Asia in Review Archive (2018)

South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

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4 December 2018

South Korea: Arrest warrants against ex Supreme Court judges filed

(dql) For the first time in South Korea’s history, arrest warrants have been filed against two former Supreme Court justices over allegations of their involvement in the ballooning power abuse case linked to the country’s top court and its leadership. [AiR 3/9/2018] Ko Young-han and Park Byong-dae are accused of working at the behest of then Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae to interfere in politically sensitive trials in order to court then President Park Geun-hye’s (2013-2017) approval of the establishment of a separate court of appeals, Yang’s personal project. [Korea Times]

With regards to one of these sensitive trials, prosecutors raided offices of two lawyers at the country’s top law firm Kim & Chang who are suspected of having helped Yang’s court in delaying proceedings in a compensation suit of Korean forced labor victims against Japanese companies in which the law firm represented the Japanese companies and which the Park administration appeared to have deemed as damaging South Korea’s relationship with Japan. [Korea Herald]

In a related development, the chief of the National Court Administration (NCA), the Supreme Court’s governing body, confirmed that an announcement by a judges’ council endorsing parliament’s push for impeachment of incumbent judges implicated in the power abuse scandal is not legally binding.  Representative judges from district courts demanded the impeachment of sitting judges implicated in the case. [Yonhap]

27 November 2018

South Korea: Parliament back to work

(dql) South Korea’s National Assembly returned to normal parliamentary business last week passing contentious economic bills after a weeklong impasse over partisan conflicts. [Yonhap] [AiR 3/11/2018] The impasse was overcome after the ruling Democratic Party (DP) agreed to meet the opposition’s demand to launch a parliamentary investigation into irregularities found in Seoul Metro’s hiring process which is controlled by the DP-ruled Seoul City Government while the opposition parties accepted DP’s proposal of increasing the number of members of budget review subcommittee from currently to 16 by raising the number allocated to the ruling party by one. [Korea Herald]

27 November 2018

China-South Korea: Talks on trade remedies

(dql) South Korea and China discussed ways to ease trade disputes and expand investment opportunities between the two countries at last week’s 18th bilateral trade remedy meeting in Beijing. Both sides also reviewed the implementation of the free trade agreement (FTA) which is focused on lowering tariffs on goods and has been in force since 2015. [Yonhap]

27 November 2018

South Korea: New anti North-Korea navy missile to be deployed in 2019

(dql) South Korean defense industry officials announced that South Korea is ready to deploy newly developed weapon systems next year, including ship-based guided interceptors aimed at countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. [Korea Herald]

27 November 2018

South Korean former police officer elected head of Interpol

(dql) Last week, Interpol elected 57-year-old South Korean Kim Jong-yang as its new president. Kim, previously a vice president of Interpol, is the first South Korean to head Interpol. He worked in the South Korean police for more than 20 years before retiring in 2015.

His contender Russian former major general in Russia’s interior ministry Alexander Prokopchuk was tipped to take the post but was opposed by Western politicians prompting Moscow’s accusation of interference in the electoral process of an international organization. While the Interpol chief has a largely ceremonial role, Prokopchuk’s election would have been considered a powerful win for Russia. [CNBC]

20 November 2018

South Korea: Parliamentary session put on halt

(dql) South Korea’s ruling coalition and opposition are locked in a stalemate over a number of controversial issues bringing parliamentary business to a halt. Among those issues are the President’s appointment of Environment Minister Cho Myung-rae with consent of the parliament, the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) plan to increase of the number of members of the budget review committee belonging to the DP from six to seven which would give the DP one more that the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, and the DP’s refusal to agree to a parliamentary probe into the hiring scandal of Seoul Metro Corporation which is under control of the DP-ruled Seoul City Government and which is accused of nepotism giving 100 workers permanent employment contracts through insider information provided by relatives already working there. [Korea Herald]

20 November 2018

South Korea: Former Supreme Court judge to face interrogation in judicial power abuse case

(dql) Air 5/10/18 reported on the ruling Democratic Party’s plan to establish a special court to rule a high-profile judicial power abuse case in which former chief justice of the Supreme Court Yang Sung-tae is accused of using rulings in politically sensitive trials in favor of the administration of former President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) to obtain her endorsement for Yang’s plan of setting up a second appeals court.

In the latest development, Ko Young-han, former Supreme Court justice and Head of the National Court Administration (NCA), the court’s administrative body, has been summoned for an interrogation later this week over allegations of his involvement in the case and of interfering in trials on Yang’s order. [Yonhap]

13 November 2018

South Korea: Opposition pressures government over President’s aid and Seoul city hiring scandal 

(dql) The main opposition Liberty Korea Party and the minor opposition Bareunmirae Party threatened to boycott cooperation with the ruling Democratic Party (DP) during the ongoing parliamentary session if their requests to dismiss President Moon’s top civil affairs aid and to launch a parliamentary investigation into a hiring scandal are not met by the President and the DP respectively.

Moon’s top aide for civil affairs Cho Kuk is accused of failing to properly vet the qualifications of Moon’s candidate for the post of the Minister of Environment prior to his nomination. In the hiring scandal the Seoul subway operator under the DP-ruled city government is accused of providing relatives of its employees gave unfair job favors to. [Korea Herald]

13 November 2018

South Korea: Anti-espionage intelligence-sharing center to be established

(dql) In a move to boost the country’s protection against foreign intelligence activities, the Moon administration approved a measure authorizing the creation of an anti-espionage intelligence-sharing center under the director of the National Intelligence Service with the justice ministry and the customs service as additionally designated counter-espionage bodies. [Yonhap]

13 November 2018

North Korea: Is Pyongyang continuing developing nuclear weapons?

(dql) Satellite images have identified more than a dozen undeclared North Korean missile operating bases, raising concerns about North Korea continuing to work on improving their missile technology and to develop nuclear weapons. The images contradict President Trump’s assertion that Pyongyang’s nuclear threat has been neutralized [New York Times] and also darken inter-Korean efforts to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula as the militaries of North and South Korea on Monday began to dismantle ten front-line guard posts on either side of the Demilitarized Zone after both sides withdraw troops and firearms earlier last week. [Yonhap]

6 November 2018

South Korea and USA resume military drills

(dql) Ahead of the meeting between US Secretary of State and his counterpart Kim Yong Chol this week, South Korea and the United States resumed their combined joint military exercises with a small scale two-weeks maritime drill participated by some 500 troops and involving military equipment such as assault amphibious vehicles. The joint exercises had been halted in June to back denuclearization talks with North Korea. [Yonhap]

In a related development, the larger Vigilant Ace exercise which involved 230 aircraft and tens of thousands of troops in 2017, was cancelled for this year during a meeting between Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis and his counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo in Singapore last week. It was scheduled for December. [CNN]

30 October 2018

South Korean party politics: Ruling and main opposition clash over set up of special court to rule Supreme Court judicial power abuse case, ratification of inter-Korean agreement, and presidential nominee

(dql) South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has fiercely rejected a bill, proposed by the ruling Democratic Party and three other minor opposition parties, to establish a special court to rule a high-profile judicial power abuse case in which former chief justice of the Supreme Court Yang Sung-tae is accused of using rulings in politically sensitive trials in favor of the administration of former President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) to obtain her endorsement for Yang’s plan of setting up a second appeals court. [Yonhap 1] The floor leader of the LKP whose votes are needed for the approval of the bill denounced DP’s move as political maneuver to drive a wedge between the opposition parties. [Korea Times 1]

In the latest development of the judicial power abuse case, Lim Jong-hun, former deputy head of the National Court Administration (NCA, the administrative affairs office of the Supreme Court), was arrested over allegations of providing former Chief Justice Yang with the NCA’s opinion on specific cases through written statements or phone calls to influence the rulings of the Supreme Court. [KBS]

Meanwhile, the LKP filed for an injunction with the Constitutional Court against President Moon’s ratification of the Pyongyang Declaration which he and North Korean leader Kim Jong signed during their summit in September, arguing that Moon failed to submit the Declaration to the parliament for approval, a necessary move in the eyes of the LKP as the Declaration would threaten South Korea’s war readiness and its alliance with the United States in the wake of the North’s continued nuclear threats and burden taxpayers. [Korea Times 2]

Prior to the injunction, LKP members of the parliament’s environment committee refused to adopt a confirmation hearing report for Cho Myung-rae, Moon’s nomination for the post of Environmental Minister, citing the nominee’s false registration of his home address to enroll his children into better schools and various gift tax evasion cases as well as lying about these wrongdoings during the confirmation hearing. However, under current law the President’s nomination cannot be rejected, only objection can be expressed. [Yonhap 2]

23 October 2018

South Korea: Seoul City Government under fire over nepotism case

(dql) Seoul City Government under Mayor Park Won-soon of the ruling Democratic Party has come under pressure over allegations of nepotism at Seoul Metro, the city-owned company. The opposition parties have announced to jointly submit a proposal for a parliamentary investigation after findings revealed that among close to 1.300 temporary employees who had been promoted to permanent workers more than 100 have family ties to workers who were already working at the company. [Korea Times]

23 October 2018

South Korea: New Constitutional Courts Justices appointed

(dql) Following parliamentary approval last week, President Moon Jae-in appointed three new Constitutional Courts Justices, ending a month-long vacancy due to the parliament’s failure to approve the nominees due partisan quarrel over the nominee’s qualification. [Yonhap] [Korea Herald]

23 October 2018

China-US trade dispute: Rising tensions at WTO

(dql) China along with the European Union (EU) have joint a group of countries requesting the World Trade Organization (WTO) to investigate the decision of the US government to impose metal tariffs on grounds of national security. The move reflects escalating disputes between China, the EU and the USA  at the WTO with each of them submitting complaints over new U.S. metals tariffs, the European response to those levies, and Chinese intellectual property practices paving the way for a major clash at the WTO. [Bloomberg 1]

In a related move to counter US trade protectionism,  heads of states and governments of all 28 EU states together with more than 20 Asian leaders including Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in issued a joint statement at last week’s Asia-Europe Summit in Brussels expressing their agreement on “the vital need of maintaining an open world economy and upholding the rules-based multilateral trading system, with the World Trade Organization at its core.” [Bloomberg 2]

16 October 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Demilitarization of Joint Security Area on the way?

(dql) The North and South Korean militaries and the US-led United Nations Command (UNC) held talks on the disarmament of the Joint Security Area (JSA), the part of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where North and South Korean forces stand face-to-face. The issues discussed included removing land mines, withdrawing firearms and guard posts and reducing the number of soldiers patrolling the area. Prior to these talks, Seoul and Pyongyang earlier this month had begun to remove landmines and explosives in the JSA following a military agreement between the two Koreas. [Korea Herald]

As the UNC which retains jurisdiction over the southern part of the JSA is led by the US, success and failure of the JSA disarmament will to a great extent depend on the progress of the denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. [Korea Times]

9 October 2018

South Korea: Former president sentenced to 15 years in jail

(dql) The Seoul Central District Court issued an 15 years in prison sentence against ex-President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) after finding him guilty of a series of corruption charges including abuse of power and embezzlement. [Yonhap]

In another high-profile criminal case, former national police chief Cho Hyun-oh was arrested on charges of masterminding cyber operations to manipulate online opinion involving more than 33,000 online comments posted by 1.500 police officers aimed to turn public opinion in favor of the government under Lee Myung-bak from 2010 to 2012. [UPI]

2 October 2018

South Korea: Political clash over state budget information leak threatens to bring parliamentary work to a halt

(dql) Parliamentary work is facing a possible halt as South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties are locked in an escalating clash over state budget information leaked. The presidential office and the Finance Ministry have filed charges against House of Representatives member Shim Jae-cheol of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and his aides accusing them of accessing and leaking confidential government data on the state budget. Shim, a member of the parliamentary strategy and finance committee, denies the allegations and claims his office had accessed and obtained the data via appropriate channels. [Korea Herald]

25 September 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Denuclearization back on track after Moon-Kim third summit

(dql/cc) The third summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put denuclearization back on track. In the Pyongyang Declaration both sides pledged to take additional steps toward denuclearization, including Pyongyang’s decision to  permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri engine test site and missile launchers in presence of experts from relevant countries and Kim’s pledge to  shut down the Yongbyon nuclear facility, North Korea’s major nuclear facility, but only in return for  “corresponding measures” on US side which he failed to specifiy. [Euronews]

A military agreement was also signed on the sidelines of the summit centering on the creation of   buffer zone to prevent cross-border hostilities. This includes the establishment of a “no-fly zone” inside the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the suspension of military drills near the DMZ and the disputed waters in the West Sea, as well as disarmament of the Joint Security Area. [Korea Herald]

In response to the Pyongyang Declaration, US Secretary of State Pompeo extended an invitation to his North Korean counterpart to meet in New York this week where both diplomats will be attending the UN general assembly signaling Washingtons readiness to resume stalled talks about nuclear disarmament. [The Guardian]

In a latest development, US President Donald Trump announced on Monday at the United Nations headquarters in New York where he was briefed by Moon on the results of the summit that a second meeting with Kim Jong-un is likely to take place “quite soon” with a similar format to the Singapore summit in June, albeit in a different location. [South China Morning Post]

For a critical assessment of the summit, see Ankit Panda in [The Diplomat] arguing that “North Korea’s disarmament remains a distant goal” and while “Moon’s efforts will prevent an immediate collapse of the U.S.-North Korea process, […] Pyongyang and Washington are no closer to forging an understanding on the fundamental questions that divide them.”


25 September 2018

South Korea: National Administration Court to be shut down

(cc) Following a power abuse scandal involving his predecessor, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Kim Myeong-su, ordered the shutdown of the National Administration Court, the agency in charge of the daily operation and general administrative duties of the judiciary, and the transfer of its functions to a separate committee. Kim‘s predecessor, Yang Sung-tae, is accused of having used the administrative organ of the judiciary for political purposes. The Supreme Court Chief Justice stated that he “will focus on structural changes that can do away with the court’s bureaucratic culture and non-transparent administrative arrangements”. This announcement takes place a week after Moon’s call for a self-reform of the judiciary to face “a crisis the judiciary branch has never faced before”. [The Korea Times]


18 September 2018

South Korea: Moon’s call for self-reform of the judiciary

(cc) On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of South Korea’s judicial system, President Moon urged the country‘s judiciary to undergo a critical self-reform in the face of “past wrongdoings” and to succeed in its  “task of winning back the people’s trust.” Moon‘s call on the judiciary comes at a time in which the prosecution is investigating allegations of collusion between the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and former Ex-President Park with the former using controversial and sensitive cases as bargaining chips in negotiations with the latter over his plan to establish a new court of appeals to reduce the caseload in the Supreme Court and to allowing the Supreme Court to take on more significant cases. To obtain the president’s support for his plan, he allegedly pressured judges to deliver favorable decisions.  [The Korea Herald] [Yonhap]

On Friday, as part of the investigation the office of a former presidential secretary has been raided. [Yonhap] The current Supreme Court Chief Justice, Kim Myeong-su, is also under scrutiny as prosecutors accuse him of obstructing justice for his “deliberate failure” to push for accountability of those involved in the judicial scandal. [The Korea Times]

18 September 2018

South Korea: Advancing maritime military capabilities

(dql) South Korea’s Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) announced the launch of the first of nine indigenously built KSS-III diesel-electric submarines.  KSS III submarines are the first boats in the South Korean Navy having the capability to vertically launch ballistic or cruise missiles. The launch signals South Korea’s efforts to boost advanced anti-submarine warfare capabilities against a purported growing threat posed by North Korean submarines. [The Diplomat]


11 September 2018

South Korea: Prosecutors demand 20 years jail sentence for ex-President in high profile corruption case

(cc) In the corruption case against former President Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) , prosecutors demanded a sentence of 20 years in jail for corruption and other charges, citing for the heavy punishment an “unprecedented”  “magnitude of the corruption cases” amounting to a total of close to 10 million USD of accepted bribes. [The Korea Herald]

4 September 2018

South Korea: Cabinet reshuffle indicates signal lessening army’s grip on military

(dql/nm) In his first Cabinet reshuffle since assuming office in May last year, President Moon Jae-in last week announced his nominations of five new ministers, including ministers of defense,education, trade, employment and labor, as well as gender equality and family.

With his choice of Joint Chiefs of Staff Jeong Kyeong-doo who has his career background in the Air Force for the post of the Defense Minister Moon fulfills his pledge to lessen the Army’s grip on the country’s military. If approved by the National Assembly, Jeong will be the second consecutive defense minister not coming from the Army, by far the largest of the military branches. [The Korea Herald 1]

In a related development, the Defense Ministry launched the Defense Security Support Command (DSSC) replacing its predecessor, the Defense Security Command (DSC) that was disbanded following fierce public criticism over revealed plans of the DSC to deploy armed forces to repress pro-democracy protesters in demonstrations last year about the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye. [The Korea Times]

According to official guidelines governing the new agency, the DSSC will be banned from monitoring military personnel and keeping their records, and will install a whistleblowing system as a measure to ensure its political neutrality. The DSSC chief will report any intelligence to the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae after briefing the defense minister. In the past, the DSC chief was able bypass the defense minister and directly present reports to the president. [The Korea Herald 2]

4 September 2018

The next step on the way to RCEP amid improving Sino-Japanese relations

(ls) Economic ministers from ASEAN countries and China, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and Korea announced that they made “good progress” at the latest round of talks aiming to create the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would be the world’s largest trade pact. ASEAN leaders said that they were willing to substantially conclude the pact by the end of this year, but India has expressed reservations about the liberalization of trade in goods and services without a corresponding liberalization of the movement of people. [The Straits Times]

The optimistic prospects of the pact are backed by improving ties between China and Japan reflected by talks between both countries finance ministers last week who agreed to bolster economic cooperation and confirmed to strengthen efforts to “maintain and promote the multilateral trade system” against. [Mainichi]

4 September 2018

South Korea: Military exercises with the US no longer on hold

(nm) The suspension of military exercises between the US and South Korea will presumably come to an end. The drills were paused as a sign of “good faith” while denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea were under way. With the negotiations now at a standstill, US Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that there are no plans to further suspend the drills. When the drills will be resumed, would be subject to discussion between Washington and Seoul. [The Korea Herald]

Mattis’ announcement came days after the cancellation of US Secretary of State Pompeo’s planned trip to North-Korea, the latest sign of the stalemate in denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang. [The Washington Post]

Meanwhile, South Korea’s government announced the plan to raise its defense budget 8,2% next year to a total of 42 billion USD. It is the highest raise since 2008.[Jane’s 360] 

4 September 2018

Integrating Taiwan in an East Asia Defense Plan via War Games?

(hg) Stephen Bryen contemplates to include Taiwan in a coordinated defense planning with the US, Japan and South Korea. For those staying alerted amid China’s rise Taiwan represents more than a sensitive issue in diplomatic terms but also a strategic asset that has been left out of the strategic calculus although offering significant military potential – at least in terms of military hardware.

What Taiwan has to offer in this regard is for instance a modern jet fighter force of 286 planes, compared with Japan’s Air Self Defense Force’s 373 and South Korea’s 466 fighter aircraft. Together with the US Air Force’s 130 front line fighters deployed to Japan plus the US Marines’ F-18s and F-35s Bryen sees the Taiwanese arsenal as a significant contribution to counter-balance China’s 1,482 fighter aircraft of which many are obsolete for front line combat.

This potential notwithstanding, there is no effective defense coordination currently at place that would include Taiwan. Instead, however, the author recommends to decisively include Taiwan in military simulations such as NATO’s operation series Spartan Alliance. [Asia Times]

28 August 2018

South Korea: Children in immigration detention centers

(nm) The detention of immigrant children in South Korea has been criticized by the National Human Rights Commission Korea, which advised the government to rework the laws that allow the detention of young children in prison-like detention centers under deportation order for an indefinite amount of time. Sometimes detainees have to stay in the centers for a year or longer without clarification about their date of release. Furthermore, they might be separated from their families and not have access to the internet or telephones. According to the commission, between 2015 and 2017, 225 children were detained. [The Korea Herald]

28 August 2018

South and North Korea: Talks continue despite cancellation of US trip to Pyongyang

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in is expected to travel to North Korea next month to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the third time this year and talk about further denuclearization, the inter-Korean relations and the possibility of a formal end of the Korean War. [CNN] Initially, the meeting was supposed to be held after Kim Jong-un’s meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week. [Yonhap 1]

That meeting however was cancelled due to a lack of significant progress in matters of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula [Korea Herald 1] and suspicion that North Korea continues to develop its nuclear program as stated in an IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) report last Monday [Korea Times]. The cancellation could also complicate the trip of Chinese President Xi Jinping to North Korea that is scheduled for September as it would increase suspicions that China is still holding back its alleged leverage to aid denuclearization [NYT].

Some good-will efforts currently discussed are withdrawing some border guards from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on a trial basis [Yonhap 2], changing the wording of its next defense white paper that commonly describes North Korea as South Koreas enemy [Yonhap 3] and the ongoing family reunions broadcasted widely last week [Korea Herald 2, Reuters].

21 August 2018

South Korea: Parliament scraps special activity fund for lawmakers

(dql) In an attempt to regain public trust, South Korea’s National Assembly announced that it will scrap all types of controversial special activity funds, with the exception of those funds related to core national interests, such as foreign affairs, security and trade. Out of the 2018 special activity funds (5.3 million USD), only minimum expenses (450.000 USD) would be paid out while the remainder would be returned to the treasurer. [The Korea Herald]

The funds have come under fierce public criticism over the lack of oversight of special allowances for lawmakers as no receipts required to prove their proper spending. [AiR 2/7/2018]

21 August 2018

South Korea: New consultative body of government, ruling and opposition parties to be set up

(dql) In a path-breaking move, South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties agreed to launch a joint consultative body with the government designed as a platform for cooperation on state affairs. It aims to enhance joint governance and improve communication between the National Assembly and the government, as well as ruling and opposition parties. With the first meeting scheduled for November this, the new body will convene at least once every three months. [Yonhap]

21 August 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Diplomatic thaw continues

(dql) Illustrating the ongoing diplomatic thaw between North and South Korea following the Kim-Moon summit in April, both sides agreed to close guard posts along their border on a trial basis. In a trust building measure Seoul announced to first remove about ten posts in the demilitarized zone. [Yonhap]

In a related development, elderly South and North Korean family members met on Monday for the first time since the country had been divided and their relationships torn apart by the war nearly 70 years ago. The three-day reunion at Mount Kumgang, North Korea, is the first for three years. [The Korea Herald]

14 August 2018

South Korea: Contentions special activity funds of the National Assembly to be scrapped

(dql) The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) announced their agreement to abandon the parliament’s special activity funds for lawmakers which has come under fierce criticism following revelations of spending without any oversight as receipts were not required to prove their proper use. [Yonhap] A probe in July had brought to light that the National Assembly provided ranking lawmakers funds up to more than 50,000 USD monthly. [AiR 2/7/2018]

7 August 2018

South Korea: New military intelligence unit to be formed amid martial law plan investigation

(dql) Amid ongoing investigations into the masterminds of plans of the Defense Security Command (DSC), South Korea’s military intelligence unit, to evoke martial law to violently suppress the 2017 candlelight protests against then President Park Geun-hye [Air 5/7/2108], the Defense Ministry launched a special task force in charge of forming a new military intelligence unit to replace the DSC by Sept. 1. [Korea Times] According to the head of the DSC reform panel, the reform would bring an end “to the DSC’s illegal political interference, surveillance over innocent civilians and misguided sense of privilege over other military branches.” [Korea Herald]Prior to this step, President Moon Jae-in appointed Lt. Gen. Nam Young-sin, the current commander of the Army’s Special Warfare Command, to replace Lt. Gen. Lee Suk-koo, DSC commander since September last year. [Yonhap]

7 August 2018

South Korea: Investigations into judiciary power abuse

(dql) Headquarters of South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were raided in the frame of an investigations into allegations that former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and the National Court Administration (NCA), the administrative body of the court, tried to use politically sensitive trials as bargaining chips for favours from the Park administration for his plan to establish a new court of appeal. Among the trials under suspicion is a compensation suit filed by Korean victims of Japan’s forced labor during World War II against two Japanese firms. The Supreme Court had already decided the case in favour of the victims in 2012. However, its re-appeal had been pending at the court for unclear reasons until the resumption of the hearing last year. The prosecution suspects that Yang proposed to the Foreign Ministry a ruling in their favour in return for providing judges more opportunities for state-funded overseas studies. In 2015 the conservative Park government concluded an agreement with Tokyo under which Korea will no longer seek an apology from Japan for the 1910-45 colonial rule in return for a 8.95 million USD provision. [Yonhap 1]

Prior to the raid, an internal probe of the court brought to light more than 400 documents related to the court’s alleged wrongdoings, including pressuring judges to rule in favour of the president’s office. [Yonhap 2]

7 August 2018

Inter-Korean detente: North Korea releases South Korean detained for illegal entry to the North

(dql) Illustrating further improvement of inter-Korean ties since the Moon-Kim summit in April, Pyongyang release a South Korean man arrested in July after illegally crossing the border into the North. [Reuters]

Meanwhile, new U.S.-backed guidelines to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to North Korea were approved by the committee which monitors sanctions on North Korea for the UN Security Council. [CBS]

31 July 2018

South Korea: President urged reform of military intelligence unit amid power struggle within the military

(dql) In the wake of leaked documents of the Defense Security Command (DSC), South Korea’s military intelligence unit, revealing plans of the DSC to evoke martial law to violently suppress last’s candlelight protests against then President Park [AiR 4/7/2018], President Moon has called for an urgent reform of the DSC. Speaking at a meeting with the country’s top military commanders at his office, Moon criticized the consideration of evoking martial law as an illegal act. [Yonhap]Moon’s speech comes amid a power struggle between Defense Minister Song and the DSC in which the latter claims that Song cleared its martial law proposal as being within legal boundaries, causing the failure to submit or disclose related documents. Song, who had announced a series of measures to curtail the power of the DSC by removing its role in conducting inspections on military officers and secret surveillance on civilians since in office last year, has denied the claim, only stopping short of accusing the DSC of a mutiny. [The Korea Herald]

24 July 2018

North-Korea: Pyongyang begins dismantling missile site, report says

(dql) Washington based think tank 38 North reported that satellite images suggest that North Korea has begun to dismantle facilities at a site used for the development of engines for ballistic missiles fulfilling a pledge North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made last month at the Singapore summit with President Trump. [CNBC]

Seoul voiced confidence that Pyongyang’s reported decision to dismantle a key nuclear test site would positively affect the denuclearization process and bring about progress in US-North Korea talks. [The Korea Herald]

24 July 2018

South Korea: Eight more years in Jail for former President Park

(dql) Seoul Central District Court sentenced former President Park Geun-hye to eight years in prison after it found her guilty of private use of government funds and of interference in the 2016 parliamentary election. Prior to this verdict Park had already been sentenced to 24 years in jail for bribery, abuse of power and coercion. [The Korea Herald]

In another case, the same court sentenced lawmaker Lee Woo-hyun of the opposition Liberty Korea Party to seven years in prison for taking bribes amounting to 1 million USD in return for supporting a businessman’s bid for contracts from the Korea Rail Network Authority and Incheon International Airport Corporation. [Yonhap]

24 July 2018

South Korea: More details on planned martial law invocation against candlelight protests 2017 revealed

(dql) AiR 2/7/2018 reported on a leaked document of the Defense Security Command (DSC) containing plans to evoke martial law and to mobilise 200 tanks, 550 armoured vehicles, 4,800 armed soldiers and 1,400 special warfare command troops to suppress the 2017 candlelight protests against then impeached President Park Geun-hye. Another  document  which came to light last week revealed further specific measures of the implementation of the plan including inspecting and censoring news articles, giving to the chief of the Army control of a martial law command, subjecting the National Intelligence Service to the leadership of the top military commander, as well as arresting and removing then opposition lawmakers among the protesters against Park. [Yonhap]

The deliberate provisions of the plan suggest that these measures were not ordinary military guidelines about a hypothetical situation but a plan proposed on the assumption of being carried out. [Hankyoreh]

24 July 2018

South Korea: President Moon under pressure over own minimum wage policy

(dql) President’s Moon minimum wage policy, calling for an increase of the minimum wage of nearly 11% to 8,350 won (7.40 USD) per hour in 2019, has caused a hefty backlash as it has met fierce opposition from both the business sector and labour groups alike.

While representative bodies of small merchants warned that more than 50% of businesses with less than five workers will be unable to pay next year’s minimum wage, labour groups reject Moon’s policy arguing that it significantly reduces the real increase as meals and other costs covered by employers in the form of extra payments are included in the wage hike. Even among Moon’s top economic policy advisors concerns have been voiced that the stark minimum wage hike could be a burden for the economy and dampen employment.  [The Korea Herald]

In the wake of dissatisfaction with the government’s minimum wage policy, President Moon’s approval rating dropped to the lowest level in five weeks from 79% in mid June to 67% last week. [Yonhap]

17 July 2018

South Korea-India relations: Increasing cooperation

(dql) At the summit between South Korean President Moon and Indian Prime Minister Modi last week, both leaders reassured each other country’s strategic importance within India’s Act East policy and South Korea’s New Southern policy respectively and agreed to elevate their countries’ special strategic partnership. In economic terms both sides agreed to raise trade volume from currently 20 billion USD to 50 billion USD by 2030. Beyond economics, Moon and Modi pledged to deepen military-military cooperation covering training, exchanges, research and development and signed an agreement for the development of artillery guns. [The Korea Herald] [The Diplomat]

17 July 2018

South Korea: Political parties agree on leadership and committees of Parliament

(dql) Bringing to end a more than 40-days of vacuum in the National Assembly, ruling and opposition parties after arduous negotiations agreed last week over the formation of the parliament’s leadership and committees the second half of the 20th National Assembly’s four-year term. Under the deal, a member of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), the largest party in parliament, will assume the office of the parliamentary speaker, while the Liberal Korea Party (LKP) and Bareunmirae Party, the second and third largest parties, will share the two vice speakers positions. Of the 18 standing committees, eight will be chaired by a DP member, while the LKP, Bareunmirae and Parliamentary Group for Peace and Justice PGP will head seven, two and one, respectively. [Yonhap]

10 July 2018

South Korea-Vietnam relations: Deepening security coperation

(dql) Reflecting increasing security cooperation between South Korea and Vietnam, South Korea’s chief of naval operations visited Vietnam last week to discuss opportunities for future naval collaboration. The visit follows Vietnam’s Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich’s trip to South Korea in April, at which both parties signed a joint vision statement for defense cooperation out to 2030 as well as the visit of South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo to Vietnam in June where both sides reviewed their defense ties and also signed a bilateral agreement on logistical support. [The Diplomat]

10 July 2018

South Korea: Suspension of civilian war preparedness drill amid nuclear diplomacy with North Korea

(dql) The Moon administration announced to cancel this year’s Ulchi exercise, an annual civilian training aimed at checking the state’s crisis management capabilities and warfare preparedness. The move has been expected following the halt of US-South Korean joint military drills in the aftermath of the Trump-Kim summit at which Trump pledged to stop ‘provocative’ war games on the Korean peninsula to pave the way for further talks on the denuclearization of North Korea which has been consistently denouncing all military exercises as rehearsal for invasion against itself. [Yonhap]

10 July 2018

South Korea: Constitutional Court prohibits private detective agencies

(dql) South Korea’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling in which it banned private detective agencies. In response to a complaint filed by a former police officer claiming that Article 40 of the Credit Information Use and Protection Act violates the freedom to pursue careers of one‘s choice, the Court considered the existing laws the only way to protect the privacy of the general public. [The Korea Herald]

10 July 2018

South Korea: Lawmakers spent billions of “special activity funds” without sufficient proof of usage

(dql) A report released by the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD), a liberal civic group, revealed that the National Assembly from 2011-2013 provided lawmakers 21.4 million USD to support their “special activities” for which proper proof of usage is missing. According the PSPD’s findings, drawn from close to disbursement documents, members of special parliamentary committees such as those in charge of ethics, and budget, received monthly funds while meetings were held only four to six times a year. For overseas business trips over billions of dollars have been allotted to the National Assembly speakers and lawmakers during the years. Party leaders were also found to have been provided up to more than 50.000 USD monthly, while the head of parliamentary committees received 5.000 USD monthly. [The Korea Herald]

10 July 2018

South Korea: Defense Security Command considered violent crackdown of last year’s candlelight protests

(dql) According to findings of the Military Human Rights Center for Korea, the Defense Security Command (DSC), South Korea’s primary organization within the military in charge of internal security, made plans last year to mobilize tanks and troops to suppress the candlelight protests against then impeached President Park Geun-hye. A DSC document drawn up in March outlined ways to impose wartime martial law and to mobilize 200 tanks, 550 armored vehicles, 4,800 armed soldiers and 1,400 special warfare command troops from army divisions stationed near Seoul in case the Constitutional Court rejected the National Assembly’s impeachment of Park and kept her in office. [Yonhap]

In a latest development, the Defense Minister pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegation brought up by Military Human Rights Center for Korea. [The Korea Herald]

3 July 2018

South Korea: Refugee law reform under way

(dql) South Korea’s Ministry of Justice last Friday announced to seek a revision of the country’s Refugee Act to tighten regulations on the arrival of refugees. The announcement comes after more than half a million South Koreans signed a petition with the presidential office in the past two weeks, demanding the government to abolish or amend no-visa entries and the granting of refugee status to applicants. [Reuters]

Since 1994, South Korea has granted 839 refugee statuses, equaling 4.1 percent of the total of 20,361 cases that had completed review. [The Korea Herald]

3 July 2018

South Korea: Conscientious objectors to be provided civilian services, Constitutional Court rules

(dql) In a landmark decision on conscientious objectors, South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that Article 5 of the country’s Military Service Act is unconstitutional as it fails to offer alternative services next to military service and ordered the government to introduce civilian forms of service for conscientious objectors.

South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 28 are required to serve in the army for 21 to 24 months if they pass physical and mental eligibility tests The Military Service Act calls for up to three years in prison for those who refuse to serve. [The New York Times]

26 June 2018

Trump-Kim summit follow up: US, South Korea, Japan suspend ‘anti-Pyongyang’ military exercises

(dql) Following President Trump’s announcement to suspend US-South Korean joint military exercises at the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that Washington and Seoul have indefinitely halted two marine exchange program training exercises scheduled to be conducted over the next three months. In an earlier move both sides stopped the planning of Freedom Guardian Exercise in which 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops participated last year. [The Guardian]

In a related move, Japan suspended military exercises scheduled for this week and plans to suspend further nine civilian evacuation drills to prepare residents in Japan for possible missile attacks scheduled for later this year. Tokyo’s move is to be seen as major concession to open the door for direct talks with Pyongyang. While Kim Jong-un met leaders of China, South Korea and the United States in the recent past to discuss the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula, a summit with Prime Minister Abe has not been set yet. [CBS News]

De-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was also a topic at the summit between South Korean President Moon and Russian President Putin last week in Moscow. Moon reassured that his administration will “closely consult with the Russian government and work with it to completely and swiftly implement the outcome of the South-North Korean summit and the North Korea-US summit.” Furthermore, both sides agreed to work to initiate talks on a free trade agreement between both countries with a view to arrive at trade worth 30 billion USD by 2020, twice the turnover in 2017. [The Korea Herald]

A third summit between China and North Korea within less than three months last week reveals Beijing’s increasing efforts to play a key role in the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. During the talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured that “no matter how the international and regional situations change, the firm stance of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government on consolidating and developing the relations with the DPRK remains unchanged.” [The Korea Times]

Meanwhile, North and South Korea held talks on connecting their railways across the inner-Korean border, the first on this issue since 10 years. The talks reflect growing efforts to implement longstanding envisioned economic cooperation between the two Koreas. However, to actually embark on economic cooperation would require the lifting of international sanctions imposed on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile testing. [The Mainichi]

26 June 2018

South Korea: Reform of prosecution system on the way

(dql) The Moon administration announced that it will push for its planned reform of the country’s prosecution and revealed reform measures which focus on reducing the powers of the prosecution and strengthening investigative powers of the police by allowing the latter to independently open and close initial investigations in all cases. Under the current law, the police are only empowered to initiate investigations, but need the approval from the prosecution to close them which can also intervene and command police investigations at any time.  [Yonhap 1]

Meanwhile, Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency started an investigation into a manipulation of online opinion during past elections in which the main opposition Liberal Korea Party (LKP) is allegedly involved. The move comes after the ruling Democratic Party issued a complaint against the LKP on the basis of a newspaper report on those allegations. [Yonhap 2]

17 June 2018

Trump-Kim Summit: Takeaways and reactions

(dql) The much anticipated summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore concluded with a joint statement according which “President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK and Chairman Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” [The New York Times for the full text of the statement]. Responding to questions at the press conference following the signing of the statement Trump further confirmed that while the sanctions against North Korea would remain for the time being, they would be taken off once “we are sure that the nucs are no longer a factor”. He also announced considerations of suspending the longstanding military drills with South Korea, calling them much to the surprise of the ally “expansive and provocative” “war games”. [Youtube]

The outcomes of the summit have been met with mixed reactions among North Korea’s neighboring powers. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in hailed the summit as “historic event” that will “break down the last remaining Cold War legacy on earth” and “write a new chapter of peace and cooperation” between the two Koreas. [Yonhap] However, Trump’s statement on considering a halt of the joint annual military exercises caused much confusion in Seoul, as the exercises has traditionally been used as an instrument of deterrence and bargaining chip against North Korea. Following a meeting between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Moon and Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of US Forces Korea, to verify “whether Trump’s reference to ‘war games’ meant the joint military exercises [The Korea Herald 1], a South Korean government source on Sunday announced that Seoul and Washington are expected to announce their decision to suspend large-scale combined military exercises in the days ahead. [The Korea Herald 2]

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe welcomed the statement as starting point of in the denuclearization of North Korea [Reuters] and signaled Japan’s support in bearing the cost of North Korea’s denuclearization under an international funding framework which. However, similar to South Korea, Tokyo appeared much irritated by Trump’s announcement on the halt of joint US-South Korean military exercises as such a shift would have huge impact on Japan’s national security and the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces. Trump’s announcement came especially as surprise after Japan’s head of the National Security Council in a meeting with Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton in Singapore was assured that the summit would not deal with the topic of U.S. troops based in South Korea. [Asahi Shimbun]

China, on the other side, was quick to point to its “positive and constructive role in getting the situation on the peninsula to where it is now” referring in particular to the suspension of US-South Korean joint military drills in exchange for North Korea’s stop of conducting nuclear and missile tests, proposed as ‘freeze for freeze’ initiative to the USA by China last year. [The Guardian]

Russia, meanwhile, stressed that the outcome of the meeting “needs to be thoroughly assessed”, but also welcomed the meeting itself as “beginning of a direct dialogue” with direct talks seen as only way for a political settlement. [TASS]

Analysts and experts cautioned against misplaced euphoria and optimism, stressing that the statement between Trump and Kim is vague and that only a follow-up negotiation process securing tangible results in term concrete steps, measures and timelines of the denuclearization process will make the summit a success. [CNBC] [East Asia Forum]

17 June 2018

South Korea: Prosecution demands 15 years jail term for former president in corruption case

(dql) In a second corruption trial against former President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), the prosecution demanded a sentence of 18 years imprisonment on charges of accepting more than 3.3 million USD in bribes from the National Intelligence Service while in office and conducting illegal opinion polls ahead of the 2016 general elections in an attempt to nominate those friendly toward her as candidates for the legislature. In a first corruption case, the former president was already sentenced in April to 24 years in jail over abuse of power and extorting money from businesses. [Yonhap 1]

In a related case, the prosecution requested a eight-years jail term against Choi Kyung-hwan, Finance Minister in the Park administration (2014-2016). He is accused of taking bribes amounting to more than 180.000 USD from the National Intelligence Service for keeping the spy agency’s off-book funds while serving as Finance Minister. [Yonhap 2]

17 June 2018

South Korea: Sweeping victory for ruling party in local elections

(dql) Wednesday’s local elections and parliamentary by-elections resulted in a landslide victory for the ruling liberal Democratic Party winning 14 of the 17 metropolitan mayor and governor posts including the mayoral race in Seoul as well as 11 of 12 parliament seats. [The Korea Herald]

The sweeping victory, coming one day after the historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is considered to be an overwhelming approval of President Moon’s North Korea policy and is expected to boost President’s domestic reform policies, including a change of the constitution. [The Korea Times]

Taking responsibility for the crushing defeat, leaders of the conservative parties, including the chief of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which won only two of the mayoral and gubernatorial races and 1 legislative set, resigned. [Yonhap]

10 June 2018

South Korea: New minimum wage law endorsed by cabinet amid strong labor groups’ protest

(dql) Following parliamentary passage, President Moon’s cabinet approved the revision of the minimum wage act raising the hourly minimum wage by 16.4 percent to 7,530 won (7 USD), the biggest increase in almost two decades. Under the new law, South Korea plans to further increase the threshold to 10,000 won by 2020. Labor groups called on President Moon to veto the law. They criticize that the law offsets the effect of the rise in the legal wage threshold by counting bonuses and benefits into the minimum wage which was among the demands of the business sector. [Yonhap]

3 June 2018

North Korea: Kim/Trump summit back on track

(dql) Despite President Trump’s cancellation of the planned summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week, Seoul this week announced that it will continue its efforts to bring both leaders together for direct talks. Trump cited “tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed in Kim’s “most recent statement” for calling off the summit scheduled for 12 June in Singpaore. [The Korea Herald] [CNBC]

In a latest development, Trump announced on Friday that the talks were back on for June 12 in Singapore. The reversal came after a visit of an North Korean envoy the same day at the Oval Office, after which Trump confirmed that “we’re meeting with the chairman on June 12 and I think it’s probably going to be a very successful -ultimately a successful process.” [CNN]

3 June 2018

Influence-peddling in South Korea’s Supreme Court: Parliamentary investigation against former Chief Justice proposed by ruling party  

(dql) A parliamentary investigation against former Supreme Court Chief Justice Yang Sung-Tae (2011-2017) has been proposed by the ruling Democratic Party, following results of the Court’s fact-finding probe in which a document surfaced supporting allegations that Yang decided cases in favor of the Park Geun-hye government (2013-2017) in return for concessions of the presidential office with regards to Yang’s longtime plan of establishing an appellate court. [The Korea Times] 

27 May 2018

No summit! Who is to blame for troubles on DPRK talks?

(jk) As mentioned in last couple of AiR issues, there were doubts on just about everything in relation to the potential US-DPRK leadership meeting. More recently, discussion on details of for instance the definitions of “denuclearisation” had given way to discussions of cancelling or at least delaying the meeting altogether.

As of Thursday, we know that the talks are, at least for now, not going to happen. While US President Trump has made clear that he sees China responsible for a shift in Kim Jong Un’s attitude, others have pointed out that it could also be the US side, for example through comments made by National Security Advisor Bolton as reported last week. Another feeling that prevails particularly among critics of President Trump, is that there is a distinct lack of preparation for the talks and that there are still fundamental misunderstandings on most relevant matters such as DPRK’s willingness to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons. [The Washington Post] The President’s supporters argue that the move is absolutely part of a greater strategy and that Trump by showing his willingness to “walk away” actually will help strengthen his bargaining position.

What irked the US of late was North Korea’s cancellation of a planned meeting with South Korea and that it had threatened to pull out of the Singapore summit because of ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. It had furthermore lashed out at the US administration on Wednesday when a vice-minister in the North Korean Foreign Ministry, issued strong and insulting words to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and threatened a nuclear showdown. Going back to insults and nuclear posturing allegedly was the straw that broke the camel’s back and triggered a written response by President Trump in form of a letter that was published on Thursday morning.

The letter Trump has sent to Kim Jong Un on the cancellation reverted back to earlier versions of Trump’s particular style of diplomacy: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities,” Trump wrote, “but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” [White House] Despite the setback, President Trump hailed the “beautiful dialogue” that was building initially and he signalled that he would consider to return to negotiations under other circumstances. The DPRK, also on Thursday, appeared to destroy at least three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. [CNN] It has also signalled willingness to conduct a meeting at a later stage.

27 May 2018

South Korea: Still no constitutional amendments

(jk) The proposed constitutional amendments by President Moon mainly regarding the power structure of the Korean political system and Presidential term limits were once again stopped in its tracks early on. President Moon had submitted an amendment bill to the National Assembly in March. According to Article 130 of the Constitution, the National Assembly should hold a vote on the constitutional amendment bill within 60 days after its submission, and at least two-thirds of the lawmakers should approve in order for it to pass. The lawmakers have now voted on the bill but it a two-thirds majority was not reached. The vote was far from close with the main opposition party attending the session but boycotting the vote. [The Korea Herald]

27 May 2018

South Korea divided on legality of abortion

(jk) South Korea’s Constitutional Court is reviewing a challenge from a doctor who was prosecuted for performing almost 70 abortions over the past years. Abortion is illegal in South Korea and both the pregnant women as well as their doctors can face criminal charges. The Korean society is split on this issue advocates on both sides of the discussion petitioning the Court to scrap or reinforce the existing laws on abortion. [The Korea Herald]

20 May 2018

More doubts on DPRK developments  

(jk) AiR has last week gone into some detail on why there is reasonable doubt about where the announced Trump-Kim summit could lead and how likely “real” de-nuclearization of the DPRK is. [AiR 2/5/2018]

Casting further doubts on developments and vindicating observers who tried to calm some of the optimism of late by pointing out that we have been down similar roads before, North Korea said Wednesday it is cancelling high-level talks with South Korea and threatened to pull out of the summit with the United States over ongoing military exercises with South Korea. North Korean media pronounced that the Max Thunder Air Force drills are a provocation and in fact “rehearsals for an invasion”. [The Korea Herald 1]

Further complicating matters this week were comments by new and controversial national security advisor John Bolton who compared the model that the administration is seeking to apply to North Korea to what the US has done in Libya. Considering that Moammar Gadhafi agreed to abandon his country’s nuclear programme and eight years later was overthrown and killed by rebels backed by Washington, such comparisons will only stoke Kim’s fears and make it less likely that he will give up his nuclear weapons which have long been key to his survival strategy [CNN].

Despite the setbacks, the White House is “still hopeful” the summit between Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump will proceed. President Trump has also explicitly moved away from suggestions the “Libya model” would be considered and gave specific security guarantees to the North Korean leader, assuring that he “would remain in power” after a possible deal [The Korea Herald 2 and 3]. China also continues to support the meeting, urging North Korea not to cancel. Beyond that, President Xi said: “We support the improvement of North-South (Korean) relations, the promotion of dialogue between North Korea and the U.S., denuclearization on the peninsula and North Korea’s development of its economy” [AP News]. Xi has met with a delegation of visiting North Korean officials last Wednesday continuing to show that the countries are still tight.

13 May 2018

East Asian regional order: China, Japan and South Korea work together on denuclearizing North Korea

(hg) The political leaders of China, Japan and South Korea have agreed to cooperate on ending North Korea’s nuclear program and promoting free trade at the first summit for the Northeast Asian neighbors after a hiatus of more than two years. [Time Magazine] Notably, Chinese – Japanese relations seem to improve markedly in context of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang´s three-day state visit in Japan, the first by a top Chinese leader in eight years. [CNN] [SupChina]

13 May 2018

North Korean denuclearization: Doubts and hopes

(hg) North Korea has announced to dismantle its nuclear test site between May 23 and 25 before the planned historic summit between Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump on June 12 in Singapore. In an official statement North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that all of the tunnels at the country’s northeastern testing ground will be destroyed by explosion, and that observation and research facilities and ground-based guard units will also be removed. [Time Magazine]

The assessment of the move which surprised the world is, however, mixed. First, the closure of the site might be an important but is no sufficient step toward denuclearization. Second, North Korea’s major nuclear test site turns out to be more damaged after its latest test than previously thought. Scientists have said that due to a partial collapse of a mountain near the test region that part of the site was no longer useable. New research published in Science magazine confirms now, that this is likely to be the case, claiming that a very large domain has collapsed around the test site, not merely a tunnel or two. [Independent]

An underground test bomb that was claimed by North Korea to be a small hydrogen bomb shook the surrounding landscape so violently that it changed the shape of an entire mountain. This test was conducted early September last year causing a 6.3 magnitude tremor on seismographs in the surrounding region. Data collected from Germany and Japan were combined to create a before-and-after map of the area surrounding the 2,204 – meter mountain in North Korea’s north-east painting a picture of a mountain under stress, displaying what is called ‘tired mountain syndrome’ caused by repeated underground explosions. About 8.5 minutes after the initial tremor, detectors noticed a second, smaller shake, and what was left in its wake was a significantly shorter mountain. [Science Alert]

The findings illuminate both the probabilities of North Korea´s nuclear capabilities and the possible background of the regime´s bargaining agenda. Based on measurements, the regime’s claim that it was testing a small hydrogen bomb can’t indeed be ruled out as the blast is within the range of larger atomic detonations. [Science Alert]

Moreover, the value of Kim Jong-un´s promise to shut down the site, which has been viewed as a significant concession, might have to be adjusted if it turns out that the site is entirely unusable. [Independent]

This could reinforce some doubts about the scope of the agreement and its actual implementation. After all, it is yet not even clear what the bilateral denuclearization agenda actually comprises.

Following the Moon-Kim summit, Moon’s office said Kim was willing to disclose the dismantling process to international experts, but the North’s statement Saturday did not include any mention of this but foresees to invite journalists from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia and Britain to witness the dismantling process. Moreover, beside the promise to work toward the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, there were no agreements on references to verification or timetables. [Time Magazine]

Given this, lingering doubts about whether Kim would ever agree to fully relinquish the weapons he likely views as his guarantee of survival are not unjustified.

After all, North Korea has been pushing for decades a concept of “denuclearization” that just bears not even slight resemblance to the American definition, having also been conditioned by requesting Washington to remove its 28,500 troops from South Korea as well as its nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan. In June 2008, international press was invited to witness the demolishing of a cooling tower at a reactor site a year after North Korea agreed with five other nations to disable its nuclear facilities in return for an aid package of about $400 million. But in September 2008, the government declared that it would resume reprocessing plutonium as Washington wasn’t fulfilling its promise to remove the country from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. After the George W. Bush administration did this in October 2008, another attempt to fully dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed that December when North Korea refused to accept U.S.-proposed verification methods and started its second nuclear test in May 2009. [Time Magazine]

Another issue is the scope of Kim´s capabilities. His claim that his nuclear force was complete following North Korea’s most powerful nuclear test to date in September and three flight tests of ICBMs designed to reach the U.S. mainland, is complemented by claims that his scientists have managed to conduct “subcritical” nuclear tests. Such experiments involving a subcritical mass of nuclear materials allows to examine the performance of weapons without triggering a nuclear chain reaction. North Korea’s recent reference to such activity has been interpreted as an attempt to communicate that even without underground testing, the country intends to maintain its nuclear arsenal and be a “responsible” steward of those weapons at the same time. [Time Magazine]

Adding to the uncertainties about the North Korean agenda are those pertaining to the involved great power interests. For China, which Kim has consulted two times now, North Korea has offered a valuable platform to ‘safely’ put pressure on the US and Japan, while a threatened South Korea is a justification to maintain US military infrastructure that easily reaches China. Moreover, the rapprochement has just started and denuclearization is a long process which still can fail with any newly approaching step.

Nevertheless, for the meanwhile, the US on their part, support the process. During his visit to Pyongyang, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has offered to help rebuild the North Korean economy if Kim gives up its nuclear weapons. [BBC News]

6 May 2018

China’s military spending: On the rise

(dql) The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has released its fact sheet on world military expenditure 2017 revealing that military expenditure in Asia rose for the 29th successive year with China as largest spender in Asia having the worldwide highest increase (5.6%) in military spending in 2017. China with a total spending of 228 billion USD is followed by India as second largest spender in Asia with spending at 63.9 billion USD and an increase of 5.5% compared with 2016, and South Korea in third position which spent 39.2 USD, an increase by 1.7% between 2016 and 2017.

The top four spender are USA (610 billion USD), China, Saudi Arabia (69 billion USD), and Russia (66 billion USD). [SIPRI]

29 April 2018

South Korea: Online rigging scandal threatens constitutional revision timeline of ruling party

(dql) The online rigging scandal in which a high-ranking lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party (DP) is allegedly involved [AiR 4/4/2018] threatens the preferred time-frame of the DP for the constitutional revision in June as the opposition parties has made the launching an independent counsel probe into the scandal a precondition for resuming talks on the constitutional revision, following their submission of a joint bill to mandate a special prosecutor’s investigation into the scandal. The ruling party, however, so far has refused to meet the opposition’s demand, saying it would decide whether or not to accept the independent investigation after receiving the results of the ongoing investigation of police [Yonhap], which opposition parties have rejected as “too slow and lenient.” [The Korea Herald 1]

Meanwhile, three opposition parties agreed to push for a revision of the Newspaper Act and tighter regulations for news service and comments sections of large internet portals. [The Korea Herald 2]

29 April 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Era of peace on the Korean peninsula to come?

(dql) At the peak of the long-anticipated summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Friday both leaders signed a declaration whose unexpected far-reaching statements on and aspirations for unification and denuclearization took observers and analysts by surprise. The declaration assures that “South and North Korea will reconnect the blood relations of the people and bring forward the future of co-prosperity and unification led by Koreans by facilitating comprehensive and groundbreaking advancement in inter-Korean relations, …, and confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.” [The Korea Times], with the full text of the declaration in English] In a press conference following the signing of the declaration President Moon declared in the name of both signatories ‘a new era of peace’ for Korea. [Youtube]In a latest development, the office of President Moon on Sunday revealed that Kim Jong-un confirmed at the summit to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing facility in May and to permit inspection by South Korean and US experts and media. [The Korea Herald]

Analysts caution against leaping to overly strong optimism for a unified and nuclear-free Korean peninsula, citing unchanged geopolitical and strategic fundamentals and interests of involved powers. [The Diplomat] [Vox] [East Asia Forum]

22 April 2018

South Korea: Ruling Democratic Party under pressure over online scandal

(dql) Shortly ahead of local elections in June a online scandal threatens to affect the chances of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in the elections after Seoul Metropolitan Police arrested an influential Democratic Party (DP) blogger and two other DP members suspected to have run an online comment manipulation campaign used in January to increase the number of “likes” or “feel the same way” clicks for two comments critical of the government on a news article. Their reported aim was to make it appear that the opposition Liberty Korea Party manipulated the comments. The DP has especially come under pressure as a DP lawmaker and a close confidant of President Moon Jae-in is suspected to be involved in the case. In a move to prevent a political backlash of the case the party expelled two of the arrested party members and agreed with the opposition parties to form a fact finding panel.  [Yonhap]

22 April 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Pyongyang freezes nuclear tests ahead of landmark meeting between Kim and Moon

(dql) According to North Korean state media, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has announced to suspend nuclear and missile tests and shut down a nuclear test site. Pyongyang’s move comes less than a week before the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and ahead of the much-anticipated meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump, scheduled for May. [Yonhap]

Meanwhile, President Moon’s office announced the establishment a direct telephone line between the Korean leaders who have agreed hold telephone talks before the summit. [The Korea Herald]

22 April 2018

US Arms sales to Indonesia

(jk) After the US Secretary of Defense visited Indonesia in January this year and a major arms deal involving two dozen used US-built F-16 fighter jets went ahead in February, some observers expected an ever-intensifying US-Indonesia defense relationship, not least to balance against increasing Chinese influence. In reality however, as is argued in this piece, US military assistance will always be subject to ups and downs, as exemplified by the US military embargo in the 1990s and early 2000s.  Whilst the deal is significant, the US has never been Indonesia’s top arms supplier and the defense relationship has yet to grow to a level where it could truly influence Indonesia’s foreign policy trajectory [East Asia Forum]. On a related note, Indonesia has ordered three submarines from South Korea [Antara News].

15 April 2018

South Korea: Former President Lee indicted on corruption charges

(dql) Following former President Park Geun-hye’s sentence to 24 years in prison  last week, Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office announced the indictment of another former President, Pres. Lee (2008 – 2013) on not less than  16 charges, among them violation of election law, tax evasion, abuse of power and leaking of government secrets. Lee is the fourth South Korean President indicted following Park Geun-hye, Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan. [NHK World]

15 April 2018

South Korea: Parliamentary gridlock

(dql) Parliamentary work in South Korea has stopped for the second week in a row in this month as the parliamentary session of this week has been called off by executives of the parliamentary groups of the major parties on Monday.  Parties failed to narrow differences and find common ground for discussions on pending bills, including those on the revision of the constitution and  the reform of the country’s broadcasting system.  [The Korea Herald 1]

With regards to the constitutional amendment, the main stumbling block are contradicting ideas on the reform of the office of the president. The governing Democratic Party (DP) presented a proposal for a one-time renewable 4 years term with a moderate decrease in presidential power which the main opposition Liberal Korea Party (LKP) rejected by a more radical power-sharing governance model under which the president’s jurisdiction covers external security, diplomacy and other external affairs, while the prime minister, elected by the parliament, commands all domestic affairs. [AiR 2/4/2018] Pertaining to the broadcasting bill, the DP blocks a LKP reform proposal of 2016 which would restrict the power of ruling party members, including the president, to appoint board members and the CEO of South Korea’s national broadcaster KBS. [The Korea Herald 2]

Complicating the situation is mounting pressure against Financial Supervisory Service (FSS) chief  over his costly overseas trips . The oppositional LKP requests criminal investigations on bribery, abuse of power and breach of public officials’ ethics rules, arguing that  the costly trips where made as a member of that parliamentary financial committee that oversaw the institutions which funded the trips, namely the Korea Exchange, the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy and the Woori Bank.[Yonhap]

8 April 2018

South Korea: Ousted President Park sentenced to 24 years in jail

(dql) Seoul Central District Court in a much anticipated, televised trial on Friday sentenced former President Park Geun-hye, who assumed power in 2013 and was ousted in 2017 over an influence peddling case of a close aide, to 24 years in prison and almost 17 million USD in fine. The court found her guilty of a number of charges including bribery to coercion, abuse of power and the leaking of state secrets. [Yonhap]

Meanwhile, the prosecution is seeking to freeze the assets of former President Lee Myung-bak registered under “borrowed” names. The move is an attempt to speed up the return of what the prosecution views as wealth acquired by illegal means, following a judgment that an earlier decision to have only Lee’s personal assets frozen would be not enough to recover “illicitly secured” assets. Lee is facing a trial on 12 charges including bribery and embezzlement amounting to more than 43 million USD. [The Korea Times]

8 April 2018

South Korea: Opposition constitutional revision bill promises tough negotiations

(dql) Following President Moon Jae-in’s submission of the government’s constitutional revision bill on Monday last week [AiR 1/4/2018], on Tuesday this week the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) made public its proposal for a constitutional revision.

Core of the LKP-proposal is a power- and jurisdiction-sharing government model under which the president takes control of security, diplomacy and other external affairs, while the prime minister, elected by the parliament, commands domestic affairs. The proposal also seeks to limit the president’s authority to appoint the heads of powerful state entities such as the prosecution, police and spy agency by giving independent panels the right to recommend the candidates and have them undergo parliamentary approval procedures. Furthermore, the pproposal calls for a restriction of the presidential special pardoning authority by subjecting special pardons to parliamentary approval after deliberations by an independent panel.

Contradicting the government’s bill in essential points, the LPK proposal and especially the power- and jurisdiction-sharing, which the ruling Democratic Party (DP) party opposes, foreshadow tough negotiations among the parties in the parliament. Further complicating the negotiations are the different preferred timelines for the national referendum on the constitutional revision among the parties. While the DP wants to hold the referendum on the day of local elections in June, the LPK’s proposal schedules it for September. [The Korea Herald]

8 April 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Search for dialogue formats after Kim Jong-un accepts return to six-party talks

(dql) After Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday reported that Kim Jong-un told Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing that he was ready to resume six-party talks to discuss denuclearization [Nikkei Asian Review], Seoul’s reaction to the news reflects cautiousness as it on Friday reaffirmed that negotiations on denuclearization should be discussed first among the two Koreas and the US during planned summits, before involving other nations. [The Korea Times]

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan began in 2003. However, they failed in 2008, largely because the North refused to allow inspectors to verify that it had shut down its nuclear programs.

1 April 2018

South Korea: Update on investigations on wrongdoings of former Presidents Lee and Park 

(dql) Former President Lee Myung-bak will remain in custody until April 10 for further investigation into corruption allegations against him. Approving a request of the prosecutors, the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday has extended the detention period for 10 days after the expiration of the first arrest period on Friday. Lee was arrested March 22 on 12 charges, including bribery amounting to 10 million USD and embezzlement of more than 30 million USD. [The Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, the prosecution indicted four aides of former President Park Geun-hye for altering the time log of the report on the sinking of a ferry in 2014, in a obvious attempt to cover up the handling of the disaster in which more than 300 passengers and crew members died. [Yonhap] The prosecutors also suspected that Park may have ordered the changes, but evidence to prove her involvement in altering the documents could not be found. [The Korea Times]

1 April 2018

South Korea: Constitutional revision bill submitted to parliament

(dql) Defying protests by the opposition, President Moon Jae-in on Monday submitted to the National Assembly his constitutional revision bill following its approval by the cabinet earlier the same. The bill centers on reforming the country’s presidential system and strengthening people’s basic rights. AiR reported on details of the bill [Air 4/3/3018].

The parliament is now called on to put the bill to a vote within 60 days and to decide on whether to discard it or hold a referendum. The Constitution was last amended in 1987. [The Korea Times]

1 April 2018

North Korea’s denuclearization: Diplomatic dynamics unfolding

(dql) Amid diplomatic dynamics unfolding in the wake of the inter-Korean summit on 27 April and the yet to be confirmed meeting between US President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the two-day visit of the latter this week in Beijing widened spaces for dialogue, at least according to China’s state-run outlet Xinhua as it quotes Kim saying that ‘the issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.’ [Xinhua 1]

Kim Jong-un’s ‘unofficial’ visit at the invitation of Xi Jinping signals China’s efforts to regain an active role in shaping a potential resolution of North Korea’s denuclearization, based on a stable relationship between both countries. Asked at a press conference on Wednesday on the impacts Kim’s visit on Beijing’s stance towards the implementations of UN resolutions against North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stressed the importance of a ‘friendly and cooperative relationship’ between Beijing and Pyongyang and reasserted ‘China’s relevant principled position and China’s will to continue with its constructive role’ to ‘strive for the denuclearization, peace and stability of the Peninsula’. [The Washington Post] [Ministry of Foreign Affairs China]

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s special representative and member of Communist Party Politburo Yang Jiechi held talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul on Friday. Both sides emphasized that the Korean Peninsula is at critical juncture, and mutually reassured the willingness to cooperate on achieving denuclearization, and maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. [Reuters] [Xinhua 2]

In a related development, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed on Monday that Tokyo and Pyongyang has been talking to each other the possibility of meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, while also touching also on prospects of opening a three-way dialogue involving Washington. [The Japan Times] Abe’s announcement follows Tokyo’s recent shift from a long maintained hardline stance towards negotiations with Pyongyang to the current more conciliatory position.

1 April 2018

South Korea-US relations: Annual joint drills kicked off

(dql) On Sunday, South Korea and the United States have started their annual joint military exercises. While the Foal Eagle field exercise, usually covering combined ground, air, naval and special operations troops, will last a month, the computer-simulated Key Resolve is scheduled for two weeks from mid-April on. About 23,700 U.S. troops and 300,000 South Korean forces would be involved in these joint exercises. Their scale would not go exceed those in previous years, according to military officials in Seoul. [Voice of America]

Japan’s Defense Minister Defence Itsunori Onodera, meanwhile, welcomed the exercises arguing they would increase pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize. [Reuters]

25 March 2018

South Korea: Former president Lee imprisoned on graft charges

(dql) On Friday former president Lee Myung-bak was detained on nearly 20 charges involving suspicions that he unlawfully accepted around 10.28 million US from various institutions and individuals. Lee, who had served as president from  2008 to 2013, denies any misconduct and denounces the case as politically motivated by prosecutors under the incumbent liberal administration. [Reuters]

25 March 2018

South Korea: Decade-old garrison decree to be abolished

(dql) South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense announced this week that it will abolish the garrison decree. The decree, dating back to 1950, gives the President the right to mobilize the military to crack down on protests in certain areas without the need for approval by the parliament.  It has often been criticized as an excuse to suppress democratic protests, such as during the authoritarian administration of the 1970s.

The announcement comes amid allegations that Ministry had planned to suppress by force protesters demanding the ouster of then-President Park Geun-hye last year. The allegations came up after a Democratic Party lawmaker presented military papers documenting such a consideration in the Ministry. [The Korea Times]

25 March 2018

South Korea: Government’s ideas for constitution reform revealed

(dql) The government this week presented its proposal for the revision of the constitution, the first since 1987. The reform ideas focus on an overhaul of the power structure directed in particular at restricting what has been often criticized as “emperor-like” presidential powers.

They include a change from the current one five-year term of the presidency to a one time renewable four-year term and a distribution of the power of the president by dropping the president’s right to name the chief of the Constitutional Court and having the court’s justices themselves elect their chief; requiring the president’s special pardon plans to undergo a review by an independent pardon committee; and bolstering the power of prime minister by eliminating the phrase stating that the prime minister conducts his duties “under the orders of the president.”

The National Assembly is vested with greater oversight rights including the right to name three members of the nine-member Board of Audit and Inspection who under the current system are all named by the president as well as legislative and budget oversight rights.

The public is given the right to propose bills, and to “summon parliamentarians that courts find guilty of wrongdoing” to increase public participation in state affairs.

The government’s proposal also calls for a change of the parliamentary election law from the current single member constituency system to a more balanced one to ensure that the number of ballots cast for a party is fairly represented by the number of parliamentary seats the party wins.

The proposed changes include also replacing the term “citizens” with “people”  regarding parts of basic rights, such as freedom of religion and the guarantee of equal rights. The term “citizens”, however, will be maintained for rights pertaining vocations, rights to property, education and others related to social welfare linked to economic and national security issues. The current constitution determines only rights and duties of citizens.

President Moon Jae-in announced that he will submit the his administration’s constitutional revision bill to the parliament on Monday next week. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party has voiced objections to the proposal, accusing the Moon administration of misusing the constitution revision for gaining advantages in the local elections in June. The party criticizes especially that the government is acting unilaterally arguing that such a proposal should be jointly negotiated and worked out by all parties. Liberty Korea Party (LKP) leader Hong Joon-pyo went even so far to warn party members of expulsion from the party in case of voting for the government’s revision bill, if submitted to the National Assembly next week. Given the opposition’s stance, the proposal is unlikely to make it through the National Assembly since approval requires a two-thirds majority of all 293 lawmakers. The ruling Democratic Party has only 121 parliamentary seats whereas 195 votes are required. [Yonhap] [The Korea Herald] [The Korea Times]

25 March 2018

Japan, South Korea and China agree upon trilateral summit

(dql) South Korea, Japan and China have agreed to hold a three-way summit in May and discuss ways to strengthen economic, environmental and cultural cooperation. Chaired by Japan and attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the summit is planned for 8-9 May, the same month proposed for meeting of US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. [The Straits Times]

25 March 2018

South Korea-Vietnam relations: Bilateral trade to be increased 

(dql) Vietnam and South Korea agreed on Friday to seek to boost their bilateral trade to from $63.9 billion to100 billion USD by 2020. A memorandum of understanding, signed in Hanoi during a visit by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, also lays out guidelines for aiming to reduce Vietnam’s deficit in bilateral trade. Since the free trade agreement in 2015, trade between Vietnam and South Korea has risen rapidly resulting in South Korea replacing the United States as Vietnam’s second largest trading partner in 2017, second only to China. It is also the largest source of foreign direct investment in the Southeast Asian economy. [The Korea Times]

18 March 2018

South Korea: Standoff between parties in dispute over constitutional revision

(dql) South Korean political parties are facing a standoff over the draft for the constitution’s revision. Following the latest clash on Tuesday between the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) over how and when to amend the constitution, the presidential office announced its intention to table its own bill on the constitutional change. The move is an apparent attempt to pressure the parties to compromise and to speed up the parliamentary process of devising a revision motion in order to match DP’s preferred timetable for a referendum to be held at the same time as the June local elections. The presidential office’s bill reportedly contains a strengthening of provincial governments’ autonomy and a shift from the current five-year presidency into a one-time renewable four-year term.

Accusing the Moon administration of an arbitrary act of thwarting the scheme of a people-led and consensus-based revision of the constitution, the LKP strongly rejected the government’s move to submit its own proposal as interference [Yonhap] and on Friday presented its revision draft which calls for a constitutional revision with a focus on delegating more presidential power to the prime minister. It also suggested June as time frame for the rival parties to submit a joint revision bill to the National Assembly, reaffirming the party’s rejection of the timeline favored by the DP which in turn denounced the proposal as a stalling tactic of the LKP aimed at derailing the proposed June referendum. [The Korea Herald]

18 March 2018

South Korea: Prosecution rejects President’s ideas on reform of investigative bodies

(dql) Defying President Moon Jae-in’s pledge to reform the state’s investigative agencies as well as his call for a decrease of prosecutorial power and the establishment of an independent investigative agency in charge of high-profile corruption cases involving top government officials and their families, the head of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office this week expressed the prosecution’s willingness to expand cooperation with the police and hand over more corruption or major crime cases but also its strict refusal to share control of overall investigation procedures or to transfer jurisdiction to the investigative body proposed by the President. [Yonhap]

18 March 2018

South Korea: Ex-President Lee admits accepting illicit money

(dql) The prosecution on Wednesday summoned former President Lee Myung-bak for interrogation over some 20 criminal charges, among them bribery and embezzlement involving tens of billions of won. He is also suspected of abuse of power and violating regulations concerning presidential records and the Public Official Election Act. Lee confessed that he, while in office, received 100,000 USD from the state spy agency through his former presidential aide. He refused to disclose how the money was used and also denied other corruption allegations against him. [The Korea Herald]

18 March 2018

South Korea: Deal on 90 Taurus missiles signed

(dql) The South Korean Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that South Korea late February signed a contract to buy 90 more Taurus long-range air-to-ground missiles. The purchase would be in line with the government’s weapon system acquisition program despite eased tensions on the peninsula, an official said Tuesday. The procurement follows a first order of 130 Taurus missiles back in 2013. Produced by German-Swedish defense producer Taurus Systems, the missile with a range of 500 kilometers is an important asset of South Korea’s “Kill Chain” pre-emptive strike systems against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs upon imminent threat. [Defense News]

18 March 2018

Japan-North Korea relations: Tokyo’s policy shift

(dql) In a phone talk on Friday, Prime Minister Abe told South Korean President Moon that he is considering a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Analysts view this policy shift away from a long maintained hardline position on negotiations with Pyongyang motivated by Tokyo’s wariness that it might be left behind in the wake of easing tensions between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington, reflected in the impending summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un as well as the talks between North and South Korea. [The Mainichi]

A summit between Abe and Kim would be the first summit between a Japanese prime minister and a North Korean leader since Junichiro Koizumi’s meeting with Kim’s father Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2004.

11 March 2018

South Korea: Former President Lee’s close associate indicted

(dql) An indictment has been issued by the prosecution against Lee Byung-mo, President Lee Myung-bak’s close associate considered as key to a corruption scandal involving auto parts company DAS which is linked to the former President and his family. Lee Byung-mo, dubbed as the former President’s ‘wealth manger’, is accused of embezzlement, breach of trust and destruction of evidence. He has been suspected of disposing of account books that apparently contained detailed records of the former president’s financial accounts, possibly created under borrowed names, and their transactions. [The Korea Herald]

11 March 2018

North Korea: Trump to meet Kim in May and international reactions

(dql) In a stunning development after months of fierce tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter’s nuclear missile tests, the White House on Thursday that President Donald Trump agreed to meet North Korean Kim Jong-un face to face in May. Trump will be the first US President to meet a North Korean leader in person. [Express]

South Korean President on Friday hailed the impending meeting as a ‘historic milestone’ for peace on the Korean Peninsula and ‘opportunity that came like a miracle’. [Yonhap] However, during a meeting with party leaders on Wednesday, Moon confirmed that he has no plan to ease sanctions against Pyongyang for the sake of his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un scheduled for late next month. [The Korea Herald]

Less euphoric, Prime Minister Abe warned to be cautious towards the meeting in May as it could be a ploy on Pyongyang’s side to buy time and demanded concrete steps toward denuclearization to defuse Tokyo’s scepticism. Unless these concrete steps are taken by Kim-Jong-un, Tokyo would continue with using maximum international pressure to denuclearize North Korea. [The Japan Times]

Meanwhile Chinese official and government-backed media outlets report on China welcoming the news on direct talks between the US and North Korea as a chance for a return to peace and stability [Xinhua], but also on China’s readiness to ‘help protect the rights of North Korea when Pyongyang begins denuclearization talks with Washington’ and ‘prevent North Korea from being deceived or squeezed by the US once it begins to denuclearize.’ [Global Times]

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov considers the agreement a ‘step in the right direction’ towards a dialogue based on mutual respect’. [TASS]

4 March 2018

South Korea: Elder brother of former President Lee questioned in corruption probe

(ldq) Lee Sang-eun, the chairman of auto parts maker DAS, was questioned by the prosecution over a corruption scandal surrounding an auto parts company linked to former President Lee Myung-bak and his family. Lee Sang-eun, an elder brother of the former President, was called in for questioning over the alleged creation of a slush fund and unfair trade related to the company, as well as earnings the former president’s family gained from the sale of a large piece of land in southern Seoul. [The Korea Herald] Lee’s questioning is the latest development in a widening corruption investigation whose main target is widely considered to be the former President. [AiR 4/2/2018]

4 March 2018

Issue of ‘comfort women’ strains Japan-South Korea ties

(dql) In unprecedentedly strong rhetoric, South Korean President Moon Jae-in described and berated the Japanese army enslavement of so-called ‘comfort women’ during World War II as a ‘crime against humanity’, in a speech on Thursday, 1 March, a national holiday in South Korea marking 99 years of the March 1 Movement, one of the first public displays of resistance to the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 and 1945. [The Korea Herald]

Moon’s speech comes amid tensions between Seoul and Tokyo over the 2015 bilateral agreement on the ‘comfort women’ issue, after Seoul came forward with a new policy in January, according to which Seoul will not seek renegotiation of the agreement with Japan, but demands Tokyo to do more for former comfort women, including an apology.

Tokyo rejected the apology demand and denounced Moon’s statement as ‘extremely regrettable’ and announced that a diplomatic protest has been lodged. [The Japan Times]

25 February 2018

South Korea: Ex-president Lee’s asset manager arrested

(dql) Lee Young-bae, manager of former President Lee Myung-bak’s assets under borrowed names, has been arrested as part of a probe into a corruption scandal surrounding auto parts maker DAS. Chief of a DAS subcontractor, Lee Young-bae is facing allegations of embezzling company money to accumulate 6.1 million USD in black funds. Prosecutors suspect money laundering money for the former president of whom the prosecution said that it is considering summoning him for questioning in early March. Lee Young-bae’s arrest is the latest in a string of arrests related to corruption cases in which the former president is allegedly involved. [The Korea Herald]

25 February 2018

South Korea: Bumpy road to constitutional revision bill

(dql) In an attempt to speed up preparations for a parliamentary backed bill for constitutional revision to ensure its preferred schedule of national referendum in June, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) this week came up with a proposal for five-way talks between DP and opposition parties. However, the prospects for a swift joint bill are bleak as the opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP), while agreeing on constitutional revision in general, disapproves of the schedule. A constitutional revision bill requires approval by two-thirds majority of the parliament. With 293 lawmakers in the parliament, DP with 121 seats needs the cooperation of LKP (116 seats). [The Korea Herald]

25 February 2018

Inter-Korean Relations: Rallies against planned visit of North Korean official

(dql) Members of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) on Friday held a protest rally in front of the President’s office expression their oppose to a planned visit to South Korea by Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, who is accused of masterminding the deadly 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 50 South Koreans. He is scheduled to cross the border on Sunday for a three-day visit as the head of an eight-member delegation to the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. The protest is the latest development of an ongoing dispute within South-Korea between the ruling Democratic Party and LKP on the response to Pyongyang’s diplomatic ‘charm offensive’ surrounding the Olympic Games. [The Korea Herald] 

18 February 2018

South Korea: Political party merger concluded

(dql) The People’s Party and the Bareun Party, two minor opposition parties, officially merged into the new Bareun Future Party. Holding 31 seats in the 294-member National Assembly, the new party becomes the third largest parliamentary group after the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (121 seats) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (116 seats).

Given the persisting dominance of regionalism in South Korea’s party and election system in which political parties owe loyalty not to ideology or political programs but to individuals and regional issues, the merger was concluded amid skepticism about its sustainability in the wake of parties’ opposite support bases and the fact. Whereas the center-left People’s Party’s support is predominantly located in the southwestern province of Jeolla, the conservative Bareun Party’s electorate is based in the rival province of Gyeongsang. [The Korea Herald]

Another reason for analysts to predict a thorny path ahead for the new party are differences in the two parties’ policies towards North Korea which came to the fore only a day after the merger. While the People’s Party co-leader of the new party support the government’s push for direct talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, his Bareun Party counterpart criticized President Moon’s handling of the inter-Korean relations and demanded a stronger leaning towards the USA. [Yonhap]

In the light of these differences between the two parties, 15 lawmakers from the Bareun Party last week defected the party to found the new Party for Democracy and Peace. AiR reported on this. [AiR 2/2/2018]

18 February 2018

Conciliatory mood in inter-Korean relations: Domestic perceptions and international reactions  

(dql) During her visit of the Olympic Games Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, delivered a written note of her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in inviting him to Pyongyang. The invitation is the temporary climax of the conciliatory signs in hitherto strained inter-Korean relations which saw direct talks between North and South Korean high-level delegations and a joint Korean team marching in at the Opening of the Olympic Games under a unified flag. However, South Korean political parties are split over the interpretation of this possible summit between Moon and Kim which would be the third North-South summit after 2000 and 2007. While the ruling Democratic Party views the summit as a meaningful first step toward the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – a stance support by the minor leftist Justice Party, the opposition Liberty Korea Party warned that a “visit by the president to North Korea, unless it is premised on denuclearization, would be nothing more than a congratulatory delegation celebrating (the North’s) nuclear development and would amount to an enemy-benefiting act.” [The Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, a survey on the North-South summit revealed that while six in ten (61.5%) of the South Korean population support such a summit South Korea’s and view it as a step towards peace in Korea, 31.5 % favored pressure and sanctions against over the summit. [The Korea Times]

In a latest move, President Moon expressed that the time has not yet come to decide over the if and how a summit with Kim Jong-un will be arranged pointing to the need to await developments in efforts in establishing a US-North Korean dialogue. [Yonhap]

The possibility of such a dialogue has been announced by US Vice-President Pence after his return from the Olympics. In a strategy shift, Pence said that the US is ready to hold the talks with North Korea while maintaining maximum pressure on Pyongyang. The Vice President named strategy “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” [Bloomberg]

Japan, however, remains skeptical towards the latest developments in inter-Korean relations calling on its allies and the international community to be wary and not to fall for Pyongyang’s ‘charm offensive’ and its strategy behind. Tokyo has repeatedly warned against Kim Jong-un’s use of the conciliatory mood during the Olympics to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. [The Japan Times ]. In a latest development, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump agreed in a phone call on Wednesday to continue to pressure on North Korea until the abandoning of its nuclear and missile programs. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said the Abe and Trump also agreed dialogue with North Korea would be meaningless unless Kim Jong-un consents to “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.” [Newsweek] Furthermore, Foreign Minister Kono and the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agreed on Thursday on join efforts to make North Korea accept IAEA inspections which had been halted in 2009. [NHK World]

11 February 2018

South Korea: New political party founded

(dql) On Tuesday lawmakers, who defected the opposition People’s Party over its leadership’s decision to merge with the conservative Bareun Party, founded the new Party for Democracy and Peace. With its 15 members in the National Assembly, the new party represents the fourth-largest parliamentary group following the ruling Democratic Party of Korea with 121, the Liberty Korea Party with 117 and the People’s Party with now 24 seats, and ahead of the Democracy and Peace Party with 14 and the Bareun Party with 9 seats. [The Korea Herald]

11 February 2018

South Korea: Release of Samsung’s de-facto leader Lee Jae-yong a setback for the rule of law?

(dql) Reversing a lower court judgment of last year, an appellate court on Monday handed Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman and de-factor leader Lee Jae-yong a suspended sentence of two and a half years imprisonment. Lee had been sentenced to five years in jail on grounds of giving 8.1 Mio. US Dollar to former and detained President Park and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, in return for the government’s support of a merger of two key Samsung units, a move considered by the prosecution instrumental for Lee’s leadership succession. In its decision the appellate court dismissed the accusation of Lee soliciting Parks’ favor in the leadership succession and found him only guilty of fund-ing Choi’s daughter equestrian training in compliance with a request of Park. [Yonhap]

The court decision in this trial, which has been seen as a litmus test of the robustness of the rule of law vis-à-vis the power on the large business conglomerates in South Korea, has sparked fierce criticism of both government and opposition for its leniency towards the country’s business elite and raised fears of a setback for the rule of law in the country. [Financial Times]

4 February 2018

South Korea: Former Presidents Lee and Park facing further pressure and charges from the prosecution

(dql) Continuing prosecution of corruption cases related to former President Lee Myung-bak in the last weeks [AiR 4/1/2108], former special counsel Chung Ho-young, who investigated the stock price manipulation case of the in-vestment management firm BBK, has been summoned for questioning by the prosecution. He is suspected to have covered up evidence linking the former leader to the scandal who had founded a bank with BBK co-founder and head Kim Kyung-joon. Kim, who was found guilty of stock price rigging, claims that Lee has been the de-facto owner of BKK which is now defunct. [Yonhap]

Meanwhile, detained former President Park Geun-hye has been additionally charged for conducting illegal opinion polls ahead of the 2016 general elections in an attempt to nominate those friendly toward her as candidates for the legislature. This latest indictment puts the number of criminal charges against her on 21. She has already been under pre-sentencing detention since April last year on multiple corruption charges. [The Korea Herald]

4 February 2018

South Korea: Ruling Democratic Party presents plan for constitutional revision

(dql) On Friday, after two days of discussion, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea has announced its plans for the revision of the constitution, the first in three decades. Major issues cover the change of the existing single five-year presidency, strengthening of the proportional representative system in voting, and the introduction of a bicameral system. While a constitutional revision is agree upon by all parties, they disagree in details. The main opposition Liberty Korea Party further more objects President Moon plan to hold the referendum on the same day of local election on June 13 arguing the time constraint would lead to hasty decisions. A constitutional revision requires a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and a majority of the electorate in a referendum. The ruling party holds 121 seats in the 299-member parliament which necessitates the main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s cooperation (118 seats). [The Korea Herald]

26 January 2018

South Korea: Suicide pacts to be criminalized

(dql) In an attempt to reduce the suicide rate, the South Korean government announced its plan to criminalize organizing a suicide pact. With 26.3 deaths per 100000 peoples, South Korea has the second highest suicide rate worldwide after Lithuania (28.2). [The Telegraph]

26 January 2018

South Korea: Center-left party to lose half of its lawmakers

(dql) As reaction to last week’s declaration of the leaders of the center-left People’s Party and the center-right Bareun Party to merge their parties (see AiR 3/1/2018), 18 out of 39 lawmakers of the former party on Sunday announced to defect from the party in order to create a new party should the merger plan be approved at the national party convention scheduled for 4 February. [The Korea Herald]

26 January 2018

South Korea: Companies related to former President Lee raided by prosecution

(dql) Continuing prosecution against people connected to former President Park Lee Myung-bak (see AiR 3/1/2018), two companies have been raided by prosecutors: the first is DAS, a local auto parts maker whose largest shareholder is Lee’s eldest brother. The former president is suspected to have exerted his influence to help DAS recoup 13.2 million USD it invested in a troubled financial firm. The second is a DAS parts supplier whose owner Lee’s wife Kim Yoon-ok’s sister-in-law and which is suspected to have channeled an alleged 12 billion-won slush fund established from DAS. [Yonhap]

26 January 2018

South Korea: Supreme Court under pressure

(dql) South Korea’s Supreme Court has come under pressure following findings concerning the Court’s activities dur-ing the administration of ousted President Park Geun-hye. According to a probe committee documents found in computers used by the National Court Administration and records of the Court’s communications with Park’s presi-dential office related to the trial of the former National Intelligence Service chief contained information on individual judges. The National Court Administration which is running the daily operation and general administrative duties of the judicial branch is accused of having surveilled judges and compiled lists with details on their character and actions. [The Korea Herald]

In a related development, a South Korean appeals court on Tuesday sentenced the culture minister under President Park to two years imprisonment for her role in compiling a blacklist of 10,000 artists viewed as critical of ousted president Park’s government. Blacklisted artists were deprived of state funding and put under surveillance by the state. [Channel News Asia]

26 January 2018

Inter-Korean relations: Ambiguous ‘Olympic’ politics

(dql) Amid mutual conciliatory signs ahead the upcoming Olympic games, North Korea is nevertheless preparing to hold its great military parade on 8 February, the day before the opening of the Olympics, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the army dropping the 25 April as commemoration day as it was during the past 30 years. [Korea Herald].

Meanwhile, South Korean conservative activists on Monday burned a picture of Kim Jong-un, the North’s national flag and the so called ‘unification flag’ under which athletes form both sides will attend the Olympics, expressing their disapproval of the North’s participation in the Winter games. [Financial Times]

19 January 2018

South Korea: Former president the real target of corruption case prosecutions?

(dql) Aides of former President Lee Myung-bak have been indicted and arrested over bribery and corruption allegations. Jun Byung-hun, Lee’s aide for political affairs, is facing trial for forcing companies to donate 550 million won (US$514,260) between 2014 and 2017 to the Korea e-Sports Association, over which he practically held control. Kim Paik-joon, senior secretary for administrative affairs under Lee and widely viewed as Lee’s ‘butler’, was arrested on charges of receiving more than 400 million won (US$375,000) from the National Intelligence Service between 2008 and 2012. Kim Jin-mo, was also arrested Tuesday on charges of taking about 50 million won in NIS money which had been used to silence a whistleblower government official. Former President Lee denounced the investigations against his former aides as directed against himself and as politically motivated reprisal of the ruling Democratic Party against him. [Yonhap 1] [Yonhap 2]

19 January 2018

South Korea: Will the center-left and center-right party merge?

(dql) The leaders of center-left People’s Party and the center-right Bareun Party on Thursday announced the plan to merge both parties in an attempt to establish “a political force that drives out conservatives only angling for power”. The merger, if realized, would lead to a group with 49 members in the 299-member parliament and a major political realignment less than half a year ahead of the local elections. The plan, however, faces internal opposition from within both parties due to different ideological leanings and policy stances. [Yonhap]

12 January 2018

South Korea: Party politics over date of constitutional referendum

In his New Year’s press conference on Wednesday, President Moon pledged to push for constitutional referendum on the same day of the local elections, scheduled for 13 June this year, and urged the National Assembly to present a revision bill by March. The opposition Liberal Korea Party rejects the date arguing it would necessitate a hurried revision [The Korea Herald].

12 January 2018

North/South Korea: First inter-Korean direct talks in more than two years

(dql) Following a turbulent 2017 with North Korea’s  nuclear tests and missile launches on the one side, and supplementary, stricter sanctions against Pyongyang, with even China joining in, on the other, top official delegations from North and South Korea, met on Tuesday for direct talks, the first after a halt of more than two years. The talks resulted in Pyongyang’s confirmation to send athletes and a top delegation to the games and a joint statement to hold military talks and further high-level dialogue [The Korea Herald].

While President Trump in a phone call with President Moon on Wednesday welcomed the resumption of the talks and voiced the possibility of a dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang [Yonhap], Japan’s Prime Minister Abe appeared unimpressed and stressed his adherence to the policy of maximizing international pressure on North Korea’s de-nuclearization [The Diplomat].

5 January 2018

South Korea: Political party landscape on the move

Ahead of the local elections in June, the center-left People’s Party and the conservative Bareun Party announced to start the formal procedure for their merger. The parties view the merger as an attempt to establish a third political force rivaling the ruling Democratic Party and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party. The merger would form a party with 50 lawmakers in the 299-member National Assembly. The Democratic Party has only 121 seats, necessitating opposition support for the passage of any disputed bills [Yonhap].

5 January 2018

North Korea: Mixed reactions on reopened border hotline

Kim Jong-un has re-established the communication channel between Pyongyang and Seoul after its halt in 2016 following a dispute involving the Kaesong industrial complex, which was jointly operated by both countries. Analysts warned that it could be a step aimed at damaging the relations between Washington and Seoul with both showing different reactions to Kim’s move. Whereas US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, questioned the wisdom of an inter-Korean dialogue unless it was to include a North Korean commitment to abandon its nuclear weapons program, President Moon’s spokesman welcomed the Kim’s action as an opportunity for regular communication [The Guardian].