Issue 56: March 9 - March 21, 2019


Former President of South Korea Chun Doo-hwan Stands Trial for Defaming a Catholic Priest in Connection to the Gwangju Uprising

George Bradshaw

South Korea’s former President, Chun Doo-hwan, faces defamation charges arising from his 2017 memoirs in which he labelled deceased Catholic priest, Cho Chul-hyun, a “shameless liar” and “Satan wearing a mask”. Chun strongly disputed Cho’s claims that government troops fired at protestors from a helicopter during the May 18 Democratic Uprising (commonly known as the Gwangju Uprising) in 1980.

The Gwangju Uprising was a popular protest in which government troops fired upon, killed, beat and raped protestors from Chonnam University who were protesting martial law. The Chun government, which came to power through a military coup in 1979 and was responsible for significant human rights abuses during the 1980s’ under the pretext of national “states of emergency”, interpreted the protests as a communist uprising. They argued that government troops fired in self-defense.

Human rights activists, alongside many nations including the United States, disputed this interpretation, arguing that the government shot on peaceful protestors. Official numbers put the death toll at 144 citizens, but unofficial sources dispute this figure, arguing over 1000 people died. In 1997, the government established a national cemetery and a day of commemoration in honor of the deceased. Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to death in 1998, before President Kim Young-sam pardoned him.

The trial will focus on the veracity of Chun’s claim that government troops did not shoot from helicopters. As such, this libel trial has wider ramifications as it challenges a 2011 court hearing which found that government troops fired at protestors in self-defense. If this trial overturns that decision, then the courts may challenge the actions of Chun and other officials in the Gwangju Uprising. Chun and others involved in the incident have denied wrongdoing over the last four decades, and have not apologized for their actions. Chun could face up to two years imprisonment for libel if the court finds him guilty.

Political Divide in the National Assembly

Andrew Jung

Tensions have been intensifying in South Korea’s National Assembly between the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP). Earlier on March 12, 2019, LKP’s floor leader Na Kyung-won helda speech attacking South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in’s efforts in inter-Korean cooperation. She angered the DPK lawmakers when she called President Moon “ a chief spokesman for North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.”

The DPK demanded that she make a public apology and some also called for her resignation as LKP floor leader, as well as her parliamentary seat. The following day on March 13, 2019, the DKP referred Na Kyung-won to the parliamentary ethics committee for disciplinary action charging that she broke parliamentary law that bans insulting remarks. One of their demands, theremoval of Na from the National Assembly will require the LKP’s support. The Moon Jae-in administration also responded that Na Kyung-won’s speech is “deeply regrettable” for insulting the president and other people longing for peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The LKP retaliated by threatening to refer the DKP leader and floor leader to the ethics committee for disregarding them. Na Kyung-won responded by claiming that referring her to the ethics committee is violating free speech. The LKP argued that DKP floor leader, Hong Young-pyo should be disciplined by the ethics committee for interrupting Na Kyung-won’s speech and demanded that other DPK members apologize for protesting. Na Kyung-won’s speech is beingseen as a strategy to rally the LKP’s base of far-right supporters and portray herself as a leader of strong conservatism. Her actions also caused concerns that it has become more difficult for the National Assembly to clear a backlog of pending bills and negotiate on electoral reform as the parliamentary session recently reopened after a two-months hiatus.

Encouragingly, the National Assembly was still able to pass nine bills including combating fine dust. On March 15, 2019, the DKP and other minor opposition parties managed to reach an agreement on electoral reform “introducing a mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation system, in which parliamentary seats are tied to the percentage of voters' support for different parties.” The electoral precincts are also supposed to be finalized a year before the upcoming general elections in April 15, 2020. The LKP has vowed to block the DKP and the other political parties from fast-tracking the electoral reform bill.

Scandal in the K-pop Industry

Amanda Wong

The ongoing scandal surrounding former Big Bang member Seungri (Lee Seung-hyun) has dominated the headlines in South Korea. The resulting police investigation also implicated several other singers in the industry. The controversy began with an investigation into the Burning Sun nightclub in Seoul, which was suspected of being involved in illegal drug use and sexual assault. As a public relations director at Burning Sun, Seungri came under suspicion of having provided escort services for foreign investors of the nightclub.

Although he initially denied involvement, KakaoTalk chat messages that were subsequently leaked revealed that he was in contact with staff of the nightclub to hire prostitutes. Following the news, the stocks of entertainment companies fell, with YG Entertainment (which manages Big Bang) suffering the biggest drop. The widening scandal resulted in Seungri announcing his retirement from the entertainment industry, and YG Entertainment also accepted the request to terminate his contract. He has been banned from leaving the country and may also have to defer his military enlistment, which was scheduled for Mar. 25.

In an associated case, singer Jung Joon-young is also facing a police investigation after releasing a statement in which he admitted to filming women without their consent and sharing the videos with acquaintances in a group chat. He apologized to the women in the videos and also announced his retirement from the entertainment industry. Jung’s contract has also beenterminated by his company, and like Seungri, he has been banned from leaving the country. Both Seungri and Jung were interrogated by the police on Thursday, Mar. 16, 2019.

In addition to the two singers, the scandal has also implicated other entertainers. Choi Jong-hoon of rock band FT Island and Yong Jun-hyung of boyband Highlight have also announced their retirement from the industry.Yong admitted that he had watched the videos circulated by Jung and had inappropriate conversations regarding them. Choi, who was part of the same group chat as Jung, is also suspected of having used his ties to a police officer to cover up his drunk driving charge. The scandal has exposed the darker side of the K-pop industry, which tends to portray polished images of idol groups. It has also triggered criticism that the focus on attaining fame and fortune has come at the expense of the morality of the singers in the industry.

President Moon Renews Spotlight on New Southern Policy in Visit to Southeast Asia

Jaemin Baek

On March 16, 2019, President Moon Jae-in returned from a weeklong trip to Southeast Asia where he conducted official state visits to Brunei, Malaysia, and Cambodia. This is President Moon’s first overseas trip of 2019 and was interpreted as demonstrating Moon’s commitment to the Southeast Asia region. In 2017, President Moon announced the adoption of what he termed as the“New Southern Policy,” a strategic pivot to diversify South Korea’s diplomatic partners from largely being focused around the United States and China to include members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and India.  

During his visits to Brunei, Malaysia, and Cambodia, Moon met with their respective heads of states and discussed growing diplomatic and economic ties. In total, ASEAN member countries are the second largest destination for South Korean exports, second to China. 

President Moon, when speaking to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, specifically requested Malaysia’s assistance in encouraging better behavior from North Korea. Moon also requested that Malaysia ease sanctions on North Korea to encourage the inter-Korean relations. Malaysia previously normalized relations with North Korea and both countries maintain embassies in their respective capitals. Both Moon and Mahathir also affirmed their commitment to move forwards with the negotiation of the South Korea-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement. 

This Week in History: Cyber Attacks in South Korea

On March 20, 2013, South Korea experienced a massive cyber attack on the IT networks of media outlets, KBS, MBC, and YTN, as well as their banks, Shinhan and NongHyup. The networks froze and a warning came up on some screens from a group calling themselves WhoisTeam. Speculation arose that North Korea may be responsible. A month later, South Korea’s government announcedthat North Korea is behind the cyber attacks by inspecting the malicious codes and concurring that the attack methods are similar to North Korea Reconnaissance General Bureau.


DC Asia Policy Happy Hour
Friday, March 22, 2019, 5:30 PM- 9:30 PM
The Big Hunt
1345 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

Negotiating Peace on the Korean Peninsula: Security & Human Rights in the Balance
Hosted by Forum on International Affairs
Thursday, March 28, 2019
One Judiciary Square
441 4th Street NW
11th Floor, Room 1117
Washington, DC 20001

The Implications of Demographic Decline for South Korean National Security
Hosted by George Washington University for Korean Studies
Thursday, April 4, 2019, 12:30 PM- 2:00 PM
The Chung-wen Shih Conference Room, Suite 503
Elliott School of International Affairs, the George Washington University
1957 E St. NW, 
Washington, DC 20052

I Spy a Spy: Social Anxiety and Farce in North Korean Comedy Film
Hosted by Asian Division, Library of Congress
Thursday, April 11, 2019, 12:00 PM- 1:00 PM
Dining Room A, 6F, James Madison Bldg
Library of Congress
101 Independence Ave. SE
Washington, DC 20540


Program Officer, North Korea
National Endowment for Democracy