An Unprecedented Ruling: #Shigak no. 18

By | January 17, 2015 | No Comments

The lead columns for the Hankyoreh and Chosun Ilbo the day after the court ruling to disband the UPP. Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

The leaders in Hankyoreh and Chosun Ilbo the day after the court ruling to disband the UPP. | 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 monthly 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.

An Unprecedented Ruling: #Shigak no. 18

by Sino-NK

Summary | So as to allow for time for stories and discourse to develop, Sino-NK has decided to extend the period of coverage for Shigak. Rather than publish bimonthly, we have decided to publish analysis on the latest news and develops in South Korea once per month. This issue of Shigak looks back on the unprecedented move by South Korea’s Constitutional Court to disband the Unified Progressive Party (UPP). Many different angles and perspectives are discussed. Other important stories are covered, including the race for opposition party leadership, new labor legislation, and some troubling developments at Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co.

On January 7, the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) held a primary election to select candidates for the party leadership. Voters selected candidates Park Ji-won, Moon Jae-in, and Lee In-young to run for the NPAD top job at the party’s national convention on February 8.

It has been noted that the national convention could end in another factional struggle between “pro-Roh” and “non-Roh” factions within the party. Moon is perceived as the front-runner and has the overwhelming support of the pro-Roh faction; his credentials are impeccable as he was once President Roh’s chief-of-staff. Park Ji-won was a close aide to the other left wing president in modern South Korean history, President Kim Dae-jung, and has a strong support base in the provinces of North and South Jeolla (호남). Lee is not very well known at the national level but is perceived as somebody who embodies the political philosophy of another powerful progressive politician, Kim Geun-tae.

Victory will likely go to either Moon or Park. Moon is trying to project himself as a leader who can lead the party to an electoral victory; however, a Moon victory would not be universally popular and would be perceived as a victory for the “pro-Roh” faction, resulting in a bitter atmosphere coming out of the convention. Park also projects himself as an experienced leader, one who can cultivate a strong opposition in the National Assembly. Park argues that Moon should not become the next leader because there needs to be a separation of powers between a presidential candidate and his or her party leadership. A Park victory would be perceived as a victory for Jeolla, potentially exacerbating regionalism. These divisions leave some room to maneuver for Lee, who is campaigning under the slogan of “generational change” within the party.

NPAD is trying hard to reinvent itself after major electoral setbacks and a sense of growing irrelevance in the minds of the South Korean public. In this upcoming national convention, the party will elect a leader and supreme committee to lead it into the next general and presidential election.

Playing now in Seoul is “I Am You” (나는 너다), a theatrical performance that tells the story of Ahn Jun-saeng and his battle to understand why his father, Ahn Jung-geun, left him. Ahn Jung-guen was executed by the Japanese authorities for fatally wounding Ito Hirobumi, the first prime minister and first resident-general of colonial Korea. The play traces Ahn Jun-saeng’s coming to grips with the “real” reason his father had to die: to preserve the nation. The performance is meant to remind Koreans of their precarious situation, being the proverbial “shrimp amongst whales.” The play is also meant to be a reminder of the bad things that happen when rightists take power in Japan. In an interview with OhMyNews (linked to in the tweet above), Yoon Seok-hwa, a spokesperson for the production company putting on the play, draws a connection between the rise of Shinzo Abe and the play’s contemporary relevance.

As we have written about before at Sino-NK, Ahn Jung-geun plays an instrumental role in South Korean historiography, nationalism, and contemporary political discourse. As political scientist Shin Gi-wook noted, anti-Japanese sentiment is embedded in South Korean (ethnic) nationalism. Indeed, Korean nationalism (of the northern and southern variant) was a reaction to Japanese assimilation efforts. It is no coincidence that Ahn Jung-geun is a popular (and oft invoked) national figure.

Naver made a great many South Koreans angry in early January when it was revealed that the portal site’s weather program listed Dokdo, a set of South Korean islets in the East Sea whose sovereignty Japan disputes, as part of Japan. As TV Chosun pointed out, Japanese territory is almost two times further away from Dokdo than the nearest undisputed part of the Republic of Korea, the island of Ulleungdo. All other portal site weather programs and apps list Dokdo (with administrative accuracy) as Dokdo-ri, part of Ulleung-eup in Ulleung County. Aware that such nationalist-baiting failures can have dire consequences for business, Naver swiftly announced that it would amend the offending weather program to reflect existing political reality.

This author, who once lived and worked on Ulleungdo, recalls that during a previous phase of bilateral conflict over the islets, all tourist trips by cable car from the main ferry port at Dodong-ri up to a nearby cliff top came with some musical accompaniment explaining in no uncertain terms that Dokdo is “our land” (우리 땅). When he returned some years later, however, geopolitical tensions had eased and, perhaps fortunately for those riding the cable car, so had the music.

From December 15, five sets of embarrassing and potentially damaging leaks of information stolen from the servers of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. put the much louder international conflict over #SonyHack and The Interview into stark perspective.

In the third crop of documents, which were released on December 21, the hackers published the floor plan to the Heating, Venting, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system of reactors no.1 and no. 2 at the nuclear power complex at Gori, which lays half way between Ulsan and Busan on the southeast coast of South Korea, and a summary of the Final Safety Analysis Report (FSAR) for reactor nos. 3 and 4 at Wolsong, to the northeast of Ulsan. They also released documents concerning two programs used in the nuclear power industry, BURN4 and MCNP.

Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. moved swiftly to limit the damage from the leaks, issuing a statement providing a precise list of the documents that were stolen, downplaying the risks that they pose, and stating that measures would be taken to combat the growing problem. The leaks were later publicly connected to North Korea, with investigators claiming that the hack attacks were routed through Shenyang, a known prominent point of intersection between North Korea and the outside world. Either way, by January 13 no concrete steps had been taken, as this E-Daily piece notes with ill-concealed disgust.

After the dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), former leader Lee Jung-hee gave a criticism-filled speech during a press conference in front of President Park Geun-hye’s residence. Among the many statements made, this one best captures the line being taken by Lee and others who continue to protest the party’s dissolution: “Where does your [President Park’s] vengeance ends? Are you trying to push the nation back to the fearful days of the National Security Act? To fellow democratic citizens… Please stop the resurgence of dictatorship and rescue democracy and human rights.”

Lee’s speech was essentially about two things: First, painting the dissolution of the UPP as a direct result of Lee running against President Park in the 2012 Presidential Election. During one of three televised presidential debates at the time, Lee launched a vigorous attack on Park by bringing up her father’s ties to wartime Japan. Former UPP members of the National Assembly suggest that they were unfairly targeted for their “proactive investigation into the South Korean intelligence agency’s [alleged] intervention in the 2012 presidential election.” Second, asserting that President Park is bringing back the dark days of “security politics” [공안 정국], the stern brand of authoritarian rule spearheaded by her father, Park Chung-hee.

The final episode of a popular South Korean cable TV show called “Misaeng” (미생; “Incomplete Life”) aired on December 20, 2014. The TV series garnered huge viewing figures (especially in the context of a cable TV drama), and earned praise for its realistic depiction of the lives of Korean office workers. The story of Misaeng, based on a webtoon series, centers on a character named Jang Geu-rae. He is an irregular contract worker for a company and lacks a university education, qualifications, or even work experience; in other words, he doesn’t have the right “specifications” (스펙). The show focuses on the difficulties faced by irregular workers of his sort in Korea’s economy.

The South Korean government is trying to address this very real social problem by introducing labor reforms. Seoul is to introduce a set of measures to increase the term of employment contracts for irregular workers from two to four years. This would also make contract workers eligible for severance payment after three months of employment, rather than the current one year. Critics have dubbed the reforms the “Jang Geu-rae Law (장그래 양산법);” they fear the changes do not address fundamental differences in wages and benefits between regular workers and their irregular colleagues, and might actually increase the number of irregular workers. Even the original Misaeng cartoonist weighed in, saying that “prolonging the pain of irregular workers is not the same as extending opportunities for them.” Irregular workers have been a huge political issue for the past few years in a country where the iron rice bowl of  “lifetime employment” was once coveted.

While the Constitutional Court’s ruling to disband the UPP provoked the ire of many on the left, a poll conducted after the ruling finds that a majority of the population (“nearly 64%”) support the ruling, according to a Joongang Ilbo poll cited by The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, “Nearly 70% said they agreed with the judges’ view that UPP was a threat to ‘basic democratic order.’”

As commentary in this issue of Shigak points out, the ruling itself reflects a deeper problem in South Korean democracy (the protection of political expression and association), but the numbers in the poll do not lie: hard-left politics are passé (not that they were ever mainstream). As noted elsewhere, it is the sort of politicking by UPP and similar lawmakers that hurts liberals at the polls.

On December 19, South Korea’s Constitutional Court finally ruled on a Ministry of Justice bid to have the left wing UPP dissolved. The court’s nine judges sided with the government by a total of 8-1, and as a result all five UPP lawmakers lost their posts, the party’s license was revoked, and its assets swiftly seized. A significant number of lower elected UPP officials were permitted to continue in their posts as independents, though the government had wanted the court to strip them of their positions as well.

According to the court judgment, members of the UPP’s leading group were found to be followers of North Korea, and their goal adjudged to be the realization of progressive democracy leading to North Korean-style socialism, by violent and/or illegal means if necessary.

One of the Constitutional Court’s nine judges issued a contrary decision. Kim Lee-su, a progressive appointee, said that the opinions of the few should not be conflated with the opinions of the party’s 30,000+ members in toto, and raised doubt that the stated intent and activities of the few might constitute grounds for the dissolution of the entire political party in any case. He further added that even if all the charges laid against some members of the party, most notably the imprisoned former Minhyukdang cadre Lee Seok-ki, were accurate, South Korean law has other means of addressing such violations, such as the criminal code and the (always controversial) National Security Law.

The majority judgment led to protests by progressive voters, who portrayed the Constitutional Court ruling as political and designed to drive progressive thought from the South Korean political system. Former party officials did nothing to dissuade them from this point of view, with leader (and defense lawyer in the dissolution case) Lee Jung-hee telling protesters, “The regime has dissolved the Unified Progressive Party and will tie our hands and feet, but they cannot dissolve the progressive political dream.” One of the party’s former National Assembly lawmakers, Lee Jae-yeon (see image below, which comes from Shigak No.2 here) declared, “Progressive politics will go on,” adding, “The more they trample on it, the bigger it will get.”

Analysis from Shigak No.2, which discusses the powerful nature of Kim Jae-yeon in the South Korean political arena. | Image: Sino-NK

Analysis from issue two of Shigak, which discussed the powerful nature of Kim Jae-yeon in the South Korean political imaginary just as the UPP dissolution case was gathering speed. | Image: Sino-NK

Lead (online) columns at the conservative Chosun Ilbo and the progressive Hankyoreh reflect two different perspectives on the Constitutional Court’s decision to disband the UPP on grounds that the party ran contrary to the principles of a democratic society (namely, it contained elements that are seen as pro-North in political belief). The title of the lead Chosun article (from the tweet) reads: “Constitutional Judgment for Pro-North UPP.” The use of “pro-North” (종북; it is written in Chinese characters in the title) says it all. Conservative media often employ this derogatory term when referring to those (progressives) with whom it disagrees on issues related to North Korea or North-South politics. The Hankyoreh article title reads: “The Death of Democracy, the Death of Constitutionalism.” Whereas the full Chosun column is more descriptive, the Hankyoreh goes on at some length to explain how the ruling, contrary to the court’s intentions, actually does a significant disservice to democracy–nay, kills it.

Aside from showing two fundamentally different perspectives on the court ruling that reflect, relatively accurately, a left-right divide in South Korean society, it also goes to show that the newspapers themselves have an ideological stake in the game. It is unfathomable that the Chosun Ilbo would disagree with a ruling that bans an alleged “pro-North” political party. Likewise, the Hankyoreh will almost always disagree with something that conservatives would support. Studies of South Korea’s media further explore the reasons behind the institutionalization of political biases.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.