Welfare and Security Reforms on the Docket: #Shigak no. 35

By | April 26, 2017 | No Comments

A labor union rallies outside of Gwanghwamun Station, located in north-central Seoul, on April 25, 2017. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

On April 2, Sino-NK began a series of regular analyses looking at the South Korean presidential election through the lens of the Korean-language media, reviving a series that ran from February 2014 to October 2015. “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective” uses Twitter to curate sources on the key determinants of the election outcome. Each issue takes the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the #시각 hashtag and augments them with essential annotations and a bite-size dollop of concentrated analysis.

Sino-NK will publish brand new #Shigak analyses three times a week between now and the election on May 9. #Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Yongmin Lee is a regular contributor. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page. Importantly, users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

Welfare and Security Reforms on the Docket: #Shigak no. 35

by Sino-NK

With the election less than 2 weeks away, Moon Jae-in appears to be pulling ahead definitely in the polls. Is an alliance between those candidates opposed to a Moon Jae-in presidency possible? What did we learn from the most recent presidential debate about the candidates’ views on the country’s intelligence agency? And just how salient are labor market concerns to the candidates? This issue of #Shigak addresses these questions and more.

The suicide of a young TV producer has made headlines in South Korea, highlighting the country’s sometimes harsh labor conditions. Lee Han-bit participated in producing a popular TV series, “Drinking Solo” [혼술남녀]. In his suicide note, Lee mentioned harsh working conditions, including long work hours with a little or no time-off, as great stresses in his life. His family members added that Lee was bullied at work and was given additional responsibilities far exceeding his regularly expected duties. “Drinking Solo” is about students and instructors of a hagwon (private school) that prepares students for the civil service exam. It is similar to hit drama “Misaeng.”

Like any other nation, economic growth is an important electoral issue in South Korea. However, in the last and current presidential election cycle, concerns about life work balance and quality of life have been given significant, if not equal, coverage. For example, former President Park Geun-hye did not just promise higher growth, but added “economic democratization,” where economic opportunities are better distributed, as a goal. In this election, presidential candidates, notably Moon and Ahn, are promising to reduce the number of working hours and increase the minimum wage — key issues, especially among South Korean youth. All major candidates are also promising to boost investment to welfare. Given the country’s ongoing postindustrial transition, labor market concerns are going to remain salient electoral and policy issues.

As Moon’s lead over Ahn Cheol-soo widens, and the conservatives fail to gain any ground, talks of a three party coalition have again surfaced. In a Bareun Party meeting at the National Assembly on April 24, a motion to merge Bareun with Korean Freedom Party and the People’s Party was tabled and approved (with dissent), reports the Hankyoreh. Bareun lawmaker Joo Ho-young, speaking at a briefing following the meeting, referred to the merger of the three parties — a so-called “one-shot 3 party unification” (3당 원샷 단일화) — as a necessary move to prevent the election of Moon Jae-in. The motion was rejected by Yoo Sung-min, the party’s nominee, who said that he intends to go forward as originally planned.

While sharp ideational differences between the three parties and their respective candidates makes a three-party coalition highly unlikely, such a move wouldn’t be unprecedented. Under somewhat comparable conditions, the parties of Kim Jong-in, Kim Young-sam, and Roh Tae-woo merged in 1990. The unlikely 1990 merger put Kim Dae-jung in a political disadvantageous position. A similar merger today among “anti-Moon” parties could very well build a winning centrist-conservative coalition and send Moon to his second straight presidential defeat — that is the fear within the Moon camp, who denounced the proposal as “a move against people’s desire for [the Minjoo Party] to pull off a successful regime change.” Despite opposition to the proposed alliance, Moon’s growing lead, coupled with Ahn’s inability to capture sufficient conservative support, may change the decision-making calculus of the relevant actors.


Following an NIS internet smear campaign against Park Geun-hye’s liberal competitor Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential election, an International Crisis Group report examined the issue in great detail. However, while the head of the NIS at the time of the 2012 scandal, Won Sei-hoon did go to jail, significant institutional changes did not follow. It is no surprise that the issue has reappeared now.

Moon Jae-in pinpoints the concentration of investigative powers in the agency as a long overdue reform, and wishes to limit the NIS to dealing with North Korea, international terrorism and other issues overseas, transforming it into a professional foreign intelligence agency broadly similar to the CIA. Like Moon, Ahn Cheol-soo wants to stop the NIS collecting information on domestic issues and withdraw the agency’s criminal investigative powers.

Not everyone is happy with this. One of the minor candidates in the upcoming election is former NIS head Nam Jae-jun. Nam claims that both Moon and Ahn’s proposals are opening gambits in a process that will lead to incapacitating the intelligence agency and withdrawing the controversial National Security Law. Nam is no. 11 on the ballot, standing for the hard-right Korea Unification Party (통일한국당), formerly the Patriots Party (애국당). The party’s policies famously include immediate South Korean withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and development of nuclear weapons.

On April 23, presidential candidate Moon Jae-in announced how he would go about achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. First, he would increase South Korea’s defense capability by constructing an indigenous missile defense system. Second, he would to resurrect the Six-Party Talks and persuade the US to improve its relationship with North Korea. Third, Moon would seek the legislation of future North-South Korea agreements into law in order to introduce consistency into the country’s North Korea policy that does not arbitrarily change when a new administration comes to power.

According to a new poll, Moon’s support sits at 44.4% and Ahn Cheol-soo is at 32.5%. The sustained lead over Ahn suggests that the controversy over the release of former Minister of Foreign Affair Song Min-soon’s memo, alleging Moon sought Pyongyang’s opinion on a 2007 UN resolution on North Korean human rights, has not affected the current front-runner’s popularity. Moon refutes the claim, calling it a baseless controversy intended to sway the electorate. When liberal candidates are attacked on the basis of a perceived security weakness vis-à-vis North Korea, the phenomenon is referred to as a “North Wind” (북풍) controversy.


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