Slightly Breaking News: Kim Jong-nam Body to North Korea

Malaysia has come to an agreement which will turn jurisdiction of Kim Jong-nam’s body over to North Korea. Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, after discussions which he called very senesitive, said Malaysia had agreed to turn over his body for the release of 9 Malaysian citizens held in Pyongyang (AP). Malaysia and North Korea also agreed to lift travel bans levied on each other.

The jurisdiction of the body has been a contentious subject since the assassination. Prime Minister Razak said the corner had approved of the move after completeion of autopsy and request by the family that the remains be transported to North Korea (AlJezzera). No details were released about how the development came about.

This signals a slight thaw in relations over the contentious case, solving one of the main issues.

Daily Update – March 14

South Korea

Politics – Breaking Now: Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has announced that he will not be running for the position of President in the upcoming election. Hwang will make his statement on the topic at a cabinet meeting scheduled for 2pm (Yonhap). This comes on a day when Hwang called for national unity, calling the upcoming election a starting point to launch Korea into a “new future” (Yonhap). His recusal from the race, along with Ban Ki-moon’s, assures the progressive opposition parties a fairly uncontested race in the coming days.

Park Geun-hye left Cheong Wa Dae–the South Korean presidential residence also known as the Blue House–over the weekend. As she left, she remained silent on the charges, but left a defiant statement which was read by one of her officials, saying the “truth will come out” (HanKoyreh). Without the presidential immunity, Park is a suspect with 13 charges against her, and the Seoul Central Prosecutor’s office has issued a summons to Park’s legal team for questioning next Tuesday at 9:30am (Korea Herald). Questioning the president may reveal more information related to the scandal, though she may remain defiant in her words. Park and her legal team have pledged to cooperate in the investigation.

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a trip to Asia on Tuesday, his first to the region. Tillerson’s trip to the region comes at a time when tensions are rising due to political uncertainty in Seoul and a belligerent North Korea. While in Seoul, Korean leaders will have to convince Tillerson that it is business as usual when it simply is not (CNN). North Korea and THAAD are also on the discussion table. Tillerson will also visit China and Japan during his Asia trip. (See this CNN article for a good analysis on the issues in each country.) On Tuesday, the State Department’s spokesman Mark Toner, in a regular briefing, urged North Korea to release Otto Warmbier, the college student who arrested, and subsequently sentenced to 15 years hard labor, for stealing a political poster from the hotel he was staying at (Korea Herald).

Three of the four main parties in Korea–The Liberty Korea Party, People’s Party, and Baerun Party–agreed that they will hold a constitutional revision referendum in tandem with the presidential election in May this year. The referendum would alter the power structure in Korea. Supporters argue the concentration of power at the presidential level may have caused the current scandal in Korea. The majority Democratic Party, however, is hesitant to join the referendum arguing it would take away from the current corruption scandal. By law, a constitutional motion can be tabled with the support of 150 lawmakers and passed with a two-thirds vote–200 out of 30o. With the Democratic party hesitant to join, the referendum falls just short of the required 200 votes (Korea Times).

Economy – The unemployment rate in South Korea nudged up to 5% last month, a seven-year high, a 0.1 point increase from this month last year and a 1.2% increase from last month. The rise comes amid a rise in youth unemployment throughout the country, which stands at 12.3%, up from 8.6% in January (Korea Times).

(No culture update due to the four political stories tonight.)

North Korea

The number of visa-free countries for North Korean’s to travel to has reduced to 39. Though the number was steadily on the rise–only 36 offered such privileges in 2010–Singapore and Malaysia have revoked their visa-free travel programs after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam (Korea Herald). Travel is yet another aspect in which North Korea’s isolation is growing as it becomes more and more belligerent in 2017.

Most Interesting Story of the Day (Had to add this story, not a permanent feature)

2500(Image: Ex-president Park with her Jindo puppies in September of last year. Source: Korea Times).

An animal rights group filed a lawsuit with the prosecution on Monday against Park Geun-hye for violating the Animal Protection Law. Park had returned home without taking any of her 9 dogs with her (Korea Times). When entering office, two Jindo dogs were gifted to the president. The two birthed a litter of 5 puppies, all of which were given away. Then the two gave birth to seven puppies, all of which still remain with their parents. Another group, CARE, has offered to take care of the pets and find them a good home, arguing that South Korea would suffer a loss of image if it let the president’s dogs met a different fate (HanKoyreh). People’s Pary Chairman Park Jie-won, who is from the Jindo area, said, “some people can not hold a candle to dogs in regards to fidelity” (Korea Times).

Daily Update – March 6

North Korea vs. Malaysia

The diplomatic parlay between Malaysia and North Korea continues to surprise in scope following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. This weekend, Malaysia expelled North Korean ambassador Kang Chol. Kang left the country on Monday. While leaving, he said that such extreme measures are hurting the relations between the countries (NY Times).

North Korea, on Monday, had a strong reaction. Malaysian ambassador to North Korea Mohamad Nizan Mohamad was declared person non grata and given 48 hours to leave. The irony, however, was that he was already home, having been summoned for a consultation on February 22 (The Star). Pyongyang also went a step further. On Monday, state media declared an exit ban on all Malaysians currently inside North Korea (Yonhap), Malaysia continued the back and forth, placing an exit ban on all North Koreans in Malaysia until Malaysians in North Korea are safely back home. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a statement, called North Korea’s actions abhorrent and against international norms (AlJezzera). Though North Korea has never been one to follow the rules, this diplomatic tit-for-tat is very abnormal. As it stands, the murder of Kim Jong-nam, a case which the world may never learn all the answers to, will be a thorn in the side of Malaysian-North Korean relations as each nation accuses the other of the death.

North Korea vs. The World

Over the weekend, North Korea fired off 4 rockets into the ocean, with 3 falling into the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone; the rockets flew 1000km and reached an altitude of 260km after being fired from the Dongchang-ri test facility, home of the Sohae Launch Station (Korea Times). This is the biggest show of aggression–nuclear tests excluded–since Kim Jung-un took over in 2011.

k2017030600201_main(Image: Map showing the distance of the missiles tested by North Korea. Source: Korea Times)

The reason behind the test is fairly clear, to protest the ongoing military drills in South Korea which will run until April. Before the test, North Korea said, through the Rodong Shinmun, “as long as the drill is not suspended, we will continue to strengthen our national defense capabilities centering on a nuclear force to defend our country” (UPI). Though the motivation behind the test is nothing new, the actual test itself is alarming. Japanese analysts have concluded that North Korea tested a new attack strategy to use against Japan (NY Times). Even North Korea acknowledged this, saying the test was conducted by units who are “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces in Japan,” (Yonhap).

This brazen provocative behavior has sent leaders pushing to condemn the action. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first to condemn the test, filing a strong protest against the action (The Korea Page). President Trump, in a call with acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Seoul (Hindustan Times). South Korean presidential hopefuls also condemned the test. Moon Jae-in, the leading progressive, urged “the repressive state to immediately stop provocations that are putting the Korean Peninsula in danger.” An Hee-jong said that North Korea could only survive if it becomes a full member of the international community. Other candidates also condemned the test (Korea Times). North Korea responded in typical North Korean fashion, echoing its insistence that the joint drills in South Korea are pushing the region to a nuclear disaster (ABC Austrailia).

It is on the issue of THAAD where South Korea made major moves in light of the test. On Tuesday, parts for the missile defense system started to arrive in South Korea (Bloomberg). This move was met with skepticism by the opposition parties in Korea. The parties all rose questions about the rushed manner of the move, arguing that it was a politically motivated move ahead of the elections (Yonhap). THAAD has long been a contentious domestic debate within South Korea, pitting opposition parties against the ruling party for years. China has been retaliating to the deployment of THAAD in an interesting way. Authorities are shutting down Lotte Marts in China as a possible economic retaliation for the deployment (Joongang Ilbo). THAAD, though necessary, will remain a hard debate in the region. However, as I have previously argued, there may be ways to bolster Chinese and Russian support for the deployment (The Korea Page).

Breaking News: Malaysia Expells North Korean Ambassador

(Image: Ri Jong-chol leaving a Sepang Police Station. Source: MalayMail)

The international parlay between Malaysia and North Korea in the wake of the Kim Jung-nam assassination continues to develop. Malaysia has expelled North Korean ambassador Kang Chol (YonhapNews*). Malaysian authorities also released Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean questioned in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam. According to reports, the Ri drove four North Korean men to the Kuala Lumpur Airport on the day of the murder. But since then, all four have returned to North Korea (Radio Free Asia).  Without the connection of those four suspects, authorities have been unable to press charges against Ri. The N called his arrest a plot to damage the honor of his country (BBC).  He was transported to a Malaysian airport wearing a bulletproof vest. Ri called his arrest a conspiracy to damage the honor of North Korea (Reuters).

North Korea, yesterday, responded to the allegations of assassination.  Pyongyang’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ri Tong-il said Kim Jung-nam had a record of heart disease and that he died of a heart attack (Radio Free Asia). Even early into the investigation, North Korea rebutted Malaysian authorities, saying their findings where full of holes and contradictions, while shifting blame to Malaysia, saying “The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land,” in a statement (TIME).

Malaysia has yet to formally blame North Korea for the murder. However, Malaysia ceased its visa waver program with Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-nam died on February 13, after being attacked in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, while being transferred to the hospital. A Malaysian-led autopsy revealed he had been poisoned with VX nerve agent, a chemical weapon listed as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations. The two women responsible for the attack have been charged with murder and may face the death penalty, if found guilty (CNN).

Correction March 6, 2017: This first reported Ri Jong-chol as the North Korean ambassador, though he was simply a North Korean citizen. Kang Chol was the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia before his expulsion in the aftermath of the Kim Jong-nam assassination. Also fixed spelling of Malaysia throughout the article.

Daily Update – March 1

South Korea

Politics – Parents of high school students at Munmyeong High School, in Gyeongsan, plan to file an administrative suit with Daegu District Court challenging the school’s adoption of controversial state-authored history textbooks.  The school was designated as an experimental school for the textbooks, a move many parents see as illegal and drove 4 incoming students to drop out or move to another school (Yonhap).  State authored history textbooks have had a long, troubled history since greenlighted in 2015.  Since the decision to move to state-authored history textbooks, the Park administration has been accused of trying to whitewash history to bolster the conservative position (NY Times).  In late 2016, it was reported that the official roll out was delayed till 2018, but schools could opt to test the books (Asia News Network).  Switching to state-authored textbooks has long been met with negative criticism in Korea; a Gallup Korea poll released on November 6, 2015, showed that 53% viewed the shift negatively (NY Times), and on January 20 this year, South Korean parliament introduced a bill to ban the textbooks (Yonhap).  Though not the most scandalous act of the administration, the shift was a part of the two years of scandal which caused Park’s downfall.  With the introduction of the bill, it appears the textbooks are in the crosshairs and possibly will be entirely eliminated under the next administration.  If not banned, the textbooks will go into use in 2018.

aen20161128005400315_01_i(Image: South Korean officials hand out pilot editions of the controversial state authored history textbooks in Seoul on November 28, 2016.  Source: Yonhap)

Economy – Households in Korea are facing a toughening burden on two fronts. Last year households spent 2 million won in taxes and quasi-taxes, with the government collecting 10 million won more than expected in taxes.  The average household spent 158,761 won in taxes last year, a rise of 2.1% on year (Korea Times). Many forecast such a rise since the government also took in a surplus in 2015.  This has opened a debate on lowering the tax rate in Korea to alleviate some of the tax burden and leave families with more disposable income.  Currently, South Korea’s tax rate is 19.5%, which is lower than the average OECD rate of 25.1% (Korea Times).

Secondly, Korean outstanding household credit jumped to 1,344.3 trillion won (US$1.17 trillion) during the first quarter of last year, up 11.7% from the previous year (Yonhap).  Amid the trend of rising household debt, the Bank of Korea is looking to cut its rates which currently stand at 1.25%.  However, with the possibility of an American Fed hike and the upcoming election–domestic political uncertainty mostly–South Korea’s current rate freeze is set to remain for the time being (Yonhap).  Bank of Korea Governor Lee Ju-yeol argued for a cautious monetary policy while some analysts have said South Korea has run out of monetary policy cards to revive the economy (Yonhap).  As the political uncertainty domestically mixes with economic uncertainty, in terms of a rate hike in the U.S., the Bank of Korea should shy away from drastic moves, opting to maintain the status quo for the time being.

Culture – Wednesday was the anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement in South Korea, which 98 years ago precipitated the Korean opposition against Japanese occupation.  In 2017, pro- and anti-Park protestors took to the streets as the Constitutional Court is deciding whether to uphold or rescind the impeachment motion.  As of 8pm, 300,000 people were reported to be in the square, with many anti-Park protestors waving the national flag with an attached yellow ribbon in memory of those who died in the Sewol tragedy (Korea Herald).  An anti-Park candlelight vigil was held in the evening to demand the court to uphold the impeachment.  South Korea’s political landscape is becoming more and more polarized as the decision lingers.  The court is set to render a verdict in early March.

20170301000398_0(Image: Police buses separate pro- and anti-Park protestors in Gwanhhwamun Square.  Source: Korea Herald)

North Korea

News – Just when you think it can not, the Malaysia debacle continues to grow.  On Tuesday, the two women who attacked Kim Jong-nam were officially indicted in Malaysia and could receive the death penalty (NY Times).  The two women–Indonesian Siti Aisyah and Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong–are officially charged with murder in the attack.  Malaysian authorities are also looking to indict Ri Jong-chol in connection with the killing (Korea Times).  Malaysia also took more actions against North Korea.  The Malaysian government, citing national security, has canceled the visa waver program for North Korean citizens.  The change will take effect on March 6, after which any North Korean seeking entry to Malaysia will have to obtain a visa (Yonhap).  As the case unfolds, North Korea may face a drastic shift in relations with Malaysia, one that is not for the better.

01kim-1-master315(Image: Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, 28, left, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah, 25, are the two women charged with the murder of Kim Jong-nam and could receive the death penalty.  Source: NY Times)

Leadership Watch – On March 1, Kim Jung-un inspected the headquarters of the large combined unit 966.  During his inspection, Kim praised the past commanding officers of the unit, saying many were tough anti-Japanese fighters, provided on the spot guidance, toured the history collections and monuments the unit holds, and offered a path forward for the unit.  He also praised the combat readiness of the unit.  With him on this visit was KPA Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong So, director of the KPA General Political Bureau, and Army Col. General Ri Yong Gil, first vice-chief of the KPA General Staff and director of the General Operational Bureau (KCNA)[1].

[1] Source is from state-controlled media and should be read with a keen eye to the details of the report.  Combination with outside sources can ensure information is complete.