What to Know about South Korea's 2017 Presidential Candidates
If South Korea's Constitutional Court upholds President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, the 2017 presidential election would begin in 2017, within two months after the decision. Several presidential candidates have already emerged and expressed positions on issues concerning foreign policy and the economy. The most notable candidates are outgoing United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, President Park’s former opponent, Moon Jae-In, and Seongnam’s Mayor, Lee Jae-myung.
On Dec 21, 2016, Ban Ki-Moon indicated that he will run for President, sayinghe will use his 10 years of experience at the UN to help the country. Hisacknowledgement of the country’s frustration with the government’s leadership was seen as a move to distance himself from President Park. He is unlikely to join the ruling Saenuri Party; he is expected to join a breakaway faction from Saenuri Party or align with South Korea’s second largest opposition party, the People’s Party. Ban is scheduled to return to South Korea on January 12, when he will most likely announce his decision to run. On Jan 6, 2017, the Korea Times reported that Ban’s closest supporters are preparing for his potential presidential bid. His supporters include former diplomats and Parliament members from the Saenuri Party, especially from Ban’s home province, Chungcheong. Columbia University economist, Jeffrey Sachs is also expected to provide economy-related advice to Ban.
On Dec 15, 2016, Moon Jae-in, leader of South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party became the first official presidential candidate in a press conference. He is currently leading in the polls among potential presidential candidates at 24%, with Ban at 19.5%. Moon seems focused on changing President Park’s foreign policy, advocating a two-track policy on North Korea, applying both pressure and encouraging dialogue to achieve denuclearization. Moon also expressed that the U.S-South Korea deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system should be delayed and decided by the new administration in South Korea. On U.S.-South Korea relations, he plans to maintain strong ties between both countries and doesn’t think a conciliatory approach to North Korea will be an issue. On South Korea-Japan relations, he wishes to renegotiate the 2015 comfort women agreement with Japan, saying that Japan needs to make an official apology. Recently, Moon warned North Korea of the risks of continuing its nuclear ambitions. This was in response to Kim Jong-un’s announcement that North Korea is almost ready to test ICBM missiles and after facing criticism of not being tough enough on national security. Moon will be in the Democratic Party’s primary with other candidates. Preparations are expected to be done by the Lunar New Year, on January 28.
Seongnam’s Mayor Lee Jae-myung also emerged as a strong contender as an anti-establishment candidate. Gallup Korea has him polled at third place at 18% behind Ban and Moon, which was 5% in October. His popularity first rose when he called for President Park’s resignation at the beginning of her corruption scandal. He stated in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journalthat he considers the most pressing issue in South Korea as “unfairness and inequality.” He pointed to wealth redistribution via higher taxes on the wealthy and reforms to reduce the influence of families over conglomerate companies as solutions to the social inequality. On U.S.-Korea relations, he stated that South Korea should strengthen its self-defense capacities to prepare for a potential withdrawal of U.S troops and that the U.S. government should take more of the defense-sharing costs. On inter-Korean relations, he said that he wants to meet directly with Kim Jong-un.
President Park Holds a New Year’s Press Conference
On January 1, President Park held an unexpected New Year’s press conference where she denied all allegations against her using strong rhetoric for the first time. Park’s chief of staff informed media outlets that Park would like to hold an unscheduled press conference on the same day. The Blue House also gave atypical instructions, forbidding reporters from carrying any electronic devices into the press conference. Reporters were only allowed to take notes with a pen. Some speculate that the Blue House aimed to minimize new video footage that may be disadvantageous to Park, amidst her plastic surgery allegations.
During the press conference, Park denied allegations regarding extortion, bribery, and plastic surgery. She made clear that the Blue House was not involved in the merger between Samsung Construction and Trading Corporation and Cheil Industries. She indicated that she felt sorry that the corporations that had donated money to help government initiatives out of goodwill were now in the midst of the political scandal.
With respect to her whereabouts during the sinking of the ferry Sewol, President Park stated that she was confused by a false report that stated that all crew members and passengers had been rescued. She explained that she received numerous reports of the disaster at her “residence.” She also claimed that she did not undergo any plastic surgery or cosmetic procedure and stated that such behavior is simply unthinkable. She referred to reports about her political scandal as “gossip” and “false reporting” based on distorted information. She explained that the opposition parties had strung unrelated events and groundless claims together to construe a misleading narrative. She said she governed with “philosophy and conviction.”
While she did not offer specific details about the numerous cases related to her scandal, she indicated that the investigation would eventually reveal the truth on these matters.
See the full transcript of her press conference here (in Korean).
Japan Suspends FOREX Swap Negotiations and Recalls Ambassadors to South Korea Over "Comfort Women" Statue
Japan temporarily pulled out its ambassador from South Korea following the placement of a “Comfort Women” statue outside of the Japanese consulate in Busan. The statue commemorates Korean women and girls who were forced into sex slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War II. During Japan’s first cabinet meeting of the year, Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, announced that he will temporarily recall diplomats from South Korea and suspend a new currency swap arrangement with South Korea, in the latest diplomatic struggle over the historical issue.
In 2015, the two nations had agreed that the issue of “Comfort Women” would be “finally and irreversibly resolved” under all given conditions, including an official apology and a fund to help victims. In December 2015, Prime Minister Abe made an apology and provided compensation of 1 billion yen (approximately $8.5 million) to bring closure to the issue. This was considered a turning point for bilateral relations between the two nations. The Japanese government had additionally requested the removal of the statue installed by activists who protested reconciliation over the issue. South Korea’s refusal to remove the statue may jeopardize the implementation of the deal.
Meanwhile, Korea has sought to revive the swap deal that expired in 2015, that was meant to help to stabilize the Korean won during the financial crisis. Part of its purpose was to enhance bilateral economic ties with Japan. However, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso announced a decision to suspend bilateral talks on swap negotiations, saying, “without building relations of trust, [economic partnership] won’t stabilize.” South Korea’s Finance Minister, Yoo Il-ho, expressed disappointment over Japan’s decision to postpone the deal. Although Korea seeks to maintain healthy diplomatic ties with neighboring countries amid its own political crisis, China’s indirect retaliation against THAAD, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s unpredictable approach towards South Korea, and historical and territorial disputes with Japan are continuing to put a strain on Korea’s diplomatic relations.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe Visits Pearl Harbor
On Dec 27, 2016, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pearl Harbor with U.S. President Barack Obama. The visit came after Obama’s visit to Hiroshima in May 2016. Abe’s visit addressed Japan’s reconciliation with the U.S. In his remarks, Abe stated that “Japan and the United States have been rare stable allies in history.”
Abe is not the first Japanese Prime Minister officially to visit Pearl Harbor. In 1951, Japanese Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida stopped in Hawaii when he flew from San Francisco back to Japan.
Abe did not apologize on behalf of Japan for the attack on Pearl Harbor, yet he expressed his condolences to “the people who lost their lives in this place (Pearl Harbor), to the lives of all the brave people who fought for the battle, and to the souls of innocent people who were victims of war.”
Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor is likely an attempt to reaffirm the U.S.-Japan alliance. A South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs official stated that Japan should “make further efforts to reconcile with neighboring countries, based on a correct historical understanding.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated that the visit is a “smart show” that falls short of “one sincere apology.”
Also, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine which glorifies Japanese war criminals, one day after Abe’s visit to Pearl Harbor. Inada’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine allegedly casts doubts over the sincerity behind Abe’s Pearl Harbor visit.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year Speech
On Jan 2, 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivered his annual New Year speech in Pyongyang. A key theme of the speech was the success of the North Korean nuclear program. Kim claimed that North Korea had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb and that North Korea has “entered the final stage of preparation for the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.” Kim’s speech also featured standard rhetoric on developing its socialist economy, but this year's emphasized utilizing science and technology, stating, “the shortcut to implementing the five-year [economic] strategy is to give importance and precedence to science and technology.”
In the speech, Kim also commented on the ongoing political crisis in South Korea related to President Park Geun-hye. Kim characterized the protest movement as “an outburst of pent-up grudge and indignation against the conservative regime that had been resorting to fascist dictatorship, anti-popular policy, sycophantic and traitorous acts and confrontation with their compatriots.” However, he did not directly mention President Park’s role in the scandal or her impeachment.
The debate continues among North Korean watchers about what the speech means, as to Kim’s intentions. Professor John Delury of Yonsei University interpreted the fact that Kim’s speech did not explicitly state that he plans to test an intercontinental ballistic missiles as “putting [the message] out there to get the American attention,” but “leaving room for a negotiation.” Bruce Klingner from the Heritage Foundation presented the opposite view that Kim’s speech signals nothing meaningful and that those analysts and media outlets that try to parse it are being naïve.
Today in History: Dean Acheson’s Speech on the Far East
On Jan 12, 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech titled “Speech on the Far East” at the National Press Club. Acheson outlined his strategy for enhancing U.S. military security in the Asia-Pacific against aggression from the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. In his speech, he stated that “[the] U.S. defense parameter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus [...] then it runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands.” His speech immediately raised questions and caused uproar among Koreans as his defense parameters excluded South Korea and Taiwan. Although Acheson did indicate that the “entire civilized world under the Charter of the United Nations” would defend attacks aimed at other areas of the Asia-Pacific, his speech nonetheless remains controversial. Scholars continue to debate whether Acheson’s speech and the lack of clear U.S. commitment to defend South Korea triggered North Korea’s invasion of the South in June 1950.
What to Know about South Korea's 2017 Presidential Candidates