Ban Ki-moon Withdraws from the Presidential Race
On February 1, former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared that he would not run for the South Korean presidency. Before the announcement, Ban had the second highest approval ratings, trailing behind the leading contender Moon Jae-in. He was also deemed the “alternative” conservative candidate who could unite the conservatives in South Korea. Ban’s exit from the race tips the presidential race in favor of the progressives.
During a press conference, Ban indicated that his genuine patriotism was maligned by fake news and slander. He argued that the groundless accusations and character assaults obscured his goals of political reform and tarnished his reputation as a former UN Secretary General. He also expressed his deep disappointment in South Korean politicians’ “selfish attitude” and “unwillingness to change.” While dropping out of the presidential race, he stated that he would continue to advance his goals through other means. [See also the full text of his press conference in Korean]
Approval ratings for the Minjoo party, the centrist liberal party in South Korea, reached an all-time high of 45.4%. Presidential contenders from the Minjoo Party Moon Jae-in and Ahn Hee-jung, led the polls with 32.9% and 16.7 %, respectively. Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, who declined the clarify whether he will seek the presidency, appears to have absorbed the support for Ban. He received a bump in his ratings, bringing his rating to 15.3%.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis’ Trip to South Korea & Japan
On February 1, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis traveled to South Korea and Japan, being the first member of President Trump’s cabinet to make an overseas trip. Mattis’ trip signaled the Trump administration’s commitment to maintaining a strong alliance with the two Asian countries. This diplomatic gesture runs counter to Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Trump had accused South Korea for not paying enough to support the U.S. military presence in South Korea. He stated during an interview once that South Korea and Japan could lessen their dependence on the U.S. by acquiring nuclear weapons.
While in Seoul, Secretary Mattis made clear U.S.’s commitment to deterring the North Korean nuclear threat. He stated that “any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming.” Mattis also discussed with Korean officials the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a U.S. missile defense system aimed at deterring North Korea.
The deployment of THAAD in South Korea has been a particularly thorny issue. China has been most vocal about its disapproval, since U.S. missiles would then be within range to shoot down Chinese missiles. Since South Korea’s decision to implement THAAD, China has denied Korean pop stars from performing in China. Some South Korean protesters targeted messages opposing THAAD against Secretary Mattis during his trip.
In Japan, Secretary Mattis offered similar reassurance of the U.S.’s continued alliance with Japan. He reiterated that the U.S. defense commitment extended to the disputed Senkaku Islands that China has also claimed as its territory. China was displeased by Secretary Mattis’ comments about THAAD in Korea and the Senkaku Islands in Japan. Later during his trip, Mattis stated that he did not believe military escalation was necessary in response to China’s operations in the South China Sea.
Secretary Mattis’ strong words of support for South Korea and Japan on a symbolic trip reflected a reassurance from the Trump administration that the U.S. will remain an ally to the two countries.
Seoul Court Ruling to Halt One of Korea’s Oldest Nuclear Reactors
On February 7, the Seoul Administrative Court ruled in favor of a class action lawsuit filed by 2,167 local residents to annul the Nuclear Safety and Security Commission’s decision to extend the operation of the Wolseong-1, a nuclear reactor in Gyeongju.
Wolseong-1, the country’s second-oldest nuclear plant, was shut down in 2012 after reaching its 30-year commercial operation period. However, the Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power (KHNP), the owner of the nuclear plant, requested an extension of its operating license for another 10 years. The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC), South Korea’s nuclear watchdog, decided to extend KHNP’s operating rights, allowing the reactor to reoperate starting February 2015. The court decision this week effectively overturned the NSSC’s decision.
Ha Jeong-gu, a former senior safety analyst for the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, delivered a key testimony for the plaintiffs in the court hearing on February 4. Ha stated that despite the South Korean advancement of technology in this field, the Wolseong-1 reactor is “absurdly out of order." He also stated that KHNP “didn’t abide by a number of regulations and arbitrarily used back-of-the-envelope calculations in its effort to extend the lifespan of Wolseong-1.” He mentioned that Wolseong-1, designed in and exported from Canada, should have followed the Canadian regulations on technical standards.
Moreover, Greenpeace International reported that six out of 23 nuclear reactors in South Korea had components made with Inconel-600, a nickel chromium alloy that was identified as having low durability in the U.S. in the mid 1970s. Countries such as the U.S., Japan, and France have either shut down the nuclear power plants or replaced the components that contained Inconel-600. Inconel-600 was a key material used for more than 4,000 components in each of the six nuclear plants in Korea.
According to Greenpeace, Korea has already had 12 accidents related to Inconel-600. Suh Kyun-ryul, a professor of atomic engineering at Seoul National University, emphasized the importance of removing the material from all nuclear power plants in Korea. Many other experts and local residents fear that neglecting the status quo of Korea’s old nuclear reactors may cause a nuclear disaster resembling the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
The leading presidential candidate Moon Jae-in has also spoken out against using nuclear power plants, suggesting the use of renewable energy. Nonetheless, the NSSC claimed that it will appeal the court’s ruling. KHNPadmitted that “[Wolseong-1’s] shutdown will have an insignificant influence” on the power supply. South Korea currently has 23 nuclear reactors in operation that supply about 30% of its total electricity.
Trump-Abe Meeting Affirms U.S.-Japan Military and Economic Ties
On February 10, 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Trump in Washington and held a joint press conference. President Trump offered reassurance of close security and economic ties with Japan. Prime Minister Abe also emphasized that “the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in Asia Pacific [...] is the strong Japan-U.S. alliance.”
At the meeting, Trump and Abe agreed that the U.S. and Japan will oppose any “unilateral attempt to undermine Japanese administration of [Senkaku] islands,” implying China’s maritime advances in the East China Sea. The two leaders also agreed to share the burdens to deter the North Korean nuclear threat.
Since President Trump implemented an executive order for the U.S. to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Prime Minister Abe has attempted to negotiate alternative rules for fair trade and investment to facilitate bilateral economic cooperation. Some Japanese are worried that the Trump administration will try to bargain car imports and impose tariffs on agricultural products.
During the joint conference, the two leaders confirmed that Article 5 of U.S.-Japan Security Pact will be applied to the islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China. The statements added fuel to China and Japan’s territorial dispute over the islands.
South Korea’s 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics One Year Away
On Feb 9, 2017, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially invitedthe winter sports athletes to participate in South Korea’s Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, which is set to start in exactly one year. The ceremony displayed Korean cultural performances, concert by K-Pop stars, and the unveiling of the Olympic torch and torchbearer uniform by Olympic gold medallist Kim Yuna and other participants. (See the video of the ceremonyhere.) In the past year, however, coverage on the preparations for the Olympics has been overshadowed by the political scandal.
While some argue that the Winter Olympics will boost South Korea’s image on the world stage, some criticize that this will be at a high cost during a sluggish economy.
The resignation of South Korea’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Minister due to allegations of abuse of power in the Choi Soon-sil scandal raised questions whether this would impact the preparations for the Olympics. Samsung, one of the main sponsors of the Olympics is also currently under investigation due to alleged links to Choi Soon-sil. Choi was also accused of influencing both the bidding process to build the venues and the replacement of PyeongChang 2018 Organizing Committee Chairman Cho Yang-ho by Lee Hee-beom. In a recent press conference in January, Lee Hee-beom insisted that there was no corruption involved in awarding construction contracts for the venues. He also stated that he had no knowledge of other reasons for Cho’s resignation. Cho stated that he decided to focus on troubles of his company, Hanjin Group.
The Olympics is estimated to cost about $12.4 billion, $10 billion of which would be used for the construction of venues and a railway to link Incheon International Airport to Pyeongchang. Another concern is that construction may be delayed, although organizers claim that the 12 venues are 96%complete. Lee has also promised to secure 90% of the target goal for corporate sponsorships by end of 2016. The sponsorships are supposed to account for 38%of the Olympic budget. It was reported that less than 90% (841 billion won) of the target was collected by the end of the year. Lee blamed the economy and the Choi Soon-sil scandal for making companies reluctant to sponsor the Olympics.
Another challenge that South Korea is facing is garnering public excitement about the Winter Olympics.. Due to the relatively new winter sports industry in South Korea and few star athletes after Kim Yuna’s retirement, Jung Moon-hyun, a sports science professor at Chungnam National University said South Koreans won’t attend if they do not know any athletes. Some surveys suggest that many South Koreans are unaware or are unexcited about the Winter Olympics. According to a recent Gallup Korea survey, “48 percent said they were interested in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, while 49 percent said they weren't.” Interest in the Winter Olympics may depend on individual sports, such as figure skating with highest level of interest among those polled.
The Olympics organizers admitted there is work needed to attract domestic support, such as finding successful and popular athletes that South Koreans can rally to. While the country has strong athletes in speed and figure skating, it is weak in other sports like hockey. For the national hockey team, it signedsix Canadians and one American and its head coach is Jim Paek, a former Korean-Canadian professional hockey player, who also played for NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. South Korea also recruited foreign athletes in other sports, like luge and biathlon.
It is unclear whether North Korea will participate in the Winter Olympics. The Olympics organizers have said North Korea is welcome to participate. However, a sufficient number of its players need to qualify. North Korea previously failed to qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. North Korea is participating in the 2017 Sapporo Winter Games in Japan, starting on February 19. North Korea’s participation in the Winter Games raised hope that it will also participate in the Winter Olympics and lead to improvement in inter-Korean relations.
This Week in History
On Feb 13, 1997, Chairmen of the Supreme People’s Congress Foreign Relations Committee, Hwang Jang-yeop defected to South Korea. During a layover in Beijing after attending a conference in Japan, Hwang applied for political asylum to the South Korean embassy in Beijing. South Korean government immediately accepted the asylum request. Hwang was the highest ranking official in North Korea to have defected to the South. He was the chief theorist of Kim regime’s Juche ideology–the idea of North Korean self-reliance–and was deemed as a close advisor to Kim Il-sung. He was inspired by China’s economic reform in the 1980s and advocated North Korean economic reform. But Kim Jong-il refused his policy suggestions and demoted him. Due to limited influence over policy and other issues within the party, Hwang eventually defected to South Korea. In South Korea, Hwang wrote prolifically and lectured across the country until his death in 2010.