#Shigak no. 07: Another Fine Cabinet Mess

By | June 21, 2014 | No Comments


The title to this Joongang Ilbo article from Monday (6/16) reads, “I am father to three daughters… I feel (more) resentment than anyone over the comfort women issue.” Having been accused of multiple transgressions, including massive insensitivity regarding wartime sexual slavery, Moon Chang-geuk apologized to those he offended. He is seen bowing in the article photo. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

“Shigak” (시각), or “perspective,” is 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.

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

#Shigak no. 7: Another Fine Cabinet Mess

by Sino-NK

This issue of Shigak covers a wide range of issues in South Korea, from the maritime dispute in the Yellow Sea to changing marriage patterns and the controversy surrounding the cabinet reshuffle in Park Geun-hye’s government. Most prominently, the opposition’s outrage towards Moon Chang-geuk, President Park’s nominee for prime minister, has reached a new fevered pitch with the media exposing inflammatory comments Moon had made regarding sensitive (and for many, traumatic) historical subjects.  However, as this issue notes, Moon’s response to his critics is equally interesting as it reveals how politicians employ historical narratives for their own causes. This also applied to the opposition party, which behaves as though it is struggling against an authoritarian regime. All in all, democracy in South Korea appears to still have some ways to go as South Koreans continue to debate pressing matters such as the merits of electing metropolitan school superintendents and the independence of the press.

Meanwhile, poaching by Chinese fishing vessels within South Korea’s exclusive economic zone is expected to cause more problems for Seoul as we move into crab fishing season. In particular, illegal fishing along the NLL complicates South Korea’s ongoing tensions with North Korea in these waters. This is especially troublesome as we approach key dates when North Korea might elect to escalate tensions. In another news, changing marriage patterns were often seen as indicators of increasing gender equality, but a deeper look into South Korea’s case may reveal a more worrisome sign.

The following tweets were posted between June 4 and June 19.

Playing the nationalist card against accusations of pro-Japanese (친일) tendencies in another of his interactions with the media whilst leaving the office, prime ministerial nominee Moon Chang-geuk told reporters that the two figures in modern Korean history whom he most respects are Ahn Jung-geun and Ahn Chang-ho. The former, readers will recall, killed Ito Hirobumi, and as such is a de facto silver bullet for anyone facing such accusations. The latter Ahn was one of the earliest advocates of Korean nationalism who formed several civil society organizations dedicated to Korean independence, most notably the Korean National Association. Despite being born in South Pyongan Province in what is today the DPRK, pp.108-115 of the English version of Kim Il-sung’s memoir records the North Korean founder’s view of Ahn Chang-ho, which can be characterized as, “He was a misguided patriot.”

JTBC, using the latest polling data from Real Meter, reports that the controversy ignited following Moon Chang-geuk’s nomination for the post of prime minster (see more below) has negatively affected approval ratings of the president’s administrative performance (대통령 국정수행) and for the ruling party. The numbers show that despite the “Sewol effect” and Ahn Tae-ee’s withdrawal from prime minister candidacy, Park had maintained an approval rating above 50 percent; the data even suggests an upward trend/recovery just prior to the current debacle. The controversy over a second nominee for prime minister has, however, proved more damning. The ruling Saenuri Party, who have shown internal division over Moon, has likewise suffered a hit in approval, dropping seven percentage points (from 45.1 percent) between June 11 and June 17.

Many are likely to question whether President Park is capable of managing government affairs, or even forming a government–controversy over the formation of her cabinet has been a constant problem for Park. Whether citizen’s rising discontent with the president and the ruling party will ebb, solidify, or worsen is an open question (the “gusts of popular feeling” are, by nature, capricious). But with an administration riddled by controversies, some question Park’s ability to push through the policies she set out for her government and suggest that “lame duck” status may beset the presidency just halfway through the term, like it has for past presidents.

In this piece from May 2014, the Donga Ilbo traces South Korean government crackdown on Chinese fishermen illegally fishing in the West (Yellow) Sea, within the borders of the South Korean exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which spans from Jeju to the Northern Limit Line (NLL). According to the article, from the Sewol incident on April 16 through May 21 (the publication date of this article), only four Chinese fishing vessels have been apprehended—barely one-tenth of the same period for the year prior. South Korea has caught around 2,600 Chinese fishing ships working illegally in their EEZ since 2006.

Disputes over maritime territory in the West (Yellow) Sea cause legal and military strife, not only between the Koreas but among all Northeast Asian neighbors. Blue crabs and other seafood products are lucrative components of the fishing industries in China and South Korea (who indeed have the largest catches of blue crabs annually) and as this article demonstrates, individual privately-operated Chinese trawlers often ignore observed lines of the EEZ and fish in Korean waters. With the blue crab fishing season hitting its peak (to wind down by the end of June), it is worth watching how South Korea law enforcement—and locals—respond to these foreign vessels.

This Hankyoreh opinion piece mounts caution on President Park with a laundry list of upcoming events that may enflame inter-Korean sensitivities. In particular, US-ROK Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises military exercises in August might prove too much for Pyongyang, charge the author, Yi Yongin. In addition, Yi points to the blue crab season and increased civil maritime activity, July 4 Joint Declaration anniversary, South Korean Independence Day, Asian Youth Day and the accompanying visit by Pope Francis to South Korea, and the Asian games starting in mid-September as potential flash point moments.

The Chinese fishing vessels and uncertainty about the EEZ and NLL are only two precarious factors in the equation of inter-Korean tensions. As late as May this year, naval vessels from North and South exchanged artillery fire across the NLL; though no damage or casualties were reported, residents of a nearby island were evacuated. With Pyongyang recently reaching out to its other neighbors (Moscow and Tokyo), the question of whether the upcoming events listed in this column will somehow spark contentions remains hazy.

Yonhap reports on the political brouhaha surrounding remarks made by Moon Chang-geuk, a former editor-in-chief of the Joongang Daily and the current nominee for prime minister. “[A]n elder of a big church in Seoul,” Moon is reported to have said that “colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the subsequent division of the peninsula into capitalistic South Korea and communist North Korea were God’s will.” A “devout Christian,” according to at least one source, Moon allegedly made “many controversial remarks during his religious sermons.” He is also under the gun for suggesting that South Korea must accept Japan’s apology for the comfort women issue in order to join the ranks of advanced nations. Moon has since backed away from that stance, asking why Japan has yet to offer a “sincere” apology. He has also apologized to those he may have offended and explained that his message regarding the division of the peninsula was intended for Christians–that is “people who believe every part of their lives is related to God’s will.” 

The issue of Christian worldviews and the comfort women issue aside, the latest cabinet controversy can be understood as a microcosm of a society-wide debate on South Korea’s contentious modern history. With a historical narrative rooted in anti-Japanese resistance and a social and political culture still mired in “legacy politics,” this debate is as polarized as they come. This historical disagreement has now manifested into a political crisis, stifling the administration’s ability to govern, as the mainstream parties take advantage of the ideational divide for political gain.

Defying his burgeoning unpopularity, Moon Chang-geuk began work, and the scrums that envelope his arrivals and departures from Central Government Complex are proving to be a media goldmine.

Arriving at 07:20 on June 17, Yonhap reports how Moon was asked by reporters how he felt at news that a ruling party lawmaker had said he should resign, to which he responded, “I have not thought that way so far.” It is his intention to explain himself to the National Assembly at his confirmation hearing. Allowing him to do so remains the default position of the ruling Saenuri Party at the time of writing, one described by lawmaker Lee Wan-gu on June 16 as how a “mature democracy” should proceed.

However, the goal of the opposition NPAD is not to allow Moon to get that far. On June 16, party co-leader Kim Han-gil justified this seemingly undemocratic stance on the basis that Moon is a “preposterous” candidate “counter to the spirit of the constitution.” What he didn’t mention was the South Korean progressive tradition of employing out-of-parliament politics (장외정치), partly to counter an overweening executive branch and partly in deference to the left’s legacy of struggle against authoritarianism, which some (mistakenly) believe still exists.

Media coverage looks not only to the seas but also to the small islands in the West Sea that find themselves caught between inter-Korean tensions—perhaps reasonably so, as the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in 2010 proves that naval vessels are not the only targets. As Yonsei University professor John Delury points out in this Reuters article (as quoted in the tweet above), Chinese fishermen are a wildcard, and might potentially disrupt the already unstable waters around the NLL. Their visible presence shakes the confidence of leaders and residents alike.

Such fear has been well covered in the past—as media reporting last year of both Baekryong Island and Yeonpyeong Island demonstrate—and while for some residents the media mongering of the issue means uncertainty and fear, other residents of these territories on the border look to other cues for their safety. As one farmer interviewed in this Reuters story reasons, Chinese fishermen would not risk their lives to fight over fish, so their presence acts “barometer of safety, [rather] than a threat.” Apparently, for some Korean island residents the Chinese fishermen are an accepted part of their seascape.

The Wall Street Journal breaks down recently released data from Seoul City Hall on Seoulites’ attitudes towards marriage. The data shows that “citizens are showing an increasingly lax attitude toward matrimony.” On average, more people were  married last year in Seoul than in most of the developed world. The marriage rate of “fewer than seven out of 1,000” was, however, the lowest on record for Seoul. Furthermore, between 2008 and 2012, the number of people who said marriage was a necessity dropped from 68 percent to 62.4 percent, while a significantly less number of people said they oppose divorce (44.8 percent, down from 57.3 percent).

There are at least two ways to read this data. People like Amartya Sen, taking cue from early rationalist thought, might chalk up the decision to postpone or altogether forego marriage (or abscond the institution of marriage through divorce) to “the progress of reason.” With a higher mean level of education for women and more opportunities to join the workforce, the social and economic constraints of married-life are suddenly less than appealing. In short: higher levels of education plus social and economic opportunity equals a “flight from marriage.” A less sanguine reading (if you are a social progressive), is that the decline in marriages and the increase in the acceptance of divorce is a worrying indicator that the social fabric of South Korean society is under great strain, the consequences of which can be seen manifested elsewhere.

Although progressives failed to achieve a decisive victory against the ruling party in the June 4 local elections, progressive candidates took 13 of 17 spots for school superintendents in metropolitan cities and provinces. The Hankyoreh reports that conservatives are calling for the abolition of the direction election system for superintendents, to be replaced by an appointment system. Just a day after the local elections, the conservative Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations (KFTA) announced that a request would be put forward for a review of the direct election system for school superintendents. The implication is that this is a deliberate political move by conservatives to undermine an electoral upper hand held progressives in the current system. Until the Roh Moo-hyun administration, school superintendents were appointed, rather than directly elected.

With progressives scoring an electoral victory for superintendent posts, Adrian Foster-Carter concludes that “there is no doubt South Korea’s education wars are about to heat up.” With an ongoing battle between the Ministry of Education and progressive lawmakers over the content of history textbooks and the always contentious Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) vowing to go toe-to-toe with the Ministry of Education. In fact, Foster-Carter finds that eight of the thirteen elected superintendents have KTU connections. An education war does, indeed, seem likely.

An eight-day strike by unionized KBS journalists and production staff ended on June 5 when its main demand was met: the head of the broadcaster, Gil Hwan-young, was dismissed by its board of directors.

However, an editorial in the following day’s Hankyoreh warned that Kim’s ouster ought to be just the beginning of a program of essential reforms to the state broadcaster, which stands accused of lacking independence and being vulnerable to government meddling. In particular, the editorial notes the need for reform of the method of selecting the head of both KBS and MBC, a responsibility that ultimately lies with the president. An outstanding description (in English) of the South Korean mediascape is here, while readers might also recall that private cable broadcasters such as TV Chosun and Channel-A are no less controversial.


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