Press Freedom and Split Ballots: #Shigak no. 22

By | May 26, 2015 | No Comments

The great (post-election) divergence in party support. The blue line is NPAD, the red Saenuri. | Image: RealMeter via @StevenDenney86

The great (post-election) divergence in political party support. The blue line represents NPAD, the red Saenuri. | Image: RealMeter via @StevenDenney86

“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. All users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

Press Freedom and Split Ballots: #Shigak no. 22

by Sino-NK

Summary | This issue of Shigak recaps and briefly analyzes some of the key events taking place in the southern half of the Korean peninsula between April and May. Stories include: A KDI report on South Korea’s (declining) export competitiveness; assessment of media freedom; April 29 by-elections; Seoul education chief Cho Hi-yeon’s defamation case; and value changes (including attitudes towards the United States).

A Korea Development Institute (KDI) report released on May 5 finds that South Korea is facing stiff competition in export sectors in which it hitherto enjoyed comparative advantage, much like Japan did in the early 1990s. Entitled “Changes in the Export Competitiveness of China, Japan, and Korea” (English-language version), the report paints a troubling picture for (some of) South Korea’s export industries. Kyunghang Shinmun tweeted a graph of the global export market shares for China, Japan, and South Korea, using United Nations trade data. The graph shows just how much of the export market is claimed by China vis-à-vis Japan and South Korea (a similar graph appears in the KDI report).

The KDI report notes that Korea’s export production composition in recent times has been “mainly composed of machinery and transport equipment; similar to Japan in 1993 when its market share started to dwindle.” Comparative advantage indexes for export items, which indicate how competitive a country is in a given sector, show South Korea losing its edge in two specific areas: 1) office appliances and automatic data-processing devices; and 2) telecommunications and recording equipment. While the country’s overall share of the export market has actually increased slightly (from 2 percent in the early 1990s to just over 3 percent in 2014), its market share for some items that China also produces (notably numbers one and two above) is rapidly decreasing.

The report’s author, KDI fellow Jung Kyu-chul, says the solution to this challenge is simple: innovate. “To respond to these challenges, it is important for Korea to continuously foster and enhance creative and core capabilities that late comers will not be able to easily emulate,” he writes.

At the end of April, Freedom House released its annual report on global press freedom. Predictably, North Korea performed abysmally by any measure, propping up the likes of Turkmenistan and Eritrea in the bottom category, “Not Free.” However, South Korea did not emerge unscathed, either. A mere 68th overall and languishing among the “Partly Free,” the South ranked 30th of the 34 countries of the OECD. Moreover, a few days later Reporters without Borders released its 2015 World Press Freedom Index. This too indicated a declining South Korea; three places, from 57th to 60th.

In the tweeted segment, JTBC News seeks to establish whether the two sets of scores can be said to accurately reflect press freedom in South Korea. It does so partly with reference to moments in government-media relations with the potential to influence outcomes on the Reporters without Borders questionnaire. For instance, it suggests that the “김치찌개집 사건” [kimchi soup restaurant incident] of January 2015 involving then-prime ministerial candidate Lee Wan-gu compels a negative response to the question: “What influence does the government have on the staff of the… media?”

In the same week, a piece by Media Today comprehensively refuted the attendant claim–still occasionally voiced–that the scores might be inaccurate because “international organizations don’t know about South Korea.” Citing work done by the Korea Press Foundation, a domestic organization that polls domestic reporters every four years (every two years until 2009) along similar lines to Reporters without Borders, the third of the graphics in this piece shows that in 2009 those domestic reporters scored the South Korean media environment at 3.06/5, but by 2013 this had slipped to 2.88/5.

For those who are interested, the far less pressing question of how delicious a restaurant’s kimchi soup needs to be if it is to loosen the tongue of a prime ministerial candidate is addressed here.

Despite an on-going corruption scandal, the ruling Saenuri Party won a resounding victory in April 29 by-elections, winning 3 out 4 constituencies (the fourth went to an independent). The opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) came away empty handed, even in the historically liberal stronghold of Gwangju. The by-elections marked the first electoral test of new NPAD leader Moon Jae-in. Under his stewardship, past controversy over nominations was minimized, but the party did suffer the defection of two senior lawmakers: former presidential candidate Chung Dong-young and one-time Justice Minister Chun Jung-bae. Both then went on to stand against NPAD candidates. Factional strife further complicated things.

In Seoul, the liberal vote was split between Chung and the NPAD candidate—the result, as expected: a Saenuri victory (with 43.8% of the vote; NPAD 34.2%; Chung 20.1%). In Gwangju, Chun won (receiving 52.3% of the vote). It is unclear what Chung’s next political move will be following defeat, but Chun’s is clearer: he promises to usher in the next generation of pro-Kim Dae-jung lawmakers and solidify his political base in Honam (even floating the idea of creating a regional party). In the event that Chun manages to build upon his success in Gwangju, Moon and the NPAD will again be fighting a two-front war (the outcome of which will be electoral defeat).

court found Seoul Metropolitan City’s education superintendent, Cho Hi-yeon, guilty of spreading a false rumor during a 2014 election (which he won). At the time, Cho raised the suspicion that his conservative opponent Ko Seung-duk could be a US permanent resident, which he seemingly is not. Cho plans to appeal the decision, but if he is unsuccessful he will lose his position.

The court ruling fuels partisan debate between conservatives and progressives over the future of direct elections for the position of education superintendent. Conservatives say they regard direct elections as expensive and corruption-prone. However, progressives feel that the conservatives only want to get rid of direct elections because of the sheer number of progressives elected by that method in 2014.

Cho has been vocal about reforming South Korea’s increasingly unequal education system. One of his major reformist policies involves getting rid of autonomous and special-purpose high schools, which, in his opinion, focus too much on college entrance exam preparation and siphon off the best students from public schools in the process. If he loses his seat, the future of this education reform agenda will be in doubt.

The Joongang Ilbo reports some of the latest data from Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs (released jointly in “Youth Statistics 2015”) regarding youth attitudes towards important social issues such as taking care of aging parents–traditionally the preserve of eldest sons and their wives–as well as co-habitation and childbirth outside marriage. The article does not put the numbers into historical context or compare them with other, similar societies, but it does confirm that a traditionally conservative society is changing.

Regarding the responsibility to provide for elderly parents, 45.4 percent of South Korean youth thought that “family, government, and society should care for them together.” 38 percent viewed it as a family responsibility. In the last two years, the response “Parents must deal with it for themselves” rose from 11 percent to 13.5 percent. Thoughts regarding marriage and childbirth have also changed. More than half of the young (56.8 percent) made clear: “Couples can live together without being married;” 26.4 percent, up from 25.9 percent (2012), said, “Couples can have children outside of marriage.” Juvenile smoking and drinking are on a downward trend. At 9.2 percent, the smoking rate among Korean youth is down 2.2 percent on two years ago. Over the same period, the rate of drinking dropped 2.7 percent to 16.7 percent; however, this figure is 0.4 percent higher than in 2013. [Second paragraph taken from Sino-NK translation of the original article — Editors]

A recent public opinion report by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies reinforces the view that South Korean society is becoming more pragmatic. The report, “Measuring a Giant: South Korean Perceptions of the United States,” looks at multiple indicators of how South Koreans view the US: favorability toward ROK-US relations, US national image, US in historical perspective, and the United States’ current political and economic influence vis-à-vis China, among many others. The data indicates that South Koreans have a favorable view of the United States, despite deepening economic ties with “rising” China.

Combined with South Korea’s relative economic and political stability since its democratic transition, national identity and political attitudes have taken on pragmatic form. This rising pragmatism is shown most clearly in the data on the “US in Historical Perspective” (p. 17 in the report). On questions related to the political, economic, security, and interest-based nature of the US-ROK relationship, South Koreans display a pragmatic approach. For instance, 81.5 percent of respondents agree that the “US made South Korea’s economic development possible,” but a majority (61.4 percent) also agree that “the US was responsible for the Korean division.” About two-thirds of respondents do not think the US “was an obstacle to Korean democratization.” While the report does not provide any baseline numbers against which to compare the findings, one may infer from previous work on attitudes towards the United States that a pragmatic shift in political attitudes is ongoing.

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