggressive diplomacy and peace. Thus the exercises, in their One Dimensionality result in the further escalating of tensions between the countries in the region.

Lastly, it is upon the media as shapers of public opinion to dispel the ignorance and irrationality surrounding North Korea. There is a significant population of Americans who wouldn’t be able to place North Korea on a map and are now pushing for a war for “freedom”. They can easily be dismissed as fringe elements but they reflect the truth of the larger society which is the fear and ignorance of the public. If the spread of fear to gain profits is what media and journalism is reduced to then what difference lies between the media in the freest nations of the world and the state sponsored media of North Korea? This is a question that invisibly looms over television sets around the world today.

Rohan Raj

Originally published on Rohan Raj’s personal blog : https://duggi10.wixsite.com/lutalica/single-post/2017/08/29/On-North-Korea-and-Escalating-Tensions

All opinions expressed on Op-Ed are personal opinions.

White Papering over cracks – Battle against Karoshi and Karojisatsu

Summer of 2015 saw a 46 year old man, working in a housing construction engineering firm, fatally collapse on duty.  The aftermath of The Great East Japan Earthquake paved way for massive reconstruction projects on the coasts of Miyagi and Iwate, thereby multiplying his firm’s and in turn his own workload. By October 2016, the incident was officially recognized as a work related death and it was later revealed that he exceeded the “Karoshi line” – of monthly 80 hours of overtime– for months, clocking as high as 109 hours the month before his death. His family filed a suit on June 2017 against the company claiming that he was placed under tremendous pressure and workload. Another uneventful but increasingly common death explained away as yet another case of subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), the major medical cause of death in karoshi [1]. For his family, though, any compensation would be hard to come by as is the case with the basic recognition of karoshi for many others [2].

Medically speaking, Karoshi – death from overwork – is usually the extreme result of acute cardiovascular events including stroke. Sudden deaths from which were first recognized in the late 1970s. Around the late 1990s, previously unrecognized karojisatsu – suicide induced by overwork – was also brought to the public attention as a workplace injury. The scale of karoshi and karojisatsu still remain underappreciated as The National Defense Counsel for Victims of Karoshi estimates as many as 10,000 Japanese workers to have died from karoshi annually. Whereas the official numbers of 96 and 93* for karoshi and karojisatsu respectively in the fiscal year of 2015, seem out of place to say the least. These numbers were presented in the government’s first-ever white paper on karoshi, which in essence, points to the need to place effective caps on the working hours of company workers. This seemingly straightforward suggestion does not appear to be unwarranted and has been the frontline issue of the Abe administration when dealing with this issue. But this myopic perspective on solving a complex problem comes with its own failures. Not much unlike the failure of the Abe administration which materialized its much touted promise of “work-style reforms” as an absurdly loose cap of 100 hours per month of overtime. Proposed in April, this cap comes against the backdrop of 45 hours a month overtime cap placed by The Labor Standards Law.

Policy disasters aside, to conceptualize a structured solution for the problem of worker deaths, sufficient attention needs to be given to the historical source and its evolution through societal changes. Since, the problems of Karoshi and Karojisatsu are more prevalent in Japan than any other country, a natural but arguably spurious explanation of “culture causality” starts becoming commonplace. This argument points solely to the national specificity of the problem thereby deriving a causation from an association, conveniently ignoring historical and institutional aspects of it.

Early postwar years saw a healthy proliferation of unions and its number of memberships. Reacting against the rampant discrimination, spearheaded by the blue-collar workers [3] the unions were driven mostly by three demands: the abolition of discriminatory treatment of blue-collar workers; the pursuit of “livelihood wage”; and the protection of job security. Though basically accepted, these demands had wildly unintended consequences. The anti-discriminatory calls regarding the blue-collar workers, pejoratively called shokko (factory hands), did not account for the female employees as they were expected to quit upon marriage and therefore not considered to earn “breadwinner wages”. Similarly, the livelihood wage demand requesting ability-based pay spiraled into the development of secretive and ambiguous evaluative criteria by the managers to judge workers which went unchallenged by the unions. [4] In addition, this resulted in a livelihood wage that was decided by age and family size, not by the nature of the job. However, the pursuit of job security had the most catastrophic consequence among all the demands. The workers rallied under the slogan of “totally against dismissal”, having close ties with livelihood wage demand. The Japanese corporations exploited this by hiring young and single workers whose wages were lower and essentially started trapping them in their jobs as it was nigh impossible for a middle-ages worker with family to find another job with similar wage, identical to the present day. Further calls for liberal egalitarian changes were then firmly crushed under an all-encompassing critique of “Western cultural traits” [5]

In early 1950s, driven by a deep seated fear of labor activism, corporations with the help of government, were able to severely weaken the unions through mass dismissals of nearly 12,000 workers deemed as Communists. [6] They also prohibited intra-enterprise unions to use any third party, like an industry-wide federation, to have any bargaining power causing the unions to work from within the corporations. The tactics worked and by 1960s the unions were the most cooperative and amenable to the corporations. This period saw the introduction of hi-seiki jugyoin (non-regular employees) under the guise of battling economic recession and protecting the jobs security of regular employees, further solidifying the idea that unions had no influential presence.

Having built enough background, the direct causes for the problem can now be analyzed without falling back to the culturalist explanations of nihonjinron (cultural uniqueness).

The labor unions’ failure to push for equal pay for equal job (livelihood wage) and their acceptance of ambiguous merit evaluation has given rise to a person-based pay system where wage is attached to the person instead of the job. This provides corporations a chance to superficially widen the “skill-set” of their employees and thereby increasing internal labor flexibility, and with it, the workload. By making each worker do multiple tasks, they cut out additional wages that can hire potential employees and in turn severely making their employees more vulnerable to karoshi and karojisatsu syndrome. As wages are determined by one’s “skill” grade or level within the corporation, this results in virtually no horizontal or upward mobility across the internal labor markets. In other words, an employee has no chance of leaving their job and finding another one with similar wage or position. Corporations blanket hire young university graduates based on their “latent ability” rather than tangible skills resulting in enterprise-specific development. This practice reduces the employees as useful only to their corporation. Furthermore, once a worker becomes ‘non-regular’, it is improbable that he/she will be ever hired as a regular employee, forcing them to live their lives without stable employment. So, in practice, regular employees have no exit strategy but to resort to self-harm.

The above certainly does not encompass all the causes, especially the top-down ideological indoctrination of young employees prevalent since 1990s, influencing them to basically live for the corporation. Nevertheless, having laid out some of the tangible problems, tangible solutions can now be focused on instead of being bogged down by communal rationale. The structural faults, undoubtedly, lie within the institutional arrangements. So concrete institutional changes countering the above problems are the way to look forward to. Understandably, there is no shortage of clear, well-articulated solutions suggested by experienced social and industry experts. The objective still remains to guide the spotlight to problems concealed by the incessantly futile discourse regarding pseudo-causes within the government and in public sphere.

In light of this, the family of the anonymous 46 year old victim of Karoshi in Miyagi may never see the justice they deserve, given that the country saw that the high profile case karojisatsu of the 24-year-old Dentsu employee yielded but a mere slap on the hand for the executives with open trial pending.

Karoshi Hotline 過労死110番


  1. Overwork, Stroke, and Karoshi-death from Overwork, Der-Shin Ke, Acta Neurologica Taiwanica Vol 21 No2, June 2012
  2. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, White Paper report, 2016
  3. Portraits of the Japanese Workplace, Kumazawa Makoto, Westview Press, 1996
  4. 終身雇用 (Lifetime Employment), Nomura Masami, Iwanami Shoten, 1994
  5. 強制された健康:日本ファシズム化の生命と身体 (Coerced Healthiness: Life and Body under Japanese Fascism), Fujino Yutaka, Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 2000
  6. The Evolution of Labor Relations in Japan: Heavy Industry, 1853-1955, Andrew Gordon, Harvard University Press, 1985

*The number includes suicides and suicide attempts in the given fiscal year

Himankar Sharma

All opinion articles reflect the writer’s opinion.

5 years of President Satomi : A Grounded Approach

In August 2017, Team Sentinel interviewed President Susumu Satomi of Tohoku University. President Satomi’s presidency shall come to an end with this academic year. He speaks about his fondest memories, idea of internationalisation and the revival of Tohoku University post-2011.

Q1) You became the President of the university in 2012, the year following the Tohoku Disaster. What were some of the challenges that you faced then and how did you overcome them?

When I assumed Presidency, the campus was still damaged from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At that time, we were working on both restoration and reconstruction of the campus. We were also working on the location to set up the new campus for the School of Agriculture. Around the same time, I developed the Tohoku University Broad vision at that time which consisted of the Satomi vision and the Faculty vision. It was also necessary to inspire and motivate the students and the faculty who lost their positivity. So, I asked one of the alumni members, Kazumasa Oda, to write a new song for the university. This is how the song Midori no Oka came to being. This made students revive their positive spirit which subsequently translated into them winning the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 years consecutively and Tohoku University being honoured as an institution in the list of ‘Designated National Universities’.

Q2) In the aftermath of the Tohoku Disaster, the entire region has suffered immensely. How has the University given back to the Tohoku society in the recovery and stabilization of the region?

As the director of the School of Medicine at that time, I sent medical officers on the ground and accepted several patients affected by the disaster. Many students worked hard as volunteers to clean the debris. We also established the Tohoku University Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research in which we undertook 8 main projects and 100 other reconstruction project plans. One of the projects out of the 8 main was to establish the International Research Institute of Disaster Science for practical disaster mitigation. The other project was the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organisation under which we collected the genetic and medical data of 150,000 people to develop next-generation medical care system. Other projects like New Information Communication Systems helped extremely during the disaster. We are also very committed in the decommissioning of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and we have also put in place entrepreneurship training courses to enhance jobs. After the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai, Tohoku University has become a global centre for disaster statistics and creation of Tsunami early warning systems using high speed computers in collaboration with Osaka University.

Q3) Since you assumed the role of President in 2012, we understand you have made various changes with your leadership on the management of Tohoku University. What kind of changes have you made over the past 5 years?

In the field of education, I set up the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education to expand the Admission Office entrance exams in order to match the international standards. Course numbering, GPA and Quarter system were a result of this. Few years ago, the Tohoku Global Leadership Program was also established and student exchanges were promoted under the Study Abroad Program. I also established the International Joint Graduate program in Spintronics and Data Science and Tohoku Forum for Creativity where, world-renowned researchers visit and guide students and younger researchers. The Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences was established under my tenure to develop outstanding young researchers to whom we may also offer tenure positions.  I also established the Global Research Hub under which institutes like WPI-AIMR (Material Science), CIES (Spintronics), ToMMO (Medicine) and IRIDeS (Disaster Prevention) came into being.

Q4) Can you tell us about some of your fondest memories being President of the University in the past 5 years?

Some of my fondest memories include construction of several buildings on the campus and rebuilding of infrastructure affected in 2011. Students resumed their activities and won the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 consecutive years. Recently, Tohoku University was also selected as a designated national university. These memories remain very dear to me.

Q5) We know that Tohoku University has eagerly tried to promote internationalisation in each department.  We are here as a result of such a move.  Would you tell us your personal feelings and motivation for such a move? And what is your view on the internationalisation of education in Japan?

In 1967, I entered Tohoku University. At that time, Okinawa was still under the American occupation. I learnt many things during that period and I thought that I would like to offer these opportunities to other international students too. Therefore, I wanted to increase the number of international students and building the new university dormitory in Aobayama is one of the few steps towards taken in this direction.

Q6) While internationalization certainly begins with bringing in more foreign students to study in Japan, it does not end there. The entire system of education must be transformed to truly be called international. There have been some challenges in this aspect such as the language gap, the Japanese society’s inertia to Internationalization etc. How have you dealt with these challenges to improve a situation?

It is necessary to change the language education system in Japan. Japanese people have translated western science, ideology and philosophy to Japanese so that we can understand it in our own native language since the Meiji restoration. Therefore, I think that it is important for us to keep our identity and originality first. I do agree that English language courses are necessary in the graduate level but I have my own apprehensions about introducing them at the undergraduate level.

Q7) Where do you see Tohoku University in the next decade, in terms of research, education and it’s influence and engagement with society? 

Today, all the campuses are located within 9 minutes of travel time from Sendai Station. I would like to see many more companies building research centres on the campus. My dream is that Tohoku University becomes a leading research hub in Japan in the next 10 years.

Q8) What advice would you like to give based on your personal experience to the students, staff and all the members of the University especially with reference to how they can give back to society through their research or educational activities and strive to solve the problems in it?

Our duty is to give back to the society and strive to make a peaceful and just world. I think that it is difficult to do that today but there is definitely many possibilities. So, do your best and become a true member of the elite!


Interviewed by : Rohan Raj

Photograph and Video : Reyhan Daffa Athariq

“Learn to accept and share knowledge” : Dr. Ryuta Kwashima

The Institute of Development, Ageing and Cancer recently celebrated its 75th anniversary but the man who is leading it today is a name that most people know of : Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. An alumni of Tohoku University and the person behind Nintendo’s popular ‘Brain Games’, he speaks exclusively to ‘The Sentinel’ reflecting on his life, work and his infamous rejection of a million euros salary.

When was the first time you realised that you were interested in neuroscience?

It goes back when I was a junior high school student and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see the end of the humans with my own eyes. I imagined if I could integrate my brain with a computer then, I could definitely see the end of the world with my own eyes. This was the inspiration.

Your research has been highlighted in various schools and institutes across the world. Did you ever expect the incredible public response?

Actually, No. When I published my book ‘Brain Training’, neither the editor nor I trusted its success but within a year, it already sold 1 million copies! It was then that Nintendo approached us to make a video game version of the same. Nobody trusted it then.

You graduated from Tohoku University in 1985. It has been 31 years since then. What do you think are the most significant challenges in the university regarding your research in neuroscience?

In the initial phase, there was not so much budget allocation for neuroscientists from the government or the companies. When it was highlighted in the US in 1990s, Japan followed the US. Huge grants were received but ended in 2000s. These days, there are machines like MEG and Cyclotron (since 1980s) that can be used to measure the brain activity.

You have famously rejected a 15 million euros salary from Nintendo. Why did you do so?

There are two reasons for this. First, the amount of money is too big for my pocket (laughs) and secondly. I did all my work as a professor of Tohoku University. I did not spend any of my personal time or money. Hence, this huge amount of money is well deserved by the university and the government who provided all the support. Hence, I cannot accept such a huge amount.

Could you share a memory/experience from your life when you realised that your research is truly changing lives?

When I was 50 years old, I felt that my ability to think clearly was weakening and I feared Alzheimer’s 10-20 years down the line. It was at that time when I used my own program and within 2-3 months, I became absolutely normal and hence, this itself stood as a proof that it was changing lives. Also, I did several randomised studies and improvements in cognitive function amongst people suffering from dementia was significantly observed.

Your work has met with criticism from doctors and researchers according to a feature report by ‘The Independent’ in May 2013. How have you personally dealt with criticism?

I welcome criticisms as it is very useful but, there are only few reasonable criticisms. One of them was the randomised control study. The control group was not enough to be controlled and hence we created finer controlled groups. The other was about the outcome measures and we accept these criticism too. All other criticism seem to have emerged from jealousy and hence were not acceptable. Anyone can criticise but not everyone can create a new thing. It is only a select and knowledgeable group of people who can create something.

Any message for the readers of ‘The Sentinel’?

Tohoku University has everything and is an universe within itself. You can find a professor for any information. You are free to ask any professor since you are a student. Learn to accept and share knowledge.