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).

Breaking News: Choi Soon-sil Returns to South Korea

Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of  President Park Geun-hae’s scandal, has returned to South Korea (Yonhap).  Previously, she had spent time in Germany, avoiding questions regarding her actions.

Choi is being investigated for getting documents and access from Park.  According to reports, Choi was given classified documents, speeches, and advised Park on a variety of topics including politics and even dress despite not having a requisite security clearance or position in the Park administration.

Park has been called to step down in light of the revelations, though this is highly unlikely (Washington Post).  Saenuri party officials are also looking to distance themselves from Park, calling for her to leave the party.  This scandal may have a profound influence on the election, though it is tough to tell at the moment.  Also, criminal charges may be pursued against Park and Choi, though, again, it is difficult to tell at this moment what actions prosecutors will take.

After this news broke, a mass exodus of officials in the Park administration is underway; even her chief of staff has resigned from the administration (The Guardian).

*Source citations have been added to this post as promised

Daily Update – October 24

South Korea

Politics – On Monday (Korean time) President Park Geun-hae called for a constitutional revision to change the structure of the Office of President of South Korea.  Currently, an elected South Korean president serves a 5-year term and cannot be reelected.  This, as argued by Park, has made litigating long-term policy a struggle for South Korean presidents.  “It is time that we put aside the 1987 constitution and draw up a new one for the country to make a leap forward,” she said.  Park’s call for revision is the most serious attempt to change South Koreas constitution since its last revision in 1987 to limit presidents from keeping power through illicit means.

Opposition parties are expressing mixed reactions to the call for revision.  While many think a revision is in order, they have questioned the intent of the move.  In a press conference, opposition leader Choi Mi-ae demurred Park’s proposal, but vowed that her party would create a research panel on the amendment.  She also called for Park to stay out of the negotiations.  Many opposition leaders criticized Park for calling for the revision as well, as Park has been in the middle of a scandal which has caused her approval ratings to dip to 25%, the lowest they have been since she took office.  Chief spokesman of the Democratic Party of Korea Youn Kwan-suk told reporters that her pushing of the issue is “highly suspicious, especially if it is to cover up the corruption scandals involving her confidants.”  Representative Son Kum-ju, Chief Spokesman of the Minor opposition party, called the timing all wrong, saying anyone would question her motives.  Despite this, many see a constitutional revision as necessary.

The Saenuri Party has heralded the call.  Party floor leader Representative Chung Jin-suk said “Park’s proposal came out of a shared concern that the current constitution cannot promote the future of the country.”  Lee Jung-hyun, Saenuri Party Chairman, said “we should view the constitutional revision separately from national from political issues,” calling it a “national agenda item.”  The stark division this has caused is nothing new; the parties recently clashed over the deployment of THAAD.  It is this division which the constitutional reform looks to fix, as a change of term limits or power structure of the president would give the government more time to bridge the divide and enact more long-term policy.

Currently, the revision has not garnered any real ideas.  The Korea Times reports that the best idea is to implement a second term of four years.  Others view the semi-presidential system as a viable alternative to the current system.  Under this system, the president would control diplomacy, national defense, and other external policy while a prime minister would control domestic policy.  Kim Jae-won, President Park’s Senior Secretary for Political Affairs, noted that Park favored the addition of a second term, but also stressed that they are not considering any one option.  The one clear aspect is that President Park would be exempt from the reform and thus unable to run for reelection.

Economy – Hyundai Heavy won a bid to construct two 2,600 ton naval frigates for the Philippines.  The closed deal was worth 370 billion won ($322 million).  Each frigate is 107 meters long, has a max speed of 46 kilometers/hour, and is equipped with modern military technology.  Hyundai beat out competitors from France and Spain to become the preferred bidder in August, then closed the deal with the Philippine Defense Ministry on Monday.  The vessels will be delivered by 2020.

North Korea

North Korea’s airline, Air Koryo, now has a very limited scope of operations; its flights are only able to operate in China and Russia.  Air Koryo flew to Kuwait in August, but Kuwaiti authorities denied its ability to land.  In April, the carrier suspended its once a week flight linking Pyongyang to Bangkok, and the Pakistani Government told Voice of America that it would not issue a flight permit to Air Koryo.  International sanctions have choked Air Koryo’s scope of operations from 5 countries to 2.

Leadership Watch

On October 15, Kim Jung-un sent a letter of condolence to the crown prince of Thailand.  (Due to technical difficulties, unable to elaborate any more on this one).

Kim Jung-u visited the Ryugyong General Ophthalmic Hospital.  During a tour of the hospital, Kim noted the quality of construction of the hospital, saying its facade represents that of an ophthalmic hospital.  He took in the specifications of the hospital as well.  Kim also noted that the Munsu area has bloomed into a perfect hospital village, pleased to picture those enjoying the people enjoying the socialist medical system.

(All leadership watch stories are taken from KCNA, the official news agency of North Korea.  They should be treated as such and read with scrutiny.)