A Bundle of Bills in November: #Shigak no. 16

By | November 27, 2014 | No Comments

Screenshot from the Schoolhouse Rock video "I'm Just a Bill" | Image: Disney Educational Productions/YouTube

Screenshot from the Schoolhouse Rock video, “I’m Just a Bill” | Image: Disney Educational Productions/YouTube

“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.

A Bundle of Bills in November: #Shigak no. 16

by Sino-NK

Earlier in the year, people took to describing the South Korean National Assembly as in a “vegetative state.” How things have changed. The legislative branch of the nation’s government has been busy. During the first few weeks of November, a bundle of bills passed on controversial and politically divided issues: the Sewol ferry incident and welfare reform, to name but two. This issue of Shigak covers the content and politics of the recently passed legislation, in addition to other developments in South Korea: a temporary workers strike, (another) Korea-Japan dispute involving the islets known to Koreans as Dokdo, controversy over a semi-nude photo, and the Korea-China free trade agreement.

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

On November 7, almost seven months after the Sewol sank off the southwest coast of the Korean Peninsula with the loss of 300+ lives, South Korean lawmakers reached a compromise that saw a package of three pieces of legislation pass the National Assembly.

The first of the three bills, the Sewol Special Act (세월호특별법; or 4.16세월호참사 진상규명 및 안전사회 건설 등을 위한 특별법), which enters force on January 1, 2015, clears the way for the formation of a Special Investigation Committee that will spend 18 months looking at all aspects of the sinking and subsequent bungled rescue effort. It passed by 212-12 with 27 abstentions. The second, the National Government Organization Act (정부조직법), which deals with institutional reforms to improve disaster response and management, passed by 146-71 with 32 abstentions. It “aims to reorganize some branches of the government, including the Coast Guard.” While it will not technically “abolish” the Coast Guard (something Steven Denney has explored elsewhere), “management will be shifted to a new office of public safety under the Prime Minister’s Office.” Finally, the third bill, the Yu Byeong-eon Act (범죄수익은닉의 규제 및 처벌 등에 관한 법률), aims to punish those who conceal gains derived from criminal acts. It passed by 224-4 with just 17 abstentions. The bill is nicknamed after the dangerously eccentric owner of the Sewol and its parent company Cheonghaejin Marine Co. Ltd, Yu Byeong-eon (유병언, alternative Romanization Yoo Byung-eun). The latter two laws went into force on November 19, 2014.

Arguably the most significant of the three is the “special act,” which, as noted above and in a Joongang Ilbo breakdown, mandates the formation of “a 17-member special investigative committee… to probe the sinking.” As Sink-NK explored previously, this bill was the cause of much disagreement between both parties and the victims’ families (who were assured a role). A special prosecutor will lead the committee; he or she will be chosen by President Park Geun-hye from a pool of candidates nominated by the ruling Saenuri and main opposition party, and then approved by the ferry victims’ families.

On November 20 and 21 temporary school workers in schools across the country went on strike. Lead by the Korean School Temporary Workers’ Union (KSTWU), the workers are demanding pay for lunch breaks and vacations. While regular workers are given a 130,000 won budget for lunch, temporary workers must spend around 70,000 won per month on lunches, it is claimed. According to The Korea Times, there are about 300,000 temporary workers, “accounting for a great number of cleaning and cooking staff, as well as specialized English teachers.” They make a barely livable 1.3 million won (USD 1180) per month.

As covered elsewhere, temporary employment is on the rise in South Korea, and with it a growing sense of precariousness among many social classes. Indeed, as a recent protest atop a digital billboard in central Seoul by two non-regular contract workers attests, the labor market since the reforms of 1997-1998 has become less stable. There is also the very serious, and highly connected, issue of rising income inequality.

Legislation known to most as the “Three Mother-Daughter Act” was approved by the National Assembly. The legislation, three bills in total, is “aimed at expanding the scope of beneficiaries of the national basic livelihood social security system,” according to the The Korea Times. The special name comes from a tragic triple suicide earlier this year in which a mother and her two daughters, bogged down by interconnected physical and financial ailments, decided to take their own lives. A note and 700,000 won in cash were left behind for rent. The letter read: “To our landlord, we are so sorry, this is the last month’s rent and utility bill payment to you.”

Impetus for both parties to address the issue of South Korea’s weak social safety net has derived from public outcry at this tragedy, which took place in a neighborhood in Songpa-gu, Seoul, not far from the affluence of central Gangnam. The title to one article that covered it read: “Suicide of Three Women in Poverty Highlights S. Korea’s Fragile Safety Net, Drawing Despair Online.” And while South Koreans certainly are not “killing themselves in droves,” as one badly titled article put it, there are a number of social indicators (suicide being one) that evidence the need for better social protections.

For those who watch the South Korean TV show “Super Star K” (슈스케), the name Lee Seung-chul may be familiar. On November 9, Lee arrived at Haneda airport in Tokyo, but was detained for four hours and eventually denied entry. The incident has done nothing to help already tumultuous Korea-Japan relations.

It is speculated that Lee was denied entry to Japan because of his song about Dokdo, entitled “The Day.” The song’s music video features Lee and a choir singing together on the island. However, a Japanese government spokesperson rejected the idea. The bilateral dispute over Dokdo, along with other historical issues, has long been a source of tension and hostility between Korea and Japan. Moreover, as Japan has an election forthcoming, Prime Minister Abe may not want to talk about Japan’s past, the better to seek support from conservatives. As an aside (but a very relevant aside), the South Korean government has also been known to refuse entry to foreigners who are critical of the government.

Prosecutors were denied their apparent wish to see the captain of the Sewol handed the death penalty for murder at the culmination of the trial of 15 members of the vessel’s crew in Gwangju on November 11.

Instead, Lee Jun-seok was jailed for 36 years for failing to take the steps required to save passengers in an emergency. First Mate Kang Won-sik and Second Mate Kim Yeong-ho received sentences of 20 and 15 years respectively. The vessel’s chief engineer was given 30 years for willful negligence, accused of “abandoning two seriously injured cooks whom he could have saved,” in the words of the New York Times.

Although the sentences were met with consternation in the courthouse, the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty in the first place was not universally popular. In any event, the court sided with the naysayers, noting:

Given that there is not enough evidence to say that Mr. Lee did not issue an order to abandon ship, and the fact that the Coast Guard rescue effort was under way at the time, it is difficult to conclude that Mr. Lee was aware that passengers could die as a result of his actions. (Translated from original Korean)

The Department of Dance within Chonbuk National University College of Art made brief headlines on November 11 when seniors opted to advertise an impending graduation performance with a semi-naked image. The group of 17 women and one man appeared on the poster dressed only in jeans, a move which elicited responses such as “it’s outstanding,” according to one article.

The graduation performance was held in the North Jeolla Province city of Jeonju on November 26. It is unclear whether the unconventional advertizing strategy yielded a larger-than-expected audience.

On November 10 during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, PRC President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced that the two countries have reached agreement on the keenly anticipated Korea-China FTA. The agreement will (eventually) eliminate 90 percent of import tariffs in 17 different areas, although both sides have cordoned off some areas of their domestic markets. For instance, 30 percent of agricultural and fishery products will be excluded from the FTA. The agreement, which requires review and ratification, was reached after 30 months of negotiations.

China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. In 2013, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to USD $228.9 billion, which constitutes 21 percent of Korea’s total trade. In the past decade, Korea and China’s economic relationship has been growing closer, and a Sino-Korean FTA will bind the two even closer. Some observers point out that although two countries maintain dynamic economic relations, they do not share the same level of political and security ties. Korea relies heavily on China for economic growth but on the U.S.-Korea alliance for security. For instance, the U.S. is mulling over deploying a missile defense system called “Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense” (or THAAD) to the Korean Peninsula. The deployment of missile systems such as this could potentially cause diplomatic tensions between China and Korea, since the Chinese fear that THAAD could be used to neutralize their missile capabilities. This greatly complicates South Korea’s position. How President Park manages relations with China and the US may be one of the most consequential and significant aspects of her administration.

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