#Shigak no. 5: The Sewol Effect

By | May 18, 2014 | No Comments


Memorial to the Sewol victims in front of Seoul City Hall | Image: Republic of Korea/Flickr

Sino-NK is back with another installment of “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective,” a multilingual data collection effort that uses Twitter to curate sources dealing in key political, social, and economic issues on South Korea. Each bimonthly issue takes only the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the hashtag #시각 and augments them with essential annotations and a small dose of concentrated analysis.

After four pilot issues, we have decided to adjust our format. Rather than produce a .pdf for each Shigak, we will embed the tweets we choose for annotations and analysis in a post at Sino-NK. 

Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page.

#Shigak no. 5: The Sewol Effect

by Sino-NK

This issue Shigak recaps the coverage in post-Sewol South Korea. The tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry has dominated news in and about South Korea over the last half month. The death of more than 300 people, most of them high school students, has had significant political, economic and social effects, many of which are explored in this issue. In addition to reports on the Sewol effect, there were several other noteworthy stories and events. China has announced it will be construct a memorial to Korea’s anti-Japanese fighters at Xian; Yoo Woo-sung, after being acquitted of charges of espionage, is facing indictment for illegal financial transactions; and the mainstream progressive party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD; 새정치민주연합), has done something past mainstream leftist parties have refused to do: support a North Korean human rights bill.

The following tweets were posted between May 1 and May 15.

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Karl Friedhoff breaks down the impact the Sewol sinking has had on South Korea’s confidence in four major public institutions: the presidency, national government, media, and national assembly. Overall, Friedhoff finds that Sewol has lead to a reassessment of all four institutions in a negative way: all experienced a significant decrease in confidence. The “gusts of popular feeling” are always volatile, but the across-the-board drop in confidence is particularly significant now.

Aside from undermining trust in public institutions in general, there is also an immediate political impact. Local elections take place in early June and JTBC polls show that the incident has impacted the race in favor of opposition party candidates who, it can be surmised, are expected to do better than the party of the incumbent president Park Geun-hye.

Yonhap news reports on China’s plans to build a memorial to the Korean Independence Liberation Army (광복군) in the city of Xian. Alastair Gale, writing for the Wall Street Journal, describes it as “the fruit of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to the city last year after a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.” Expanding upon an initial promise to erect a plaque to honor the early Korean independence fighter Ahn Jung-geun, Xi also had an entire memorial built at the Harbin train station where Ahn assassinated the first prime minister and former resident general of Korea, Ito Hirobumi. In South Korea and China, the assassination is remembered as a justified act against Japanese imperial expansion. The official Japanese position is that it is nothing more than an act of terrorism. It is one historical issue, amongst many, that sustains the ideational rift between Japan and her neighbors.

A single-issue advocacy group called “The Truth of Sewol Ferry” took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. Entitled “Bring the Truth to Light” and featuring a silhouette of the sinking Sewol, the advertisement, which appeared on page 19 of the newspaper on May 11, was paid for with donations from US-based Koreans made via an Indiegogo campaign over 12 days from April 29. The campaign raised more than $160,000, three times its original target.

Although the advertisement ostensibly targets the incompetent handling of the disaster by the South Korean authorities, it also harshly criticizes the perceived authoritarian tendencies of the Park Geun-hye administration. If font size be any guide, the latter issue was the true driver of the project. It concludes by stating: “We demand an end to the South Korean government’s control of the media, censorship of the truth, manipulations of public opinion, and suppression of the public’s freedom of speech.”

In keeping with the absolute dominance of the Sewol disaster in mainstream South Korean news in late April and early May, public broadcaster KBS reported that the sinking of the passenger ferry in mid-April had dealt a heavy blow to consumer spending, and that this was placing some companies at risk. Therefore, the government made a point of releasing liquidity into the economy in order to forestall the problem by front-loading state investment and protecting vulnerable sectors such as hotels. The Korea Institute of Finance predicts that GDP could slip by as much as 0.8 percent this year due to the aftermath of the ferry tragedy.

The Voice of the People (VOP; 민중의소리), a left-leaning paper in South Korea, reports on the intriguing case of Yoo Woo-sung, a Chinese citizen of North Korean descent. The paper tells that Woo, after being cleared of multiple charges of spying for North Korea, is now facing potential indictment over illegally remitting money to North Korea. Given his connections in northeast China, he was able to assist in transferring money from South Korea to North Korea via his connections in China. In doing this, it is alleged he violated South Korean laws, although VOP insists he was already cleared of such charges.

Espionage charges against Yoo were dropped after it was discovered that the National Intelligence Service (NIS; 국정원) had fabricated documents to prove Yoo had traveled to and from North Korea in 2006 and had also extorted a confession out of Yoo’s sister during an interrogation. The case has been closely followed by Chico Harlen of the Washington Post.

Yonhap gives an executive summary of the data for South Korea in the OECD’s Society at a Glance 2014. Amongst other things, they report that South Korea still has the lowest birthrate amongst all OECD countries, an indication of major social changes and potential social problems.

The report quotes Lee Sam-shik, from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), as saying: “South Korea’s marriage rate is dropping and while the the average age at marriage is being pushed back, the number of unmarried persons is increasing. But what the statistics do not show is that co-habitation and divorce are still considered taboo.” Many Koreans, especially women, are prioritizing careers and personal freedom over the inhibitions of child rearing and family life.

South Koreans revealed yet again their general unwillingness to bear the burden of an expensive unification process in a survey conducted by Hankook Research for a Seoul National University research center [국제문제연구소; website currently inaccessible] between November 28 and December 16 last year. The results were made public on May 7.

Respondents were asked to declare what annual financial burden they would be prepared to shoulder in order to support the unification process. Possible responses included “nothing;” “less than 50,000 won,” etc. up to “more than 1,000,000 won,” an amount worth $976.50 at the time of writing. 44.3 percent of respondents answered that they would not be willing to bear any burden, while just 1.2 percent said that they would be willing to pay more than 1,000,000 won. There was also a clear divide between the young, who are broadly indifferent to the idea of unification, and those older than 60, who value it more highly. 1,001 people participated in total.

Yonhap reports that “South Korea’s main opposition party proposed a bill Monday calling for the promotion of civil and political rights in North Korea in addition to the right to life.” This is, arguably, a critical policy juncture for the South Korean Left. For decades the official position of progressive political parties and politicians has been to oppose any legislation (or rhetoric) that might unnecessarily offend Pyongyang and thus further damper an already rocky North-South relationship.

The announcement calling for the promotion of human rights in North Korea is seen by some as an indication that the Left is seeking to re-invent itself by undergoing a significant realignment in a post-sunshine, post-UN COI  South Korea. Whether the bill will be carried through to the end is yet to be seen.

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