Saenuri Party Triumphant: #Shigak no. 10

By | August 10, 2014 | No Comments

Saenuri Party official logo. In the recent by-elections, the ruling conservative party took an impressive 11/15 seats. Saenuri candidate Lee Jeong-hyeon delivered the coup de grace to the NPAD by winning a seat in the long-time liberal home turf of South Jeolla Province. | Image: Wikicommons/

Saenuri Party official logo. In the recent by-elections, the ruling conservative party took an impressive 11/15 seats. Saenuri candidate Lee Jeong-hyeon delivered the coup de grace to the NPAD by winning a seat in the long-time liberal home turf of South Jeolla Province. | Image: Wikipedia/

“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, Yong Kwon, and Christopher Green. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page.

Saenuri Party Triumphant: #Shigak no. 10

The landslide victory of the Saenuri Party over the NPAD in the July 30 by-elections not only gave the ruling party a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, but also secured Kim Moo-sung’s leadership position in his party. The big surprise this election season was the victory of conservative candidate Lee Jeong-hyeon in the NPAD home turf of South Jeolla province, sparking discussions on whether this signaled the end of the long-entrenched regionalism in South Korean politics. At the same time, the election results themselves do not appear to be a renewal of the public’s confidence in the Park Geun-hye administration or the South Korean state. For instance, the ongoing trial of Lee Seok-gi, an assemblyman charged with plotting treason, have provoked strong emotions on both sides of the political spectrum, with many groups advocating for his release. In addition, some experts have raised issues surrounding Seoul’s recent efforts to further promote South Korea’s economic relationship with China, citing the undue political influence Beijing will have over the country as a result. However, the public’s discontent may be more indicative of the “decline of deference” in South Korea which is also evident in many other advanced industrial societies.

In other news, autonomous private high schools have been put on the chopping block by the newly-elected superintendent of Seoul because some studies suggest that these institutions are damaging public education. While the educational sector struggles with fairness, the government is advancing initiatives to help multiethnic families acclimate to life in the predominantly monoethnic society. The socially-conscious approach to issues is also evident in the National Intelligence Service’s new procedures in screening defectors from the North.

On the subject of North Korea, a survey conducted by Chosun Ilbo of North Koreans along the Sino-DPRK border revealed that the correspondents felt closer to China than South Korea, but were still in favor of unification on economic grounds. Meanwhile, faced with international criticism over its human rights record, Pyongyang is attempting to turn the spotlight on South Korea for having allegedly assisted with prostitution in US army bases in the country.

The following tweets were posted between July 20 and August 3.

One significant consequence of the Saenuri Party’s victory in the July 30th by-election has been the consolidation of Kim Moo-sung’s leadership position within the ruling party. Had Saenuri lost the elections, his nascent leadership would have been seriously undermined. However, Kim can now “innovate” the party and nominate his close associates for the upcoming 2016 General Election. Polls also show that Kim has the highest approval rating among other presidential hopefuls for the 2017 elections, ahead of Park Won-soon, Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo. Even if he does not run in 2017, he can become a kingmaker.

The by-election results also have implications for South Korea’s regionalism. Saenuri Party candidate Lee Jung-hyun’s victory in South Jeolla Province was the most surprising outcome this political season. This was the first time since 1988 that a progressive candidate had lost in this constituency. As Steven Denney noted earlier, regionalism is very divisive in South Korean politics. Progressive voters have expressed their clear disaffection with the NPAD by electing a Saenuri politician. It is unclear whether Lee’s victory in South Jeolla will lead to substantial changes in regional politics, but it may contribute to the constituents focusing more on issue-based politics rather than regional loyalties.

Following the very public publication of the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights in early spring 2014, KCNA has been trying to turn the spotlight on human rights violations away from its own domestic issues to the nations accusing North Korea. Citing a Rodong Shinmun article from July 31, North Korea highlights the position of the US Department of Defense on trafficking in persons. This is likely in response to a lawsuit brought to South Korean courts by more than 100 women who accuse the US forces and the South Korean government as colluding to supervise the comfort women system in the 1950s while reasserting that there are no human rights violations in North Korea.

Though symbolic, the fact that South Korea is making both nominal and substantive changes to its interrogation process for North Koreans arriving in the South may be a reflection of changing attitudes. While the National Intelligence Service’s facility name-change to “defector protection center” from “joint interrogation center” might be easily brushed aside as a superficial change, what is more significant are other developments, such as hiring female attorneys full-time to reflect the disproportionate number of North Korean refugees reaching South Korea who are female—nearly 70 percent in 2013. This may be yet another step in recognizing that more support needs to be provided to female North Koreans, who face immense social and economic stressors even while they’ve found democratic freedom.

July 30 by-elections ended with the Saenuri Party’s victory. The ruling party won 11 constituencies out 15 while the NPAD only won four. NPAD’s former leader Ahn Cheol-soo had stated before the election that he would consider it a success if the NPAD won 5 National Assembly seats. Following the defeat, NPAD’s former co-leader Kim Han-gil lamented that “it was an election that they [the NPAD] should have won.” Both Kim and Ahn have resigned from the leadership of NPAD.

Some analysts believe that this election was NPAD’s to lose. The Park administration and Saenuri were vulnerable because they were suffering from politicization of Sewol inquiry and unending nomination scandals. However, the NPAD had once again failed to generate support. In addition, the NPAD was held down by strategic nomination controversies from the beginning. They also lacked policy substances. The NPAD had made its entire campaign revolve around judging Saenuri, but they themselves did not provide alternative solutions on issues that ordinary South Koreans faced. Furthermore, the opposition parties had largely failed to cooperate with one another. Had they compromised on a candidate earlier, it is likely that they would have won in the key constituency of Dongjak. While the NPAD was born from the coalition between the Democratic Party and Ahn’s New Politics Alliance, Ahn was unable to prove that he could do politics differently. It will be interesting to see how the recent by-election results will change his relationship with the NPAD and also, what kind of impact it will have on his prospects as a candidate for president.

On July 28, prosecutors applied to have the prison sentence handed down to Lee Seok-ki extended to a total of twenty years. This is the same sentence sought at Lee’s first trial, which ended at Suwon District Court on February 18; at the time, he was jailed for just twelve years, and his co-conspirators for between four and seven. Lee announced his intention to appeal shortly after his initial conviction, predictably accusing South Korea’s state intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service, of fabricating the charges against him. The appeal is due to conclude on August 11.

At the same time, Chosun Ilbo was distinctly unhappy when religious leaders from the four main religions in South Korea; Catholic, Jogye and Won Buddhist, and Christian, submitted a petition seeking clemency for Lee and his six co-defendants. It pointed out that the seven men have failed to show contrition for plotting to overthrow the state during meetings held in western Seoul during the first half of 2013.

On an affiliated note, on July 30 VOP, or Voice of the People (민중의 소리), an ultra-left wing online news source, reported that 72 civil society leaders from 18 countries had submitted a petition urging the release of Lee and his co-defendants. However, the signatories to the petition are unverifiable, as no evidence whatsoever was presented of who they are.

Meanwhile, Daily NK reminds us of why Lee Seok-ki’s arrival as a legitimately elected politician got so many people worried back in 2012, noting his role in the Minhyeokdang (민족민주혁명당) scandal of the late 1990s.

Chosun Ilbo recently reported the results from a survey it conducted in the China-North Korea borderlands. Over three days in early July, Chosun surveyed 100 visa-holding North Koreans on an array of issues. Christopher Green provides a glimpse at the results with a translation of the main findings in a recent article at the Jangmadang. The respondents report feeling a “positive emotional attachment” to the South Korean people but think unification is necessary not on ethnic or ideational grounds, but for economic reason. “Indeed, the main reason why most respondents say they regard unification as necessary,” writes Green, “is to bring about the economic development of North Korea. Where 49% say this, a mere 25% state the need to unify for the emotional goal of bringing about societal unity.” Notably, the respondents say they feel closer to China (76%) than South Korea (19%). Further, “no fewer than 65% of respondents indicate that they are either ‘exceedingly proud’ or ‘moderately proud’ of the Juche idea. Only 35% express some level of ambivalence toward the Kimist version of what Hwang Jang-yop called his ‘human-centered philosophy.’”

Among the many interesting findings from the survey, those cited above represent some of the more notable social consequences of a 70-year-long division between North and South Korea. In addition to fostering a distinct national identity (read the “Juche idea” as a proxy for the state), and in some part because of it, North Koreans are primarily concerned with how to improve North Korea’s economic conditions. As noted elsewhere, the long divide has had lasting effects on South Korean national identify and political attitudes; so it goes in the North. Rather than the lofty notion of uniting a divided nation, respondents show more concern with improving their own livelihoods. It is little wonder that an overwhelmingly majority of respondents identify with China over South Korea.

Controversies are brewing over Seoul’s newly elected education superintendent Cho Hi-yeon’s decision to reevaluate and close Korea’s autonomous private high school (자립형 사립 고등학교). Mr. Cho said that there will be a reevaluation of 14 autonomous high schools and if they do not meet standards of the reevaluation they will be shut-down and converted back to regular high schools. However, he added that the possible closing of the schools will be delayed until 2016. There are 49 autonomous high schools in South Korea and the education superintendents alongside critics believe that they are elitist institutions that contribute to growing inequality in South Korea’s public education. These autonomous high schools do net rely on government financial support and they enjoy greater flexibility in both accepting students and choosing their own curriculum.

A study shows that Seoul’s top universities are accepting less than 50% students from regular high schools. They are accepting more students from elite high schools. In a recent interview with JTBC, Mr. Cho reaffirmed his commitment to shutting down autonomous high schools and introducing second standardization of high school education. Furthermore, he had expressed his interest in even reforming, special purpose high schools (특수목적 고등학교) such as foreign language high school and science high school. He had stated “those special purpose high schools have deviated from their original goals,” essentially becoming a prep school for top university such as medical school. He suggested that this vertical trend where special purpose high schools and autonomous high schools are at the top and regular high schools are at the bottom is damaging public education. However, opponents of Mr. Cho’s decision say that autonomous private high schools are actually contributing to the quality of high school education. It will be interesting to watch whether Mr. Cho and other education superintendents can reform South Korea’s education system without its ultra-competitive university entrance exam.

Yonhap reports that “experts” are concerned that “China’s growing influence in the South Korean economy may turn into [a] serious problem across industries….” It also notes that China “accounted for 21.9 percent of [South Korea’s] total shipments abroad last year, while the portion of imports came to 16.3 percent….”

What the experts are likely most concerned with is the country’s structure of foreign trade. South Korea has a highly asymmetric trading relationship with China. This, as political economist Albert Hirschman theorized, gives Beijing (the more powerful in the relationship) political leverage over Seoul. Trade, as America’s architects of the post-War “hub-and-spokes” system understood, can be politicized in order to achieve broader geopolitical goals. With a “trade to GDP ratio” of 110.9 (an economic indicator which shows how dependent countries are on exports to fuel economic growth), the more reliant South Korea becomes on China’s economy to maintain economic growth and stability, the weaker its position is vis-à-vis Beijing in the event of a geopolitical conflagration.

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies reports that, as a consequence of recent scandals and other government mishaps, trust in public institutions has taken a hit. Unsurprisingly, the disorganized and borderline negligent response to the Sewol ferry sinking, allegations that the military and the NIS meddled in the 2012 election, and the difficulties faced by the Park Geun-hye administration in executing even basic administrative tasks (e.g., forming a government) has left many citizens frustrated. Confidence in the presidency, the military, and the national government saw significant decreases.

The recent drop in confidence levels is likely an immediate response to government mismanagement and a consequence of the tragic loss of life in the ferry sinking. There is, however, a broader trend at work. According to the post-materialism theory, pioneered by political scientist Ronald Inglehart and his collaborators, all citizens in advanced industrial societies are less likely now than they were 25 years ago to show high levels of deference to institutions of authority. It is, according to the theory, a natural consequence of socioeconomic development. Data from the World Values Survey (used by Inglehart) confirms the theory; it also shows Korea following a trajectory similar to other developed countries. Notably, the “decline of deference” does not mean a rise in chaotic or anarchic behavior; rather, according to Russell Dalton, post-material values include: “individualized and inwardly oriented styles of making political decisions,” more direct forms of political participation, and the development of “eclectic and egocentric patterns of citizen action.” These are, according to Dalton, Inglehart, and others, the stuff that sustains democracy.

Due to visible demographic shifts in South Korea, many Koreans associate foreign residents with increasing international marriages. International marriage accounted for approximately 148,500 cases in 2012 (the most recent government figures available)— over 10 percent of all foreigners residing in Korea are married to South Koreans. The South Korean government has indeed stepped up its effort in aiding these families transition to life in what is arguably a monoethnic state, particularly via its damunhwa (“multiculturalism”) initiative, which is most visible via two divisions within the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family: the Multicultural Family Policy Division and the Multicultural Family Support Division. The issue is not only providing proper support—via informed policies and accommodating laws—for the immigrants themselves, but also helping define what a multicultural Korea means.

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