Statement on Death of Otto Warmbier

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier with a teacher at his 2013 high school graduation where he graduated at salutatorian. Source: Washington Post)

Otto F. Warmbier, a 22-year-old honors student at the University of Virginia, was pronounced dead at 2:20pm today in the Cincinnati hospital he was at. The Daily Beast called Warmbier’s death a “state sanctioned murder” (Daily Beast). The Warmbier family released a statement regarding the death of their son. “Unfortunately the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible,” the statement read (Washington Post). Otto will be the face of bravery to the family who loved him and, sadly, a reminder of the brutality of the North Korean regime to the rest of us. We at The Korea Page would like to extend our most sorrowful condolences to the Warmbiers who have suffered more than any family in this world should have to suffer. Each author of The Korea Page has prepared our own words, which will be shared in the sections below.

Ben Zimmer

Otto Warmbier’s passing is a tragic end to a promising life. Otto was not only a promising student, he was a brave soul to travel into the world’s most brutal regime. It is tragic that Warmbier’s story ended the way that it did and I would like to send my deepest condolences to the Warmbier family throughout this toughest of times. In order to ensure that Otto’s story is never forgotten, I, to the best of my ability, will detail his entire story against the North Korean regime.

North Korea vs. Otto Warmbier: A Case of Murder

Otto Warmbier travelled to North Korea on a group tour sponsored by Young Pioneer Tours in January of 2016. During his tour, Warmbier appeared to have a wonderful time exploring the hermit regime. A video shows Warmbier throwing snowballs at the camera with North Korean children (Washington Post)[Warmbier is the fourth from the right in the video]. However, things took a turn for the worst as he was boarding a plane home.

While boarding a plane home, Warmbier was arrested under the guise that he entered the country with hostile intent. In state media, North Korea stated that Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster, accusing him of “perpetrating a hostile act,” though details of this hostile act were vague at the time (CBS). In a show trial in March of 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor (Yonhap). In his trail, the North Koreans used video allegedly showing Otto stealing the poster and convicted him of committing a hostile act at the behest of a church organization and the CIA to bring down the North Korean state (NY Times). Before his sentencing, Warmbier pleaded for his release. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said (Bustle). Video of the trail shows a distressed Warmbier crying as he pleads for his future.[1]

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier being escorted by authorities at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang. Source: NY Times)

During his time in captivity, Otto Warmbier slipped into a coma after, as North Korea alleged, contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, a claim refuted from the beginning by Warmbier’s father (NBC News). Hours after his release, Dr. Kanter, director of neurocritical care at the University of Cincinnati Health System, reported that Warmbier showed no signs of botulism, but rather had suffered a severe neurological injury and brain damage resulting from loss of oxygen (Korea Herald). Kanter called Warmbier’s state–inability to understand language, unresponsive to commands, lack of understanding surroundings–as an “unresponsive wakefulness (CNN). On June 19th, the Warmbier family released a statement saying their son had completed his journey home and passed away at 2:20pm (Washington Post). Following the news, President Trump condemned the brutality of the North Korean regime (The Hill).

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier being carried off the plane after landing in Ohio. Source: NY Times)

Otto’s story is one tragedy and loss. North Korea denied Warmbier consular visits and medical care while in custody. Information regarding his condition was closely guarded and Warmbier was released only when his life was at its end. End to end, his treatment is a gross human rights violation requiring a swift and strong response. The death of an American citizen at the hands of a state actor is repulsive and condemnable at all levels.

Young Pioneer Tours and The Future of Travel to North Korea

Young Pioneer Tours was established by Gareth Johnson in 2008 as a way to combine his love of travel with his interest in the people and culture of the DPRK (Young Pioneer Tours). The company prides itself on budget tours of North Korea, offering a wide range of travel packages and tours. Otto was on a New Year’s tour offered by the company when he was detained.

Upon his release, Young Pioneer Tours continued to claim that North Korea was one of the safest spots to travel to. Following Otto’s death, Young Pioneer Tours updated its North Korea FAQ. “Despite what you may hear, for most nationalities, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws,” the page now reads (Young Pioneer Tours). The company also reported its intent to cease taking American tourists citing a higher risk of detainment and death (NK News; Young Pioneer Tours). Even before Otto’s case, Young Pioneer Tours has allegedly put tourists in North Korea in danger; Gareth Johson is said to condone heavy drinking and sexual questions to North Korean women (NY Times).

Young Pioneer Tours handling of the situation was, at best, removed from the urgency of the situation. In a statement released following the detainment of Warmbier, Young Pioneer Tours bragged about their record of low arrests (Young Pioneer Tours Statement). Even following Warmbier’s return in a coma, Young Pioneer Tours called North Korea an extremely safe country for tourists (NY Times). Young Pioneer Tours handling of Otto’s case was negligent and also abhorrent. Instead of highlighting the grave situation Warmbier was in, the company languished on its resume and continued to promote tours to North Korea on a budget. Though not at fault, Young Pioneer Tours handling of the case is repulsive and worthy of criticism.

Politically, travel to North Korea by American citizens may be in jeopardy. In light of Otto’s case, President Trump, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is mulling the possibility of enacting travel restrictions to North Korea, maybe even an outright ban (NPR).

 

Notes:

[1] Full video of Otto Warmbier’s trail can be found at the Bustle source cited above.

Leon Newkirk

The denial of medical treatment to Otto Warmbier was a denial of his humanity. The actions of the North Korean officials echo a sentiment of a bygone era which may nations vowed to prevent from reoccurring in modern times. Warmbier’s case demonstrates the brutal mistreatment of foreigners and prisoners within North Korea. Human beings are human beings, not mere casualties in the conflicts among state governments. People easily become bargaining chips in an ever-polarizing world. We, as people, should keep in mind of the mental and emotional damage that inhumane treatment causes. Whether they fight on the frontlines or simply visit a country, everyone has a mother and father that cares deeply for them.

Warmbier’s conviction was the attempted theft of a propaganda poster from his hotel. Though a country has a right to enforce its own laws within its borders, North Korea’s conviction for what many would see as a simple prank speaks volumes. A sentencing of 15 years’ hard labor combined with severe beatings reveals excessive abuse of power, alludes to the secretive and cryptic nature of North Korea, the sheer harshness of capital and state punishment, and the extent to which the North Korean government will go to prevent pieces of truth from reaching the world. Otto’s case speaks volumes about the North Korean government, its laws and politics, and its officials.

 

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The People vs. President Park: An Analysis of the December 9 Impeachment Vote

Friday, December 9, 2016, was a historic day in South Korea.  President Park Geun-hye was confronted with a vote on the motion to impeach her in the national assembly, which resulted in a 234-56 vote in favor of impeachment.  This is now uncharted territory for the Korean government and people as the motion is now waiting a ruling from the constitutional court; this is the first impeachment process in which the president is directly involved in the scandal, meaning Park may be the first democratically elected president in South Korean history to be fully impeached.  In light of the Choi scandal, this move may be the only way for South Koreans to restore faith in Korea’s highest office, and the political system in general.  Due to this historic occasion, this entire post will be devoted to the impeachment.  The first section will outline the scandals cited in the motion, while the second will explore the future of South Korea, showing a possibility for each plausible ruling and outlining possible effects on other aspects of Korean politics and economy.

The Road to Impeachment: Park’s 2014-2016 Leadership Crisis

President Park Guen-hye has been wrapped in scandal for the past few months as South Koreans come to the streets in numbers not seen since the Democratization movement of the 1980s; two weeks ago (November 26), 1.5 million protested throughout the country and last weekend 1.7 million took to the streets  (New York Times; Voice of America).  Protests of this magnitude rocked Korea for six straight weekends as the National Assembly worked to bring Park face to face with an impeachment motion.  But what exactly caused the demise of Park?  The answer, though seemingly simple, is a tad complex and the impeachment motion placed several issues on the block for reasons to impeach Park (Yonhap).  Incidents cited in the motion included the Sewol tragedy and the current Choi scandal.  Both are detailed below.

Way before the current scandal started to unravel any legitimacy President Park retained through her last two years, another scandal shook the foundations of her presidency.  On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry capsized during a journey to Jeju Island as it carried mostly high school students.  Throughout the day, the death toll quickly rose; around 6:30pm local time, Yonhap ran a headline saying 292 had died in the incident (Yonhap).  The sinking and the following investigation revealed a web of corruption charges against the owner of the ferry and his family, and many of the crew were unable to escape scrutiny and, in some cases, even charges (BBC; Yonhap; Yonhap); however, the lack of action by President Park drew international criticism.  The ferry sank at 8:45am.  Park, however, did not show up on the site until 5:15pm.  (Author knows from personal experience that it takes around 5 hours maximum to travel across the southern half of the peninsula, and that includes a long stop to get food.)  These 7 hours are still shrouded in mystery, though Park did receive several briefings on the incident throughout the day (Korea Times).  It would take the current revelations to get some answers on the president’s whereabouts as the Sewol tragedy unfolded.  An article released in the HanKyoreh revealed that Park got her hair dressed for 90 minutes during that time period (HanKyoreh*).  Park’s staff quickly refuted the time, saying the hairdresser was only there for 20 minutes (Asia Correspondent; Yonhap).  This was not the only aspect which drew criticism, however.  During the rescue operations, several difficulties arose, including communication difficulties between agencies which made the rescue operation difficult (Korea Herald).  In response, Park dissolved the Korean Coast Guard (Reuters). This scandal shook President Park’s seeming infallibility as her approval ratings dipped below 40% for the first time (Korea Times).  The sinking brought Koreans – both grieving family and supporters – to Gwanghwamun Square in protest of the government’s actions on that fateful day (The Telegraph).  In May of 2015, protesters gathered to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, while also criticizing the lack of independence in the government’s investigation into the incident (Amnesty International).  Though the political fallout from this incident was not as damning as the current scandal, at the time, it started the downward spiral which would become Park’s final two years in office.[1][2]

Fast forward to 2016, and President Park becomes embroiled in the scandal which, in the end, was the final straw for the South Korean people.  It started in July when students, while protesting the opening of a night school for employees, demanded an investigation into the Choi scandal at an 86-day sit-in (Korea Times).  Four months later, JTBC started to run stories questioning the relationship between Park and Choi.  One of the earlier stories, released online October 26, called into question the influence Park and Choi had in terms of the Mir Foundation – one of Choi’s two foundations currently under investigation – and the possibility that Park had shared confidential documents with Choi (JTBC*).  Following these revelations, Park gave her first televised apology two days later.  During her speech, Park admitted that Choi had edited speeches during her 2012 campaign, and that she had shared some documents with Choi (Bloomberg).  The speech came after Park had called for a major constitutional revision which opposition lawmakers saw as creating a distraction from the allegations (The Korea Page).  On October 30, Choi returned to Korea and was subsequently arrested on November 3, charged with influence peddling and abuse of power (Choson Ilbo; AlJezzera; New York Times).  The charges reflected the situation, as Choi allegedly used her relationship with Park to force companies to donate to her two foundations (Korea Times); promote appointments of people to powerful positions within the government and private sectors (KBS); edited speeches for the president while also having access to a variety of classified material (JoongAng Daily); and even had influence in the diplomatic and political situations of the government despite not holding an official position in the Park administration (International Business Times).  The investigation continued through November.  And, on November 4, Park gave her second apology speech in which she outlined her relationship with Choi (Korea Times).  On November 20, prosecutors announced their desire to charge Park herself with collusion, though under the constitution she is unable to be tried while in office (The Guardian)[3]. On November 29, Park gave her third apology speech, delegating the shortening of her term over to the National Assembly.  South Koreans of all walks of life demurred her remarks, arguing that she step down on her own (Kyunghyang Shinmun). As the story continued to unravel, Park lost all of her legitimacy as the leader of the South Korean people.  Her overall approval ratings tanked quickly, eventually reaching 4%, an all-time low for any democratically elected president in South Korea (Reuters).  For six straight weeks, protestors lined the streets of Seoul, and throughout the country, calling for her resignation in record numbers; the final weekend before the vote – December 3 – 1.7 million people protested throughout the country (Voice of America).  It was this scandal which ultimately brought Park down, resulting in the impeachment vote on Friday. (For a good timeline of the scandal, see this Financial Times article.)[1]

These two scandals formed the basis of the impeachment motion which was introduced on December 3.  Before its introduction into the Assembly, Saenuri lawmakers advised the opposition to remove the reference to the Sewol tragedy and focus on the charges levied against the president by the prosector’s office (Sputnik).  The motion went to a full vote on December 9.  Around 4pm local time, Chung Sye-kyun announced the results of the vote: 234 in favor, 56 opposed, 2 abstaining, 7 unaccounted (Yonhap*).  With the passage of the motion, Park is stripped of all powers and Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will be acting president.  As for the motion, the Constitutional Court will review it and has 180 days to render a verdict either upholding the motion or rescinding it.

A Web of Uncertainty: Post-Impeachment South Korea

For the foreseeable future, the Constitutional Court will be debating the motion, hearing from both sides, and then render a verdict to uphold or rescind it.  If they uphold the verdict, South Korea will enter a period with a political vacuum.  If rescinded, Park may be forced out office through resignation.  No matter what the court decides, South Korea will enter a period of unprecedented political turmoil which may spark a small economic recession, worry South Korean alliances, and provide North Korea with an opportune time to launch a provocation.

If the court rules in favor of this motion with a minimum of 6 votes, President Park will be formally removed from office and an election will be triggered within 60 days of the ruling to fill the vacuum left by the impeachment motion.  Until the election, Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will remain acting president.  As for who will win the election, at the moment it is tough to decipher.  But there are a few front runners who may throw their hat into the presidential ring.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon currently holds the top spot among prospective candidates.  In September, Yonhap reported his ratings at 32.7%, almost double his closest competitor (Yonhap).  Ban is a conservative and has thought of joining the ruling party if he decides to run.  In an article, a staff reporter at the HanKyroeh ranked Ban against other top ruling perspective candidates (HanKyoreh).  However, the current scandal has soured the ruling party in Ban’s eyes; many experts have hinted that running on the ticket would be a bad idea (Korea Times; Reuters).  However, Ban’s possibilities may be hindered by the simple fact that he has been based in New York for a decade and has not run for office in South Korea (Reuters).  (Ban Ki-moon has yet to declare his intent to run.)  Ban’s closest competitor, former Minjoo Party leader Moon Jae-in, polled at 17.3% in the Yonhap article (Yonhap).  In 2012, Moon Jae-in ran an unsuccessful race against Park, winning only 48% of the vote (New York Times; Washington Post).  Currently, Moon is under heavy fire for his actions during a 2007 UN resolution vote.  In his memoir, ex-President Roh Moo-hyun’s Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, revealed that Moon Jae-in, then Roh’s chief of staff, backed a resolution to seek advice from North Korea regarding the vote (Korea Times).  If elected, Moon Jae-in may also seek to reverse the policy of trustpolitik – Park’s North Korea policy – favoring a Sunshine 2.0.  Other opposition candidates also have major baggage coming with them; another presidential hopeful, Park Won-soon, heads a party which was against a North Korean human rights legislation and also hinted at justifying the sinking of the Cheonnan (One Free Korea).  The political landscape of Korea following the ousting of Park is a very murky one.  No party has backed a candidate yet, though many hopefuls are working to place themselves in the public eye.  If the election comes sooner rather than later, the opposition will have a chance in winning, since the Saenuri party will have to rebrand and distance itself from Park.  This may take a while to do effectively.

However, if the court decides to rescind the motion, or fails to come to a super majority in favor in upholding the decision, Park’s powers as the president will be reinstated.  If this result comes to fruition, the public may express outrage against the Constitutional Court.  President Park will also face yet another legitimacy crisis; she will have to govern a country which does not see her as a leader.  This is even more crucial as her approval rating inched up to 5% after the impeachment vote (Reuters).  She will have to quickly work to reassure the South Korean public that she has their best interest in mind if she wishes to stay in power.  A seeming impossibility after the Choi scandal.  The public, however, would be the least of concerns.  If placed back in power, Park will face a very strong opposition with a majority following the National Assembly elections in April 2016  (HanKyroeh).  Currently, the opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment of THAAD, a major milestone of the Park administration, releasing a statement saying “an administration impeached by the people cannot push forward with the project” (Korea Times).  The opposition may only grow more fervent in their demurring of Park’s policy ideas if her presidential powers are reinstated.  Facing such a difficult turmoil in implementing and creating policy, as well as growing unpopularity with the Korean people, the best strategy if the motion is rescinded is to resign.  With a resignation, Park will show her solidarity with the people, which may raise her approval ratings overall.

Impeachment motions in Korea have created a sense of economic uncertainty.  In 2004, during the impeachment proceedings of Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s economy grew by only 2.9%, compared with 6.9% growth the previous year (The Guardian).  The current motion, however, will have less an impact on the Korean economy in the near term.  Following the impeachment, South Korea’s KOSPI index shrank from 2031.7 to 2024.69.  However, since the impeachment, the KOSPI index has continued to rise (Bloomberg Markets).  Economic minister Yoo Il-ho ensured the Korean public that the impeachment vote will have a minimal effect on the Korean economy (Yonhap).  Other factors, however, may continue to hinder the economy of South Korea.  For example, the Samsung galaxy incident and shipbuilders are experiencing a downsizing (Bloomberg).  As it currently stands, the impeachment motion itself will have a minimal effect on the economy, which has endured shock due to political uncertainty.

South Korea also faces a strong political delay in both domestic and international politics.  The biggest domestic issue taking a back seat to the scandal is the textbook issue.  On November 28, South Korea’s Ministry of Education revealed the first draft of the controversial textbooks, featuring a wide array of edits (Yonhap).  The issue of state-authored history textbooks brought many to Seoul to protest the Park administration and, as of now, Hwang has done nothing to stop the publication of the textbooks – though one can understand why his mind may be elsewhere right now – and there is little to hint that a change will occur (Yonhap).  Internationally, THAAD and the future of the American-Korean alliance have also taken a back seat.  Korea has been unable to work with the American president-elect to ensure the alliance remains strong.  The deployment of THAAD also has an unclear future.  Opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment – see above paragraph – while General Brooks said there would be no delay in THAAD deployment on the peninsula (Yonhap).  As Hwang struggles to take on the burden of presidential power, there is little to hint at a change in the status-quo in the Korean political situation until a new leader is selected.  If the opposition party is placed in power, then, with a majority in the National Assembly and Presidential Office control, may work to overturn the more controversial aspects of Park’s policies.

Conclusions

South Korea is entering a point of uncertainty as it enters 2017.  Park had her leadership stymied by her relationship with a close friend, Choi Soon-sil, and South Korean political leadership has had to focus on restoring public faith in the highest office in the country.  This means major domestic issues, for example state-authored textbooks, and foreign policy issues, such as THAAD deployment and preparation for the new American president,  have taken a back seat as the resolution works its way through the legal structure.

The presidential election is the key aspect to determining South Korea’s future, though it is difficult to predict the outcome.  If the opposition parties are able to secure a victory, Park’s more controversial moves – textbooks, THAAD, closing Kaesong – may be up for reconsideration.  Also, the next presidential candidate will shoulder the burden of securing a strong alliance with the United States and the imcoming Trump administration.  Through the turbulence, South Korea’s political future is tough to predict.  Economically, however, South Korea seems to maintain the status-quo and will not face a serious slide in the aftermath of this election.  Park’s impeachment in light of the Choi revelations places Korea in a place of uncertainty as it enters 2017, and has stalled political advancement in both domestic and international arenas.  Hwang will have a difficult time maintaining the status-quo as impeachment runs through the court, but it appears he is taking this new responsibility on with stride.

Notes

*Source is in Korean

[1] There is a lot of nuance and information missing from my current analysis since I tried to write a short summary.  If you have a question or wish for me to elaborate on the points presented in this post, please post your question in the comments section and I shall elaborate to the best of my ability, with additional sources.

[2] Between these two scandals, in November 2015, Park introduced a policy for Korea to return to state-authored textbooks, which only multiplied public resentment of her following the Sewol sinking.

[3] Despite being impeached, Park is still the sitting president, barring a ruling from the Constitutional Court.  Once a South Korean president is impeached, they lose all political power such as appointing judges to courts, influencing and creating domestic and foreign policy.  But impeached presidents in Korea get to live in the Blue House and retain the title of president until the court rules on the motion.

(I apologize that some sections may be lacking in terms of clarity and analysis – I tried to write and get this up quickly.  Any questions may be addressed in the comments and I promise to clarify and also elaborate on anything missing in this post.  Also, I am able to answer any questions about the situation with more sources.)

Daily Update: December 6

Keeping my promise, this Daily Update will run a special analysis of the most recent news surrounding Park and Choi-gate. (All days are reported in South Korean time)

The Path to Resignation: Park’s Influence Scandal

President Park Guen-hye has been at the center of a massive influence-peddling scandal involving one of her closest confidants, Choi Soon-sil.  On Monday, and into Tuesday, the scandal claimed a wide set of victims as the investigation continues.  This will look at the events which took place on Monday and Tuesday, providing a little analysis into the situation.

Tuesday’s main event was a gathering of business leaders for a parliamentary probe.  In attendance was Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, CJ Group Chairman Sohn Kyoung-shik, Hyundai Chung Mong-koo, LG Group Chairman Koo Bon-moo, Hanhwa Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn, and Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho (Korea Herald).  18 lawmakers from each side of the aisle took turns asking the heads questions.  The hearing was the first time in 28 years that major conglomerate heads were summoned to a parliamentary investigation.  Many of the companies were summoned to discuss large donations made to two foundations established by Choi Soon-sil.

The hearing started at 10am and was broadcast on live television.  Many of the executives denied that Choi threatened compliance for donations.  Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong said, “President Park said if corporations support the development of culture and sports, it would be for the economy and tourism,” adding that he was embarrassed by the situation and was appearing with a heavy heart (Voice of America).  Lee then outlined concrete steps for Samsung’s future by promising to disband the Cooperate Strategy Office, a powerful aspect to Samsung Group set up by his grandfather, founding chairman Lee Byung-chul (Korea Times).  The other executives distanced themselves from Choi and her daughter, dressage athlete Chung Yoo-ra (Korea Times).  Despite the presence of other major business conglomerates, the probe focused mainly on Samsung, since investigations have shown the company received funding from the National Pension Service (NPS) [Yonhap].

Though an important step in the investigation, the hearing does not seem to have surfaced a “smoking gun” linking the companies directly to Choi.  Some companies even refused to comply with the demands of the Blue House and Choi.  CJ Entertainment Chairman Sohn Kyong-shik said the company rejected the idea to hire Cha Eun-taek as a visual director despite a push to do so by the Choi and the Blue House (Voice of America).  Even without a major revelation from this hearing, evidence of influence-peddling and abuse of power – a charge levied on Choi Soon-sil – still pervades the investigation and most likely will be a major point in the impeachment motion.

President Park, while the hearing was underway, met with Saenuri lawmakers to discuss her future and the future of the country, and contemplated holding a fourth press conference to outline her plan to resign in April (Korea Herald).  However, Saenuri Floor Leader Chung Jin-shik spoke at the Blue House.  The lawmaker indicated that Park would face impeachment.  Other Saenuri lawmakers also showed interest in the forward movement of the impeachment motion (Korea Herald).  This breaks with President Park’s previous speeches, which were seen mainly as a stall tactic.  The motion to impeach Park will go to a vote on Friday.  If passed, the motion would immediately suspend Park’s presidential powers while the Constitutional Court will have 180 days to render a verdict on the motion (New York Times; Washington Post).  If the motion passes, Park will become the first democratic president in South Korea to be impeached, and the second to face impeachment – Roh Moo-hyun faced impeachment in 2004, but the court deemed his violations to minor and rescinded the motion.  If Park’s impeachment is held up in the court, an emergency election will be triggered within 60 days.  If the impeachment motion passes, the opposition parties may have a greater chance of winning the election since the Saenuri Party will not have enough time to separate itself from Park (New York Times).

Finally, the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, dressage athlete Chung Yoo-ra, also faced harsh punishment.  On Friday, Ehwa University announced its decision to expel Chung and ban her re-admission into the university (Korea Times).  On Tuesday, Seoul’s Education Office announced it was formally canceling Chung’s high school diploma after an investigation of Sunhwa Arts School – the middle school Chung attended – and Chungdam High School revealed she was granted preferential treatment throughout the school year (Korea Herald); Chung had missed 141 days of her senior year – South Korean law regulates that a student must attend 129 of 193 days to graduate.  The office said it will change her admission record to reflect her actual admission record and was rescinding any awards she won (Korea Herald).  These two decisions will leave Chung, at 19 years old, with only a middle school diploma and no entrance into college.

A second hearing is being held on Wednesday, in attendance were top aides of Park and other officials who have been indicted during the scandal.  Choi Soon-sil, however, was not present at the hearing and had previously cited health concerns for her lack of participation in the parliamentary motions of the investigation (Korea Herald).  Unlike the first hearing, the second may reveal more information relating to Park’s involvement in the case.  At the time of writing, the second parliamentary hearing is in session.

The scandal has mired South Korean politics on a domestic and international level.  Park has lost any and all credibility and legitimization as a leader, limiting her influence in any aspect of policy. Domestic intentions are set on recovering the highest office in the Korea, while other issues go under the radar.  For example, a draft of the state-authored history textbooks for middle and high schoolers were revealed on Monday and on Tuesday a South Korean appeals court held up the decision to reject a gay couple’s appeal over same-sex marriage (Joogang Daily; Yonhap).  The state textbooks drew controversy in November of 2015 and will be in use by students in March of 2017.  On the international level, the lack of a presidential authority has made preparing for a Trump presidency very difficult; Park has only had one phone call with Trump, while Shinzo Abe was able to hop on a plane and met with the president-elect of the United States in his New York tower.  It also hinders any chance for South Korea to react in the case of a North Korean provocation.  The final foreign policy success for Park will be the passing of an intelligence sharing pact with Japan to counter North Korea.  South Korea will only continue to be politically stalled for as long as the scandal drags out and it appears Park is willing to fight till the bitter demise of her administration.

THAAD and the Korean Peninsula

This year, THAAD deployment in South Korea has been a hotly debated topic throughout the Korean peninsula and, in greater scope, throughout the entire world.  Debates over THAAD deployment have shaken the political landscape of South Korea.  North Korea, China, Russia, and the United States have also expressed strong opinions on the deployment.  This post will examine the debate of THAAD deployment in South Korea, looking into what THAAD is capable of while also looking deeply into how THAAD deployment has been debated by the international community.  It will conclude with some final remarks of my own on THAAD deployment.

What Is THAAD?  Is North Korea a threat?

THAAD, or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, is a modern missile defense system.  It is a land-based system which uses hit-to-kill technology – kinetic energy destroys the warhead in the air – to mitigate the effect of enemy weapons before they hit the ground (MDA Factsheet).  THAAD consists of four major components; a highly mobile truck-based launcher with 8 interceptors per launcher; the largest x-band radar in the world; and communications to link the system to the entire BDMS.  THAAD has an effective range of 200km, with a maximum effective altitude of 150km, which makes it more promising than any other South Korean missile currently deployed or under development (South Korea Needs THAAD: Klinger).  In theory, the deployment of THAAD in South Korea would work to enhance South Korea’s defense against North Korean provocations and, in the case of an all out resumption of the Korean War, it would defend South Korea against the variety of missiles North Korea launches.

In order to appropriately assess the effectiveness of THAAD in South Korea, one must examine the threat of North Korea.  Throughout the 21st century, the North Korean threat has constantly evolved as North Korea has worked to procure more advanced military hardware.  The nuclear and missile programs have long produced debate and fear in the region and beyond.  But how has the North Korean threat evolved to the point where THAAD is seen as necessary?

In 2006, North Korea became the first and only nation to conduct a nuclear test in the 21st century.  Pyongyang then followed with two more tests, one in 2009 and 2013.  Following its 2013 test, North Korea, in a letter sent to the United Nations, claimed it had the capability to precisely strike “bases of aggression… no matter where they are in the world” (UN Doc.S/2013/91: Dated 13 February 2013).  In January 2016, North Korea tested its fourth nuclear weapon.  So far, 2016 has seen a large push for advancement in the nuclear realm.  Two hours after testing, Kim Jung-un claimed North Korea had tested a “hydrogen bomb of justice” (Yonhap).  Kim has also pushed for miniaturizing nuclear warheads throughout the year; in March of this year, Kim posed for a photo-op with a mini-warhead (The Sun). North Korea further cemented its nuclear push during the 7th Worker’s Party Congress in May when Kim heralded the program as a path to dignity and security (NY Times).  The evolution of North Korea’s nuclear program forces those in the region to pursue effective measures to ensure their security.*

Another cause for concern is North Korea’s missile program.  Pyongyang started to acquire missile technology in the 1960s when it received several surface-to-ship missiles from the Soviet Union (Nuclear Threat Initiative).  North Korea continued to expand its program by reverse engineering Soviet scud missiles.  During the 1980s,  North Korea tested the Hwansong-5 scud type missile, securing Iranian financial support.  The Hwansong entered serial production in the mid-1980s.  Around the same time, North Korea started development of a missile which would become a prominent fixture of North Korea’s program (Nuclear Threat Initiative).

Between 1987-1988 and 1990, Nodong technology was transferred to North Korea from the Soviet Union.  The Nodong missile has a range of 1300-1600km and is capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead.  It has a road range of 550km (Global Security).  Nodong missiles were first detected on the launch pad at Musudan-ri Missile Testing Site in May of 1990, though subsequent imagery revealed a failed test had likely occurred (Nuclear Threat Initiative).  However, the Nodong continued to be tested, culminating in its first successful test in 1993 (Cha: 2013, p.224+).  The Nodong missile has been continually upgraded and tested since, with its most recent test occurring in September of this year (Yonhap).  Though the Nodong missile has been tested and refined over the years, North Korea has also devoted time to a variety of missile systems, such as the Musudan; the Musudan has been tested 8 times in 2016, though most of those tests have resulted in failure (International Business Times).

One of the main goals of the North Korean missile program is to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which is operational.  Currently, Kim has the KN-08 and KN-14 models at his disposal, revealed in 2012 and 2015 respectively (38North; Washington Free Beacon).  The KN-08 is a three-stage rocket, with the possibility to hit the American mainland with a nuclear warhead, according to Admiral Bill Gortney, the head of NORAD (Global SecurityBusiness Insider).  As of writing, the KN series of missiles has yet to have a flight test.  However, North Korea has conducted a series of ground tests of rocket engines which may be used in the KN-08 missile.  Many also thought that the launching of the Unha missile in February of 2016 also gave North Korea information related to the creation of an operational ICBM (New York Times).  Some even feared that  April tests of Musudan medium-range ballistic missiles, despite being stated as a failure, contributed information to the creation of a North Korean ICBM (38North).

2016 has also seen the rapid development of North Korean Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles.  In December of 2015, North Korea tested its SLBM technology, but the test was a failure.  The missile was also fired from a submerged barge, rather than an actual submarine (38North).  In April, North Korea conducted its first SLBM test 2016 which was also a failure (38North).  Another failure followed in July as a protest to the announcement of THAAD deployment in South Korea (Yonhap; CNN).  Many experts argued the program to be nascent and wrote off a successful test of the KN-11 for at least a couple of years; John Schilling is quoted saying it “will likely require several years to deliver an operational system” (38North).  Despite such thinking, North Korea was able to successfully test an SLBM on August 25, 2016; the missile flew 500km before landing in the Sea of Japan (East Sea), according to reports (BBCReuters).  Despite its rapid progress, North Korea’s SLBM program still has a long road ahead.  With only one successful test, and only one submarine capable of carrying the system, it will take time before North Korea is able to strike fear all over the world with its SLBMs.  However, with its rapid advancement, this program may only need a couple of years to fully develop, a scary thought for the world.

Though nascent, North Korea’s devotion to developing a diverse set of operable nuclear weapons and missiles is a grave security threat to the entire world.  The deployment of THAAD in South Korea does work to add a layer a defense against these programs, though it alone may not offer a perfect defense system.  Therefore, South Korea and the United States must look beyond the deployment of THAAD to ensure that a robust, capable defense system is in place to defend against the threat of North Korea.

The Politics of Deployment

THAAD deployment opened a highly contested political rift in South Korea.  The ruling Saenuri Party, on August 30, officially adopted a favorable opinion to THAAD deployment as a part of its party platform (Yonhap) and has made several calls for bipartisan support for the missile defense system.  Minjoo Party – South Korea’s main opposition party – leadership, however, has put forth differing opinions.  In July, Party Spokesman Lee Jae-joong came out strongly against THAAD deployment, saying “we are very disappointed by the presidential office that makes such a dogmatic and hasty decision.”  At the same time, interim Minjoo Party Chief Kim Jong-in supported THAAD deployment (Donga Ilbo).  In late August, the Minjoo Party elected long time THAAD opponent Choe Min-ae as Chief.  Since taking the position, Choe has vowed to give the party a clear position on the issue and make opposition to THAAD a part of the Minjoo Party platform (Chosun Ilbo).  South Korean domestic politics have been polarized on the issue of THAAD as it prepares for a presidential election in December next year.

South Korea’s political institutions were not the only places where strong opinions on the THAAD issue were expressed.  South Korean citizens also expressed outrage.  Protestors in Seongju country, where the battery is to be deployed, even shaved their heads to highlight the possible environmental effects of the battery (BBC).  Protestors also raised fears that the presence of THAAD would make the region a target for strikes if hostilities broke out on the peninsula (Voice of America).  This trend, however, is reversing as North Korea continues down a provocative path; on September 19, ten days after North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, The Korea Times reported that South Korea’s second largest opposition party – the People’s Party – is showing signs of withdrawing its opposition to THAAD.  And in an MBC public poll, 65.1 percent of respondents supported the deployment of THAAD (Korea Times), up from around 50 percent in July (Sputnik).

Two days after the announcement of THAAD deployment, North Korea launched an SLBM into the East Sea.  The test was a failure, though it was quickly deemed a protest to the deployment of THAAD (CNN).  Obviously, North Korea would oppose the deployment of THAAD.  To North Korean leaders, in particular Kim Jung-un, THAAD represents a shift toward American supremacy on the peninsula, thus shifting the status-quo away from a favorable situation for the isolated regime.  THAAD also represents a growing presence of advanced American military weaponry in Korea, thus threatening the legitimacy of the North Korean defense systems.  However, North Korea’s recent provocations may have a more subtle intent.  Pyongyang may be gaming the system with provocative behavior to hasten the deployment of THAAD in Korea as a way to weaken Sino-ROK relations (KINU Online Series, July 15, 2016).   North Korea would then take advantage of a weakening Sino-ROK relationship in order to repair its own relationship with China.  Though it is difficult to really piece together North Korea’s true intentions, one thing is clearly obvious: Pyongyang’s action have only worked to isolate the regime even further from the international community and global financial system.  (For a more updated version of this argument, see this CNBC article.)

Throughout the entire THAAD debate, China has expressed its opposition to the defense system.  In a question and answer session, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kwang said, “deployment of THAAD will in no way help achieve peace and stability of the Peninsula,” vowing that China would take “corresponding measures to safeguard its interests” (Chinese Foreign Ministry).  Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement against the decision, urging the United States and South Korea to opt against “unwise actions that can do tragic and irremediable damage to the situation in Southeast Asia and beyond” (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs).  While China and Russia have been very adamant in their opposition to the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, their objections have had little effect; President Park has made recent trips to Russia and China about convincing the two nations that THAAD is essential in deterring North Korean provocations.  In a meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Park highlighted that THAAD would only be used to deter North Korea (Korea Herald).  Chinese and Russian opposition, though strong, will have little effect in reversing THAAD deployment in Korea.  If anything, THAAD may drive a wedge in Sino-US-ROK relations, resulting in stronger ties between North Korea and China.

Conclusions

THAAD will provide another level of defense for South Korea in the event of North Korean aggression.  However, with its current effective range of 200km, it will do little in terms of defending Seoul – the battery is being deployed 217km away.  Deployment has also polarized the international community.  So, is THAAD worth the fallout it is creating?

In order for South Korea to successfully address defense concerns, THAAD is a step in the right direction.  However, THAAD is not an end-all solution.  In order to effectively build a robust defense system, South Korea and the United States must look to update its current defense capabilities.  This would include ensuring personnel have access to the most up-to-date equipment and working to make missiles currently in South Korea more accurate and versatile.  THAAD should be viewed as a last resort defense mechanism, simply because a missile would have to fly past Seoul in order for it to be effective.

South Korea and the United States must do everything to ensure diplomatic damages to relations with China and Russia are minimized.  This would include ensuring China and Russia that THAAD will only be used in the case of North Korean provocation, and as a last resort at that.  This can be accomplished by establishing strict protocols for the usage of THAAD which would be approved by every nation in the region – America, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China.  Implementing this would ensure that China and Russia’s concerns are voiced and addressed, which could result in more multilateral support for THAAD deployment.

THAAD is a step in the right direction.  Ironing out the details, however, will prove a difficult task for the United States and South Korea.  In order to make THAAD deployment more successful, the United States and South Korea must work to ensure THAAD is a layer of defense which can be implemented with success into the current defense structure of the Korean peninsula, while also working to gain more international favorability of defense system.  In summary, THAAD is worth the political parlay, as long as work is done to ensure a minimization of damage in relations resulting from the deployment.

Notes

+Cha, Victor. The Impossible State: North Korea Past, Present, and Future.  New York: Harpers Collins, 2013.

Corrections and Updates:

November 22: While writing this piece, North Korea conducted its fifth and most powerful nuclear test, further highlighting the push for WMDs by Pyongyang.