Asia in Review Archive (2019)

South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

03 September 2019

South Korea and Japan relations further worsening

(jd) Amidst ongoing strained relationships with Japan, South Korean lawmakers visited a disputed island on Saturday. Known to South Korea as Dokdo, the island is also claimed by Japan, where it is known as Takeshima. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the visit “extremely regrettable.” [New York Times]

Meanwhile, as expected, Japan has officially removed South Korea from the trade whitelist last week, while Seoul confirmed this weekend that the South Korean government is on track toward excluding Japan from its export control whitelist this month. [Japan Times] [Asia News Network]

03 September 2019

South Korea: Main opposition party again takes to the streets

(dql) Following last weekend’s rally [AiR No. 35, August/2019], South Korea’s Liberty Korea Party continues its extra-parliamentary opposition against the Moon administration as it held another mass protest in Seoul this week to demand Justice Minister nominee Cho Kuk to withdraw, who is under heavy pressure over alleged privileges his daughter enjoyed in her college admissions process and his large investments in a private equity fund. According to party estimates around 50.000 people joined the rally. [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July 2019

Japan-South Korea relations: Clash over Tokyo’s curbs on high-tech exports to South Korea

(dql/jd) Japan and South Korea’s relations are worsening over Japan’s imposition of tighter restrictions on high-tech exports to South Korea, widely seen as a retaliatory move of Tokyo against what is view as Seoul’s inaction against South Korea’s Supreme Court rulings of last year ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. [AiR 1/7/2019] [AiR 2/7/2019]

Following failed diplomatic attempts in the last week [Korea Herald 1] [Reuters], South Korean President Moon on Monday reiterated his call for talks warning Tokyo of “very unwise move” of fusing historical and economic issues which in the end would hit Japan much harder than South Korea. He also again rejected Tokyo’s justification of its trade measure with the South Korea’s alleged to enforce sanctions on North Korea. [Korea Herald 2]

Meanwhile, Japan itself faces accusations of violating international sanctions against North Korea. Yonhap is citing UN Reports between 2010 and 2019 according to which Japan has exported “strategic items and luxury goods” to North Korea, thereby violating international sanctions. [Yonhap]

Complicating the dispute, Russia has come up with an offer to supply etching gas – the key element for semiconductor production –  to South Korea, in a move that could help Seoul get around Japanese export curbs. [Nikkei Asian Review]

16 July 2019

South Korea: Minimum wage hike campaign deflates

(dql) South Korea’s government announced last week to set the minimum wage per hour for 2020 at 8,590 won (7.32 USD), a hike of only 2.9% on a year making it the lowest since 2010. In 2018 and 2019 the raise was at 16.4% and 10.9% respectively.

The announcement caused fierce criticism from the labor sector calling the government’s decision a “minimum wage debacle” and accusing President Moon Jae-in of breaking his election promises. [Nikkei Asian Review] [South Korea Herald]

Moon apologized and expressed remorse for failing to fulfill his campaign pledge to raise the minimum wage to 10.000 won an hour by 2020. [KBS]

9 July 2019

Japan-South Korea relations: Japan reviews removing South Korea from “white list”

(jyk) The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry reviews whether to remove Korea from its white list of countries that enjoy minimum regulations in export procedures. The move is widely seen as a retaliatory move Tokyo’s against Seoul which it accuses of inaction against South Korea’s Supreme Court rulings of last year ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.

Seoul announced to file a complaint to the WTO, while the Foreign Ministry convened a government-civilian strategy meeting with economists and business leaders to discuss possible countermeasures. Meanwhile, leaders of Korean conglomerates, such as Samsung and SK, were flying for a meeting with Japanese industry officials to discuss the impending export curbs. [JoongAng Daily 1] [JoongAng Daily 2] [Korea Times] [Nikkei]

9 July 2019

South Korea: Minor parties protest against main parties’ parliamentary compromise

(jyk) Three minor parties that allied with the ruling Democratic Party (DP) to push for electoral and judicial reform called foul at the compromise the DP reached with the main opposition Liberal Party (LKP). The agreement would give one of the two parliamentary committees’ chairs to the LKP which would end the months-long parliamentary impasse between the two parties in exchange [AiR 1/7/2019]. Passing a committee chair to the LKP would allow the party to delay the legislative process indefinitely threatening to let the electoral reform “go up in smoke”. The reform would introduce a proportional representation election system, which the minor parties deem crucial for their parties to survive the general election in 2020. Despite their warning that the DP “imperil(s) political cooperation between the four parties’ alliance toward reform”, the DP is unlikely to give in and to sacrifice the chair to the judicial reform committee and pass it on to the LKP, as judicial reform bills has been the Moon Jae-in administration’s main agenda. [JoongAng Daily]

2 July 2019

Japan slaps sanctions on its tech exports to South Korea

(jyk) Underscoring currently frosty relations between Japan and South Korea over the drawn-out issue of compensation of South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korean peninsula  [AiR 4/6/2019], the Japanese government announced its plan to restrict Japanese exports of semiconductor manufacturing materials used in smartphone displays and chips to South Korea.

The move includes tighter export controls as well as removing South Korea from a “white list” of countries that face minimum restrictions on transfers of technology with national security implications. Removal from the “white list” implies all South Korea-bound exports of advanced technologies and electronic parts that have the potential for military use will require Japanese government’s pre-approval. This new screening process is likely to slow down exports and hurt the South Korean electronics makers that rely on the materials, most of which are only available from the Japanese suppliers. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In a stern response, the South Korean government announced to take necessary reactions, including filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization. [Korea Herald]

18 June  2019

South Korea: Parliamentary impasse set to persist

(dql) South Korea’s National Assembly has been facing an impasse for months [AiR 1/6/2019] and continues to be paralyzed after the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) on Sunday failed to agree on setting up a parliamentary hearing on the country’s economic situation as condition for resuming parliamentary operation. While the latter refused to give in to its demand for a hearing to question the government over what it calls the country’s economic crisis, the former rejected the demand, accusing the LKP of misusing the issue for its political agenda. [Korea Herald]




18 June  2019

South Korea-USA relations: Washington wants its ally to join the boycott against Huawei

(jyk) During a security forum in Seoul on June 7th, the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris voiced his concern over the security implications of Korean military’s continued purchase and usage of Huawei’s communications equipment, despite U.S.’s call to blacklist the company to protect the allies’ security network. Several companies of U.S. allies like U.K. and Japan followed the call and suspended deals with China’s rising tech giant. However, Seoul hesitated its alignment with its closest security ally U.S., and said on 13th that it will “consider measures that respect corporate autonomy without affecting military communications” through Ministry of Foreign Affairs, possibly wary of economic retaliation from its biggest trading partner, China [JoongAng Daily]. In response to the concern, a South Korean senior official said the concern was unjustified as 5G was “clearly separate from the military and security communications network in South Korea”, and that Korea’s “usage rate for its 5G network was less than 10%” [Hankyoreh]. The U.S. State Department nonetheless warned the problem pertained to serious national security issues, and that it will reconsider sharing sensitive intelligence with Korea if it fails to align with U.S.’s Huawei boycott. [JoongAng Daily]



11 June  2019

South Korea: Controversy as ruling party’s election strategist plans to visit regional governments ahead of general election

(jyk) Yang Jeong-cheol, a key confidant of President Moon and the director of the ruling party’s election campaign think tank – Institute for Democracy – sparked controversy as he planned his visit to Busan and South Gyeongsang Province to “establish a cooperation network with think tanks of all regional governments”, according to an official of the institute [JoongAng Daily 1].

The announcement of the visit was controversial as it came shortly after Yang’s recent private dinner with the director of the National Intelligence Service despite the NIS Act forbidding its involvement in political activities. [AiR 4/5/2019] The opposition Liberty Korea Party called the visit inappropriate as it could unjustly influence the election results by exerting influence on “the regional government heads who have influence over (their) residents and organizational power”. [JoongAng Daily 2]


11 June  2019

South Korea: Ex-Vice Minister of Justice indicted for receiving sexual favors and bribes

(jyk) South Korea’s former vice minister of Justice, Kim Hak-eui, is set to stand trial for receiving sexual favors and bribes totaling 143,600 USD from a construction contractor. Kim served as the vice-minister of Justice Ministry for just six days until the Prosecutors investigated him for the above charges in March 2013. But the prosecutors and the police dropped all charges against Kim the immediate year, citing a lack of evidence [KyungHyang]. The case resurfaced in 2019 when Kim’s sex video was disclosed by the media and prompted re-initiation of the investigation by the Prosecution Services. New evidences against Kim’s misdeeds generated public speculations that the premature acquittal in 2013 was an attempt of cover-up led by the Prosecution Office and the authorities of the Presidential Office, which was then headed by the Park Administration. [JoongAng Daily]


4 June  2019

South Korea-USA relations: Despite North Korea’s missile tests, no need to restart Big Military Exercises with South Korea, US Acting Defense Chief says

(dql) In a move believed to keep doors open for denuclerization talks with North Korea, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said that it is not necessary to resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea which North Korea has always considered as provocation. Shanahan made this statement during his visit to Seoul on Sunday, adding that his talks in South Korea’s capitol are supposed to clarify and to ensure that the allies have the required military readiness and are prepared when diplomacy could fail.  

While American and South Korean troops have continued low-key, smaller-scale exercises, bigger joint drills have been put on hold after President Trump called them provocative and expensive war games during his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last year.

Shananan’s statement comes after Pyongyang in May conducted missile tests [AiR 2/5/2019] which have triggered discussions over whether a continued suspension of large-scale drills may impair the U.S. and South Korea’s response ability in case the Pyongyang would shift from diplomacy and to heighten hostilities. [Politico] [New York Times]

Meanwhile, South Korea’s Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo provided an assessment of Pyongyang’s missile tests in May at the Shangri-La dialogue, expressing his conviction that they are not violating the Comprehensive Military Agreement between North and South Korea on the reduction of hostilities which was signed in September last year and which states in Art. 1 that “South and North Korea agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea that are the source of military tension and conflict.” [The Diplomat]

In the light of this article, Jeong’s assessment looks attackable but it reflects South Korea’s efforts to retain momentum in the inter-Korean peace and demilitarisation talks in the face of strained relations between the USA and North Korea as well as in the wake of the latest condemnation of Pongyang’s missile tests as violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions by Japanese Defense Minister Iwaya during his meeting with his U.S. and South Korean counterparts on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue as well as by Shanahan some days earlier, with the latter contradicting President Trump who during his visit to Japan last week said that for him the missile tests don’t constitute such a violation. [Japan Times] [CNN]


4 June  2019

South Korea: Main opposition party steps up pressure on intelligence chief over meeting with President Moon’s confidant

(dql) After the revelation of a dinner between National Intelligence Service (NIS) director Suh Hoon and  Yang Jeong-cheol, who used to be President Moon’s senior aide and now works as the director of a think-tank that conducts research and advises on campaign strategy for the ruling Democratic Party (DP) [AiR 4/5/2019], the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) is set to gear up political pressure after indicating that it is considering to file a complaint against Suh with the prosecution over suspected violation of the NIS law by possibly sharing confidential information with Yang and intervening in domestic politics. The NIS law prohibits the agency’s head from being involved in any political activities.

Suh and Yang, who both held key posts in Moon’s presidential campaign in 2017, rejected the allegations, maintaining the meeting was private. [Korea Times]

The controversy adds to the paralyzing of the South Korean parliament in wake of the ongoing clash between the ruling DP and the LKP over recent fast-tracking of controversial political and judicial reform bills, with the latter insisting that it would only return to parliamentary work if the DP withdraws the fast-track designation of those bills. The latest negotiations between both sides on Sunday failed to yield an agreement. [Korea Herald]

Fast-tracked bills can automatically be put to a vote at a plenary session even if relevant committees fail to deliberate on or approve it within a given period of time. Among the contentious bills are those calling for electoral reform and establishing an independent agency to investigate corruption among high-ranking officials.

28 May 2019

South Korea: Uproar as ruling party’s senior advisor seen dining with director of National Intelligence Service

(jyk) Despite the law prohibiting members of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) from participating in political activities including “conducting election campaigns for a political party” the director of the NIS, Suh Hoon, was seen having a four-hour long dinner with Yang Jeong-cheol, who used to be President Moon’s senior aide and now works as the director of a think-tank that conducts research and advises on campaign strategy for the ruling Democratic Party.

Opposition parties accused Yang of appropriating NIS’s intelligence power to gain unjust advantage in the general election in April, 2020, to which Yang replied no sensitive topics were discussed and that the dinner was between “several friends who have known each other for a long time, not a one-on-one meeting (with Suh)” [JoongAng Daily].

This is not the first time the NIS’s political neutrality has been questioned, as the prosecutor’s investigation in 2012 revealed active involvement of the NIS in a online smear campaign that manipulated and influenced public opinion in favor of the conservative administration of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013). The then director of the NIS, Won Sei-Hoon (2009-2013), was found guilty of violating the NIS Act and was sentenced in 2018 to serve four years in prison. [Hankyoreh]

28 May 2019

South Korea: Government response required after petition calling for President Moon to be impeached meets threshold

(dql) Reflecting low approval ratings, a petition calling for an impeachment of President Moon Jae-in gathered more than 217,000 signatures, passing the threshold of 200,000 signatures that requires the government to response. Moon is facing a stagnating economy as well as stalled talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, both major pledges in his presidential campaign in 2017. A recent poll revealed that 44% of the respondents said Moon was doing a bad job, which is up more than four times the rate a year ago when he enjoyed highest approval ratings after his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. [Reuters]

11 March 2019

South Korea: Parliamentary work resumed

(dql) After a two-month hiatus, south Korea’s National Assembly kicked off an extraordinary session last Thursday as the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) ended its boycott of parliamentary activities earlier last week. On the agenda for deliberation are contentious bills largely on the economy and electoral reform as well as legislation on fighting fine dust. [Korea Herald] [Yonhap]

The National Assembly has been paralyzed since January as the ruling Democratic Party and the LKP clashed over allegations of government abuse of power, a controversial appointment and a former ruling party lawmaker’s purchases of properties in cultural zones.

11 March 2019

South Korea: Plans for new internet law

(dql) According to an announcement of South Korea’s Communications Commission last week, a new law is set to be introduced in 2019 allowing the government to shut down domestic operations of foreign internet-related companies holding personal information of South Korean users, such as Google and Facebook. The new law would require foreign firms to partner up with a domestic company and to operate through it bringing them within the government’s reach.

Under current law, such foreign companies are not subject to domestic regulations on violations of user privacy or misuse of user information. While local firms had complained that this put them at disadvantage against foreign companies, human rights advocates raised concerns over the government’s move as they fear tightened control of internet service providers and users. [The Diplomat]

11 March 2019

South Korea-USA relations: Deal on defense cost for deployed U.S. troops signed

(dql) Following rounds of laborious negotiations since last year, Washington and Seoul last Friday signed a defense cost deal which would increase Seoul’s financial contribution for the deployment of U.S. troops in the Asian country from 830 million USD last year to 924 million USD in 2019.

11 March 2019

Japan-Korea relations: Tokyo considers retaliatory measures over wartime forced labor dispute

(dql) Fuelling tensions between Japan and South Korea, Tokyo is reportedly considering raising tariffs on South Korean products and other measures in response to the seizure and possible sale of assets from two Japanese companies that were ordered by the South Korean Supreme Court last year to pay compensation to South Korean victims of forced labour during wartime. [AiR 3/1/2019]

According to sources, Japan has already compiled of list of around 100 items for possible retaliatory actions, including tariff hikes, suspension in the supply of some Japanese products and visa issuance restrictions. [Japan Times]

4 March 2019

South Korea: Main opposition Liberty Korea Party with new party head resuming parliamentary work after one-month boycott

(dql) South Korea’s former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn (2015-2017) was elected head of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) at the party’s national convention last Wednesday. He prevailed over his contenders, former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon and far-right lawmaker Kim Jin-tae, with commanding 50% of the votes, compared to 31.1% and 18.9% respectively. [Yonhap 1]

Hwang had been a state prosecutor for 30 years before joining then President Park Geun-hye’s cabinet as Justice Minister in 2013.

One of the crucial tasks Kwang is facing is to unite the party in key issues dividing the party such the impeachment of former President Park of which parts of party think it is unjust while others argue that the LKP should accept it. [Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, the LKP on Monday announced that it will request the convening of the National Assembly ending its one month-long boycott of parliamentary activities over allegations of government abuse of power, a controversial appointment and a former ruling party lawmaker’s purchases of properties in cultural zones. [Yonhap 2]

4 March 2019

Trump-Kim second summit ends in failure

(dql) US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un left their much-anticipated second summit in Hanoi last week empty-handed, with no written agreement signed and no joint communiqué issued.

While Trump said that Pyongyang demanded the lifting of all US sanctions in return for the dismantling of all of the Yongbyon complex, the research and production facility at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho contradicted Trump’s statement by saying that Pyongyang only demanded a partial lifting of sanctions. [The Guardian]

In the wake of the failed summit, Seoul and Washington announced the cancellation of large-scale joint military exercises ‘Key Resolve’ and ‘Foal Eagle’ in a move aimed at supporting diplomatic efforts in achieving denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. ‘Foal Eagle’, a combined field training exercise, last year involved 200,000 South Korean forces and some 30,000 US soldiers, while ‘Key Resolve’, accompanying ‘Foal Eagle’, is a computer-simulated war game conducted by military commanders which usually begins in March and runs for about 10 days.

They are replaced by manoeuvre trainings covering smaller drills, tabletop exercises and simulations and involving smaller units such as battalions and companies. [ABC] [BBC]