Breaking News: Pence in Korea

American Vice President Mike Pence landed in Seoul on Sunday for a three-day visit. On Monday Pence will meet with Hwang Kyo-ahn, acting president of South Korea, and Chung Sye-kyun, current speaker of the National Assembly. On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Following his speech, Pence will depart for Japan (Yonhap).

Pence is the highest official in the Trump administration to make a trip to Korea, following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. North Korea is likely to be the topic of discussion, as Pence has to reinforce American interests in Korea, while also ameliorating fears that an American preemptive strike is likely. Pence most likely will push a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” According to reports by the Associated Press, “maximum pressure and engagement” is the policy the Trump administration settled on after a two-month review of North Korea policy (AP). Pence is also likely to push THAAD deployment to a shifting Korean political landscape.

The trip comes after a load of political headlines from North Korea ranging from missile tests, to parades and new missiles. Pence will have a difficult job, but not an insurmountable one.

(I will write a small piece on Pence’s trip to Korea later this week.)

Breaking News: North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly Convenes

(Image: Kim Jung-in holding up the Supreme People’s Assembly card. Source: Yahoo News)

North Korea opened a meeting of the Supreme Peole’s Assembly on April 11 (Yahoo News). The meeting comes at a time when North Korea is behaving belligerently, with many looking towards the outcomes for directions Pyongyang may pursue.

The docket remains unknown for now, though a few predictions can be made. Kim Jung-un will most likely make American aggression–THAAD deployment and deployment of Carl Vinson strike group–a key element of the meeting, using it to bolster support for the byungjin line–domestic nuclear and economic advancement. Other topics may include domestic shifts in economic production, political leadership, and/or political structure. Following with trends, Kim most likely will make a push for further scientific development in North Korea (CNBC).

In the past, the Supreme People’s Assembly has acted as a rubber stamp for the regime. Though the content of the meeting is unknown at the moment–I will write a more in depth post when the meeting is over–whatever Kim decides for the country is most likely to pass.

Daily Update–April 7

South Korea

Politics–The Democratic Party is going to look into suspected irregularities in the People’s Party primaries. On April 4, Ahn Cheol-soo clinched the parties nomination, securing 75% of the overall vote (Korea Times). However, the People’s Party is mired in controversy over how it conducted business for its Gwangju and Busan primaries, for which Democratic Party Chairwoman Choi Min-ae has said that the irregularities will be dealt with in an appropriate manner (Yonhap). The investigation comes as presidential hopefuls hit the campaign trail in the run-up to May’s election (KBS World).

Economy–The Bank of Korea noted that household debt has grown while disposable income has stagnated in Korea over the las five years. In a report to the National Assembly, the bank reported a debt to disposable income ratio of 169%, well over the OECD average of 129% (Korea Times). Korea, up to 2015, has seen its ratio rise while other nations, such as the United States and Germany saw ratio drops in that same time period. Debt has long been an issue in South Korea, and recently the National Assembly has heard several reports on household debt.

North Korea

North Korea will be the topic of discussion at the Xi-Trump meeting at Mar-a-Lago this week. During their two-day summit, Xi and Trump agreed to increase cooperation in order to push Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program (Yonhap). Enhanced cooperation between China and America on North Korea can lead to more moves similar to China cutting off coal imports. However, the extent of enhanced cooperation has yet to be determined and Rex Tillerson, American Secretary of State, said no package agreement had been reached (Yonhap). And with Trump’s recent brief of options for North Korea–see below–China may be more reluctant to support a more militaristic solution.

North Korea was also making waves in other meetings. The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution today condemning the recent North Korean missile launch (Nikki Asian Review). In a press statement, the UNSC reiterated “the need to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula” (UNSC Press Release, April 6). The European Union went a step further. A day after the most recent missile launch, the EU expanded its sanctions on North Korea by expanding the industries in which Europeans are barred from engaging in. The new sanctions also prohibited computer services to North Korean people or entities (KBS World). Despite these measures representing an expanded approach, they are by no means going to shift the status-quo.

And finally, after a recent chemical weapons attack in Syria, North Korea sent a message to Bassar al-Assad celebrating 70 years since the creation of the ruling Ba’ath Party (Yonhap). In his message, Kim extolled the Ba’ath Party’s role in the revolution, saying, “Today the Party is resolutely struggling to courageously shatter the vicious challenge and aggressive moves of the hostile forces at home and abroad and defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity under the leadership of Bashar Al-Assad” (Rodung Shinmun). The move highlights the cooperation between Syria and North Korea. North Korea is suspected of building a nuclear reactor in Syria which the Israeli Airforce destroyed in 2007. Syria and North Korea also have a long history of diplomatic and militaristic engagement (Bechtol p. 280)[1].

President Trump has detailed options for solving the North Korean issue, of which many options require military solutions to varying degrees. The assessment presented to the president included three main courses of action. The first was rebasing nuclear weapons in South Korea. The second includes decapitation of the Kim regime–killing off the senior officials and Kim Jong-un in hopes a new regime would manifest itself. And the final solution included using special forces, such as South Korea’s Spartan 3000, to covertly eliminate North Korean missile and nuclear sites (NBC News). These options have support and dissent in Washington and Seoul. With North Korea’s continued provocations, however, the approval rating of militaristic actions is continuing to rise.

Notes:

[1] Bechtol, Bruce, “North Korea and Syria: Partners in Destruction,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis vol. 27 no. 3, September 2015, pp. 277-292.

[2] Due to amount of North Korea stories on today’s update, there is no Culture update for South Korea.

Update: North Korea Fires Ballistic Missile into the Sea

north-korean-missiles(Image: A comparison of North Korea’s missiles and their ranges. Though not much is known of the KN-15, it is estimated to have a range of 1500 to 2000km, roughly the same as teh No-dong missile system. Source: CSIS Missile Threat)

North Korea is acting out only a day before President Trump meets at his Mar-a-Lago Resort with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Early on Wednesday morning, an unknown projectile was fired into the East Sea from Sinpo, North Hamgyeong Province (Yonhap). A few moments later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in South Korea confirmed that North Korea had indeed tested a missile, though refused to specify what the projectile was; it was merely reported that the projectile was not a piece of artillery (Yonhap).Overall, the test

Overall, the test appears to be a failure, as the missile did not fly for very long. After being launched at 6:42am, the missile was tracked until 6:51am. It reached a maximum altitude of 183km and flew around 60km before splashing down in the East Sea (Yonhap; Korea Times). The missile was later identified as the KN-15–also known as the Pukguksong-2–a nuclear capable, land-based variant of the KN-14 SLBM. Unlike previous KN-15 tests, however, this test was a missile powered by liquid fuel not solid (Chicago Tribune). However the international community spins the test, North Korea will have gained some valuable information to develop yet another missile to operability, making it more difficult to counter.

Responses to the test have been, for lack of better word, curious. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement which read, “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment” (Secretary of State’s Remarks). Ahn Cheol-soo, a contender in the 2017 South Korean presidential race responded by highlighting the importance of national security in South Korea (Chosun Ilbo*). So far, President Trump and other world leaders have yet to respond to the test.

Politically, the test will intensify the political parlay over North Korea between President Trump and Xi Jinping during their meeting. Trump has long advocated for a larger Chinese role in solving the North Korean issue, saying in a recent interview with the Financial Times that “China will either help us, or they won’t” (Financial Times). Trump has also accused China of not using its economic leverage to perturb Pyongyang into abandoning their programs. Economically, China accounts for the majority North Korean trade, and several Chinese companies have conducted business to the tune of $8 million with North Korea (Chosun Ilbo).

China, despite strong economic ties with North Korea, has been making moves to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including the suspension of North Korean coal imports for 2017. Many saw this move as placing the ball in America’s hands (The Economist). Wednesday’s test will heighten the tensions between Xi and Trump ahead of their Flordia meeting. Other items most likely to be covered will most likely include THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. THAAD is yet another issue which will be even more contentious following this test.

North Korea is behaving like a neglected child, constantly stirring trouble in order to steal the spotlight. Wednesday’s test offered the reclusive regime a way to ensure it would be at the top of the agenda for Trump and Xi.

Corrections:

April 10: Updated information of the test parameters, detailing the use of liquid fuel in the second paragraph. Added an additional source in paragraph 2.

Daily Update–March 29

South Korea

Politics- Today, Ex-president Park Geun-hye attended a hearing about the special prosecutors warrant for her arrest (Korea Herald). Park refused to answer questions from reporters as she entered the hearing. After completing its 70-day probe, the special prosecutor sought a warrant to arrest Park for charges of bribery, coercion and leaking classified documents, citing the possibility of destruction of evidence and graveness of alleged crimes. The bribery charge alone carries a possible sentence of 10 years (Korea Times). Park has denied all allegations brought against her. As of writing, Park remains in the hearing and this Korea Times article has a link to live video analyzing her remarks. The stream is in Korean.

5740(Photo:  Park showing up at Seoul Central District Court to attend the hearing over the arrest warrant against her. Source: Korea Times)

For your information: The Liberty Korea Party will announce its presidential candidate in two days.

Economy- Hyundai is working to create a dedicated platform for electric vehicles. Pushed by the introduction of Tesla Motors into the market, Hyundai and affiliate Kia Motors have been pursuing ways to make their electric cars more competitive in the market. Though this platform will not be completed in the near future, Kia and Hyundai are looking to roll out electric powered SUVs with a range of 186 miles per charge. Lee Ki-sang, a president at Hyundai Motors who heads Hyundai-Kia’s green car operations, hopes for the electric powered cars to account for 10% of total car sales by 2025, up from 1% today (NY Times).

Culture- A Russian trio has been arrested and charged with smuggling North Korean drugs into South Korea. The drugs were not illicit substances. The trio bought medications and health substances made by the North’s Pugang Pharmaceutic Co. in North Korea and airmailed them to South Korea through Russia. They sold them without a license, according to local police. The substances had a value of around 9 million won–$8,080 (Korea Herald). The import of North Korean goods without a license is a violation of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act which dictates strategy to deal with cooperation issues between the two Koreas (Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act).

North Korea

North Korean media has unleashed a vicious cycle of press against the United States, reacting to the military drills currently ongoing in South Korea. On March 29, KCNA published an article which threatened the use of a resolute preemptive strike in the face of American attack (KCNA; Yonhap)[1]. Another article argued that sanctions against the reclusive country are immoral (KCNA)[1]. And a final article rebuked an American State Department Official’s remark on a softer stance toward North Korea (KCNA)[2]. Each article contained a common theme: American Key-Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military drills in South Korea are immoral and a preemptive measure against North Korea. This style is not uncommon from North Korea and doesn’t really hint at any upcoming provocative actions from the regime.

In other North Korean news, a South Korean think tank reported that North Korea is estimated to have 1000 drones. Chung Ku-yoon, a research fellow at the Korean Institute for National Unification, said that Pyongyang is developing the drones to enhance spying techniques. Some fear the drones may be used in aerial terror attacks (Yonhap). This comes after South Korean Defense Minister instructed the troops not to hesitate if North Korea attacked (Yonhap).

Notes

[1] These sources are taken from North Korean media and linking to them is difficult. Also, please take any information presented from North Korean media with a grain of salt.

[2] Source is linked from KNCA Watch, a North Korean media aggregator run by NKNews. Again, please do not take any information from North Korean state media at face value.

 

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 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.