Welcome to the inaugural edition of Sejong Digest 2.0, a biweekly brief covering the latest news and discussion on Korea and Northeast Asia, as well as Korea-related goings-on in the DC area. The Sejong Society's Director of Research, Benjamin Lee, selects and summarizes major pieces every two weeks to keep you up-to-date on the region's most important issues.
A full, PDF-version of this issue may be found at end the of this post.
News, Analysis, & Commentary
1. “Corruption Scandal Threatens to Derail South Korea’s President,” in Financial Times (paywall)
President Park Geun-hye is mired in a political scandal that could lead to her resignation or even impeachment by opposition parties. The scandal, now widely referred to as “Choi Soonsil-Gate,” has drawn over 30,000 protesters to Gwanghwamun, in the center of Seoul, demanding that President Park step down. The allegation is that senior officials from the Blue House exerted pressure on the Federation of Korean Industries to donate millions of dollars to two nonprofit foundations that were established by a close confidant of President Park, Choi Soonsil. That Choi, the daughter of a prominent religious cult leader with no government position, has allegedly influenced President Park’s every decision—from her word choice in major speeches to which clothes to wear—has enraged the public. Resultantly, President Park’s approval rating has reached a record low since her taking office in 2013. The ruling party and opposition parties alike are calling for an independent prosecutor to investigate the case.
Read more about President Park’s scandal in The New York Times, The Economist, and CSIS's latest interview with Victor Cha.
2. “Korea Cracks Down on Bribes in Brothels” in The Economist
South Korea’s anti-corruption law that went into effect on September 28 is expected to change the country’s longstanding business entertainment culture. The law sets clear limits on the value and types of gifts that may be received, ranging from meals, memberships, and financial contributions. The Economist writes that this anti-corruption law “amounts to a revolution in local business culture,” which has induced big conglomerates to educate their employees so as to avoid charges of corruption. The long-term effects of this anti-corruption law will depend on how prosecutors apply this law to different individuals.
3. “A ‘Balloon Warrior’ Subverts North Korea, Thousands of Leaflets at a Time” in The New York Times
Lee Min-bok, a North Korean defector and so-called “balloon warrior,” sends off vinyl bundles containing leaflets of South Korean propaganda across the North-South Korean border by attaching them to balloons. Lee believes that the best way to combat the North Korean regime is to disperse information and subvert the government. Some critics of these “balloon warriors” see Lee’s actions as mere provocations against the North. These critics argue that leaflets are unlikely to change the minds of the people who have been exposed to North Korean propaganda throughout their lives. Skepticism notwithstanding, Lee is committed to continuing his work and bringing change in North Korea.
4. “Facing the Facts: Towards a New U.S. North Korea Policy” from the Brookings Institution
Evans Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that the next administration should intensify sanctions against North Korea while leaving the door open for further negotiations on the nuclear-weapons issue. This, he explains, will compel North Korea to make a choice between preserving its regime and continuing its nuclear weapons program. Revere further suggests that the next administration should engage Tokyo and Seoul (and Beijing, if willing) in talks on how to respond to North Korea’s potential collapse. As for China’s role, he argues that the U.S. should signal to China a greater sense of urgency over the North Korean issue.
5. “She Fled North Korea and Turned to Online Sex Work. Then She Escaped Again” in The Washington Post
Human trafficking across the North Korean border has led to the serious plight of North Korean defectors in China and Southeast Asia. Since North Korea’s border security tightened after Kim Jong-un’s inauguration in 2011, the “financial value” of North Korean women between the ages of 15 and 25 has risen in northeastern China. North Korean defectors face the choice either to live as online prostitutes or to take great risk by attempting to escape.
Today in Korean History
On November 1, 1897, the Independence Association made a declaration to abolish slavery in Joseon-dynasty Korea. Philip Jaisohn and Chi-ho Yoon led a discussion on whether slavery was necessary and morally acceptable, and they put the issue to a vote. Members of the Independence Association unanimously voted in favor of abolishing slavery. Members with slaves all voluntarily freed them after the vote. Since then, societal norms regarding slavery changed, and slavery was gradually abolished throughout Korea.