Category Archives: Korean Politics

Roh Moo Hyun’s ex-campaign manager just hates it when politicians exploit tragic isolated incidents

The good news is that Ambassador Mark Lippert has been released from the hospital, and is recovering well.

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[Joongang Ilbo]

Give the South Koreans credit for making lemonade from lemons — the news coverage here has been filled with images of well-wishers greeting Lippert, or expressing regret for the attack on him. The greetings look both staged and sincere,* but because of that reaction, most Americans will see Kim Ki-Jong as one small turd in a vast, sweet, fizzy bowl of gachi gapshida.

lippert 2

I’m not sure I quite agree with that image now, and I certainly wouldn’t have agreed with it nine years ago. In today’s environment, however, I’d guess that Kim’s actions, Lippert’s obvious gift for public diplomacy, and the imagery of the pro-American reaction will shift public opinion in a more anti-anti-American direction, at least until something shifts it back. But as we’ll also see in a moment, the reactions of other Koreans seem oddly conflicted.

Lippert’s assailant, Kim Ki-Jong, has been charged with attempted murder. The Men in Blue have established that Kim visited North Korea not six, not eight, but seven times between 1999 and 2007. Which does raise a rather obvious question:

“We are investigating whether there is any connection between the suspect’s visits to North Korea and the crime committed against the U.S.

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Can peer pressure do what South Korea’s conscience couldn’t?

Did the U.N. have to care about human rights in North Korea first for South Koreans to care, too? What is it about Michael Kirby that gives him the capacity to move the South Korean government that, say, Ban Ki Moon, Park Geun Hye, and Moon Jae In all lack? Assuming that anything can make a majority of South Koreans give a damn about North Koreans, what would that say about Korean society and its leaders?

South Korea’s unification minister appealed to lawmakers Wednesday to pass a bill on North Korea’s human rights abuse, citing the need for a legal basis for “systemic” efforts to address the problem.

The legislation, if adopted, would give a ray of hope to North Korean people, said Ryoo Kihl-jae, Seoul’s point man on Pyongyang.

“If the North Korea human rights bills are enacted through a compromise between the ruling and opposition parties, the government will draw up a basic plan to improve North Korea’s human rights conditions on the basis of that,” Ryoo said at a forum here on reunification.

The Park Geun-hye administration will also make concrete efforts in cooperation with civic groups in South Korea and the international community to deal with the matter, he added.

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South Korea’s illiberal left: authoritarians in the service of totalitarians

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. [Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19]

In America, we have grown accustomed to a political polarity in which we associate “left” with “liberal.” Whatever the merits of that correlation here, it’s useless to any understanding of politics in South Korea, where very few people on either side of the political spectrum can be described as liberal, and the only real candidate for that description — at the least the only candidate I can offer — is a member of the “right” Saenuri Party. For the most part, the Korean right has never overcome the authoritarian reputation Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan gave it, and the arrival of democracy did not mean the end of the old right’s use of an overbroad National Security Law to censor nonviolent speech that wiser men would have held up to ridicule and criticism instead.

Meanwhile, the Korean left seems to have dedicated itself to justifying the continued need for the National Security Law, and to making its own criticism of the NSL, however legitimate in isolation, seem hypocritical in the broader context.

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Are South Koreans always the last to learn facts about North Korea or

… does it just seem that way?

Years after Google Earth made North Korea’s gulags visible to any American with an internet connection, Daum is launching a Korean-language map service covering North Korea. It’s not clear what new information this will provide for English speakers, other than helping us with those pesky problems of spelling North Korean place names in English.

Separately, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission says “it plans to open a permanent exhibition hall on North Korea’s human rights conditions in an effort to raise public awareness about the issue.” That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the opening date is scheduled for 2017, which should give South Korean’s left-wing parties, whose human rights policy can be summarized as “die in place,” plenty of time to cut funding for it.

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Election result throws Korean left into chaos, me happy

Wow. This has to be really painful:

In Wednesday’s parliamentary by-elections, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party scored an thumping victory, winning 11 out of 15 seats and increasing its majority to 158 of 300 National Assembly seats. The major opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy, won in only 4 districts and now has 130 seats in parliament.

The most surprising result was a conservative win in the Jeolla region in the southwest of the country, a traditional staunch stronghold of left-of-center parties. Lee Jung-hyun, a close confidant of President Park Geun-hye, became only the second conservative politician in the country’s history to win a seat in the region. [Wall St. Journal, Jaeyeon Woo]

Not just Cheolla, but South Cheolla.

The results showed that the political agenda put forward by opposition lawmakers and moves to portray the elections as another referendum on the government’s handling of the ferry disaster didn’t resonate with many voters. The ruling party also did well in local elections last month.

Yoo Ki-hong, a spokesman for the NAPD, said that the party would accept the results “heavily and humbly.” Speculation has already begun that the party’s two leaders, Kim Han-gil and Ahn Chul-soo, may stand down.

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Park Geun Hye didn’t lose. That means she won. (updated)

Ruling parties are supposed to lose mid-term elections, especially when they look incompetent, uninspiring, visionless, and scandalous. I expected Park Geun Hye’s Saenuri Party to lose, and frankly, it deserved to. Despite all of this, it didn’t lose, which means it won.

Saenuri’s opposition was the New Politics Alliance for Democracy, formerly known as the Democratic Party, the Uri Party, the Millennium Democratic Party, and before that, Prince. It has not weathered Korea’s modest political realignment well. At the moment, it is split between a moderate faction, led by Ahn Cheol-Soo, which knows that the Sunshine era is over, and a hard-left faction composed of people who pleasure themselves to video of the fall of Saigon. It went into the election factionalized and disunited, with its hard left openly hostile to Ahn. Before the Sewol Ferry disaster, this split had hurt the NPAD’s approval rating.

None of this prevented the NPAD from effectively blocking a North Korean human rights law in the National Assembly. Thanks in part to the NPAD and its predecessors, South Koreans may know and care less about (and do less about) humanitarian conditions in North Korea than most Europeans or North Americans.

The NPAD found its voice over the Sewol Ferry sinking, and for the most part, that voice was crass, opportunistic, and exploitative.

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In South Korea, a political realignment

When President Park speaks of reunification as a “jackpot,” she is seizing an issue that the left had “owned” for at least a dozen years. Ten years ago, the left could draw crowds of candle-carrying thirty-somethings to swoon about reunification, at least in the abstract. The dream was qualified, complicated, and hopelessly unrealistic, but it intoxicated them. The DMZ would have become a “peace park,”* the disputed waters of the Yellow Sea would have become a “peace zone,” and both systems would have evolved toward some sort of neutral confederation. (What a long, strange trip!) In concrete terms, however, the Roh Administration wasn’t so eager for reunification. It certainly didn’t want North Korean people, thousands of whom had a far better grasp on the practical distinctions between the two systems. It didn’t even seem to want North Korea itself, except as a tourist or investment venue, and more generally as a money pit. Above all, it avoided challenging the North’s political system. And as I noted here, it’s all so 2003 now.

You could say that the confederation was already taking shape in some disturbing ways. Maybe the most disturbing was the Roh administration’s willingness to suppress speech that Pyongyang objected to.

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Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

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Post-Sunshine South Korea is sober, pragmatic, and grouchy.

In this post last week, I cited polling data showing how South Koreans’ views of North Korea have hardened in recent years, representing a dramatic swing since the fervent anti-Americanism and pro-appeasement sentiment of the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun years. I reckoned that the 2010 Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks were the tipping point in this shift, but a wealth of polling data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project changes my mind about this. I wish the data directly measured South Koreans’ views of North Korea, but they do measure other indicators that turn out to have a logical relationship to them.

In the decade between 2003 (the height of the anti-American wave) and 2013, the polls tell us that South Koreans’ views shifted steadily toward what we usually associate with “conservative” views — their opinion of the U.S. became 32% more favorable, unfavorable views of the U.S. fell 30% to just 20% in 2013, and 15% more South Koreans believed that the U.S. considers their country’s interests “a great deal” or “a fair amount” in making international policy decisions.

Between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of South Koreans viewing the U.S. as a “partner” as opposed to an “enemy” rose 18%, from just 51% to 69%.

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Best Graphics of the Week (So Far)

The first shows the persistence of regionalism, in living color.

Via Yonhap; hat tip to Step Haggard and Jaesung Ryu.

If I’m sitting in Pyongyang right now — and also, if I’m a malignant narcissist with a bloated army — I’m thinking the people who voted this way must be punished.  One sense of ill foreboding has been replaced by another.

The second graphic is a newer, higher resolution image of the Koreas at night.

Don’t stop there.  The full-resolution version is simply stunning.

So is it time for me to update my masthead image yet?  Things have hardly changed in nearly 20 years.  Aside from the fact that there are more lights on some parts of the Sea of Japan than on land in North Korea, it struck me that those fishermen in Chongjin sure do venture far out to sea at night.  It must take days to get there.  And even then, the lights on their boats are dimmer than those on the South Korean boats.

 

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Flower Indeed: Lim Su-Kyung and the Bigotry of the Korean Left

For several days, I’ve hoped to find time to write about the new hit TV show in South Korea, “Now on My Way to Meet You,” featuring (and humanizing!) photogenic North Korean women:

Each woman also entertains, some by singing and dancing. Others perform comedy skits, including several who mimic North Korea’s iconic, stern-faced female TV newsreader.

But the ending turns sad as the women send video messages to family members back in the North. Everyone in the studio sobs as one woman tells her father, held in a North Korean jail, how she can’t forget the way he smiled when she visited.    [….]

The emotional public response has taken them by surprise.  One guest, Shin Eun-ha, even has her own fan club.  “I wept for the first time in 10 years, along with my husband,” wrote one female viewer. Another said the show had persuaded her and her husband not to divorce.  [Reuters]

More here, video here.

I love this story on several levels (my wife also does a wicked impression of a North Korean anchorwoman).  So often, South Koreans perceive North Koreans in the way Europeans perceive Roma (aka Gypsies) — as feral vagabonds who can never quite be brought into their circles of trust, whether socially or economically.  The greatest barriers to reunification will be psychological  — mutual stereotyping, tribalism, and exploitation.  And when we see the views of some in Korea’s political left — including one who was elected to the South Korean National Assembly by a majority of one district’s voters — you get a sense of how difficult unification will be.

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Fifth Column Watch

I haven’t really had time to follow the story of the United Progressive Party as carefully as I’d have liked; South Koreans who are avowedly pro-North are a constant source of fascination to me. In South Korea, political parties break up, re-form, and re-brand every election season. During the most recent National Assembly election, the far left was represented by the UPP, which occupies approximately the same position as the former Democratic Labor Party.

The largest UPP faction is openly sympathetic to North Korea, and perhaps not surprisingly, that faction has a thuggish streak. For example, UPP Representative Kim Sun-dong, “who detonated a tear gas canister inside the National Assembly’s main chamber to protest the ratification of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement last November,” is a member of the pro-Pyongyang faction and wants to be his party’s Floor Leader. South Korea’s pro-North faction is numerically small, but has gained disproportionate influence within South Korea’s classrooms, labor unions, and society.

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See Kim Run!

1403680022.jpgIt’s very rare that an election in any country is anything but a choice between the lesser of two evils. For a brief moment at least, South Korea’s election will be an exception to that dreary rule, because Kim Moon Soo has said he will run for president. Years ago, before he was elected as Governor of Kyonggi Province, I profiled Kim here and here.

On Saturday morning, while conversing with my wife, I was lamenting that Park Geun Hye, despite her authoritarian baggage and tendencies, was probably the only candidate in the South Korean presidential race who would be a competent, stable, and tough leader. Not that Park’s authoritarian streak is that much worse than that of Lee Myung Bak — whom I’ve accused of inheriting the same fascist-influenced legacy as Park. (For that matter, the ex-human rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun, for whom the idea of human rights meant nothing as applied to those Koreans unfortunate enough to live north of the DMZ, was no defender of freedom of conscience in the South, either.) I admire Park’s poise and cool under fire, and I’m even old enough to think she’s still on the nearer side of dreamy (yes, my wife and I discussed that part, too).

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Sohn Hak-Kyu’s Olympic Folly

2011-04-19t091219z_01_sen202_rtridsp_0_korea-politics.jpgWhy did I shudder when I heard that South Korea had won the winter Olympics? Because I knew it was just a matter of time before some imbecile had an idea like this one:

Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said Monday the party would push for “some events at the 2018 Winter Olympics to be staged in North Korea.

He said he would also bring up the issue of forming a unified team with the North in future talks with the ruling Grand National Party and the government.

“We are seriously reviewing ways of involving the North in the hosting of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” Sohn said during a party supreme council meeting.

“We will make the PyeongChang Olympics the turning point in Korea’s divided history. [Korea Times]

I cannot believe this man actually believes what he just said. I can believe he believes that some of his potential voters believe what he just said, which saddens me. It certainly didn’t take long for North Korea to endorse this idea. They’re all about sponging off the neighbors they periodically attack.

If you take Sohn at his word, he’s still chasing the lost dream of bribing North Korea into being nice, making up, and joining hands, which seemed to be all the South Korean left stood for during the decade it held in power in South Korea.

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Mayor of Incheon Blames North Korean Shelling on Little Eichmanns Coming Home to Roost

song-young-gil.jpgI’ve often said that in the eyes of many “progressive” South Koreans, it’s just not physically possible for North Korea to do wrong, and Incheon Mayor Song Young-Gil has done much to confirm our worst fears. A day after the North Koreans shelled Yeonpyeong Island — which, by the way, is undisputed South Korean territory — Song tweeted out that the attack was provoked by South Korean military exercises.

Song also uploaded some pictures and said that North Korea shelled a market on Yeonpyeong because it was a South Korean intelligence facility a decade ago. Apparently, certain reactionary Netizens interpreted Song’s comments as a justification of North Korea’s decision to shell Yeonpyeong and its choice of targets.

You don’t say.

ap3.jpg

[It’s OK, ma’am, he had it coming. AP photo.]

Anyway, after Song’s tweet generated controversy, he deleted it. Flushed it down the memory hole. Trotskied it.

Song was elected just last June, in a mid-term election that came less than three months after the sinking of the Cheonan. The Democratic Party pretty much ran the tables in that race, which came not even three months after the North Koreans sank the Cheonan, and when DP politicians were already circulating insane conspiracy theories that blamed pretty much everyone but the party found responsible by a multi-national investigation.

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President Lee Leases Tokdo to Japan for 100 Years to Build Porn Studio

islands.jpgOh, wait — that’s not it. It was North Korea that actually leased two islands to China to build (what else?) casinos. Yes, casinos. File that one under “stuff Chinese people like.” It might also go under “stuff that North Korean money launderers like.”

The difference being, the islands of Hwan Geum Pyong and Ui Hwa Do actually consist of arable farmland. Not that North has any shortage of that, of course.

I eagerly await the Hankyoreh’s reaction and the impact on North Korea’s impeccable nationalist credentials.

Correction: The Global Times, a not-all-that-well-loved ChiCom broadsheet, citing the Hankook Ilbo, says the islands will be the site of a “free trade zone.” Hat tip, Chris.

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Did Lee Myung Bak Just Get His Mojo Back?

I’ve been meaning to write about the latest off-year election results in South Korea for the last several days. In what must be a welcome shift for Lee, unlike the June local and provincial elections, the ruling GNP scored what Yonhap called “a stunning victory over the opposition parties.”

In crucial by-elections gauging public sentiment toward the Lee Myung-bak administration midway through its term, the ruling Grand National Party yesterday scored precious victories in high-profile districts, making a successful political rebound from painful defeats in last month’s local elections.

Eight vacancies in the National Assembly were filled through yesterday’s elections, and victories of two advisers of President Lee were confirmed last night in Seoul and North Chungcheong, as well as two more victories in Incheon and South Chungcheong. [Joongang Ilbo]

The big race, in my wife’s home district, put Lee Jae-Oh back into the National Assembly.

The Democrats were clearly disappointed. Party officials’ faces became tense as the vote count progressed. Reflecting such a mood, DP Chairman Chung Sye-kyun only visited the party’s headquarters around 10:10 p.m. “I and the party’s leadership did our best,” Chung said. “We humbly accept the outcome.

It’s interesting to contrast the general lack of media interest in these results to the broadly reported consensus that the June local elections represented a “rebuke” by voters of Lee Myung Bak’s supposed “hard-line” policy toward North Korea (any reports of which are interpretive hallucinations).

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