Archive for Korean Politics

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. If Saenuri deserved to lose, the NPAD deserved to lose even more. One suspects that this result will exacerbate its divisions. Good.

We may all give a bitter, half-hearted little cheer now, because at least President Park’s North Korea policy won’t have to triangulate even further toward vagueness and irrelevance. With the election safely behind her, she might even the confidence to tell us just what her big unification plan really means, or to scrap it if (as seems likely) it really doesn’t mean anything at all.

I had half-expected the North Koreans to test something threatening before this election. I suspect their talks with Japan and the effect of the Sewol Ferry sinking persuaded them not to change the subject just yet. I don’t know if the North Koreans will convince themselves that Park really lost or not, or how they would react to either conclusion. I suppose, in due course, they’ll provoke just because that’s their occupation.

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Update: Here’s something that’s really worth celebrating – Incheon Mayor Song Young-Gil won’t be around to blame his own country the next time North Korea shells his constituents. I’m always pleased, of course, when at least half the people of South Korea defy North Korea’s directives as to how they should vote.

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. It muzzled the press and tried to censor reporting critical of North Korea. Activists who protested visiting North Korean officials were followed by police, stopped and frisked, confined to their homes, or had pamphlets seized from them. The political output of the subsidized South Korean entertainment industry was almost monolithically anti-American and sympathetic to North Korea. Government officials reportedly demanded changes to the script of a play, written and produced by a North Korean refugee, and set in a North Korean concentration camp. It arrested activists who attempted to launch leaflet balloons into North Korea. A 2005 survey found that “[n]ineteen percent of [North Korean] escapees who had criticized the South Korean government, the North Korean regime, or Kim Jong Il … received a warning or threat by administration officials.”

Some of the censorship was vicarious or passive. The left-wing government gave financial subsidies to pro-North Korean unions and “civic groups” that engaged in violent protests against the U.S. military presence. In 2005, shortly after Radio Free North Korea began broadcasting, repeated anonymous threats forced its landlord to evict it from its leased space. (With the election of Lee Myung Bak, the end of the subsidies, and a sexual assault scandal, the KCTU’s street power waned.) As late as 2011, leftist union goons disrupted a North Korean human rights film festival in Seoul. There must be many cases of speech that was chilled by these tactics that we’ll never know about. Certainly it had an impact in shaping South Korean perceptions about North Koreans and reunification.

The consequence of this is that South Koreans, despite their physical and cultural proximity to North Korea, are almost a decade behind the rest of the world in their understanding of how most North Koreans really live. It has been a slow awakening, but since 2008, there has been a modest shift in how South Korean society views North Koreans. Cha In-Pyo was already a big star in South Korea that year, when he starred in “Crossing,” a story about a North Korean refugee and his son. The Chosun Ilbo produced “On the Border,” a brave and ground-breaking series of documentaries about North Korean refugees and smugglers, and how they were changing their homeland. The 2012 film “48Mportrayed the wretchedness of life inside North Korea and the brutality of its regime’s measures to prevent escape. Today, “On My Way to Meet You” is a popular variety show featuring fetching North Korean women who sometimes describe their lives in the North or comment on newsworthy events there. This is a change for the better, but with the latter exception, none of these works were popular or had a great cultural impact. More South Koreans still see North Koreans as a ravenous horde of ignorant bumpkins than as human beings and fellow Koreans.

A few die-hards still hold out on ideological islands of their own creation. One of these, Daegu University law professor Yoon Jae-man, recently tweeted, “I hate these North Korea defectors more than pro-Japanese groups. North Korean defectors, who once conspired to destroy liberal democracy, should be put to death just like France killed people who engaged with the Nazis.” Last year, former North Korean propaganda star Lim Soo-Kyung, now a Democratic Party lawmaker, unloaded a drunken tirade on a North Korean refugee in Seoul, saying that “[d]efectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly,” and “should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.” Referring to a fellow lawmaker and human rights activist, Lim said, “You work with that Ha Tae Kyung right, on that North Korean human rights stuff? Ha Tae Kyung that turncoat I’m going to kill him with my own bare hands.”  Lim isn’t part of any fringe party. She represents the “mainstream” Democratic Party (DP), which is now trying to present a more moderate image.

And lately, it seems that another North Korean spy is unmasked in the South every month.

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It was inevitable that shifts in the information landscape and public opinion would eventually force political changes, even in South Korea’s hyper-polarized and doctrinaire environment. The DP, the successor to Roh’s left-wing Uri Party, is now shifting toward the center to avoid being tagged as soft on North Korea. A few years ago, there would have been no need to worry about that.

The immediate catalyst for the shift was the announcement by politician Ahn Cheol-Soo that he’s forming a third party to compete in elections across South Korea. This has sown panic on the left. The Hankyoreh, its flagship newspaper, recently called the DP “pathetic,” and the DP leadership admits that it is “compet[ing] with Ahn in political innovation” as Ahn targets the DP’s base in Cheolla, emphasizing local autonomy rather than old-fashioned leftist ideology. Ahn flirted with running for mayor of Seoul — a position currently held by the DP — but later denied any interest in the job. More worrisome for the DP are recent polls suggesting that it is “surrendering second place to” Ahn’s party. If that is true, it is almost certainly a short-lived novelty reaction to a new brand. The real danger for the DP is that Ahn’s party will act as a spoiler against its candidates. That is forcing the DP, whose ranks still contain some extreme pro-North Korean ideologues, to back away from extreme views that, not so long ago, were dominant within the ranks of the old Uri Party.

Within weeks of Ahn’s announcement, the DP’s leader, Kim Han-Gill, promised to help create a North Korea policy based on “national unity.” A majority of DP lawmakers polled by the Joongang Ilbo agreed that “its North Korea policy should be upgraded to reflect the times and the changes in the public’s perspective.” Next, Kim did a photo op at a monument to service members killed by the North Koreans on Yeonpyeong. (By contrast, former President Roh Moo Hyun had downplayed remembrances of the six crewmen of the Chamsuri 457, who were killed in a 2002 naval battle with North Korea, to avoid offending North Korea’s sensibilities. This so angered the widow of one officer that she emigrated to the United States.)

Kim even committed his party to supporting a North Korea human rights law. The reversal seemed to end nine years of DP obstructionism, based on a fear of offending North Korea, of a bill that “seeks to improve human rights, political rights and the right to freedom” of North Koreans, and “includes the establishment of a special envoy (for North Korean human rights), a documents archive and a North Korean Human Rights Foundation.” The bill would also provide financial support to private human rights advocacy groups and groups helping North Korean defectors.

A few days later, however, the DP’s floor leader said that his party wasn’t really committing to any of that, it was committing to “supporting South-North cooperation and providing humanitarian aid” — in other words, cash for Kim Jong Un. Evidently, the DP’s hard-left wing had pushed back. GNP floor leader Hwang Woo-Yea, who had exerted himself heroically for this bill for years, responded that a human rights bill ought to be about promoting and improving human rights:

“A bill on North Korean human rights should literally be a bill for the improvement of North Korea’s human rights situation,” Hwang said. “The specific ways of supporting (North Korea) are contained in a separate law on supporting North Korea, so they should be handled by that law.” [Yonhap]

If the DP’s concession does nothing else, it will turn the national debate toward the question of why a human rights bill is necessary at all, and it shows which side of the debate has momentum. The ruling Grand National Party hopes to put the bill to a vote this month, but the two parties show no signs of agreeing on substance. If there is a vote, it will be divided, and it will give us a clearer idea of how much the DP’s rank-and-file has evolved.

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Part of the DP’s problem is that President Park projects competence. The economy is doing well, and the conservative press can make a credible case that Park has been effective in promoting Korea’s interests abroad, even if only in the largely symbolic contest against Japan. Park also showed toughness and effectiveness in negotiating with the North Koreans to reopen Kaesong (thus, successfully achieving a second dubious objective).

Another part of the left’s problem is that is has been damaged by the excesses of its extreme element. Lee Seok-Ki, a lawmaker for the far-left Unified Progressive Party, was recently stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested for leading a Fifth Column group called the “Revolutionary Organization” that plotted violent attacks against South Korean infrastructure, in support of a North Korean invasion — over a tapped phone line, with 130 people (including kids and drunks) in attendance.

In one of the meetings, which lasted till 2 a.m. on May 13 at a religious retreat in the South Korean capital, Seoul, Mr. Lee, 51, said war could be imminent on the divided Korean Peninsula and his followers should prepare themselves for a “revolution” against “the world’s most powerful American imperialists” and achieve “a new reunified fatherland,” according to the National Intelligence Service’s charges against him. At one point, he said the manual for making the pressure cooker bomb used in the Boston Marathon attack was available on the Internet. [....]

Another follower, Lee Sang-ho, suggested attacking South Korea’s communications, oil, train and other crucial facilities in case of war, the charges said. But Mr. Hong also called the idea of buying sniper rifles and using hacking skills to attack military radar facilities “outlandish.” [N.Y. Times]

Here is what one of Lee’s co-conspirators said in a recorded conversation that the prosecutors recently played in court:

“We have our support groups in the country. In an emergency, we must organize them in a timely manner … If we mobilize them to spark a protest just like the massive protests against mad cow disease [in 2008], it will damage the Park Geun-hye government,” he said. “Some important facilities are installed in U.S. garrisons. Not just army bases but radar installations or electric facilities. We need to amass [information about] them.” [Joongang Ilbo]

Prosecutors are now seeking a 20-year prison term for Lee. We haven’t heard the court’s verdict, but some “progressives” insist that Lee’s trial is a witch hunt to restore a right-wing dictatorship. I can believe a number of arguments that Park has an authoritarian streak, but not this one. The UPP had initially offered a dizzying range of explanations, including, “He was just joking.” Eventually, Lee settled on the minimally plausible story that he was really preparing to defend South Korea against an attack by the United States.

The UPP and the DP are two different parties, of course, but it isn’t completely unfair of voters to associate Lee’s ideology with a DP that still includes the likes of Lim Soo-Kyung. The DP’s Chairman, Kim Han-Gill, supported Lee’s arrest on charges of plotting a violent insurrection, but roughly two dozen of its members opposed it.

If the left wanted to make a more convincing argument that Park Geun-Hye is behaving like an authoritarian, it could criticize her for dissolving political parties, decertifying labor unions, or prosecuting people for praising North Korea. Park might be able to justify these actions if those groups — as opposed to certain individuals or factions within them — had conspired to commit violent acts or act as covert agents of a hostile foreign government, but that is not true of any of the cases I linked above. (Lee Seok-Ki’s pro-North Korean faction does not represent the entire UPP. One faction of the UPP holds views similar to European democratic socialists. To dissolve an entire political party because of the actions of some of its members is overbroad and authoritarian.) I was horrified when the Army shot a man for trying to defect to North Korea last September, although I appear to be the only one who felt this way.

You don’t have to sympathize with the targets of these actions to see that the government’s tactics will backfire, eventually. For now, South Korean voters care more about security and economics, and they’re weary of the left’s extreme ideology. It’s also clear that the left has lost its talent for dissent. Yes, it has offered some legitimate criticism of Park’s troubling attacks on freedom of speech and association, but it also squandered its credibility defending Lee Seok-Ki.

The point of which is, isn’t it sad that Korean governments find it so much easier to censor opposing views than to argue the issues on their merits?

(* President Park revived that proposal recently. I’m all for it, by the way. I don’t think Park Geun-Hye is interested in lowering South Korea’s defenses; I think she’s trying to triangulate for the voters, and a “peace park” would effectively become another border North Korea couldn’t seal, and a direct route for north-to-south defections. That’s why North Korea would never agree to this.)

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. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal (http://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr) to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

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I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

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%. Between 2002 and 2013, favorable views of China fell 20%, to 46% (up from the 2010 nadir of just 38%). Very few South Koreans see China’s growing military power as “a good thing.” About a quarter of South Koreans view China as an enemy, but that figure has hardly shifted since 2008, when it was first measured.

The results I had really hoped to show you come from a poll by the Asan Institute, which I’d picked up as a paper booklet at a conference last summer. The poll gave a detailed generational breakdown on South Korean attitudes toward the North, and showed that Koreans in their 20’s were the most conservative age group in two generations. That’s immensely relevant; unfortunately, I’ve managed to lose the pamphlet in one of my stacks of paper, and I can’t find the results online, so you’ll have to settle for the next best thing — this report from Asan’s Kim Jiyoon, which shows us the same image in lower resolution:

When examined by age group, there is an interesting but consistent tendency. The young generation of South Korea exhibits conservative attitudes toward national security issues. They are quite a different species from the young generation ten years ago. Conventionally, a conservative South Korean tends to be hostile and assertive toward North Korea and friendly toward the United States. Much like those who are in their sixties, a disproportionate number of the youngest generation of Korea chose to support the United States (64.8%) in the hypothetical match against North Korea. This is the second highest proportion following the oldest generation’s support 72.8 percent. The most ethnically bound generation was in their forties—the so-called 386 generation. 

Surprisingly, most of this shift occurred between 2007 and 2009. The trend was underway before the election of Barack Obama, the Cheonan Incident, the Yeonpyeong Incident, the killing of Park Wang-Ja and the closure of Kumgang, or any of the events Americans might be tempted to think catalyzed this trend. It’s more likely that a steady stream of evidence gradually undermined the grandiose and wishful unifictions of the Korean left. The incidents of 2010 were not the cause of the shift, but probably solidified it just as people were growing tired of Lee Myung Bak, and prepared to listen to criticism of his policies.

There is also evidence that the Yeonpyeong attack shook off many South Koreans’ disbelief that North Korea sank the CheonanThis report by the International Crisis group cites a poll showing that Yeonpyeong attack convinced 17.7% of South Koreans that North Korea sank the Cheonan.* It’s human nature to view evidence as self-affirming, and I suppose plenty more South Koreans who were at least willing to entertain Cheonan conspiracy theories before Yeonpyeong decided, after the event, that they knew all along that North Korea did it. And overwhelmingly, they wanted to hit North Korea back.

The data suggest a zero-sum ideological contest between North Korea and the United States. The good news is that the contest has shifted away from North Korea lately (I care much less whether it shifted toward us). The bad news is that the shift is more a withdrawal of interest, of investment, of hope, and of fear. It does not look forward to reunification and has no desire to hasten it. It is the grouchy hangover that follows intoxication. I have no quarrel with pragmatism; it’s the selective apathy I can’t stand. And young Koreans are as blindly nationalistic as their elders, despite their immersion in the global culture.

The rejection of appeasement in its most masochistic forms, in a favor of a more rational, interest-based calculus, should not be confused with a complete rejection of inter-Korean exchanges or dialogue. It especially should not be confused with affection for the United States, or for the young, libidinous, and occasionally drunken American soldiers gallivanting around Seoul, Pyongtaek, and Uibongbu.** What it means is that South Koreans think they need us, and that the Sunshine fad is over.

Later this week, I’ll examine how South Korea’s changed media environment may have contributed to these changes, and why, even if the Democratic Party wins the next elections, it will be on a far more moderate platform than that of its predecessor, the Uri Party. It all sort of fits together. Trust me.

~  ~  ~

This particular study also makes the mathematically impossible finding that 83.6% already believed that North Korea did it. The study concluded that South Koreas were moving to the left, but based this conclusion on a snapshot of public opinion during the second and third years of the Lee Administration, a point in the political cycle when voters usually grow disenchanted with the party in power. No wonder the study wrongly predicted a DP victory in the 2012 election.

** Except me, of course. I’m sure I was a lot nicer than the other drunken, libidinous young soldiers.

Update, Feb. 10:

Many thanks to Steven Denney for providing two links to studies relevant to this post. The headline is that ethno-nationalism is on the decline in Korea, but when I read the actual texts, I’m more inclined to think that the character of Korea’s ethno-nationalism has changed from generation to generation. Nationalism is no longer seen in explicitly political terms that militate union with the North. Instead, the younger generation invests its national pride in the South Korean nation, rather than in the Korean race. Says CSIS:

Koreans have begun to view themselves and their republic in a way that reflects political, social, and economic realities. Korea’s new nationalism is based less on 

ethnicity than previous strands of nationalism, views the state with an increasing level of confidence, and presumes that South Korea is on the rise in East Asia and the world. …

The 2013 data makes it clear that the South Korean public judges North Korea on its actions, with public opinion turning sharply against the North following tensions in early 2013. Of course, if North Korea can become a responsible neighbor, attitudes would improve. The question is if the North can achieve this before the youngest South Koreans decide that they, and their country, are better off seeing the Republic of Korea as a completely separate political and national entity. In 2012, while 11 percent of those in their 60s expressed no interest in reunification, 23 percent of those in their 20s stated the same. Notably, it was those in their 20s (60 percent) who were most in favor of reunification on South Koreans terms, indicating a less accepting and less tolerant attitude toward the North. …

The most important point to make is how sharply South Koreans in their 20s have broken in their views of North Korea with those in their 30s and 40s. In 2011 and 2012, those in their 20s were the least likely to identify the North Korea as “one of us.” Indeed, in 2012 this cohort was more likely to define the North as an enemy (24 percent). Following heightened inter-Korean tensions in the first quarter of 2013, the response “one of us” decreased by 9 percentage points.

I suppose if push came to shove, it would still be a case of “my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against the stranger.” And I would hesitate to conclude that we’re seeing the emergence of a post-racial Korea. Still, we’ve at least seen the decline of an explicitly political racism in South Korea, something that disgusted me enough to inspire the very creation of this site. That is good news, because political racism never ends well.

Young South Koreans were also more confident in their country than their elders, and more resolute in the face of North Korea provocations. I can’t help thinking that insecurity is often the root of nationalism in its most extreme forms.

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.

 

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.

Allow me to introduce Lim Su-Kyung, who in 1989, before it was routine for South Koreans to visit the North, defied the warnings of her own government to attend a youth festival in Pyongyang.  The North immediately made a propaganda superstar out of her, dubbed her the “flower of unification,” and even granted her an audience with Kim Il Sung.  Last April, Lim got herself elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the main left-wing opposition party, the Democratic United Party.

In Seoul recently, Baek Yo Sep, a 28 year-old a North Korean defector, university student, and human rights activist recognized Lim in a restaurant, where she was drinking with some advisors.  Baek asked Lim to pose for a picture, Lim agreed, and all seemed to be cordial until one of Lim’s advisors insisted on deleting the pictures.  Somehow, the soju set free Lim’s inner Mel Gibson, and showed us the worst of the Korean Left’s bigotry toward their oppressed brothers and sisters:

According to Baek [...] Lim made the comments to him on the 1st at a restaurant in Seoul, saying, “Defectors who have no roots should just shut their mouths and live quietly in the Republic of Korea. Defectors with no idea should not talk back to a Republic of Korea National Assembly lawmaker.”

[....]

In the process, Lim also heavily criticized Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae Kyung, who used to be a pro-North activist himself, saying, “You work with that Ha Tae Kyung right, on that North Korean human rights stuff? Ha Tae Kyung that turncoat I’m going to kill him with my own bare hands.”  [Daily NK]

Different papers offered different accounts of the incident, all of them ugly:

According to the North Korean student who happened to meet Representative Lim in a restaurant last Friday, Lim began to lash out at him when he told her that a waiter had deleted photos taken with Lim from his cell phone, as ordered by Lim’s aides. (See story on Page One.) Lim allegedly responded to the defector by saying, “You are doing the weird things, dubbed a fight for North Korean human rights, with Ha Tae-keung, right? Ha is a son of a bitch betrayer and I will kill him with my hand .?.?.” Ha is the president of Open Radio for North Korea, who became a lawmaker for the ruling Saenuri Party in the last April legislative election.

When the defector rebutted Lim’s violent language by saying, “Who betrayed whom? Do you mean Representative Ha and us, North Korean defectors, betrayed the murderer Kim Il Sung [founder of North Korea], whom you called ‘your father’?”

Lim reportedly kept shouting, “You stupid turncoats!”  [Joongang Ilbo]

Full disclosure:  Ha Tae-Kyung is a friend of mine.  Ha, a disaffected ex-leftist, was imprisoned by the old right-wing regime for possession of pro-North Korean literature.  He later became disgusted by North Korea’s human rights abuses and oppression, and by the willful blindness of his fellow leftists toward those abuses.  He became a human rights activist, founded Open News, which publishes clandestine reports from North Korea and broadcasts them back into North Korea, and was also recently elected to the National Assembly.

Baek quoted Lim as denouncing North Korean defectors as traitors and having “no roots.” She also vilified Rep. Ha Tae-kyung of the ruling Saenuri Party, who had once worked with Lim in the 1980s, as a traitor for his conversion to an anti-Pyongyang activist, Baek said.

Lim was also quoted as saying she will “kill the traitor (Ha) with my hands.”

[....]

As the traitor remarks drew strong criticism, Lim offered an apology Sunday, claiming in a statement that she was referring to only Ha as a traitor for joining the conservative ruling party, and that she never meant to describe defectors as such.

On Monday, Ha accused Lim of lying and demanded she sincerely apologize again.

“Rep. Lim holds hostility toward North Korean defectors and thinks of defectors as traitors,” Ha said. “But she said in the statement that she never called North Korean defectors traitors, but she said I am a traitor just because I joined the Saenuri Party, not because I engaged in a human rights movement helping defectors.”  [Yonhap]

Lim later apologized.  Her own party took no disciplinary action against her, although her party’s leader said that lawmakers should be more careful about what they say (as in keep their bigotry hidden from view lest it embarrass other politicians).

Oddly enough, Lim seems to have escaped the current scandal over two other alleged North Korean sympathizers in the National Assembly.  Unlike those other individuals, Lim appears to have been duly elected, and Lim is a member of a “mainstream” political party.

Maybe when Korea finally does unify, some sympathetic South American dictator will allow people like Lim Su-Kyung to live out their wretched lives in an isolated compound on some remote scrap of unused farmland.  Maybe Venezuela.

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. Read more

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). Like her father, I suspect that in her own way, she probably has a certain steely integrity. I suspect she would be a competent administrator. But does she have a vision for her nation? If she does, it’s one of the many things about Park Geun Hye that remains hidden within.

The man I’ve always thought could be a truly great president for South Korea is Governor Kim, who was an activist demanding democracy when demanding democracy meant doing time in the prisons of Ms. Park’s father. And Kim, in stark contrast to Park, has long been an uncompromising advocate for human rights for Koreans living under the iron heel of the Kim Dynasty. I’m glad he’s running, and I think he’s the candidate who is most likely to unify Korea. He’s a man that a libertarian conservative or a conscientious liberal can support without reservation. I wish he could win, but Park has been carefully preparing the battlefield for her presidential run for six years, and it shows in her strength. Her machine will roll right over him. I hope he’ll be back in 2018.

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. But it’s one thing for them to want to finance Kim Jong Il as part of a novel experiment, as long as they could still theorize plausibly that financing North Korea’s regime would moderate, reform, and transform it. It’s another thing for them to want to finance North Korea’s regime after events have conclusively refuted that theory, and after Kim Jong Il opened a low-intensity conflict that killed dozens of South Koreans, terrorized thousands more, and depopulated a small but highly strategic piece of South Korean territory. The Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of North Korea’s escalated provocations. Meanwhile, we’re still seeing constant reminders of the Sunshine Policy’s costly and failed legacy:

Hyundai Asan is suffering snowballing losses after tours to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea were halted in the wake of fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist in the resort. Park Wang-ja was shot dead by a North Korean soldier on July 11, 2008 and Hyundai Asan’s sales losses have accumulated to W390 billion (US$1=W1,058) over the three years, with staff dwindling from about 1,000 to just over 300, a spokesman said on Sunday. [Chosun Ilbo]

The idea behind Sunshine was to leverage South Korea’s financial advantage to buy influence in the North and thus transform its political system, but something like the opposite is closer to the truth. Plenty of South Korean money poured into the black hole of North Korea, but some South Koreans were so desperate to see results justifying that cost that North Korea ended up gaining more political influence in the South than vice versa. North Korea’s determination not to reform itself meant that even attempts to use sporting events to bridge political and cultural differences often widened them, and sometimes ended horribly for the North Koreans involved. We even saw North Koreans begin to impose their censorship on political expression on South Korean territory. North Korea’s own approach to sports has been, like everything else in North Korea, relentlessly political and defiant of the ways in which other human beings are expected to behave (possibly to include its doping rules). When it loses matches, North Korean coaches revert to unsportsmanlike excuses that their athletes were struck by lightning or poisoned by their hosts. After a decade of the Sunshine Policy, there’s more evidence that it changed South Korea’s political system than evidence that it changed the North’s.

And we can look forward to five years of that if Sohn Hak-Kyu becomes of the President of South Korea.

So how is Sohn’s theory still plausible to any thinking person? I can’t imagine that many of its supporters are attracted to it for logical reasons. Most people, regardless of intelligence, arrive at their conclusions for emotional reasons that resist evidence and logic. Their intelligence is mostly squandered on elaborate justifications for what they’ve already decided to believe. Plenty of intelligent people still do support Sunshine-like policies because they can’t see any better ideas and feel compelled to advocate for something, if only so that they appear to have answers. But on what basis can they still argue that it might work? What has North Korea done to deserve a piece of this action in any sense at all? And once again, why is North Korea allowed into the Olympics in any capacity whatsoever? After all, for years, the IOC didn’t let South Africa in, and as racist a place as South Africa was, at least they didn’t kill babies for being racially impure there. And we ought to remember that we object to racism because the basic presumption of equality is just one of many human rights. If the IOC has made the decision to stand for one such basic right, how can it justify holding an Olympic event in a place that does this to people?

The pendulum effect being what it is, I have a terrible feeling that someone like Sohn could actually win the next presidential election in South Korea. If so, I’ll probably regain my sense of urgency about getting American troops the hell out of South Korea. I suppose Sohn could be proposing this to appease the far left wing of his party. Sohn is a defector from the more conservative Grand National Party. He recently defeated the loser of the 2008 presidential election, Chung Dong-Young, as leader of the left-wing Democratic Party. Sohn isn’t from the Cheolla provinces, the DP’s base. It’s doubtful that he’ll be the DP’s presidential nominee without a challenge from within his own party, or from another left-wing party. In South Korean election years, the only thing you can rely on is that there will be frequent and dramatic shifts of party affiliation, nomenclature, and loyalty.

In the meantime, North Korea is changing — not because of any officially sanctioned cultural exchanges, joint ventures, or feel-good sports spectacles, but in 23 million small ways, and despite the regime’s desperation to stop that change. North Korea is changing anyway because even among the world’s most downtrodden people, there is an emerging market for the basic needs that the state refuses to provide, and also for knowledge, news, and entertainment from the greater world. Because of this, the metastasis of its political system is now probably too advanced for the Olympics to save:

A Chongjin source reported from North Hamgyeong province on June 26th, “People are copying and renting out South Korean dramas in Chongjin.” The source said that there are so many interested in the dramas that where previously they might gather in secret to watch them, now people are trading them as a business. The transaction method is comparable with video rental Stores in the South.

“Those trading in the CDs can’t do so legitimately and always have to be on the lookout for the authorities. But they are getting repeat customers from those who are addicted to the products,” said the source.

The CDs are produced in China and smuggled into North Korea in large quantities. In order to assure the success of the operation, it is essential for the traders to establish sound corrupt relationships with the security agencies. [Open News]

Even if the regime manages to forestall events like those in Syria and Libya for many more years, the next generation of propagandists and enforcers won’t believe in the system, and the inhibitions of the common people about hiding that disbelief are eroding steadily. There’s reason to hope that by 2018, North Korea will have undergone some dramatic change of government, or be in a state of such disarray that reality will hush this misbegotten idea.

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. Disturbing as it was not to see the DP hounded out of the political mainstream for its zany and frankly unpatriotic conduct, the DP did later take a beating in National Assembly elections, which are harder to write off as being the consequence of local issues.

ap1.jpg

["Whoa. It says 'Made in Kaesong.'" AP photo of DP leaders Sohn Hak-Kyu and "Comrade" Chung Dong-Young]

Oh, and did I mention that the good people of Yeonpyeong-Do are Mayor Song’s own constituents? It takes some poking around, but as it turns out, Yeonpyeong-Do is part of Ongjin County, which was merged into the municipality of Incheon in 1995.

afp1.jpg

ap2.jpg

[AFP, AP photos of legitimate military targets]

You really have to love a guy you can always count on to stick up for the people who got him where he is today. It’s times like this when I can only shake my head and wonder which Korean regime will collapse first. If the Pendulum Principle of Politics is correct, Song’s party will probably nominate South Korea’s next president. And when that person is actually elected — most likely while riding the wave of some incomprehensibly silly issue — we should really ask ourselves why we’re supposed to defend people who can’t even decide whether they should be defended.