Who’s in the Race? The Upcoming Presidential Election in South Korea
A total of 15 candidates registered for the South Korean presidential election to be held on May 9. This marks the largest number of registered presidential candidates in South Korean history. Of the fifteen candidates, the five who have seats in the National Assembly are considered serious contenders.
The impeachment of President Park from the Saenuri Party, South Korea’s main conservative party, provided a fertile ground for liberal presidential candidates. The Democratic Party of Korea nominated Moon Jae-in, the former chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, who also ran for the presidency in 2012. The second-time runner is joined by another—Ahn Cheol-soo, from the People’s Party. During the 2012 election, Moon sought to establish a united opposition platform with the then independent presidential candidate Ahn. In the end, Ahn yielded to Moon, who lost the election to Park. In this election, however, it appears unlikely that the candidates will band together. They are currently the leading contenders in this election who represent the two different brands of liberal politics in Korea.
After the brief vacuum of conservative presidential candidates with the exit of former-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, several promising candidates have emerged. Bareun Party nominated Yoo Seong-min, and the Liberty Korean Party nominated Hong Jun-pyo. Both nominees used to belong to the ruling Saenuri Party, but they drifted apart as they disagreed over how to handle Choi Soon-sil scandal and Park’s impeachment. Hong, until recently, was the governor of the conservative South Gyeongsang province. Yoo is a member of the national assembly, representing the city of Daegu.
The only progressive party in Korea, the Justice Party, nominated Shim Sang-jung, the only female presidential candidate. Shim is one of the two three-term national assembly member from a progressive party. She devoted her career to improving the rights of blue-collar laborers and was a prominent leader in South Korea’s student and labor movements in the 1980s.
According to the latest poll from the second week of April, Moon currently leads the race with 44.8%, and Ahn trails behind with 31.3%. Hong has managed to maintain a double digit support with 10.3%. Both Yoo and Shim appear as the underdogs, having a tie of 3.5% and 3.2%.
U.S Vice President Mike Pence’s Visit to South Korea
On April 16, 2017, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Seoul after North Korea’s failed missile test. His visit to Seoul is part of his official visit to the Asia Pacific region where his objective is to affirm U.S. commitment in its security alliances and economic relationships. In South Korea, he confirmed the U.S.’s commitment to collaborate with the South Korean government on deterring North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
On April 17, 2017, Pence visited the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) where he deviated from his plans to stay in the Freedom House building that is adjacent to the border line between the North and the South. CNN reported that Pence decided to venture outside, closer to the demarcation line after he was briefed that North Korean soldiers are stationed only 100 feet away from the border. This had the military, security personnel, as well as the media, scrambling to accommodate him.
The North Korean soldiers saw Pence come outside and took pictures with hand-held cameras. Dignitaries visiting the DMZ usually prompt North Korean soldiers to snap photos. The photo-taking is thought of as a means for North Korea to document visitors at the border, as well as a tactic to intimidate visiting U.S. officials. As in the case of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit, as well as past Defense Secretaries, Ashton Carter and Chuck Hagel, North Korean soldiers would solemnly take photos, through windows of buildings where officials would meet, almost paparazzi-style.
Pence also made remarks that the U.S. is committed to security “through peaceable means, through negotiations,” but sought to pressure North Korea to change course as “the era of strategic patience is over.” He emphasized the U.S.’s commitment to its alliance with South Korea, and called for further cooperation by China. He reiterated that “all options are on the table.”
Later in the day, Pence held a joint press conference with acting South Korea’s President, Hwang Kyo-Ahn. Pence emphasized that the policy of strategic patience is over, warning North Korea not to test U.S. President Trump’s “resolve” or the U.S. military’s strength by pointing out the recent U.S. military actions in Syria and Afghanistan. Both Pence and President Hwang said that both U.S. and South Korea will continue with the early deployment of THAAD despite China’s objections.
U.S.-China Dialogue on the North Korean Threat
U.S. President Donald Trump met with China’s President Xi Jinping for the first time at a summit held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort from April 6 to 7. During the meeting the two leaders discussed topics ranging from trade to human rights, but a major focus was on the North Korean threat. While there were no concrete deals or agreements on any of the issues discussed, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted that both sides “reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula, and committed to fully implement U.N. Security council resolutions.”
President Trump continued his outreach to China on North Korea through a phone call to Xi on April 12 and through “Twitter diplomacy.” Between April 11 and 16, Trump tweeted five times calling for China’s support on the North Korea issue, underlining his call for help with the threat of unilateral action towards North Korea or offering economic incentives like better trading terms with the United States. While this outreach was ongoing, North Korea was preparing to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of its founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15. Many analysts considered another North Korean nuclear test likely. In the lead up to North Korea’s celebration, the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier group to the region and threatened to take action against any North Korean nuclear test.
China a warned all sides that a “storm is about to break.” Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, urging all sides to “refrain from provoking and threatening each other . . . and not let the situation get to an irreversible and unmanageable stage.” While North Korea refrained from conducting another nuclear test during the 105th birth anniversary, tensions over North Korea remained high. During the celebration, North Korea held a military parade in which they exhibited their range of missiles, including, yet untested, ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S.
As North Korea races to build a missile that can threaten the U.S. with a nuclear warhead, President Trump will continue to put pressure on China to do more to solve the North Korean problem. China is likely to continue calling for both sides to reduce tensions and return to diplomacy.
China and South Korea Cleared as Currency Manipulators
Although President Trump has not referred to China and South Korea as currency manipulators since his inauguration, the U.S. Treasury Department released a report to Congress that the two countries are still on their “monitoring list” of major trading partners that “merit close attention to their currency practices.”
In the report, the Treasury Department stated that it is “committed to aggressively and vigilantly monitoring and combating unfair currency practices” of the countries on the monitoring list, which includes China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and Switzerland. The Treasury claims that China’s long track record of engaging in persistent, large-scale, one-way foreign exchange intervention as well as currency practices, bring hardships for American workers and companies, significantly increasing the bilateral trade surplus with the U.S. Yet many experts say that since China has not engaged in the currency practices for several years, it would be unfair to categorize China as a currency manipulator.
The report attributed Korea’s placement on the monitoring list to Korea’s track record of asymmetric foreign exchange interventions, significant bilateral trade surplus with the U.S., and the undervaluation of Korean won.
The Treasury’s report highlights the need to reduce trade deficit that arises from the U.S.-China trade. While President Trump has changed his rhetoric regarding China’s currency practices, the administration’s response may depend on how how China responds to the U.S.’s demands to impose pressure on North Korea regarding its nuclear program.
Although South Korea has been cleared as a currency manipulator, it currently meets two of the three criteria to be monitored. The Trump administration has been significantly critical of the U.S., South Korea bilateral free trade agreement (KORUS FTA), saying that it has “doubled [U.S.] trade deficit with South Korea and destroyed nearly 100,000 American jobs." Some economists say that although the U.S. has yet refrained from calling it a currency manipulator, President Trump “would most likely use the threat of currency manipulation as leverage to force South Korea to reduce non-tariff related regulations and to open up new markets to American products.”
U.S. and Japan Agree to Maintain Unity against North Korea Threat
At a time of heightened tensions over North Korea, the United States and Japan agreed to broaden the scope of bilateral cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s ballistic missiles. The two sides also addressed the importance of unity among Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. to deter North Korea.
Japanese officials have expressed concern that the U.S. launching a strike on North Korea could trigger a retaliatory attack on Japan or South Korea.
Japan and the U.S. are now considering the expansions of the 1960 deal, particularly in light of the North Korean nuclear threat. In 1960, the U.S.agreed that it would consult with Japan over major changes in the American military presence, including the use of Japanese military bases. It also consent to confer with Japan on the rearrangement of the U.S. military presence and equipment in Asia beforehand. The security pact was in response to allay concerns that Japan could be drawn into military conflict by the actions of U.S.’s forces.
The revival of discussions about expanding the 1960 deal reflect Japan’s growing concern that the U.S.’s military involvement with North Korea could affect its national security.
This Week in History
On April 19, 1960, college students across all major cities in South Korea came out to the streets to protest against President Syngman Rhee and the fraud election on March 15. Earlier that year, President Rhee had ordered an early presidential election to take place in March 15 to seek another term to serve as president. The election, however, was illegal and unfair by all measures. Political gangsters hired by the ruling Liberal Party supervised the voters to make sure they voted for Rhee. Several members of the ruling liberal party even fabricated votes and put them in the ballot box even before voting began. As a result, Rhee and his vice president won the election with 88.7 % and 79.2 % of the votes, respectively. But opposition parties, students and journalists strongly contested election results and began protesting. Rhee responded by suppressing the protests with police force, which resulted in the death of 101 civilians on April 19 alone. As protests spread throughout the country across generations, Rhee eventually decided to resign on April 26. April 19th movement marked the first time in Korean history in which the Korean people successfully overthrew the government.