All Politics Is Local: #Shigak no. 44

By | June 09, 2017 | No Comments

President Moon Jae-in | Image: 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.

All Politics Is Local: #Shigak no. 44

by Sino-NK

This edition of #Shigak explores the link between national-level political concerns and their local implications. It looks at an industrial area in the southwest of South Korea, which fell foul of the bilateral spat between China and South Korea over THAAD deployment, and the difficulty of getting the National Assembly to confirm ministerial appointees due to the ethical stain of “false residency registration.” We also update the ongoing debate over THAAD and the variables driving the conservation domestically.

International affairs – THAAD, North Korea policy and the state of the ROK-US alliance – have dominated English-language coverage of the Moon Jae-in administration to date, which has made it simple to overlook local concerns. Yet, whether Moon’s diplomatic outreach to regional powers and particularly his stated intent to improve relations with China alleviates those local concerns will go a long way to deciding whether his administration is a success or not.

As the Jeonbuk Ilbo article tweeted above notes, for the authorities in the west of the southwesterly province, a region that Moon Jae-in will have to attend to closely if the liberal party’s electoral chances are to stay rosy over the long term, one key issue is the Saemangeum land reclamation project. Specifically, a joint China-South Korea industrial complex on part of the site, which has been frozen in aspic for a year as state-to-state relations soured over the Pentagon’s deployment of THAAD missile defense to the peninsula.

The two sides agreed to jointly invest in and develop part of the reclaimed Saemangeum land last May, and the stage was set for departmental and ministerial talks on the details of the deal. However, contacts soured as bilateral conflict between Seoul and Beijing over THAAD deepened in the second half of the year, so much so that plans for Saemangeum stopped altogether. It is Moon’s job to manage the slowly improving situation, with the Chinese side gradually reopening the door to economic opportunities between the two states in recent weeks.1)Note that economic ties were never completely frozen. China-South Korea commerce on the Shandong peninsula – which sees manufactured goods travel between the two countries in huge volumes – did not stop at any point.

As discussed in a previous edition of Shigak, Moon Jae-in’s nominees for ministerial portfolios have found themselves mired in “ethical problems.” One of these is the concept of “false residency registration” (위장전입), a term that recent National Assembly hearings have reintroduced to the South Korean public.

This Hankyoreh article provides an in-depth analysis of false residence registration phenomenon. It states that legislation on the matter was originally introduced under General Park Chung-hee’s military government to keep track of population changes and ensure welfare and infrastructure provision.

However, false residency registration became problematic in the 1980s with the rapid growth of Seoul, especially in the region to the south of the Han River (the now famous, thanks partly to Psy, Gangnam area), where real estate prices rose because it was easier to get accepted to schools in Seoul if you were a resident of the city, and the best schools and cram schools (hagwons; 학원) were crowded into the area. This increased the number of people who would fake their residency to get their children into better educational institutions. South Korea’s elites, with Moon’s nominees no exception, want to expand their assets whilst also sending their children to good schools.

Moon has made the problem worse for himself by publicly stating that he would not pick nominees guilty of the following five things, which are seen as ethical stains on the guilty party’s character: military service evasion, real estate speculation, tax evasion, false residence registration and academic plagiarism. This has raised questions over the apparent inadequacy of the Moon administration’s vetting process.

One interesting aspect of the issue is that those ministerial candidates who fake their residency for the purpose of real estate speculation do not usually get confirmed, but those who do it for educational reasons are given a pass.

Earlier this week the Moon administration announced it was suspending the installation of additional THAAD missile launchers, pending results from a full environmental impact review. A surprise to some, the decision follows a probe into the installation process which determined that the Ministry of Defense deliberately kept the Blue House in the dark regarding the installation of four additional anti-missile launchers (two were installed earlier this year). The move to suspend the installation of additional launchers was signaled last week by South Korea’s top national security advisor, Chung Eui-yong. Talking to Korean reporters at Dulles Airport during his trip to Washington, Chung said, “In order to throughly evaluate the environmental impact, [THAAD installation] may take longer than initially anticipated.” As reports note, the suspension doesn’t affect THAAD missile launchers already installed (of which there are two).

Addressing concerns over Moon’s decision to submit THAAD installation to a “political process,” as Senator Dick Durbin put it following his meeting with President Moon in Seoul, the Hankook Kyungjae ran an article (tweeted above) which features quotes from Chung Eui-yong arguing that nothing fundamental in the ROK-US alliance has changed. Chung is quoted as saying, “The [Moon Jae-in] government does not intended to fundamentally alter ROK-US alliance commitments.” And “It was agreed to install THAAD in order to protect South Korea and US forces in Korea from the rising threat posed by North Korea.”

With a ROK-US summit in Washington imminent, the pause on THAAD missile launchers installation is certain to get the attention of US foreign policymakers. Often missing from the discussion is that the debate within South Korea is largely (and arguably mainly) driven by domestic variables: a communications breakdown between the Ministry of Defense and the Blue House; Moon’s need to fulfill his campaign promise to review how THAAD is deployed (the decision-making process was notably non-transparent under Park Geun-hye); and the need to address the concerns of South Korean businesses hurt by Beijing’s economic retaliation over Seoul’s decision to have THAAD installed (Beijing alleges the advanced radar used by the THAAD system penetrates deep into Chinese territory).

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1. Note that economic ties were never completely frozen. China-South Korea commerce on the Shandong peninsula – which sees manufactured goods travel between the two countries in huge volumes – did not stop at any point.