President Park Ousted from Office
On Mar. 10, 2017, South Korea’s eight-justice Constitutional Court voted unanimously, 8-0, to remove President Park Geun-hye from office.
The court explained that President Park had abused power to assist her friend Choi Soon-sil profit. It noted that President Park had intentionally hid her wrongdoings and her connection to Choi. Park’s extortion of so-called donations from corporations, the court stated, encroached upon a corporation’s right to property and its right to manage itself freely. President Park’s provision of classified documents to Choi further violated the secrecy rules for public officials. The court acknowledged that President Park’s unconstitutional activities persisted throughout her tenure.
The court further stated that President Park’s illegal activities violated the principles of democracy and undermined the rule of law. Although Park had promised that she would fully cooperate with the ongoing investigation during her address to the nation, she refused to cooperate with the prosecutors or the special investigation team. She declined the prosecutors’ request for seizure and search of the Blue House. Given her record of unconstitutional activities and unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation, the court found little evidence to believe that Park would uphold the constitution and avoid similar wrongdoings.
The court emphasized that President Park’s actions betrayed the trust of the Korean people. The court stressed that such egregious violations of law are unacceptable and that to uphold the constitution, President Park must be removed from office. [See full text of the ruling in Korean.]
With President Park formally impeached, acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn will continue to hold the interim role as president until South Korea elects a new president within the next 60 days. The presidential election is expected to take place on May 9, 2017.
Latest on Kim Jong-nam’s Assassination
On Feb 13, 2017, Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s current dictator Kim Jong-Un and the eldest son of former leader Kim Jong-il, died at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. The South Korean government accused the North Korean government of orchestrating the assassination.
In a dramatic encounter at the airport, two women pressed into Kim’s face a handkerchief containing VX―a military-grade chemical weapon, also a U.N.-designated weapon of mass destruction, which causes death by asphyxiation within 15 to 20 minutes.
A few days later, Malaysian authorities arrested two women, a Vietnamese and Indonesian national, and charged them with Kim’s murder. Both women statedthat they thought they were paid to be a part of a prank on a TV show. A North Korean suspect was also arrested on February 17 and released in March due to lack of evidence. He will be deported to North Korea due to lacking valid travel documents. The police never explained what his alleged role in the assassination was.
Following the incident, diplomatic relations between North Korea and Malaysia have soured.
On Mar 4, 2017, Malaysia declared North Korean Ambassador to Malaysiapersona non grata and ordered him to leave the country within 48 hours. North Korea disputed Malaysia’s investigation finding and argued that Kim probably died due to a heart attack. North Korea has thus far referred to the deceased North Korean national as Kim Chol, the name found on Kim Jong-nam’s passport.
North Korea also objected to an autopsy and demanded that Kim’s body be returned to them. North Korean Ambassador Kang accused the Malaysian government of colluding with outside powers and steering the investigation results. Malaysia responded by demanding that Ambassador Kang apologize for his inflammatory remarks and meet with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kang’s lack of appearance before the Ministry led Malaysia to expel the ambassador. The Malaysian police is also searching for seven other North Korean suspects, two of whom are believed to be in the North Korean embassy.
The Rise of Ahn Hee-jung
On January 22, 2017, Ahn Hee-jung, the two-term governor of Chungcheongnam-do province declared his candidacy for the 2017 South Korean presidential election. Since then, the 51-year-old governor has emerged a dark horse in the liberal Minjoo party’s presidential primary.
Prior to his governorship, Ahn was the campaign manager for ex-President Roh Moo-hyun’s election in 2002. Ahn was considered as one of the closest figures to Roh. Even so, immediately following Roh’s inauguration, Ahn was prosecuted for allegation of election law violations and bribery, for which he served a year in prison. This also effectively ended any prospects for Ahn’s nomination for a position during the Roh administration.
After a brief hiatus from politics, he was elected as the 36th governor of Chungchungnam-do province in 2010 and won reelection in 2014. During his tenure, he built a successful record as a liberal governor in a province that leans conservative. According to a Realmeter survey of the governor’s performance, an overwhelming majority of Chungcheongnam-do residents –78.7%– approve of Ahn’s performance as governor. He has also been the most popular governor in South Korea for the past eleven months, according to polling results.
Ahn’s approval rating, which was 34% at its highest soon after he declared his candidacy, slid in the last two weeks. Ahn made a controversial remark thateven President Park and former President Lee Myung-bak adopted their policies out of patriotism and goodwill. Critics interpreted his remarks as sympathizing and even condoning their failed policies and demanded he clarify his position. Despite the controversy, Ahn will most likely remain the only candidate, along with Seongnam city mayor Lee Jae-myong, who can challenge the frontrunner Moon Jae-in.
Social Implications of Workaholic South Korea
A 34-year-old civil servant, who was a mother of three children, had just returned from maternity leave a week earlier. Upon resuming work, she worked well past 9PM on weekdays. She clocked in at 5AM on weekends to handle the backlog of work to free up more time with her children. After working a total of 70 hours that week, she was found dead in the staircase of her office building, having suffered a heart attack. The working mom’s death in South Korea raised concerns once again about its workaholic society.
The story has struck a chord with other working mothers in South Korea, highlighting the country’s toxic work-life balance and low fertility challenge. A leading presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, shared the news on his Facebook account, vocalizing his stance on improving social welfare for working mothers. According to the 2015 report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD), the average South Korean works 2,113 hours per year, the second-highest among OECD countries, compared to an American’s average of 1,790 hours per year.
Due to the high rent, job insecurity, and prohibitive costs of raising children, Korean millennials are delaying marriage and childbirth. In 2015, South Korea’s birth rate marked 1.17, down by 5.6% compared to the previous year. According to official statistics, 406,300 babies were born in 2016, which was 7.3% lower than 2015.
The South Korean government spent 80 trillion won (more than US$70 billion) to improve low fertility rates since 2006. However, South Korea has had one of the lowest birthrates across the globe for 16 years in a row. The government’snewly introduced policies towards low fertility rates have been criticized as being an impractical and naive attempt at altering South Korea’s corporate culture.
Government officials and experts are concerned that the low birth rates plus an aging population can lead to demographic upheavals. Continued trends would reduce the nation’s growth potential and increase burden on social welfare.
Chinese Warplanes Fly Between Japanese Islands
On Mar 2, 2017, Chinese warplanes flew across the western Pacific Ocean between the islands of Miyako and Okinawa as a part of its latest large-scale military drill. Three of the Chinese Navy’s missile destroyers entered the East China Sea, raising tensions between China and Japan. In response, Japanamassed the largest number of fighter jets near the island of Okinawa since 2003.
Japan’s Defense Ministry Tomomi Inada stated that a total of 13 aircrafts had been spotted flying through the Miyako strait. The 13 aircrafts included 6 fighter jets, 6 bombers, and an early warning plane. Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force confirmed that there were two Chinese missile destroyers located within 120 miles of Miyakojima and one frigate ship within 50 miles of Kumejima.
Inada speculated that the Chinese military aircrafts and navy vessels had conducted a joint training drill, aimed at improving its long distance capability. The Chinese Navy had conducted more than 20 open-sea training exercises over the last few years. This was the first joint exercise with the Air Force in the East China Sea, however. Chinese authorities explained that the drill was a routine maritime exercise.
Earlier in February this year, three Chinese Coast Guard ships entered the waters near the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. There were 36 such incursions of Japanese territorial waters in 2016.Japanese and Taiwanese officials speculate that the purpose of China’s most recent training exercises is to warn Japan that it will take a hard-line stance regarding territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
China’s Ban on North Korean Coal Imports
On February 18, the Chinese Commerce Ministry declared that it was suspending coal imports from North Korea for the rest of 2017 in order to comply with United Nation Security Council sanctions designed to halt North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons program.
Coal is an important export for North Korea, accounting for roughly 40% of North Korea’s international trade—with virtually all of the coal going to China. In November 2016, after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that limited North Korea’s coal exports to 7.5 million metric tons of coal or $400 million in coal sales a year. Last year, China imported 22.5 million metric tons of North Korean coal.
North Korea reacted to the ban harshly, accusing China of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” and “styling itself as a big power.” China’s ban on North Korean coal and North Korea’s reaction has caused speculation of increased tensions between the two allies. China’s move came after calls from U.S. President Trump to do more to reign in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Several analysts have suggested that the coal ban is less severe than it first seemed, however. Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, points out that in April 2016, China also imposed a ban on North Korean coal. But China managed to import $858 million worth of North Korean coal through a loophole. Also, in December 2016, China imported more than $183 million worth of North Korean coal, triple the value of the U.N. monthly mandated cap on North Korean coal imports. The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that China has already reached the U.N. imposed cap for 2017 within less than two months.
Another possible reason for the coal ban may have more to do with Chinese domestic economy and politics. Air pollution is a major issue in China, and the government is taking steps to reduce the reliance on coal in an attempt to improve air quality. On March 5, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to eliminate more than 50 gigawatts of coal-power capacity. As part of this pledge, China will shut down dozens of existing coal plants and stop some new construction as well as cutting 150 million metric tons of coal capacity this year. With this reduction in the demand for coal, along with the large amounts of North Korean coal imported in the past few months, there is less need for additional North Korean coal making it easier for China to meet its U.N. mandated obligation.
This Week in History
On Mar 12, 2004, the South Korean National Assembly passed a bill to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh had previously commented that he “wants to do everything within his legal limitations to support the ruling party in the upcoming parliamentary election.” Following Roh’s comments, the National Election Commission ruled that his comments violated the election law and advised him to maintain political neutrality as an incumbent President. Opposition parties also demanded an apology for his violation and threatened to impeach him if he did not do so. Roh, however, rejected the National Election Commission’s ruling and refused to issue an apology. As political brinkmanship proceeded on both sides, opposition parties’ National Assembly members physically removed members from the ruling party and proceeded to vote on the impeachment bill, which immediately suspended Roh from office. The passage of the impeachment bill triggered massive protests in the streets as the overwhelming majority of the Korean public viewed impeachment as an excessive measure to punish Roh. The Constitutional Court rejected the impeachment motion on May 14, 2004 and Roh resumed his presidency again.
President Park Ousted from Office