Do Not Swear by the Moon: #Shigak no. 41

By | May 17, 2017 | No Comments

The May 18 Memorial in Gwangju. March for the Beloved was the official song of events here every year from 1997 to 2008, and will be so again in 2017. | Image: Destination Pyongyang/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. That revival continues post-election, as Moon embarks on the politically all-important first one hundred days in office. 

“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. #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.

Do Not Swear by the Moon: #Shigak no. 41

by Sino-NK

The election may be over, but #Shigak is not. In the first installment following Moon Jae-in’s election, we review new political developments, including the new administration’s reaction to North Korea’s latest missile test, profiles of those constituting the new administration, a rather long phone call between Moon and President Xi Jinping, and the return of “March of the Beloved” to its status as official song of the Gwangju Democratization Uprising.

North Korea tested another ballistic missile on Sunday, May 14. Writing for CSIS’ Beyond Parallel project, Victor Cha says this was a predictable outcome. Data show a correlation between North Korean provocations (e.g., missile tests) and ROK elections. Summarizing the data findings, Cha writes: “Under Kim Jong-un, the average window for a North Korean provocation bracketed around all ROK elections is 6.5 days (about 1 week). The average for presidential elections is 15 days or about two weeks.”

The test gives observers insight into how the new Moon Jae-in administration will approach North Korea. Many have speculated that Moon will take a softer-line approach, or even revive the engagement strategy pursued by the previous liberal administrations. However, the new administration’s immediate reaction to the North’s latest missile test shows no indication of significant change — not yet, anyway. As reported by Yonhap, Moon read a prepared statement communicating the point that Seoul is open to dialogue but only when North Korea changes its behavior.

While the prepared statement on North Korea’s missile tests indicates more continuity than change, it may be too early to predict future intentions. Coming less than week into Moon’s presidency, the administration has yet to complete filling key governmental positions. Of those who have been appointed, the backgrounds and predisposition are seen by some as indicating the Moon administration will pursue a significantly different North Korea policy. (See more on appointees below.)

In recent days, President Moon Jae-in has been busy staffing his administration. He has nominated former Jeonnam Province governor Lee Nak-yon as prime minister. The ruling Minjoo Party does not hold a majority in the national assembly, so we can guess that Lee was chosen not least because he has a decent chance of passing the National Assembly hearing to come.

Moon made other changes that are noticeably different from his predecessor. He brought in outsider Cho Kuk, a legal scholar, as civil affairs secretary to reform the prosecutor’s office. He also appointed a career civil servant, Lee Jeong-do to the position of administrative secretary. In recent administrations, one of the president’s close associates has filled the post.

Arguably the most controversial of Moon’s choices was Im Jong-Seok as his chief of staff. The 51-year old Im is not by any means a bipartisan pick. He was famously imprisoned for his role in organizing the 1989 visit to Pyongyang of the “Flower of Unification,” female student Lim Su-kyung, and has been branded a radical leftist by the conservative opposition Liberal Korea Party, which expressed disappointment at the choice. However, the position does not require National Assembly confirmation; President Moon may select whomever he wishes.

Moon also tried to reset the presidential tone with the media. During his first press conference on May 10, Moon personally explained his nominations. The shape of the Moon administration is not clear yet, but the first few days of the presidency show that both media and public are welcoming of the new approach.

For the past year, THAAD deployment, historical issues and rise of protectionism have caused divergence between South Korea and its neighbours China, Russia, the US and Japan. Facing these challenges head on, President Moon appointed special envoys who will be trotting the globe to convey the president’s message overseas.

The Chinese government seems to be keen to work with the new South Korean government. After he was sworn in on May 10, Moon received a congratulatory call from Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Blue House noted that it was the first time since bilateral PRC-ROK relations were established in 1992 that a Chinese president was first to congratulate South Korean president. The two leaders talked about broad spectrum of issues including ways to improve bilateral relationship and denuclearization. There are signs that the new broom is already getting results.

Furthermore, the Chinese government invited a South Korean delegation to attend “One Belt, One Road” forum which was hosted in Beijing from May 14 to 15. South Korea was originally not invited to the 29-nation forum but the invitation was extended once Moon was elected as president. President Xi even met with the South Korean delegation. In addition, during the forum, South’s chief delegate, Park Byung-seok met with the North Korean delegation and had a short conversation. To date Moon has only made symbolic changes to South Korea’s foreign policy, but as he nominates ministers and deputy ministers — which first requires Moon’s pick for prime minister to take up his post — more changes are expected.

No doubt with one eye on making the start of his presidency feel like a definitive break with the past, and in the absence of the customary two month transition period between election and inauguration that can slam the brakes on a president’s momentum, Moon Jae-in took several symbolic steps in his opening days. On May 12, with just his second executive order, the administration ordered the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs (국가보훈처) to return “March for the Beloved” [임을 위한 행진곡] to its status as the official song of the national memorial day of the Gwangju Democratization Uprising.

For more than a decade after May 18th was so-designated as a national memorial day in 1997, March for the Beloved was sung in unison at the 518 Memorial just outside the city at an event to commemorate what took place. However, Lee Myung-bak changed that, and this year will be the first time since the second year of Lee’s term in 2009 that the song has been sung in this way. During the Lee and Park Geun-hye presidencies, the song was not banned; it was still sung, but only by the choir and those who wished to sing along. Conflict became a feature of the run-up to May 18. Several groups boycotted the official May 18 event in 2014 after the government disregarded a bipartisan resolution urging the administration to return the song to its former status, angered by the state’s symbolic rejection of the sacrifices made by the people of Gwangju in 1980. Conflict erupted again in 2016.