Issue 28: January 10 - January 24, 2018

Sejong Society Event

A Book Talk/Signing Event with Scott Snyder
Hosted by the Sejong Society and the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS
7:00 PM- 8:30 PM, Tuesday, February 6, 2018
SAIS Rome Auditorium
1619 Massachusetts Ave NW
Washington, DC 20036


South Korea's Air Pollution Problem

Leon Whyte

Seoul has been experiencing dangerous levels of air pollution with the daily average density of ultra-fine dust, known as PM2.5, above 50 micrograms per cubic meter—a level considered harmful for humans. Starting Jan 15, 2018, city officials waived public transit fees on buses and subways in hopes of incentivizing less driving on the streets. The city council further limited car use by public employees, closed 360 parking lots, and reduced construction work on government-funded projects. The measures are projected to be short-term efforts.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea has the worst air pollution among its 35 member states. High levels of air pollution increase the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer as well as short-term eye irritation. The OECD reports that children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to these ill effects.

Some  air pollution comes from China’s industrial air pollution and yellow dust from Chinese and Mongolian deserts. However, according to NASA scientists, over half of the air pollution is from local sources, including vehicle emissions, industrial sites, and power plants.

The South Korean government has unveiled an ambitious $6.3 billion plan to address its air pollution problem. The plan includes shutting down old coal power plants and encouraging the adoption of electric cars. Additionally, South Korea will monitor and crack down nitrogen oxide emissions at large industrial facilities. The goal of the plan is to reduce domestic fine-dust particles by 30% before 2022.

China Dials Up Pressure on North Korea

Jessie Chen

China and North Korea relations has chilled since 2006 when North Korea began to test nuclear weapons. A Chinese report, published on Jan 9, 2018, indicated that there was a sharp drop of 10.5% in the trade between China and North Korea between 2016 and 2017. In December 2017, the overall trade was 50.6% lower compared to the same period in 2016. 

Currently, China imposes a cap on oil supplies to North Korea and prohibits steel and other imports from North Korea.  After North Korea launched another ballistic missile test on Nov 29, 2017, China stated that it will follow the UN nuclear sanctions to increase the pressure on North Korea.. China plans to further ban food, machinery, and other goods from North Korea. Given that China has been a main energy supplier and trading partner of North Korea, its action is likely to put a significant strain on North Korea’s economy. 

To maintain regional stability, resuming inter-Korean talks is another key consideration for China. On Jan 15, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump, during a phone call, said they hope to resume dialogue between South Korea and North Korea, which might be able to change North Korea’s “destructive behavior.” President Xi also talked with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in over a phone call on Jan 8, 2018, welcoming the progress on inter-Korean talks. 

At the same time, China did not receive an invitation to a 20-nation meeting in Vancouver over the North Korean nuclear crisis. China responded by saying that the meeting is “illegitimate” without China’s own participation.

Inter-Korean Talks on 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

Andrew Jung

Two events took place that can be seen as sign of progress for both North Korea and South Korea’s joint participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in February. 

On Jan 20, 2018, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) met with both National Olympics Committee representatives from North and South Korea to decide on the participation of North Korean athletes jointly with their South Korean counterparts. IOC President Thomas Bach announced the decision to permit 22 North Korean athletes, 24 officials, and 21 media representatives to attend the Olympics (read the full declaration here). Both North Korea and South Korea will march together in the opening ceremony under the Korean Unification flag and under one delegation of “Korea.” The IOC also granted permission to allow a unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, adding 12 North Korean players to the current roster of 22 South Korean players. IOC President Bach in his remarks said, “The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding. The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope.”  

Several hours after the IOC’s announcement, a North Korean delegation of officials led by popular singer, Hyon Song-wol arrived in South Korea on Sunday, Jan 21. They were scheduled to inspect concert venues for its 140-member arts troupe that would be performing during the Olympics. The visit was abruptly cancelled then reinstated after South Korean officials reached out to their North Korean counterparts. Although there was no explanation, one possible explanation is that North Korean officials wanted to display disapproval towards South Korea’s conservatives rhetoric and media’s focus on the controversies of the joint participation. 

South Korea’s Moon Jae-in’s administration hopes to use the Winter Olympics talksas a stepping stone to further inter-Korean talks in other areas, such as denuclearization and reunions of divided family members. On Jan 19, 2018 five government agencies including the Ministries of Unification, Foreign Affairs, and National Defense proposed a roadmap to achieve stability in the Korean Peninsula through inter-Korean dialogue, while maintaining its relations with U.S., China, and Japan.

More conservative politicians and media outlets have criticized the talks on the joint participation of both North Korea and South Korea in the Olympics. The currentpublic opinion in South Korea also reveals a less supportive attitude towards joint participation of the Olympics, especially among conservatives and his base of young voters. In South Korea's Realmeter poll, 4 in 10 respondents support marching under the Korea Unification flag. Among the younger generation, North Korea is considered a separate country unlike older generations who still have family ties in North Korea and a fervent desire for reunification. Some are also pessimistic about the effectiveness of the joint Olympics participation bringing about peace. They point to the joint participation during the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, where North Korea continued to conduct nuclear tests soon thereafter. 

The proposal for a unified women’s ice hockey team also elicited a backlash from the public. 70% of South Koreans in a recent joint poll by SBS and National Assembly Speaker’s office opposes the idea. Although ice hockey is not popular in South Korea, the women’s ice hockey team rose to stardom after winning an international hockey championship as an underdog in 2017. The national women’s ice hockey team is the only women’s team in South Korea, created in 1998 to qualify for the Asian Winter Games. 

An unnamed South Korean government official carelessly said that the women’s ice hockey team is only getting attention due to the ongoing debate and that the unified team can benefit the country. Separately, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon also made comments that seemed to question the women’s team competitiveness. These comments further angered the public as they saw the proposal as a political stunt. The public also felt sympathy for the players who may lose their roster spots or playing times to the North Korean players.

While President Moon Jae-in met with the team to assuage concerns and emphasize unity, his approach has been portrayed as “unfair” for the South Korean players as they now have to accomodate lesser-known North Korean players for the Olympics less than a month away. (Read the IOC declarations here to see how the hockey team will be organized.) 

International Leaders Meet in Vancouver to Discuss North Korea

Patrick Niceforo

Last week, top leaders from 20 countries, known as the Vancouver Group, expressed their support for continued inter-Korean talks at an international summit in Vancouver. The U.S. and Canada co-hosted the meeting to discuss theimplementation of U.N. sanctions on North Korea to give up its weapon program and other means of limiting Pyongyang’s access to crude oil and petroleum products. The summit was announced at the end of November, the same day that North Korea launched a ballistic missile that landed in the sea east of Japan.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono reaffirmed their shared goal ofpeacefully resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue at a trilateral meeting during the international summit in Vancouver. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also met bilaterally with Minister Kang to express Canada’s support for South Korea and wishes for a peaceful resolution.

Notably absent from the summit were Russia and China. Given the Vancouver group’s pledge to strengthen unilateral action against North Korea, leaders fromRussia and China criticized the summit as counterproductive to existing U.N. sanctions. Secretary Tillerson criticized Russia and China for not doing enough to curb North Korea’s weapon program. While not every country has consistent views, the recent Vancouver summit reflects widespread agreement in the international community that force should not be used to halt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

This Week in History: The Blue House Raid

On Jan 21, 1968, a team of 31 North Korean soldiers entered the outskirts of Seoul, South Korea with a mission to assassinate Park Chung-hee at his residence, the Blue House. Earlier, they successfully crossed over the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and were making their way through the mountains to Seoul. They made a fatal mistake of not killing the South Korean loggers who spotted their camp. The leader decided to persuade them of the virtues of communism in exchange for sparing their lives. However, the loggers reported the encounter to the police and both South Korean and American military were searching for them. Disguised as South Korean guards, they were able to enter the grounds of the Blue House. However, they opened fire after being confronted by a South Korean sentry. After a gunfight, they attempted to flee back to the North and both South Korean and American military were able to hunt them down. Of the North Korean soldiers, 29 died, one fled back to North Korea, and one was captured. This incident increased tensions between the two Koreas, however it was overshadowed by North Korea’s capture of the USS Pueblo few days later.

External Events

Dinner Reception & Film Screening with North Korean Defector Students
Hosted by GW Institute for Korean Studies
6:00 PM - 9:00 PM, Wednesday, January 24, 2018
The Elliott School of International Affairs
1957 E St. NW, Suite 113
Washington, DC 20052

Prospects for Amending the KORUS FTA
12:00 PM- 1:30 PM, Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Korea Economic Institute of America
1800 K St NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20006