Latest on the criminal probe of former South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak
Earlier in September 2017, South Korea’s Culture Ministry announced it will expand its investigation into whether former President Lee Myung-bak also kept a blacklist of artists, like his conservative successor President Park Geun-hye. Since its launch in July 2017, the task force was investigating whether the now-impeached former President Park created a blacklist of left-leaning cultural figures who were critical of the president. On September 11, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) reform task force announced that Lee ’s administration is also suspected of maintaining a blacklist of 82 comedians, novelists, actors, and singers. In addition to denying state support to blacklisted figures, the NIS task force stated that its psychological warfare team disseminated photoshopped images of actor Moon Seong-geun, a veteran actor allegedly on President Lee’s blacklist, naked with an actress, Kim Yeo-jin to defame the two celebrities in November 2011.
The Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office sought the arrest of the two NIS officials, suspected of manipulating and spreading the digitally manipulated pictures.The prosecution said their motives were to discredit actors Moon Seong-guen and Kim Yeo-jin,both vocal critics of the then-ruling conservative party and Lee administration. Moon has demanded that former President Lee be investigated The NIS reform task force itself concluded that the blacklist was used identify and cancel contracts, audit earnings, and investigate organizations engaged in professional relationships with these figures. Twenty one cultural figures from the blacklist, including Old Boy movie director Park Chan-wook, has filed a lawsuit against former president Lee.
Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon also accused former President Lee of abuse of power by permitting NIS to defame him by raising questions about his son’s military service and publicizing the issue online. Park’s son served at a public institution and was exempt from military service due to a herniated disc. On September 25, 2017, the NIS task force also revealed that Lee Myung-bak’s administration authorized NIS to conduct cyber smear campaigns against former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun and both opposition and ruling party politicians. Its report also revealed that the NIS moved to suppress criticism of the government after Roh’s death and subsidized far-right media outlets to manipulate public opinion. Won Sei-hoon, former NIS chief under President Lee is also being questioned about his role in the smear campaigns, whether he reported this to then-President Lee, and whether he misused state money to fund those campaigns. Won is already serving a prison term for his role in running a cyber campaign in influencing public opinion in favor of Park Geun-hye in the 2012 election.
On Sept 28, 2017, former President Lee seemed to have responded to the allegations through a Facebook post. While he wished people well on the upcoming Chuseok holiday, he also alluded to the allegations saying the pursuit in “clearing away old vices” are “regressive attempts harmful to the national interest.” His statement is considered an attempt to portray the allegations as political retaliation against the conservative party to suppress discussions on other issues like the economy and security. Lee Myung-bak did not explainwhether he ordered the cyber activities but promised to explain in the future. He seems to be working with his former aides to strategize a response to the investigation.
The Renegotiation of the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement
In early October, delegations from the United States and South Korea met in Washington, D.C. for a second round of negotiations on the free trade agreement (KORUS FTA). Led by South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the two delegations agreed to begin the process of amending the KORUS FTA. The first round of negotiationson August 22, 2017 failed to produce any new agreements.
Agreeing to amend the trade agreement is a significantly less drastic measure given that it was only a month ago that U.S. President Donald Trump instructed his staff to begin preparations to withdraw from the KORUS FTA. President Trump may have backed off from terminating the agreement due to strong opposition from members of Congress and individuals within his own cabinet. Amid reports of North Korea’s continued missile development, terminating the KORUS FTA could undermine the strength of the U.S.-Korea alliance.
While there is still no set date for a third round of negotiations, the stated goal for both countries is to “enhance mutual benefits of the KORUS FTA.” The United States is likely to focus on the automobile industry, which accounts for nearly 80% of the bilateral trade deficit in favor of South Korea. In addition to the KORUS FTA, the United States has also held several rounds of negotiations with Canada and Mexico to revamp the North American Free Trade Agreement(NAFTA).
The South Korean Chuseok, similar to the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday about celebrating fall harvest,is one of Korea’s most important traditional holidays. This year’s Chuseok has been coined a “Golden Chuseok,” because the holiday season this year is ten days long from September 30 to October 9. This is because the South Korean cabinet approved October 2 as a temporary holiday and this time period also encompasses National Foundation Day and Hangul Proclamation Day. President Moon, after designating the temporary holiday, said “I hope the holiday will serve as a time of rest and comfort for the public.”
This long Chuseok and temporary holiday could be an economic stimulus for the domestic economy, contributing an extra $3.8 million in spending. Business related to the holiday have already seen a benefit. Most pet hotels in Korea were fully booked during this time period. Unexpected products are also benefitting at Lotte Department store and others, where traditional gift sets of spam, oils, and toiletries, along side avocado gift sets designed for Chuesok are selling out.
While Chuseok is typically a happy time of family gathering, not all aspects of the long holiday are enjoyable. For example, 30% of Korean couples argueabout how long they should stay at each other’s parents’ houses. These arguments can turn serious, the number of couples divorcing in the days before a major holiday are twice that of normal days. The holiday can also be aburden for unemployed or underemployed youth who have to come home and face their family’s questions and nagging. One Seoul National University student who is about to graduate said “My parents constantly ask me about my prospective career which gets me very anxious. Until I have a job secured I don't feel comfortable seeing my relatives.”
Chuseok is a traditional Korean holiday, so it is also celebrated in the North. However, unlike in the South, North Koreans will only be given one day off this year. When North Korea was first founded in 1945, Chuseok was not celebrated as an official holiday, but starting in 1989 it was reinstated as a state holiday. However, in the North, Chuseok is considered less important than political holiday revolving around the Kim family and the Communist party.
U.S. Redeployed USS Aircraft Carrier off the Korean Peninsula
The United States has promised to redeploy the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet to seas off the Korean Peninsula in October 2017. The U.S. aircraft carrier would join the drill with the South Korean Navy, training on detecting and tracking North Korean ballistic missiles.
The USS Ronald Reagan, based in the Japanese town of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, already conducted drills with Japanese warships in September. It would be the first time that the U.S. dispatches an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean Peninsula since June this year. The U.S. has been regularly sending aircraft carriers off the Korean Peninsula for annual joint military exercises. Yet, South Korea seeks to convince the U.S. to demonstrate more frequent and high-power of military commitment to its allies.
Worries are mounting that whether the aircraft carrier would cross the Northern Limit Line, a inter-Korean maritime boundary that has been established since Korean war. The deployment of USS Ronald Reagan would heighten tensions on the Peninsula.
As tensions rise between the U.S. and North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the U.S. had direct channels of communication with North Korea and it was investigating whether North Korea is interested in dialogues on nuclear and missile tests with the U.S. Nevertheless, North Korea had not yet shown any interests.
This Week in History: National Foundation Day
On October 3, South Korea celebrates National Foundation Day, also known as Gaecheonjeol, which translates roughly as “Opening Sky Day” or “Festival of the Opening of Heaven”. The holiday celebrates the founding of the ancient Korean kingdom of Gochoseon. Please read the Dangun myth of the kingdom’s founding here. In ancient times, the celebration coincided with a harvest festival where families honor their ancestors, give thanks for the harvest, and participate in religious rituals. The celebration was held on the third day of the 10th month of the lunar calendar. In 1909, National Foundation Day was officially recognized as a holiday and in 1949, National Foundation Day was officially celebrated on October 3 after adoption of the Gregorian calendar.