South Korean President Moon’s Trip to Washington
South Korean President Moon Jae-in traveled to Washington D.C. from June 28 to 30 for his first presidential trip to the U.S. President Moon’s trip was eventful, featuring visits to the Korean War memorials in Virginia and Washington D.C., meetings with top U.S. legislators, dinner and summit meeting with U.S. President Trump, as well as a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The top priorities on President Moon’s agenda for the trip included U.S.-South Korean trade and economic relations, military alliance relations, and dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. President Trump is a well-known critic of the KORUS bilateral free trade deal with South Korea. During the summit, hecalled KORUS a “rough deal for the United States.” After meeting with President Moon, President Trump claimed that the U.S. and South Korea are “renegotiating a trade deal right now.” However, President Moon clarified that a renegotiation of KORUS was “outside of the agreement” the two reached during the meeting. Despite any agreement on trade, President Trump will surely be pleased by South Korean companies’ announcements of new investments in the U.S. made before the summit, such as Samsung’s plan to open a new plant in South Carolina and create nearly 1,000 new American jobs.
One primary purpose of the U.S.-South Korea meeting was to reaffirm the strong alliance ties between the two countries. This was strongly stated in the joint U.S.-South Korean statement issued after the summit, which called the alliance “a linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asia Pacific, and increasingly around the world.” One important alliance issue is the deployment of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile system THAAD in South Korea, which President Moon has deployed in order to conduct an environmental review. The THAAD system is heavily criticized by China, which has placed heavy economic pressure on South Korea to protest its deployment, potentially costing South Korea’s economy up to $7 billion this year. When President Moon met with congressional leaders, they pressed himto allow the full deployment of THAAD as soon as possible. President Moon assured them by asking them to “to abandon doubt that I and my administration will reverse the THAAD deployment.”
Before President Moon traveled to Washington, there were concerns that his more conciliatory approach to North Korea would clash with President Trump’s confrontational stance. However, despite the two leaders’ different philosophies, President Moon called obtaining President Trump’s support for South Korea's leading role in fostering a favorable condition for a peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula and resumption of inter-Korean dialogue a “very important achievement.” President Moon also agreed with President Trump on the necessity of maintaining strong pressure on North Korea and the need to fully implement existing sanctions on North Korea.
Can President Moon Reform the Prosecution Service?
Throughout South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s political scandal, South Korea’s Prosecution Service was at the center of endless controversy. A case in point was how Senior Secretary to the President for Civil Affairs Woo Byoung-woo and a retired prosecutor leveraged his connections with his former colleagues to impede investigations on President Park’s allies and initiate investigations against her political foes. Corruption in the prosecution service is not new to Korean politics. Prosecutors who resign or retire from the prosecution service frequently take on high-level government positions in the Blue House. Many have leveraged their connection with former colleagues to achieve political objectives.
As the public sharply criticized this corrupt practice, Moon Jae-in ran in the presidential race on a platform to reform the prosecution service. The South Korean prosecution service is one of the most powerful government agencies because it possesses both the right to indict and the right to supervise investigations. In other countries, prosecutors only have the right to indict, and the right to investigate is reserved for the police force. Some argue that depriving the prosecution service of its right to supervise investigations would weaken the prosecution service and empower the police force to maintain a healthy check and balance between the two government agencies.
Another important agenda for prosecution service reform is the establishment of a special investigative unit for high-level officials indicted for corruption. High-level officials would include bureaucrats in any government agency, including those within the prosecution service. Some assert that the establishment of an independent investigative unit composed of experienced prosecutors would limit influence-meddling by retired prosecutors and ensure an impartial legal proceeding that punishes even the highest authorities in power. But others contend that the establishment of such special investigative unit would give rise to a group of privileged prosecutors that have more power and higher rankings, which would in turn disrupt the organizational culture within the prosecutions service.
Although prosecution service reform has been a key element within South Korea’s policy debates, President Moon has yet to offer a specific roadmap for prosecution service reform, and his initial moves have been largely unsuccessful. President Moon’s first nominee for Minister of Justice resigned in disgrace after scandals involving his previous relationship came to the fore. President Moon appointed another prominent academic who shares Moon’s reformist agenda as the Minister of Justice, but the nominee still faces an arduous confirmation hearing process at the National Assembly. For now, it may be too early to tell whether President Moon will be able to reform the prosecution service.
South Korean President Moon Maintains High Approval Despite Challenges
As President Moon Jae-in begins his third month in office, he faces a number of political obstacles. Many of President Moon’s picks for various cabinet positions have faced political backlash including Kang Kyung-wha as Foreign Affairs Minister, Kim Hyun-mee as Land and Transport Minister, and Song Young-mooas the Defense Minister nominee.
The criticism against these cabinet member nominees range from tax evasion, driving under the influence to real estate speculation. More recently, opposition parties have criticized President Moon for failing to resolve some lingering issues during the U.S.-ROK summit including a potential renegotiation of the KORUS FTA and the financial burden of the US military presence in South Korea.
Nonetheless, President Moon continues to hold high approval. According to a Gallup poll, President Moon’s popularity was eighty percent at the end of June. Within a similar time period since her inauguration, former President Park had an approval rating of about fifty percent. Some have attributed President Moon’s early popularity to his perceived relatability. However, it is certainly possible for President Moon’s approval rating to fall, especially as he moves further out of his honeymoon period.
Whether President Moon maintains a high approval rating may hinge on his ability to achieve some of his goals as outlined in his campaign platform. Two of his main policy goals were improving South Korea’s economy and easing inter-Korean relations. South Korea’s youth unemployment rate was over eleven percent as of April 2017, and Kim Jong-un’s record of advancing nuclear capabilities suggests that he may not be as willing as his father to engage with South Korea. President Moon will need to navigate these harsh realities.
South Korean Startup Raises the Issue of Age Discrimination
On June 13, 2017, Channel NewsAsia first covered a South Korean startup, EverYoung that only hires people over the age of 55. EverYoung is a content-monitoring company that monitors blogging content on South Korea’s search engine Naver and detect sensitive information on Naver Maps. Employees are trained on those skills and also hold coding classes for youth. Employees work in four-hour shifts and have 10-minute breaks every 50 minutes. They were noted for their high attention to details and less distraction with their phones. The founder, Chung Eunsung said the purpose of the company was to challenge the issue of age discrimination in South Korea where senior workers can be forced into early retirement in the corporate sector. Chung argued that senior workers can still contribute to South Korea’s economy given that many are forced into retirement and live on inadequate state pensions, while South Korea’s aged population is increasing.
Age discrimination against seniors is prevalent in South Korea. According to asurvey by Statistics Korea, 82% of people, aged 20 to 50 worry about being forced into early retirement before the official retirement age of 60. The Nikkei Asian Review reported in 2015 that 62% of people between age of 55-79 search for new jobs after their career ended. According to a OECD report, South Koreans “effective age of retirement” is around 71 years, second to Mexico at 72. Effective age of retirement means the age at which an individual completely leaves the job market. South Korea’s pensions system faces many issues, as few seniors received the benefits and the payouts were often inadequate for their financial needs after retirement. Additionally, South Koreahas the highest rate of poverty among senior citizens at 49.3% among OECD countries, with the elderly working menial jobs.
China-South Korea-Japan Trilateral Summit Postponed Amid THAAD Row
China requested that a China-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit be delayedamid deteriorating relations between China and South Korea due to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) in South Korea. China told Japan that holding a trilateral talk in July would be “difficult.”
The three parties will seek to arrange a talk possibly later this year. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, South Korea newly elected President Moon Jae-in, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would attend the proposed meeting in Tokyo. This would be the first visit for Premier Li and President Moon to Japan.
From China’s perspective, delaying the summit may put pressure on South Korea over the U.S. military’s deployment of THAAD, as President Moon’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss North Korea, THAAD, and Free Trade Agreement (FTA) issues on June 29 and 30 in Washington. Meanwhile, Japanese media Nikkei Asian Review mentioned that Chinese President Xi Jinping postponed the trilateral meeting since he wants “to avoid making political waves” before the Chinese National Congress of the Communist Party meets in the fall.
Prime Minister Abe aims to strengthen Japan’s cooperation with China and South Korea to address threats from North Korea nuclear and ballistic missile activities. He also plans to accelerate preparations of his visit to China next year, warming bilateral relations.
Although the three-way talk has been delayed, the leaders of U.S., South Korea, and Japan are going to hold a trilateral summit on July 6 in Hamburg, Germany. The three parties will discuss issues on trilateral cooperation over North Korea’s nuclear threats.
This Week in History
On July 4, 1972, South Korea and North Korea issued the July 4th North South Joint Statement, which outlined the principles of unification to which both sides agreed. [See full text] In the statement, both sides agreed to three principles: to pursue unification independently without the help of external forces; to pursue unification peacefully without the use of military forces; and to pursue unification by strengthening a sense of national unity that transcends political or ideological boundaries. While the statement was hailed as a major step toward peaceful unification at the time, many historians argue that Kim Il-sung and Park Chung-hee had similar ulterior motives in issuing this statement. Both Kim and Park used the joint statement and the initiation of inter-Korean peace process as an excuse to revise the constitution and prolong their authoritarian rule. In the North, Kim incorporated the Juche ideology into the constitution and adopted the socialist constitution. In the South, Park adopted the Yushin constitution under the disguise of “preparing for unification,” and consolidated his rule until his death in 1979.
South Korean President Moon’s Trip to Washington