Category Archives: U.S.

Reactions to Atrocities at Port Arthur, 1894

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 492-493:

Everything seemed to be going favorably for the Japanese when reports sent by foreign newspaper men who had witnessed the occupation of Port Arthur not only horrified readers abroad but for a time threatened Japan’s reputation as a modern, civilized country. The first report on the Japanese troops’ actions after conquering Port Arthur was made by Thomas Cowen, a foreign correspondent of the Times of London. After leaving Port Arthur, he reached Hiroshima on November 29 and had an interview the following day with Foreign Minister Mutsu. Cowen astonished Mutsu with his detailed descriptions of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed. That night Mutsu sent a telegram to Hayashi Tadasu:

Today I met with a Times correspondent who has returned from Port Arthur. He says that after the victory the Japanese soldiers behaved in a outrageous manner. It seems to be true that they murdered prisoners who had already been tied up, and they killed civilians, even women. He said that this situation was witnessed not only by newspaper men of Europe and America, but also by officers of the fleets of different countries, notably a British rear admiral.

The immediate reaction of the Japanese government to this and similar dispatches that appeared in the foreign press was to send out reports favorable to the Japanese. Bribes were given to Reuters to circulate pro-Japanese articles. Some newspapers like the Washington Post were directly paid to print articles favorable to Japan. Various foreign journalists were by this time in the Japanese pay.

Military censorship of the Japanese press was initiated at this time. A set of four regulations was drawn up, headed by the following instructions: “Reports should record insofar as possible true facts concerning acts of loyalty, courage, righteousness, and nobility and should encourage feelings of hostility toward the enemy.” Those who violated these regulations would be suitably punished.

Worldwide attention was drawn to the events that had occurred at Port Arthur by a brief cable dispatch from James Creelman, a foreign correspondent of the New York newspaper the World:

The Japanese troops entered Port Arthur on Nov. 21 and massacred practically the entire population in cold blood.

The defenseless and unarmed inhabitants were butchered in their houses and their bodies were unspeakably mutilated. There was an unrestrained reign of murder which continued for three days. The whole town was plundered with appalling atrocities.

It was the first stain upon Japanese civilization. The Japanese in this instance relapsed into barbarism.

All pretenses that circumstances justified the atrocities are false.

The civilized world will be horrified by the details. The foreign correspondents, horrified by the spectacle, left the army in a body.

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Gen. U.S. Grant in Japan, 1879

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 318-319:

Grant was depicted in numerous woodblock prints that commemorated his visits to the horse races, exhibitions of calisthenics by schoolchildren, the great waterfall at Nikkō, and the theater. In August he presented a curtain to the Shintomi Theater to express his gratitude for the kabuki play he had attended there on July 16. The play (in one act with two scenes) was by the outstanding dramatist of the time, Kawatake Mokuami, and was called A Military Account of the Later Three-Year War in Ōshū. Although it ostensibly depicted how the eleventh-century general Minamoto Yoshiie put down a revolt in the Ōshū region, the play was intended to represent the triumphs of General Grant himself. At the first performance, seventy-two geishas danced, wearing kimonos derived from the American flag—red and white stripes for the body and left arm, and stars on a blue background for the right arm. [The book includes a woodblock-print image of the dancers.]

Grant was otherwise immortalized by a quasi-biography called Guranto-shi den Yamato bunshō (Biography of Mr. Grant: Japanese Documents) by the popular novelist Kanagaki Robun. The covers of the little booklets in which the work was printed from woodblocks show the seventy-two geishas as well as Mr. and Mrs. Grant, both holding fans.

Perhaps Grant’s most important contribution to the arts came as the result of watching a program of nō plays at the residence of Iwakura Tomomi. Just at a time when Iwakura had decided to support the revival of nō, Grant arrived in Japan and indicated to Iwakura that he would like to see Japan’s classical arts. This was hardly typical of Grant. In Europe he had been invited to the opera frequently and thought of it as “a constant threat.” When invited to the opera in Madrid by the United States minister, the poet John Russell Lowell, “After five minutes he claimed that the only noise he could distinguish from any other was the bugle call and asked Mrs. Lowell, ‘Haven’t we had enough of this?’”

Grant’s reactions to nō were quite different. He is reported to have been profoundly moved by the program consisting of Hōshō Kurō in Mochizuki, Kongō Taiichirō in Tsuchigumo, and Miyake Shōichi in the kyōgen Tsurigitsune. Afterward he said to Iwakura, “It is easy for a noble and elegant art like this one, being influenced by the times, to lose its dignity and fall into a decline. You should treasure it and preserve it.”

These words, coming from a foreign dignitary, were not ignored. Iwakura realized more than ever the necessity of saving nō and, enlisting the support of former daimyos and members of the nobility, took active steps to ensure its survival. On August 14 a special performance at his residence was attended by the emperor, the prime minister, four councillors, and other dignitaries. The revival of nō was definitely under way. General Grant took leave of the emperor at a ceremony held in the palace on August 30. Grant expressed his gratitude for the kind and joyful reception he had received everywhere. He had noticed that in Japan there were neither extremely rich nor extremely poor people, a praiseworthy situation that he had not observed elsewhere during his journey. The country was blessed with fertile soil; large areas of undeveloped land; many mines that had yet to be exploited; good harbors where huge, almost limitless catches of fish were unloaded; and, above all, an industrious, contented, and thrifty people. Nothing was wanting in Japan’s plan to achieve wealth and strength. He urged the Japanese not to let foreigners interfere in their internal government, so as to enable the country to amass wealth and not be forced to depend on other countries. He concluded by saying that his wishes for the complete independence and prosperity of Japan were not his alone but were shared by the entire American people. He ardently hoped that the emperor and the people would enjoy the blessings of Heaven.

The emperor thanked Grant in a brief speech. According to Young, he read it in a clear, pleasant voice, quite a contrast from the inaudible whispers of his first encounters with foreigners. Here is how Young described his last impressions of the emperor: “The emperor is not what you would call a graceful man, and his manners are those of an anxious person not precisely at his ease—wishing to please and make no mistake. But in this farewell audience he seemed more easy and natural than when we had seen him before.”

Grant’s visit had been an immense success in all respects save one: it did not enable him to get reelected as president. But he would not forget Japan, and the Japanese, from the emperor down, would remember this unaffected man who behaved so little like a hero.

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Japan’s Treaty with Korea, 1876

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 256-257:

The first meeting between representatives of the two countries lasted for four days. The negotiations were conducted with ritual politeness on both sides but consisted mainly of repetitions of familiar arguments. The Japanese wanted to know why their attempts to secure a treaty of peace and friendship had been consistently rebuffed; the Koreans in return wanted to know why the Japanese had used titles for their emperor that put him on an equal footing with the emperor of China, thereby placing Korea in a subordinate position. After denying any intent of asserting suzerainty over Korea, the Japanese asked why their ship had been fired on at Kanghwa. The Koreans answered that because the Japanese marines were dressed in European-style uniforms, they were mistaken for either French or Americans. They failed to apologize, saying merely that the provincial officials had not recognized that the ships were Japanese. The Japanese delegates then demanded why the Korean government had not informed its provincial officials of the flags flown by Japanese ships and insisted that this required an apology. The Korean commandant replied that he was charged only with receiving the Japanese visitors; he was not authorized to make an apology.

The negotiations dragged on, interrupted by periods of consultation between the Korean commissioners and their government in Seoul, but on February 27, 1876, a treaty of friendship was at last signed between Japan and Korea. After the signing ceremony, the Japanese offered presents to the Koreans, not only the traditional bolts of silk, but a cannon, a six-shooter, a pocket watch, a barometer, and a compass. The gifts (with the exception of the silk) were strikingly like those the Americans had given the Japanese when the first treaty between the two nations was signed, and the treaty itself had almost identical significance: Japan was “opening” Korea, the hermit nation, to diplomatic relations and to trade. One Western scholar later commented,

As the Western Powers had done with herself, so did she now, without one particle of compunction, induce Korea to sign away her sovereign rights of executive and tariff autonomy, and to confer on Japanese residents within her borders all the extraterritorial privileges which were held to violate equity and justice when exercised by Europeans in Japan.

When word of the signing of the treaty reached the diplomatic community in Tōkyō, the ministers of the various countries asked for an audience with the emperor so that they might express their congratulations. The emperor invited them to a banquet at the Shiba Detached Palace, where each minister had the opportunity to convey joy over the signing of the treaty and hopes for greater and greater friendship between Japan and Korea.

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Hidden Christians Unhidden, 1868

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 109-110:

Now that the long-debated issue of the port of Hyōgo [Kobe] had at last been settled, on July 7 the shogunate further decided to permit foreigners to conduct business in Edo and Ōsaka. With this, full compliance with the provisions of the treaties signed with the foreign nations had been achieved. This did not signify that all the shogunate’s problems had been solved: major and minor problems constantly arose, and increasingly the young emperor was obliged to take part in decisions.

One minor problem arose as a direct consequence of the foreign settlements. On July 14 the Nagasaki magistrate arrested and imprisoned sixty-eight Christians. Christianity had been prohibited in Japan for about 250 years, but “hidden Christians” in the region of Nagasaki had preserved the religion without guidance from ordained priests or even from Christian books. Over the years the beliefs of these Christians had steadily drifted from orthodox teachings, and by now the hymns they sang, originally in Latin, had become gibberish, memorized by believers who had no idea of the meanings. Most of the Christians were poor fishermen and peasants. If suppressing such a cult had been a purely religious matter—if, say, it involved a heterodox Buddhist sect—it could have been achieved without difficulty, but the suppression of a Christian sect immediately involved the foreign powers, which were highly sensitive to attacks on their religion.

As far back as 1857, as the result of negotiations between Townsend Harris and the senior councillor Hotta Masayoshi, it had been agreed that foreigners should be able to practice their religions without hindrance, and the Americans obtained permission to erect a Protestant church in the foreign settlement. At the same time French priests were active in promulgating Catholicism, especially in the area of Nagasaki. The hidden Christians, overjoyed by the arrival of coreligionists, openly visited the church erected by the French and appealed to the French minister for support. Some, rejoicing that their hour had at last come, flaunted their new importance, leading to conflicts even within families. Buddhists, angered by the government’s slowness in punishing the Christians, even though the religion was still prohibited, threatened to take matters into their own hands and kill the Christians. The latter responded by arming themselves with bamboo spears. After the arrests on July 14 the French and Portuguese consuls in Nagasaki demanded the release of the Christians and, when this was refused, reported the matter to their legations, urging them to negotiate with the shogunate for release of the prisoners.

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Japan’s Angriest Emperor, 1858

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 38-40:

Kōmei became increasingly outspoken in his condemnation of the policy of allowing foreigners into the country. On July 27, 1858, he sent envoys to the Great Shrine of Ise, the Iwashimizu Hachiman Shrine, and the Kamo Shrine to pray for divine protection. In a semmyō [imperial proclamation] he asked the gods, if warfare should break out between Japan and the foreign barbarians, to send a divine wind (kamikaze) like the one that had destroyed the ships of the Mongol invaders in the thirteenth century. He also asked the gods to punish those who, by their failure to repay the blessings they had received from the country, showed themselves disloyal—meaning those who favored opening the country.

Kōmei’s prayers went unanswered. On July 29 the Shimoda magistrate Inoue Kiyonao met with Townsend Harris aboard the warship Powhattan [sic, actually the USS Powhatan), then anchored off Kanagawa, and signed the treaty of amity and commerce between the United States and Japan. The treaty included a schedule of dates during the next five years when ports in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate—Kanagawa (Yokohama), Nagasaki, Hyōgo (Kōbe), and Niigata—were to be opened to foreign ships.

On July 31 the shogunate sent word to the court reporting the conclusion of the treaty with America, explaining that because of the great urgency involved, there had been no time to seek the court’s advice. When the court received this letter, Kōmei was predictably furious. He sent for the chancellor and gave him a letter in which he announced his intention of abdicating the throne.

The emperor had left political matters to the shogunate and had hesitated to express his opinion for fear of worsening relations between the military and the court, but this had led to a difficult situation. At a loss what to do and having only limited ability, he had decided to relinquish the throne. Because Sachinomiya [the future Emperor Meiji] was too young to be his successor at a time when the nation faced a grave crisis, he therefore proposed one of the three princes of the blood. It was definitely not because he desired to lead a life of ease and pleasure that he was abdicating; it was because he wished someone more capable than himself to deal with the problems of state. He asked the chancellor to forward his request to the shogunate.

The letter plainly indicated Kōmei’s dissatisfaction with the shogunate’s inability to handle the foreigners. Although he did not mention this in this letter, he had become increasingly convinced that the foreigners had to be expelled, whatever the cost; their presence in Japan was an affront to the gods and to his ancestors. What makes this and his subsequent letters in a similar vein memorable is the impression they convey of a tormented human being. It is true that much of the phraseology is stereotyped, but no other emperor, at least for hundreds of years, had expressed such bitter frustration, such a sense of powerlessness, despite the grandeur of his title. Kōmei had become a tragic figure, and from this point until the terrible conclusion of his life, he had only brief periods of respite from anger and despair. To find parallels in Japanese history we would have to go back to the exiled emperors Gotoba and Godaigo. Perhaps Richard II, at least as Shakespeare portrayed him, resembled Kōmei even more closely in his awareness of how little control he possessed over his destiny. The barrage of letters Kōmei directed to the officers of his court, lamenting each new development, is without parallel in the correspondence of Japanese sovereigns.

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Dutch Urge Japan to Open, 1856

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 30:

Two days after Harris’s arrival in Shimoda [1856], Jan Hendrik Donker Curtius (1813–1879), formerly the chief merchant of the Dutch trading station on Deshima but now the Netherlands government commissioner, sent (by way of the Nagasaki magistrate) a letter to the shogunate in which he urged that the policy of the closed country be abandoned. He predicted that if Japan persisted in this policy, it would lead to war with the major countries of the world. He also called for the old regulations against Christianity to be lifted, deploring in particular, as contrary to good relations with other countries, the use of fumie (images, generally of the Virgin Mary) that the Japanese were obliged to tread on to demonstrate that they were not Christians. He pointed out the advantages to Japan of trade with foreign countries and advised the Japanese to set up a schedule of import duties and encourage the production of wares suitable for export. He suggested also that men from countries with relations with Japan be permitted to bring their wives and children to live with them in the open ports. Finally, Curtius asked that the restrictions on foreign ships be lifted and the laws revised with respect to permission to leave the ports and to travel to Edo.

Twelve years earlier (in 1844) Willem II, the king of Holland, had sent a letter to the shogunate asking that the country be opened to trade. The haughty officials did not deign to respond, but since then the situation had changed dramatically, and the shogunate now felt that it had to give serious consideration to Donker Curtius’s suggestions. At the council meeting, virtually all those present spoke in favor of opening the country speedily. Only Abe Masahiro, worried about the reactions of the various domains and fanatical patriots, said that the time was not yet ripe for such action. No one defended the longstanding tradition of the closed country. The shift in policy had occurred with startling swiftness.

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Response to Russians at Nagasaki, 1853

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 20-22:

The court had not yet recovered from the shock of Perry’s unexpected visit when it was informed by the shogunate on September 19 that a Russian fleet of four ships, under the command of Vice Admiral E. V. Putiatin (1803–1884), had entered Nagasaki Harbor. On his arrival, Putiatin announced to the officials in Nagasaki that he had brought from his government a letter concerning trade between the two countries. His orders had initially called for him to proceed to Edo and conduct negotiations there, but the Russian government later decided it would be better to show respect for Japanese law by proceeding to Nagasaki, the port designated for intercourse with foreign countries, in this way establishing a contrast with the Americans, who had brazenly sailed into Edo Bay.

Soon after the arrival of the Russian ships, various Japanese dignitaries came aboard along with a Dutch interpreter. They were informed by the captain of the Pallada that Vice Admiral Putiatin had brought a letter from his government to the Japanese government. There was also a note for the Nagasaki magistrate that, it was said, should be delivered immediately. After some hesitation, the officials accepted the note. It contained a declaration in extremely polite language of the profound respect for Japanese law that had impelled the Russian fleet to call at Nagasaki rather than Edo. This was a mark of the czar’s ardent desire for harmonious relations between the two countries. The officials at once sent word to Edo reporting the arrival of the Russians and asking whether or not to accept the letter from the Russian government. After waiting some time for an reply, Putiatin sailed to Shanghai to pick up supplies and perhaps to find additional orders from his government.  When there was still no answer even after he got back from Shanghai, he announced that he had no choice under the circumstances but to go to Edo.

The alarmed Nagasaki officials sent word by fast messenger to Edo, mentioning how much more accommodating the Russians were than the Americans and suggesting that the Russians might be used to blunt the edge of American demands. They added that if the Russian overtures were met with the usual suspiciousness, Japan risked incurring the enmity of a country that was twice as big as the United States.

Shortly before the messages from Nagasaki reached Edo, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi died, and the senior officers of the shogunate, in mourning and faced with organizing a new regime, did not get around immediately to responding to the problem of how to answer the Russians. After considerable debate, they decided to accept the letter from the Russian court, falling back on the precedent established by accepting the American president’s letter.

The letter (in Russian but with translations into Chinese and Dutch) from Count Karl Robert Nesselrode, the minister of foreign affairs, expressed his hopes for establishing peace and good relations between the two countries, for settling the disputed border between Japan and Russia on the island of Sakhalin, and for opening ports to trade. Most senior members of the shogunate favored accepting the Russian requests, but Tokugawa Nariaki, the shogunate’s adviser on maritime affairs, was strongly opposed, and the discussions dragged on. The shogunate finally agreed that the best course was to delay.

Putiatin grew increasingly impatient over the failure of the shogunate officials to return with an answer from Edo, as promised by the Nagasaki officials, and threatened again to sail to Edo if they did not appear within five days. Four days later, the tardy officials … arrived with the shogunate’s reply to Nesselrode’s letter. First, it said, the establishment of the border was a difficult matter that would require considerable time to determine. Maps would have to be drawn, consultations made with affected parties, and so on. Second, the laws of their ancestors strictly prohibited opening the ports. However, in view of world developments, the government did recognize the necessity of opening the country, but a new shogun had just taken office and the situation was still too confused to give an immediate answer. Reports would have to be submitted to Kyōto and to the various daimyos. After due consideration of the issues, they expected to be able to come up with a proposal in three to five years.

It is apparent from the message’s wording how desperately the shogunate wanted to stall off a decision; but even more important was the admission that despite the long tradition of isolation, the Japanese now had no choice but to open the country. This awareness of the change in world conditions was not communicated to the court, however, because of the anticipated outraged resistance by Emperor Kōmei.

Putiatin was disappointed by the reply. He moved now to the offensive, informing the shogunate’s representatives that with the exception of the southern part of the island of Sakhalin, all the islands north of Etorofu (Iturup) were Russian territory. Tsutsui replied that Japan had possessed Kamchatka as well as (it went without saying) the Kuriles and Sakhalin. He proposed that shogunate officials be dispatched to Sakhalin the following spring to ascertain the situation. In the meantime, the Russians would be free to obtain firewood and water at any place on the Japanese coast except for the vicinity of Edo. He promised also that if Japan made trade concessions to another country, they would apply to Russia as well.

Putiatin was still not satisfied, but he left Nagasaki early in the first month of 1854, saying he would return in the spring. The most influential men in the country were by now aware that the policy of isolation could not last much longer. As early as the seventh month of 1853, as we have seen, Kuroda Nagahiro, the daimyo of Fukuoka, had formally proposed lifting the ban on constructing large ships. In the eighth month, Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyo of Kagoshima, sent a letter urging the shogunate to purchase ships and weapons from Holland. Abe Masahiro (1819–1857), the chief senior councillor (rōjū shuseki) of the shogunate, who had long advocated building ships that (unlike the small fishing boats that operated off the Japanese coast) were capable of making ocean voyages, decided on October 21 to lift a prohibition that had been in effect for more than 220 years. The shogunate ordered several steam warships from the Dutch, and soon several domains started building large ships, intended for the shogunate. In August 1854 the shogunate decided on the flag to be flown on the new ships: a red sun on a white ground.

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Amur River Boom and Bust

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 265-268:

The enormous silence of the river, its shrinking human populace and its virgin forest, give the illusion of return to some primeval Arcadia, of recoil from a stricken present. But to its inhabitants it means desolation. For almost four centuries the Amur has been the stuff of dreams, but also of promise forever delayed. In the mid-nineteenth century, especially, there arose in Russia a grand and delusive exhilaration. Just as in the seventeenth century the Cossacks were lured south by rumours of a Daurian river valley spread with wheat and sable-filled forests, even silver and precious stones, so the accession of the initially liberal Czar Alexander II, in an empire that had been stagnating for thirty years, released a groundswell of intoxicating hope. Momentarily Russia turned her back on Europe, with its old humiliations, and found a visionary future in Siberia’s east.

Suddenly the immense but little-known Amur loomed into brilliant focus. Here would be Russia’s artery to the Pacific, a titanic waterway flowing, as if by providence, from the belly of Siberia into an ocean of infinite promise. The trading concessions wrenched from China by the British and French, the prising open of Japan, and above all the arrival of a young and vigorous America on the opposite coast, would surely transform the Pacific into an arena of world commerce. Russians had watched the American advance westward with awe. It seemed to mirror their own headlong drive across Siberia to the same ocean, and now the two countries might flourish together in a shared oceanic commonwealth. There was even heady talk, in Siberia, of a political alliance.

With Muraviev-Amursky’s seizure of the Amur from a helpless China in 1858, the vision of an eastern destiny became euphoria. The Amur, it was declared, would become Russia’s Mississippi, and Muraviev was hailed, without irony, as ‘one courageous, enterprising Yankee’. Such dreams climaxed in the energies of the American entrepreneur Perry McDonough Collins, quaintly named his country’s ‘commercial agent’ on the Amur. ‘Upon this generous river shall float navies, richer and more powerful than those of Tarshish,’ he announced, and at its mouth ‘shall rise a vast city, wherein shall congregate the merchant princes of the earth’.

Even before Muraviev’s land grab, St Petersburg was rife with reports of foreign merchant ships making for the Amur. Soon a lighthouse at De Castries was raised to guide them. A fleet of steamboats began plying the once-quiet waters. The lower river valley was declared a free trade zone. And the fulcrum of these hopes was the newly founded port of Nikolaevsk at the Amur’s mouth, which Alexander and I were approaching on the lonely Meteor. For a few years German and American trading firms went up here, housed in stout log cabins with iron and zinc roofs. A library of over four thousand books was assembled, with recent Paris and St Petersburg newspapers, happily uncensored. The officers’ club flaunted a dining hall and ballroom. Life was reported delightful. The Nikolaevsk stores were selling Havana cigars, French pâté and cognac, port and fine Japanese and Chinese furniture. Susceptible minds twinned the town with San Francisco. And Perry Collins, of course, went further, looking forward to the day when St Petersburg itself would be replicated on the Amur.

Then, within a decade, harsh realities broke in. Far from being a riverine highway, the Amur was revealed as a labyrinth of shoals, shallows and dead ends, and for seven months of the year was sealed in ice or adrift with dangerous floes. Even cargo boats of low draught might not reach Khabarovsk, let alone Sretensk. And the river mouth offered no simple access. The straits between the mainland and the obstructing island of Sakhalin made for hazardous steering, especially from the tempestuous Okhotsk Sea. Ships sank even in the estuary. As for the Amur shores, for hundreds of miles they were peopled only by a sprinkling of Cossacks, natives and subsistence farmers, many forcibly settled on poor land, and open to the floods that still ravage it. For its inhabitants, this became a cursed river: not the ‘Little Father’ of Russia’s affection, wrote a dismayed naturalist, but her ‘sickly child’. The structures of commerce that worked elsewhere – the trading houses, the shipping agents, the free zones – had been imposed upon an indifferent wilderness. In the simple, brutal realization of those most disillusioned, there was nobody to trade with and nothing to trade. Within a few years the agents and flotillas were gone, transferring first to De Castries and then to the ice-free harbour of Vladivostok.

As for Nikolaevsk, even Collins had expressed misgivings. Its waterside was so shallow that ships had to drop anchor half a mile offshore, and their cargo was transported by lighters to a swampy coast. In winter the town was blasted by Arctic blizzards and lay sometimes six feet deep in snow. Even the reports of foreign commerce were exposed as delusion. The shipping had never been significant. Within a few years Nikolaevsk became a byword for boredom, immorality and petty scandals. In its celebrated officers’ club, remarked a worldly sea captain, the newspapers were few and several months old; it compared poorly to a low German beer house. The great explorer Nikolai Przhevalsky equated the whole place with Dante’s hell.

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Origin of North Korea’s Nuclear Program

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 232-234:

In 1962, the Soviet Union and the United States were locked in a thirteen-day standoff over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, less than one hundred miles from the US coastline. For those two weeks, the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. But the conflict was resolved diplomatically when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles as long as President John Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba. A deal was done.

Kim Il Sung viewed this deal as a capitulation by the Soviet Union to the United States, a sign that Moscow was willing to sell out an ally for the sake of its own security. The Great Leader apparently learned from this that North Korea should never entrust its national security to any other government. This injected new momentum into his drive for nuclear independence. Within a few months, Kim Il Sung’s regime had started to explore the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrent of its own. The leader who had espoused a need for a stronger agricultural policy was soon standing before the cadres in Pyongyang to hammer home the importance of putting equal emphasis on economic growth and national defense. This was the first “simultaneous push” policy. The proportion of the national budget devoted to defense rose from only 4.3 percent in 1956 to almost 30 percent within a decade.

The nuclear scientists who returned home from the Soviet Union set about building, about sixty miles northeast of Pyongyang, a similar complex to the one they’d worked at in Dubna. This would eventually become the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex.

More impetus came in the early 1970s, when it emerged that North Korea’s other main ally, China, had secretly started to forge relations with the United States, an effort that led to President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.

Meanwhile, in South Korea, the strongman Park Chung-hee, a general who’d seized the presidency through a military coup, was secretly pursuing nuclear weapons of his own. When this news emerged, it was an unbearable blow to Kim Il Sung’s personal vanity and sense of national pride.

Another key factor that must have been weighing on Kim Il Sung’s mind was his own mortality. He was in his sixties by this time and was starting to prepare his son to take over. He thought that having nuclear weapons would make it easier for his son to keep a grip on the state. In lieu of charisma, Kim Jong Il should at least have nukes.

In the late 1970s onward, the North Koreans had built more than one hundred nuclear facilities at Yongbyon alone. American intelligence agencies were alarmed. In the space of about six years, a country with no previous experience had built a functioning nuclear reactor. Three years later came unambiguous proof that the reactor’s purpose was military, not civilian; the country had built a major reprocessing facility that would enable it to turn the fuel from the reactor into fissile material.

But its efforts were not going unnoticed among allies either. The Soviet Union pressured Kim Il Sung into signing the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty at the end of 1985. It took seven years for North Korea to allow in the inspectors required under that treaty, and when they got in, they found numerous signs that the regime was secretly working on the very kind of nuclear program it had pledged against. In 1993, Kim Il Sung threatened to withdraw from the treaty, triggering an alarming standoff. North Korea and the United States came the closest to war in forty years.

Talks to resolve the impasse were ongoing when Kim Il Sung suddenly died in the summer of 1994, propelling both sides into unknown territory. They did, however, manage to sign a landmark nuclear disarmament deal called the Agreed Framework, under which North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program and a US-led coalition agreed to build two civilian nuclear reactors that could be used to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.

Pyongyang had no intention of abiding by this agreement either. Signing the deal was all about buying the Kim regime time to work on its program while maintaining the appearance of cooperating.

North Korea had developed a close relationship with Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. In the 1990s, while North Koreans were dying of starvation and while Kim Jong Un was watching Jackie Chan movies in Switzerland, the regime was building a uranium-enrichment program. Uranium enrichment wasn’t technically covered under the Agreed Framework. And North Korea loves technicalities.

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North Korea’s Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

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