Asian Studies Association of  Australia
Asian Currents
ISSN 1449-4418
The Asian Studies Association of Australia's e-bulletin
March 2004

In this issue
    Welcome to Asian Currents
    About the ASAA
    Maximising Australia's Asian Knowledge
    Diary dates
    Researcher of the month
    Student of the month
    Website of the month
    Recent article of interest
Asian Currents is published by the Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) thanks to a grant from the Myer Foundation made to assist the ASAA promote the study of Asia in Australia. It is edited by the ASAA's promotions agents, Francesca Beddie and Peter Rodgers.

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  About the ASAA Top  
The Asian Studies Association of Australia promotes the study of Asian languages, societies, cultures, and politics in Australia; supports teaching and research in Asian studies; and works towards an understanding of Asia in the community at large. It publishes the Asia Studies Review journal and holds a biennial conference. The current president is Professor Robin Jeffrey, Professor of Politics at Latrobe University. Professor Jeffrey's research interests include South Asian politics and society; regional politics of Kerala and Punjab; contemporary Indian media. See

  Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge
  Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset
The ASAA believes there is an urgent need to develop a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has called on the government to establish a Council for Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge and Skills (C-MAAKS), chaired by an outstanding Australian, to oversee a strategy to preserve, renew and extend Australian expertise about Asia. It has detailed this proposal in Maximizing Australia's Asia Knowledge Repositioning and Renewal of a National Asset. See

  Analysis of Korea Top  
Each edition of Asian Currents will bring you a short insight into a topical issue. This month, Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki analyses the recent six-nation talks in Beijing aimed at defusing tensions over North Korea's nuclear program and reports on Japanese attitudes to North Korea.

Political leaders in the US, Japan and the four other nations involved in negotiations over North Korea's nuclear ambitions have put a brave face on the lack of significant results from the most recent talks. They point out that all parties will meet again by mid-2004 and that a working party will pursue key unresolved issues. But the lack of visible progress is a cause for concern.

The main sticking point is North Korea's refusal to acknowledge the existence of a uranium enrichment program and its insistence that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula should refer only to the nuclear weapons and not other aspects of any nuclear program. This could provoke a hardening of attitudes on other fronts.

In Japan, feverish media debate about the plight of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s overshadows debate about North Korean nuclear programs. (See below) North Korea admits to kidnapping 13 Japanese. Of these, it claims eight have died and the remaining five returned to Japan. The Japanese government is demanding further details about those who died and also the "return" of the North Korean spouses and children of the other five. (One spouse is actually a former US citizen, who has lived in Korea for decades after deserting from the US military.)

Japan has passed a law providing for sanctions on trade and transport with North Korea. Japan hardly trades with North Korea so the economic significance of these sanctions would be minimal. But the political symbolism could fuel further North Korean hostility. A hawkish stance by Japan could also have negative effects on Japan's relationship with China, which has played a central role in bringing the negotiating parties together. As the political tug-of-war continues, the outcome of the working party's discussions and of the next round of talks may have important repercussions, not just for the Korean peninsula but for relations between Northeast Asia's most powerful nations.

Almost any morning, switch on Japanese television and you're likely to be greeted by bursts of martial music and images of massed tanks taking part in military parades. No, it's not a celebration of Japan's military might. It's simply the Japanese media's favourite subject-North Korea.

Around the world the North Korean regime is regarded with fear and profound mistrust, a remnant of ruthless Communist totalitarianism. But Japan must surely be unique in its obsession with North Korea and its erratic leader, Kim Jong Il. Television, newspapers and mass circulation magazines provide an incessant diet of horror stories featuring famine, repression and torture, contrasted with the corrupt lifestyle of Kim and his cronies. Escapees from North Korea treat eager television audiences with details of Kim's favourite menus and spicy gossip about his personal habits. There's even a comic book version of the life and crimes of Kim Jong-Il-predictably a bestseller.

Japanese anxiety is understandable. The public was deeply shocked by revelations in 2002 that North Korean agents had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. And a nuclear or other crisis on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences for Japan (though it is worth noting that South Korea, where the consequences would be even more catastrophic, is far less obsessed with demonic images of North Korea's Dear Leader).

More sober Japanese observers are quietly questioning the impact of this media frenzy. There has been a spate of attacks on members of the substantial Korean community who retain some links to the North and lurid stories about Kim Jong-Il do little to help Japanese public understanding of one of their nearest neighbours or to encourage constructive Japanese involvement in resolving pressing problems facing the region.

Further links:
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Democratic People's Republic of Korea Country brief:
  • Foreign Minister Downer's response to the talks:

      Diary Dates Top  
    You are welcome to advertise Asia-related events in this space. Send details to:

    Significant dates on the ASAA calendar are:

  • The 15TH BIENNIAL CONFERENCE OF THE ASIAN STUDIES ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA will opened by the Governor-General, His Excellency Major-General Jeffery at the National Convention Centre in Canberra on 29 June. A strong feature of the conference will be the relevance of Asian Studies to the contemporary world. Topics to be discussed will include media, foreign investment, labour, religion and the place of women in Asia. See A special event during the conference will be a major address at the National Press Club on 30 June by Dr John Yu, Chancellor of the University of NSW. Dr Yu will speak on Knowing Asia: Australia's Future. For bookings, see

    Other upcoming events:

  • THE LEGACIES OF WAR IN SOUTH EAST ASIA: ENVIRONMENT AND LEGAL PERSPECTIVES, The Australian Red Cross Solferino Asia-Pacific Lecture, 1 April 2004 6:30 PM (approx. duration 1hr 30min), Basement Theatre, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, University of Melbourne. For this and other events at the Asia Centre, see
  • ENVISIONING THE WORLD'S NEXT GREAT MARKET: Korea and the Economic Future of Northeast Asia, 12-14 May 2004, The Shilla Hotel, Seoul, Korea. Bookings Essential: Contact the Asia Society AustralAsia Centre 03 9650 0998

      Researcher of the Month Top  
    Robert Cribb, convenor of this year's ASAA conference and Senior Fellow, Division of Pacific and Asian History, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University

    Q. When did you become interested in studying Asia and why?
    A. My history teacher at high school in Brisbane was taking a master's course in Asian history and was so enthused by it that he included Indonesia, China and Japan in our curriculum. What made the difference for me, though, was visiting Indonesia as a tourist with my parents shortly after we'd covered Indonesia at school. Seeing the place made the history seem alive. I thought I would at least try it out. So I studied Indonesian history with Chris Penders at the University of Queensland and then won a scholarship to London to do my PhD with Ruth McVey.

    Q. What are your current preoccupations?
    A. I suppose my main current preoccupation is understanding violence, especially in Indonesia. I think this is a terribly important topic which people don't properly understand. Partly from my childhood hobby of stamp-collecting, I've always been interested in the process of state-formation and disappearance.

    This led to a fascination with questions of national identity, a topic where comparison really is important. So I've become interested in the historical experience of state-formation in Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Siberia, and China, as a contrast to that of Southeast Asia.

    I'm also very interested in drawing maps and I have a couple of projects lined up to follow on from my Historical Atlas of Indonesia. I find maps a fascinating alternative way of carrying information. I'm still interested too in environmental history, though my experience of environmental studies has been that it is surprisingly compartmentalized.

    Q. How do these fit into the contemporary scene?
    A. Violence of course is a major issue in contemporary Indonesia and indeed a lot of people are working on it. I think the issue of national identity is enormously important as people toy with breaking up existing states and putting others together to create new ones. We need to understand just what constitutes national identity and how it relates to the existence of states.

    Q. What are your hopes for Asian studies in Australia?
    A. At the moment my main hope is for a successful ASAA conference next June-July! The conference is a way of reinvigorating the sense of community amongst Asianists in Australia. We have an excellent venue and now that the panel proposals are in we know we'll have an excellent program.

    More broadly, I hope for the day when no-one will feel they can comment about the nature of the world without first having thought about Asia. Of course the price of having the rest of the world paying attention to Asia is that Asianist will have to pay some attention to the rest of the world.

      Student of the Month Top  
    Each year the ASAA awards an annual prize to encourage and reward excellence in scholarship on Asia at the doctoral level and to publicize the best young Australian scholarship on Asia. This year's prize went Linda Rae Bennett for her work on women and Islam in Indonesia. Linda's thesis will be published as a book this year by RoutledgeCurzon. Its title: Women, Islam and Modernity: Single Women, Sexuality and Reproductive Health in Contemporary Indonesia.

      Website of the Month Top  
    If you would like to nominate a site which contributes to the maximizing of Australia's Asian knowledge, please contact

    The Asian Studies Virtual Library is a global collaborative project which provides access in bibliographic and hypertext terms to networked scholarly documents, resources and information systems concerned with or relevant to Asian studies. It is edited by Dr T.Matthew Ciolek, who is based at the Australian National University.

      Congratulations Top  
    RMIT International University Vietnam recently became the first education winner of the 'Golden Dragon Prize 2003'. The prize is awarded to foreign-invested businesses in Vietnam for industry excellence. This is the first time that education has been included in the Golden Dragon awards and RMIT International University Vietnam is the inaugural winner. /

      Recent article of interest Top  
    In case you missed it, you might like to go back to:

    The Canberra Times 12 February 2004, p 19 where discusses the challenges our intelligence services confront in recruiting people with advanced knowledge of foreign languages. He argues:

    If we are to take seriously the need for better foreign language skills in the intelligence community it is not good enough to rely on a market-driven approach to language learning in universities. Either "the market" will respond enthusiastically but too late (as has been the case with study of Arabic) or, it will respond with small enrolments that, for budgeting reasons, shut the door on languages like Tok Pisin, Javanese and Burmese.

    It is time for the government to revisit the issue of strategic language studies. This will not be easy because it will require a definition of a strategic language (bound to be contentious). In all likelihood it will also require government intervention with direct funding (ideologically difficult for the Howard government).

    Nevertheless this bullet has to be bitten and a way found to ensure that somewhere in the country (not necessarily in the university system, by the way) we can have long-term, rounded study of strategically important languages irrespective of enrolment numbers. The professional resourcing of our intelligence agencies and an effective campaign against terror demands no less.

      Feedback Top  
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