Political Deadlock in the ROK: #Shigak no. 11

By | September 04, 2014 | No Comments

A temporary memorial to the Sewol ferry victims is located in the grassy area in front of Seoul City Hall. Much political wrangling has taken place over the content of the Sewol special bill. | Image: Darcie Draudt/Sino-NK

A temporary memorial to the Sewol ferry victims is located in the grassy area in front of Seoul City Hall. Much political wrangling has taken place over the content of the Sewol special bill. | Image: Darcie Draudt/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, Yong Kwon, and Christopher Green. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page.

Political Deadlock in the ROK: #Shigak no. 11

by Sino-NK

The month of August was defined politically by the outcome of the July 30 by-elections and the ongoing struggle over the Sewol special bill. With the liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) reeling from its unexpected electoral defeat to the ruling Saenuri Party, politics have become particularly divisive. The divineness is institutionally aggravated by a 2013 constitutional amendment which requires consent from 3/5 of the national assembly members before a bill can be put to vote. With political compromise becoming more elusive by the day, civil society–particularly the families of Sewol victims–is becoming increasingly frustrated.

Other topics getting attention in August are related to the health and well-being of South Korean society–an increasingly popular topic in media, academic, and government discourses. A string of tragedies in the military have precipitated a nation-wide debate on the treatment of young soldiers, mainly of whom are hazed and abused in one of Korea’s most conservative institutions. Further, interesting data released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates that those with the necessary resources are intentionally relocating outside of Korea, citing the inadequacies in Korea’s welfare state policies as a reason for migrating.

Others topics covered are North Korea’s flip-flopping on its decision to send a cheering squad to the Asian Games and South Korea’s diplomatic foray into Eurasia, particularly its efforts to establish the ROK-Mongolia Joint Committee.

The following tweets were posted between August 4 and August 31.

According to Yonhap, North Korea will no longer be sending their cheering squad to the Asian Games, stating that the South Korean government is using “sports and cultural exchange” for “political purpose.” However, North Korea will still participate in the Asian Games, which will be held on September 19th to October 4, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea.

On August 17, The North Korean government sent condolence flowers to South Korea for the fifth anniversary of President Kim Dae-Jung’s death. President Kim’s long time aid Park Ji-won and the architect of the Sunshine Policy Lim Dong-won and President Kim’s son, Kim Hong-up went to North Korea to receive the flowers. It was reported that Kim Yang-gon, head of the Worker’s Party of Korea United Front Department and secretary for South Korea related affairs, greeted the South Korean delegation.

In an interview, Park Ji-won suggested that during his meeting with the North Korean delegation, the North Korean side had complained about President Lee Myung-bak and blamed him for the collapse of inter-Korea dialogue but are hopeful that President Park is different from her predecessor. Park also added that North Korea wants to start a dialogue with South Korea but does not want to fulfill any preconditions for entering negotiation, such as denuclearization. President Park, since taking office, has put denuclearization as her key North Korea policy; therefore, it has yet to be seen whether her administration can start a substantive dialogue with North Korea.

Yonhap reports that over 2,000 Koreans have joined the families of Sewol Ferry disaster victims in protest against the Sewol special bill. For weeks, the victims’ families and sympathetic protesters have been stationed in Gwanghwamun demanding to see President Park and asking politicians to pass the ferry bill. Tensions grew when one of the victims’ families, Kim Young-ho was hospitalized after conducting a hunger strike for 46 days.

According to Joongang Ilbo’s breakdown of the bill, there are two contentious points to the bill. First, the bill will set up an investigative committee tasked with finding out what had caused the accident and those responsible for it. Victims’ families are demanding that the committee have power of investigation and indictment. However, the Saenuri party has refused on the grounds that giving the power of investigation and indictment to a civilian committee will be unconstitutional. Both sides are refusing to negotiate this point. The second contentious point regards the selection of the committee members. Victims’ families are demanding that the Saenuri Party not have any power in appointing the committee members because they fear that a Saenuri-appointed committee will be pro-government. Saenuri is not willing to concede on this point either.

This continuing trend of political gridlock is forcing the victims’ families and opposition part members to resort to protests and hunger strikes. It is likely that the bad atmosphere will continue between the ruling Saenuri Party and opposition parties as the new session of National Assembly starts in September.

JTBC reports on the ongoing political debate over the Sewol special bill in the run-up to the start of the National Assembly’s 100-day regular session, which begins September 1. The ruling and main opposition party (New Politics Alliance for Democracy, or NPAD) are at loggerheads as to how to proceed (see above). Even extraordinary sessions failed to produce a final agreement on the bill which would create a special investigative counsel to look into the government’s handling of the ferry disaster.

While the stalemate persists, opposition party members have continued to encourage “outside struggle” so as to put pressure on the ruling party and the Park Geun-hye administration (which has vowed to stay out of the bill drafting process) to make concessions favorable to their cause. Yet, while the opposition debates which type of struggle is best (an internally divisive debate), public support for the party has plummeted (see tweets below).

New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), the opposition party in the South Korean parliament which faced an upset in July’s by-elections, has been struggling to resonate with voters, as indicated by increasingly abysmal approval ratings from Gallup Korea polling (see below). The August drop to the low-20s follows a downward trend since support for the party peaked in mid-June at a high of 31 percent. Despite their lack of popularity, the minority voice has found a way to exert power by refusing compromise, which has lead to frequent deadlock the National Assembly.

Over the past year, the Park administration has been ramping up its Eurasia Initiative, hosting a variety of events in Seoul as well as making presidential trips abroad from June 16 through 22 with stops in Central Asia. Park aims to build up ties largely for the purposes of energy and trade, including building up trade routes such as the “Silk Road Express” that dovetails with Russia’s own ambitions as connector between East and West.

Though Seoul established diplomatic relations with Ulaan Bator in 1990, Mongolia’s involvement on the peninsula is by no means new. Most recently, South Korea’s foreign minister Yun Byung-se sought agreement to establish the ROK-Mongolia Joint Committee during his latest visit at the end of August. The visit takes on a different significance when considered in tandem with DPRK foreign minister Ri Su-yong’s meeting with the Mongolian president in July. North Korea has retained relatively stable relations with Mongolia since the mid-1990s.

An article in the Hankyoreh (Tweet #1) reports on the increase in emigration to Northern Europe. Despite local backlash at what is seen as “welfare shopping,” numbers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that between 2011 and 2012 there were significant spikes in the Korean populations (especially those in their 30s and 40s) in Denmark and the Netherlands, with smaller increases in Norway and Luxembourg. Stressful working environments and lack of welfare support were cited as reasons for wanting to move to emigrate.

Aside from highlighting the social strains of South Korea’s undeveloped welfare state and the breakdown in the “welfare society” (Tweet #2), the article has implications for the study of Korean identity and national identity more generally. In a materially abundant age, some Koreans are choosing an alternative identity—to be an expatriate. Furthermore, similar to the findings of Daniel Posner in his work on the effect of institutions and ethnic politics in identity formation, this article underscores the interaction between institutional context and identity formation, with an emphasis on the fluidity of identity; there is choice in identity formation.

KCNA has a habit of pointing out the specks in the eyes of others, but this one has been picked up in the ROK as well. News in August of one soldier dying from abuse at the hands of senior soldiers and two other soldiers found dead in apparent suicides—adding to a previous incident where a soldier killed five compatriots and attempted to shoot himself—brings to light the increasingly visible and concerning dissatisfaction with life for some in South Korea, which currently has the highest recorded rate of suicide among OECD countries. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among youth in South Korea. North of the DMZ, North Korea’s suicide rate is also quite staggering, according to the World Health Organization.

Gallup Korea finds support for the liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) has dropped following its electoral defeat on July 30. The defeat led to the resignations of Kim Han-gil and Ahn Cheol-soo from party leadership positions (the two assemblymen had served as co-chairs). The ruling Saenuri Party won 11 of the 15 seats under contention, including in the liberal stronghold of South Jeolla, despite the decline of Park Geun-hye’s approval rating following the Sewol ferry disaster.

The electoral defeat is a sure sign that the liberal opposition party is out of sync with voters. Even with favorable political conditions, NPAD was unable to score a victory at the polls. Post-election analyses point to the problem of intra-party strife and an anachronistic political strategy. Competition between political “factions” and a vague political message of “struggle” does not an electable party make. As one South Jeolla resident remarked in a post-election interview: “This is no longer the era of Kim Dae-jung and democratic struggle. The regional economies must also be considered important.”

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