Guns and Butter: #Shigak no. 34

By | April 23, 2017 | No Comments

All the papers covered the controversy over whether North Korea is or is not South Korea’s “main enemy,” including this one, Hanguk Ilbo. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

On April 2, Sino-NK began a series of regular analyses looking at the South Korean presidential election through the lens of the Korean-language media, reviving a series that ran from February 2014 to October 2015. “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective” uses Twitter to curate sources on the key determinants of the election outcome. Each issue takes the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the #시각 hashtag and augments them with essential annotations and a bite-size dollop of concentrated analysis.

Sino-NK will publish brand new #Shigak analyses three times a week between now and the election on May 9. #Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Yongmin Lee is a regular contributor. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page. Importantly, users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

Guns and Butter: #Shigak no. 34

by Sino-NK

In this edition of #Shigak, the papers turn their attention to the labor and social welfare policies of the five main candidates, reminding us that while North Korea makes headlines, invigorating the economy is what matters to most people. Nevertheless, Moon Jae-in has a soft underbelly where national security is concerned, and plenty of people have their knives out to try and stab him in it. We’ve also got a review of the second presidential debate, which was broadcast live by KBS.

An April 21 article by Kim Ji-hyun in the the Hankook Ilbo reviewed the presidential candidates’ positions on labor market reform, showing small but arguably insignificant differences in the policy position between the leading presidential candidates Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo. Both candidates support raising the minimum wage from the current 6,470 won/hr. to 10,000 won/hr. (approx. $9 USD), although Moon supports making the raise by 2020 and Ahn by 2022. The two candidates also support reducing the maximum number of hours one can work in a week from 68 (current) to 52 and reforming the conditions of irregular employment. On irregular employment, Moon supports passage of an “anti-wage discrimination law” (비정규직차별금지법), which would, in theory, mend the wage differential between regular and irregular employment. Ahn was less specific, stating simply that he would discourage companies from over-reliance on irregular labor.

South Korea is, like other advanced industrial economies, transitioning towards a post-industrial, service- and tech-oriented economy. With this transition has come significant changes to the country’s labor market conditions, namely an increase in the number of irregular employed workers (i.e., short-term contract work) and more people working lower-paying or minimum wage jobs. According to Statistics Korea data from 2015, the number of irregularly employed workers rose to 6.4 million (or 32.8 percent), with approximately 3.36 million people receiving the minimum wage. The wage gap between regularly and irregularly employed is rising, and work-life balance and life satisfaction in South Korea, according to OECD indices, are out of sync. Comparative data show South Korea is a more equal country than the United States, but the trend is towards greater inequality. People believe that opportunities for upward mobility are declining in number and well-paying employment is getting harder to come by.

The debate/controversy regarding Moon Jae-in’s national security credentials makes for attention-grabbing headlines, and is of interest to security-oriented Korean watchers, but the candidates’ positions on employment conditions and pocketbook questions matter more to ordinary South Korean citizens.

A Donga Ilbo survey of 1009 people conducted on April 18-19 confirms the point made above; that the preeminent concern of voters in South Korea is the economy, not North Korea and national security. No fewer than 45.5 percent of respondents in the survey said that the country’s economic health is the campaign issue about which they care the most. National security and foreign affairs came in a distant second on 18.2 percent.

In this respect, South Korea is entirely in line with all other developed economies.”The economy, stupid” encapsulates it for the English speaker. “경제를 꼭 살리겠습니다 [(I will) revive the economy for sure]” was Lee Myung-bak’s election promise back in 2007. The economy never goes away. Outsiders may be energized by foreign affairs, but the economy concerns everyone, all the time, and if the public in a mature democracy believes that a presidential candidate has plans that imperil the nation’s economic health, he or she has little chance of election in peacetime.

Nevertheless, Moon Jae-in is particularly vulnerable on the national security question, and that is why it keeps coming up. He was forced on the defensive yet again late last week, as accusations were renewed that he consulted with the government of Kim Jong-il prior to a 2007 UN vote on a North Korean human rights resolution. Moon called the accusation another “North Wind fabrication” in an attempt to draw the sting by positioning it within a long history of conservative plots to undermine left-wing candidates by staining them pinky-red.

However, the problem has not gone away. Pushing back against Moon, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Song Min-soon, the source of the accusation, made public a document that, if genuine, could prove that Moon’s proposal to consult North Korea over the resolution was acted upon by Lee Man-bok, head of the South Korean state intelligence agency at the time. The document purports to show North Korea’s response to Lee’s questions, collated and submitted to former President Roh Moo-hyun. It says that North Korea warned against voting for the human rights resolution, as this would be a violation of inter-Korean agreements and could harm bilateral relations. In the end, South Korea abstained, greatly angering civil society actors.

On April 19, KBS hosted the second presidential debate. The debate was divided into two sections; the first focused on politics, foreign relations and national security, and the second focused on economics, education, society and culture. The debate was held in a standing format and gave the candidates more time to question each other freely.

Moon Jae-in has been the constant frontrunner in this race and from the very beginning, so naturally the other candidates took aim at him. Moon came under heavy criticism for his stance on national security. For instance, conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo asked Moon if he is going to abolish South Korea’s National Security Law, which gives the state overweening power to investigate and arrest people who are believed to espouse sympathy for North Korea. Moon said that he would like to upgrade certain sections of the law, including the clause that forbids praising anti-government organization — a stance popular with many young people. Another conservative candidate, Yoo Seung-min questioned Moon over whether he thinks North Korea is a main enemy of South Korea. Seeming to evade the question, Moon said that it is not a job of the president to say that. It is expected that, if elected, Moon will seek a better relationship with North Korea. In a 2016 interview, Moon stated that he is willing to visit North Korea first if he is elected as president. He has since rowed the claim back somewhat.

Although Shim Sang-jung has been largely overlooked, she did manage to make a strong impression when she made Liberal Korea candidate Hong apologize to women voters over a comment that he made. In an interview with YTN, Hong had referred washing dishes as a woman’s work. By the end of the two-hour debate, Moon had received 18 questions, which shows that other candidates are pushing to score points against him.