Breaking News: South Korea’s New President

Exit polls are saying that Moon Jae-in has won South Korea’s 2017 election with around 41% of the overall vote. The National Election Commission is set to start counting votes and will offically announce a winner in the wee hours of the morning. Once announced the winner, Moon Jae-in will be automatically sworn in and begin his term as president (Korea Times).

Moon’s victory marks a major shift for Korea’s highest office; for the first time in a decade the liberal party has control of the Blue House and the National Assembly. (Will write a longer analysis this week to post.)

Breaking News: North Korea Threatens Intelligence Agencies

North Korea made an interesting threat on Friday. In a statement carried by KCNA, North Korea’s Ministry of State Security vowed a retaliatory strike on the Central Intelligence Agency, America’s foreign intelligence, and the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s intelligence agency (Yonhap).

“We will ferret out and mercilessly destroy the last of the terrorists,” the statement read. North Korea accuses the CIA and NIS of infiltrating North Pyongyang in an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un (KCNA).

The threats come days after CIA chief Mike Pomopeo made a surprise visit to Seoul. During his trip, Pompeo visited American military and diplomats in Seoul. He had no plans to visit any Blue House officials or candidates vying to replace Park (NY Times). Other officials who have made trips include Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.

*Written on iPhone will update with links to sources tonight.

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.)

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 9: Removal Complete

10impeachyes-02-master675(Image: Constitutional Court judges at the impeachment ruling on Friday. Source: NY Times)

On December 9, 2016, the National Assembly of South Korea voted to impeach the president with a 234-56 margin (Yonhap*). After passing the National Assembly, the motion moved to the Constitutional Court which, despite having some minor complicating factors, was given 180 days to render a verdict (NY Times). On Friday, after weeks of deliberations and hearings, the court decided to uphold the motion unanimously. In a 20 minute long decision, acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi said, “the negative effects of the president’s actions and their repercussions are grave, and the benefits to defending the Constitution by removing her from office are overwhelmingly large.”  Of the charges levied against Park, the court acknowledged the illegality of Park hiding the influence of Choi Soon-sil, but dismissed the other charges for lack of evidence (Yonhap). The decision ends a leadership crisis and brings South Koreans closer to being able to restore confidence in the highest office. However, the road ahead for South Koreans and Park will be a difficult one.[1]

Within 60 days of today’s ruling, South Korea will hold a presidential election to fill the seat now vacant. At the moment, it appears the opposition bloc will have a good chance of winning the election. In January, Moon Jae-in, according to a HanKoryeh poll, sat atop with 27.4% support (HanKoryeh). His numbers have only continued to climb. Most recently, a Realmeter poll showed Moon securing 36.1% support. Hwang Kyo-ahn, the current acting president, took second in the poll at around 14% (KBS World News). Ahn Hee-jong, once a contender, saw a major drop to 12.6% after he made comments which were favorable to presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, and called for a “grand coalition” to include the ruling Liberty Korea Party (Korea Times). Other major contenders included Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-myung–nicknamed Korea’s “Donald Trump”–at 10.5% and Ahn Cheol-su at 9.9% (KBS World News). Hwang Kyo-ahn, the only conservative to garner double-digit support, will have a tough road ahead as President Park’s scandal has left a bitter taste for conservative politicians in the eyes of the South Korean public.[2]

The campaign in South Korea is likely to be marked with very contentious topics, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, THAAD, and South Korea’s relations with China and the United States. Moon Jae-in has been fairly ambivalent in terms of laying out policy. Following Kim Jung-un’s New Years Address, Moon harshly criticized Pyongyang, saying, in a statement, that North Korea had no future if it tried to pursue economic and nuclear advancement (Korea Times). At other times, Moon has criticized the current policy of dealing with North Korea, arguing for engagement over sanctions (Reuters). Moon has been more ambivalent on the issue of THAAD deployment. In December of 2016, he called the push for THAAD deployment under the Park presidency inappropriate (Reuters). However, Moon suggested, in a January interview, that THAAD deployment would continue under his administration, calling only for a delay (NK News). Moon has also called for a more strategic balance in terms of Korea’s relationships with China and America. Other candidates echo similar policy ideals to Moon, though many have focused on the domestic issue of how the country should recover after Park’s scandal (NY Times).[3]

South Korea is in a tough and unprecedented political situation. Park’s impeachment has brought the ever contentious election cycle closer to occurring and will force many candidates to start focusing their efforts on the election. Her scandal created a rift between the conservative politicians and the public, making it all the more likely for opposition parties to take the election. However, there is one positive note to this ending. This marks the first time in South Korean history a leader was ousted for corruption by the people as well as the legislative and judicial branches of government peacefully. Kang Won-taek, a political scientist at Seoul National University, called the ruling “a new milestone in the strengthening and institutionalizing of democracy in South Korea” (NY Times). Though the election may prove to be contentious and testy, at least it will represent a growing democratic structure in South Korea.

Notes

[1] This post will deal with South Korea’s future and not on the impeachment motion itself. For a detailed examination of the final two years of Park’s presidency, please see “The People vs. President Park: An Analysis of the December 9 Impeachment Vote” written by me and posted a few days after the National Assembly vote.

[2] Polls offer wonderful insight into the political landscape of a country. After the American election, however, it is tough to fully predict the outcome of an election based only on polls. Either way, Korea’s 2017 election will be interesting to monitor.

[3] The cited NY Times article has a good briefer on the candidates at the time of the impeachment vote. I promise to make a more in-depth post on the different candidates before the election, focusing on their policy recommendations both international and domestic.

Breaking News: South Korean Court Upholds Park’s Impeachment

The Constitutional Court of South Korea presented the most high profile ruling of recent times. In an unprecedented move–though with reason enough–the court voted to uphold the motion, officially booting Park from the office of President of South Korea. The move will present the people of South Korea and President Park with a tough path ahead. For the people, an election will be held within 60 days, with many targeting May 9 as a potential election day. After months of turmoil, the opposition parties–People’s Party, Minjoo Party, etc–have a higher chance of taking the election, odds which may be bolstered by the recusal of Ban Ki-moon who was seen as capable of remolding the conservative faction. For Park, the decision means removal of the office’s protection and benefits. On one hand–by far the least of her worries–Park will not be able to get the benefits bequeathed to former presidents. More concerning for Park, the decision means she is no longer covered by the office of President and may face prosecution for her actions. I will post a more analytical coverage of the decision in tonight’s Daily Update.