Coal Knows No Boundaries: #Shigak no. 16

By | December 17, 2014 | No Comments

POSCO Works at Pohang, South Korea | Image: ,a href="">Jacob Hong/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

POSCO Works at Pohang, South Korea | Image: Jacob Hong/Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

“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.

Coal Knows No Boundaries: #Shigak no. 16

by Sino-NK

This issue of Shigak covers some of the more noteworthy stories from the last four weeks. As “memogate” continues to dominate the domestic political news cycle in South Korea, few probably noticed the report on the 45,000 tons of coal that arrived in Pohang via Rajin or that the National Assembly passed the 2015 budget on time (a first in 12 years). And perhaps even fewer noticed the brewing factional struggle within the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy over who will replace the interim chairperson (Moon Sang-hee) as permanent chair. Other stories covered here include Park’s “regulatory revolution,” cheap dresses, revolutionary education in North Korea, and the politics of launching propaganda-filled balloons into North Korea.

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

The latest political imbroglio in South Korea involves the Blue House and staff from a minor daily, the Segye Ilbo, over a leaked presidential memo. Several presidential aides are suing five reporters and one editor from Segye for defamation. The memo states that Chung Yoon-hui, a former political aid to Park Geun-hye, has continued to exert his influence behind the scenes, regularly meeting with Blue House staff. The Blue House strongly denies such allegations. A short, but pithy, summary of the events is available in English via the Wall Street Journal. As the summary, penned by Aidan Foster-Carter, explains: “It’s hard to unravel and follow all the threads, let alone assess the truth at this stage. Lawsuits, from on high like arrows, are scaring off proper discussion.”

The more noteworthy lawsuits involve the presidential aides and the “Segye six,” as Foster-Carter has taken to calling them. These lawsuits are significant because they show the speed and intensity to which journalists can come under legal heat in South Korea. The event also shows the extent to which the government is willing to exert its power and influence over different segments of society (e.g., the media). “Memogate” is also personal for Park Geun-hye, who has inserted herself into the political fray. The leaked memo contains information which suggests a power struggle is brewing within the Blue House “between a group of presidential aides and [Park’s] younger brother, Park Ji-man.” (see tweet #2) President Park has voiced her concern over the possibility that the content of the memo is false. “Making claims without checking basic facts will put the nation into chaos and cause conflict within our society,” she is quoted as saying.

While Park’s unwillingness to stay above the fray is for some just another example of the way Park, the daughter of developmental dictator Park Chung-hee, is channeling her own dictatorial tendencies, others see things differently. As Joshua Stanton shows (see tweet #2), the government using its power and resources to censure or otherwise stifle press freedom is as common a exercise for Park Geun-hye is as was for Kim Dae-jung.

Actress Kang So-ra made waves at the Mnet Asian Music Awards in Hong Kong on December 3 when she appeared on the red carpet wearing an off-the-peg dress worth 39,000 KRW, or approximately $35. This was swiftly compared with the dress worn by another actress, “Winter Sonata” star Choi Ji-woo, which has yet to be imported into South Korea and is believed to be worth approximately 300 times more.

Kang is best known for her recent appearances in the dramas Doctor Stranger and the phenomenally successful cult hit Misaeng, which is now airing on the cable network tvN.

The Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time has made a note of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s ever-growing list of colorful remarks. On November 24, in a cabinet meeting, President Park said that she would like to “put all unnecessary regulations to guillotine and achieve regulatory revolution.”

President Park’s aversion to “regulations” is nothing new. In the past she had compared unnecessary regulations to an enemy and cancer that must be defeated. Her use of extreme language is raising some eyebrows. There is a perception that President Park is not doing enough to communicate with the general public. In addition, there is a growing concern that her use of such words is creating a polarizing atmosphere where disagreement with the government’s agenda is perceived as disloyal. While the debate over “small government” versus “big government” does not define South Korean political discourse as much as in the US, President Park’s use of the word “regulation” could be seen as a wedge between the conservatives and progressives in Korea.

However, the president’s words can have unintended consequences. For example, in September of this year, President Park said, “insulting remarks towards the president are going over the limit.” Following that comment, the prosecutor’s office created a team that is dedicated in investigating false rumors on the Internet. President Park’s remarks and the prosecutor office’s Internet investigation has led to “cyber defections” from the South Korean mobile messenger KaKao Talk to Germany based Telegram.

Although rhetorically hardline, the administration of President Park Geun-hye has shifted policy toward North Korea. Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to allow South Korean investment in Rasun, a de facto abrogation of the May 24 Measure (5.24조치) that restricted inter-Korean trade and assistance following the sinking of the ROK Navy corvette “Cheonan” by a North Korean torpedo in March 2010.

The most recent manifestation of this flexible approach came on November 29, when 45,000 tons of Russian coal arrived in the South Korean port city of Pohang destined for the steelmaker POSCO. According to KBS, the delivery marks the “first fruits of the Rajin-Khasan Project.” In addition to the 54km railway line between Khasan and Rajin, the aforementioned project includes major overhaul of three North Korean railway tunnels: Manpo (301m), Unsan (490m), and Unra (3.8km), and the construction of a cargo terminal at Rajin. Originally a Russia-North Korea venture, three South Korean entities, POSCO, the recipient of the coal, as well as the South Korean state railways operator Korail and container shipping logistics firm Hyundai Merchant Marine Co., bought stakes in the undertaking in 2013.

By utilizing the North Korean port facilities, the cost of transporting coal from the Russian east to South Korea’s industrial heartland is expected to decline by as much as 15 percent. Other South Korean companies, including the state electricity provider Kepco, are mulling the possibility of participation.

According to a BBC report, “More than 120 former [US “camptown”] prostitutes, who are ageing and poor, are suing not the American authorities but their own government, demanding compensation of $10,000 (£6,360) each.” While the plight of these women has gained considerably more traction as of late, it is still not a particularly prominent (or welcome) tale in South Korea’s developmental story.

Interestingly, “Their argument is not that South Korea compelled them to work as prostitutes – this is not a case of sexual slavery – but that by instituting a system of official and compulsory check-ups on their sexual health, it was complicit, and facilitated a system which now leaves them in poverty.” The regulation of the sex industry during the Park Chung-hee years (despite it being nominally illegal) has gained more scholarly attention in recent books about the social history of military base culture in South Korea. This particular kind of “service economy” has lead some authors, like Jin Kyung-lee, to argue that, rather than the steel workers or economic bureaucrats, it is the working class (especially those working at the margins, like the sex workers now suing the Korean government) who made Korea’s economic “miracle” possible.

Despite the intense political deadlock earlier in the year, the South Korean National Assembly passed the 2015 budget before the December 2 deadline. While some reports note that the rush to meet the deadline may have resulted in some poorly planned spending, the budget represents a sustained commitment to increased spending on welfare (including health, education, and energy), among other commitments. Overall, the budget increased some 5.5 percent from the last year.

An investigative report by South Korea’s state broadcaster KBS revealed that the North Korean education authorities have formally added the study of revolutionary “history” concerning Kim Jong-un to the nation’s school curriculum.

The curriculum demands that students study Kim Jong-un for 81 hours in each period. Though this pales in comparison with the study of Kim Il-sung (160hrs) and Kim Jong-il (148hrs), not to mention Korean language and literature, history, and the one that trumps them all, English, the figures nevertheless indicate the scale of school time the “Mt. Baekdu” dictatorship remains prepared to invest in its own perpetuation.

Saenuri Party lawmaker and long-time campaigner for North Korean human rights, Ha Tae-kyung, hosted a press conference in which he denounced those participants in launching balloons toward North Korea who structure their activities around the demands of publicity and fundraising, rather than the efficacy of the balloons in terms of entering North Korean sovereign territory and bringing information to citizens on the ground.

Ha presented photographic evidence (shown above) indicating that a number of balloons launched toward North Korea in 2014 landed in diverse locales well inside South Korea: Yongin (top left; a satellite city of Seoul located in southern Gyeonggi Province), Uijeongbu (top right; a city north of Seoul characterized by a large US military presence), Yeoju (bottom left; a provincial region southeast of Seoul), and Pyongtaek (bottom right; a militarized West Sea port city and the most southerly of the four locations mentioned).

All the images were taken between January and October 2014, and all are of balloons launched by the organization Fighters for Free North Korea (자유북한운동연합). The group is run by Park Sang-hak, one of the most vocal and controversial figure in the field. A member of the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation, Park was famously the target of a foiled assassination attempt in 2011.

The main opposition party, New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), will hold an convention on February 8, 2015 to elect members to positions of leadership. Much of the South Korean media and political observers are carefully following what former presidential candidate Moon Jae-in will do. Moon’s decision to run or not, for the position of party chair, will shape the convention. He carries wide support within the NPAD, especially from the pro-Roh faction of the party (from which he hails). Other contenders (Chung Sye-kyun and Park Ji-won chief among them) may be encouraged or discouraged from running for the top leadership position depending on Moon’s decision.

However, Moon carries significant political baggage. There is a growing concern among progressives that the party convention is being taken over by factional struggle between the “Pro-Roh” and “Non-Roh” members of the party. NPAD’s preparatory committee for the convention has been working hard to overcome this problem by adopting rules to make factional fighting much harder. However, there are some disagreements among various factions regarding which rules to adopt for the upcoming convention (note the irony). NPAD will have a debate on December 8 to decide on the rules for the convention, including the composition and ratio of the electoral college.

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