Sejong Digest 2.0 - Issue 3 (Nov 15 - 29, 2016)

Welcome to the third 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 and members of the research committee summarize major news in the Korean Peninsula every two weeks to keep you up-to-date on the region’s most important issues. Past issues of Sejong Digest 2.0 will be archived on our site.

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News, Analysis, & Commentary

More on the Choi Soon-sil gate, by Benjamin Lee

Opposition against President Park Geun-hye intensified after media outlets reported about her starlet pseudonym while receiving VIP treatment at a health clinic. President Park’s visits to the health clinic have drawn attention, in light of the questions about her whereabouts during the sinking of ship Sewol in 2014. The news that the Blue House also purchased 300 Viagra pills to “alleviate altitude sickness symptoms,” drew sharp criticism. The Saenuri Party and the opposition parties agreed to pass a law that would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate this issue on November 14th.

On the same day, the Saenuri party and the opposition parties also passed a bill to conduct a parliamentary investigation of government agencies and individuals linked to Choi Soon-sil gate. Congressional hearings will begin on November 31st and continue through mid-December. Witnesses include CEOs of the eight largest South Korean conglomerates that contributed millions of dollars to two non-profit foundations established by Choi.

On November 20th, the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced its interim investigation results on the Choi Soon-sil scandal. The prosecutors identified President Park as a criminal suspect in Choi Soon-sil’s wrongdoings but explained that presidential immunity under the constitution precludes President Park from indictment. The prosecutors indicted Choi Soon-sil for abuse of power, extortion, and attempted fraud. Prosecutors also indicted two former senior secretaries to President Park on similar charges of helping Choi her illicit activities. The Blue House, however, immediately rejected the results of the interim investigation and described them as “biased political attacks based on imagination and speculation.” A Blue House spokesperson stated that it would rather undergo a “constitutional process”--most likely to mean impeachment in this context--to end the controversy.

Following the prosecutor’s announcement, the three opposition parties decided to introduce a motion of impeachment against President Park. Eight members of the National Assembly left the Saenuri Party, and some party members have vocally supported Park’s impeachment or resignation. Support for the impeachment bill is expected to exceed the two thirds supermajority requirement for a successful motion for impeachment. A successful impeachment of the
President requires the consent of six out of nine Justices of the Constitutional Court. South Korea’s Constitutional Court currently consists of more conservative leaning judges, including two nominated by President Park.

On November 28th, President Park’s core supporters in the National Assembly strongly urged an “honorable resignation” by President Park herself. Following the recommendation, President Park offered a third apology in which she expressed a deep apology for causing serious concerns for the South Korean people. She stated that she will let the National Assembly decide on the future of her presidency, including the reduction of her remaining term in office. She insisted that the National Assembly devise a plan and a legal procedure for a smooth transition of power. Leaders of the opposition parties immediately rejected the idea of a negotiation with the Blue House on the issue of reducing President Park’s remaining term and promised to proceed with the motion for impeachment as planned on December 2nd.

U.S.-Korea Alliance Burden Sharing Under Trump, by Leon White

Donald Trump made his views clear as a presidential debate stated, “[W]e are providing a tremendous service, and we're losing a fortune.” However, President-elect Trump has since pledged his commitment to defending South Korea under the U.S.’s existing security alliance with South Korea on a phone call with President Park Geun-hye. The U.S. Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with South Korea will be renegotiated in 2017, which will likely be the first test of Donald Trump’s approach to the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

The issue of alliance burden sharing between U.S. and South Korea has been contentious not only on the U.S. side. In 2014, a group of South Korean lawmakers described the freshly negotiated burden sharing agreement at the time as “humiliating.” SMA talks have occurred between the two allies every five years since 1991, when South Korea first started paying some of the costs of U.S. personnel and bases. The most recent SMA, signed in 2014, will last through 2018. South Korea pays equal to roughly half of the total non-personnel costs of the U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Under the latest SMA, South Korea also gained greater control over how its funds are spent. Despite the increase, U.S. non-personnel spending for U.S. Forces in Korea far outpace South Korea’s contributions. For example, while South Korea’s estimated SMA contributions grew by about $42 million between 2008 and 2012 (from approximately $723 million to $765 million), U.S. non-personnel costs increased by more than $500 million during the same period ($592 million to nearly $1.1 billion).

It is questionable whether moving U.S. troops back to home soil would save money for the U.S. A top U.S. commander in South Korea, Army Gen. Vincent Brooks, told the U.S. Senate last April that it would be cheaper for the U.S. to have its forces stationed in South Korea, because if they were home based, the U.S. would cover the total support cost of the 28,500 troops.

Gender Politics in South Korea, by Andrew Jung

The public outrage over the scandal involving South Korean President, Park Geun-hye has also brought forth responses, construed as sexist and misogynistic. Women groups fear that the scandal will be a setback for more women rising to political leadership and used as an argument that women areunfit to lead, given the fact that South Korea is ranked among the lowest in gender equality. The recent anti-government rallies were led by women, unlike previous demonstrations predominated by men. However, incidences of male protestors using sexist slurs both in the rallies and online against President Park and against female protests have been reported.

Although President Park being the first female President of South Korea marked a milestone in the country’s history, whether her election is a sign of progress for women’s rights has been a point of debate. Park’s presidential campaign appealed to older voters who admired her father’s legacy and not towards women’s rights organizations, which were opposed to her candidacy. The Los Angeles Times noted that she “has done little to promote women in government. Just two of her 19 ministers are women.”

In South Korea overall, gender inequality is a persisting issue. Among the 35 OECD countries, South Korea’s women earn 37% less than men. Women also hold 2% of management positions in the country’s top 10 companies, and make up 17% of parliament members, which is below average compared to Asia and developed countries. According to Professor Heike Hermanns of Gyeongsang National University, “the established power structures, in which personal networks play a major role, make it difficult for women to obtain higher positions.” Women’s rights organizations fear that Park’s scandal will further hinder female advancement in politics and society.

Reform in both policy and corporate culture that are more favorable towards working mothers may help increase female participation in the workforce, promote women’s advancement, and promote economic growth. Tapping into the skilled and educated but often underutilized Korean female workforce could increase both productivity and entrepreneurship that the South Korean economy sorely needs.

Social Implications of High Youth Unemployment Rates in South Korea, by Grace Chung

A large number of protesters against President Park in the last five weeks consisted of teenagers and young adults, expressing their grievances about the state of the economy as well as democracy. The slowdown of South Korea’s economy has led to a record high unemployment rate of 9.2% among young adults between age 15 and 29. This statistic understates youth underemployment, which stands at 58% of South Korea’s youth.

OECD figures indicate that 69% of Korean millennials have a college degree, which is the highest among OECD countries in 2015. The oversupply of college graduates, the unrealistic expectations of recent graduates, and parental pressure to succeed are among the contributing factors to the underemployment rate. Those who graduate from mid to lower ranked universities also seek jobs at South Korea’s top conglomerates. Many young job seekers compete for the limited number of job opportunities at major corporations, despite the horrendous work-life balance, because of the prestige and benefit packages at these firms relative to those at small medium-sized businesses.

Despite the Park administration’s plan to reform the labor market by urging 17 chaebol companies to increase job opportunities, the positions offered would most likely be part-time contractors or unpaid internships. The difficulties of finding a job at these companies explain, in part, South Korea’s high suicide rate, which is among the highest in the world. The South Korean youth’s frustrations expressed in recent weeks’ mass protests speak to some of the structural problems of a hyper-competitive job market, the resulting lack of job security, and a concentration of wealth and power among corrupt conglomerates (despite wanting to work for them).

Trump-Abe Summit and Japanese Media’s coverage of Donald Trump’s National Policy Advisors, by Jessie Chen

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with U.S. President-elect Trump on November 17th, in an unusually early meeting right after the U.S. presidential election. The meeting signaled Prime Minister Abe’s desire to build a personal trust with Trump to reassure a stable U.S.-Japan alliance, as well as the stability of Asia-Pacific region. Although Prime Minister Abe stated that President-elect Trump can be trusted after meeting, the Japan Business News’ poll showed that 56% of the surveyed Japanese thought the result of U.S. Presidential election was not favorable. Among those surveyed, 46% thought that U.S.-Japan relationship will not change after election.

Prior to the U.S. Presidential election, Trump has stated that the U.S.-Japan security alliance is unfair and that Japan should pay more for the U.S. military bases in its country. The Obama Administration signed the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) with Japan in January this year regarding the Facilities and Areas and the Status of United States Armed Forces in Japan, which went into effect in April 2016. The SMA will be valid until 2020, at which point Trump will renegotiate a new agreement that would need to be approved by both the Japan Parliament and the U.S. Congress.

Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on his campaign trail also poses a concern for Prime Minister Abe, who has promoted the TPP as a part of his economic growth strategy. Prime Minister Abe underscored the importance of free-trade mechanism, saying “TPP ‘has no meaning’ without US.” Trump, on the other hand, recently pledged to withdraw the U.S. from TPP on his first day in office. Trump is expected to  promote a protectionist policy that may cause friction with other world leaders on issues of trade. Meanwhile, a U.S. withdrawal from the TPP would allow China to strengthen its influence in the Asia-Pacific region, which China may leverage against Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Island dispute. The failure of TPP could, therefore, force Japan to rethink its economic growth strategy and security in the Asia-Pacific.

Today in History: South Korea’s First independently Produced Automobile, the Hyundai Pony, is Released

On December 1st, 1975, Hyundai released South Korea’s first independently produced automobile, the Hyundai Pony. Hyundai manufactured the Pony with indigenous platform, engine and model after technical cooperation with Japan’s Mitsubishi Motors. The Pony immediately attracted South Korean consumers and took over the automobile market. Nearly 40% of South Korea’s total automobile purchases in 1976 was of the Pony. The Pony was also the first South Korean automobile to be exported, first to Ecuador and then to Bahrain. Hyundai manufactured three different generations of the Pony from 1975 to 1990. The Pony’s successful launch was instrumental in Hyundai’s rise to a global automobile manufacturer and South Korea’s industrialization in the 1980s.