Asia in Review Archive 2021

South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

30 March 2021

South Korea: Concern over anti-Asian American violence 

(nm) Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong vowed to cooperate with Washington in efforts to protect the safety of South Koreans living in the United States, after four women of Korean descent were among eight killed in a deadly shooting in Atlanta which is generally considered as constituting a hate crime against members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in the United States. Six of the victims were identified as Asian American.

Korean lawmakers issued a resolution last week calling for the abolition of racial discrimination and violence against Asian Americans and pressing US authorities to guarantee their safety. One lawmaker also referred to a [report] by Stop AAPI Hate, a human rights organization for reporting hate crimes against members of the Asian American community, which stated that at least 3,795 hate incidents have been reported since March 2020. According to the report, racial hate and hate crimes have increased with the outbreak and spread of the pandemic. Several civic communities have also spoken out against anti-Asian racism. The Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), a group of Asian American journalists, further pointed at the “[inextricable link] to harassment and sexualized violence against Asian women,” and called on newsrooms to cover related cases in order to better understand anti-Asian racism and invisibility. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres equally voiced profound concern about the rise of violence against people of Asian descent amid the pandemic. [Nikkei Asia]

For information on why hate crime charges are still rare, please see [The New York Times 1], and for an opinion piece on the intricate intersection of racism, theology, and gender motivating the crimes, please see [The New York Times 2].

30 March 2021

South Korea-India relations: Defence chiefs agree on closer military ties 

(nm) Last week, South Korean and Indian defence ministers held talks discussing ways to foster cooperation in the security and arms industry. India also expressed support for Seoul’s policy on denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Additional topics included expanding ties in areas as diverse as cyber, space and maritime issues, as well as “the need to establish a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.” In contrast to speculations, the two did, however, not discuss the US-led Quad, a security alliance comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia, according to South Korean officials. [Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, South Korea’s science ministry announced the country’s first homegrown rocket is on track to be launched in October this year. President Moon Jae-in responded positively to the announcement, stating the government will push aggressively for the development of the country’s first lunar orbiter. [Korea Times]

30 March 2021

South Korea not to co-sponsor this year’s UN resolution on human rights in North Korea, EU imposes individual sanctions against North Koreans 

(nm) South Korea will abstain from co-sponsoring this year’s UN Human Rights Council resolution on North Korea’s human rights violations for the third consecutive year, in an attempt to avoid tensions with the North amid efforts to re-enter inter-Korean dialogue. Seoul will, however, join the resolution’s adoption by consensus, an official said last week. The North for its part rejected the resolution, calling it a “fake document” with political motives. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

The South’s unification ministry also announced that a law prohibiting the launching of anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border also takes effect this week. Violators would face a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of $27,400. As the amendment to the Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act triggered criticism that it could limit freedom of expression and undermine attempts to send information into the isolated North, the ministry’s spokesman said the law will be applied in a “flexible and reasonable manner.” He further stated the bill will be enforced “in line with the government’s goal of improving the human rights situation of North Koreans and inter-Korean relations, and bringing peace on the Korean Peninsula.” [Korea Herald 1]

Meanwhile, a Seoul district court ordered North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un to compensate a family member of a South Korean who was abducted to the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. It is the second damage suit won by South Koreans against the North. [Korea Herald 2]

The European Union, meanwhile, imposed its first-ever human rights sanction on North Korean individuals and entities under its new Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime as part of the bloc’s critical engagement policy. The EU regularly co-sponsors the UN’s resolution on the North and has imposed sanctions in addition to UN sanctions, considering that the isolated country is a relatively low-hanging fruit in demonstrating the union’s bite in pushing for human rights. [38 North]

For an account of the dire situation citizens of North Korea face, see Lina Yoon in [Human Rights Watch].

30 March 2021

North Korea: First missile tests in a year 

(nm) North Korea has test-fired two “new-type tactical guided missiles” last week in violation of UN Security Council resolutions and despite international sanctions seeking to deter Pyongyang from developing rockets that can be equipped with nuclear warheads. The tests were deemed “very successful” by the country’s Academy of Defence Science and came only days after Pyongyang had fired two short-range, non-ballistic missiles over the previous weekend. Last Thursday’s launch was the first substantive launch since US President Biden took office. [DW]

In response, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in called the launch “undesirable” amid attempts to revive multilateral negotiations on the North’s denuclearization, especially by South Korea, the United States, and Japan. Seoul had initially remained silent on the issue which raised criticism. This week, South Korean Unification Minister, Lee In-young, called for inter-Korean cooperation in the humanitarian area as a starting point for resuming the talks in spite of current tensions. The South’s defense ministry, however, also announced that the country’s military will keep a close watch on the North amid a new report by the US monitoring website 38 North [38 North 1] that Pyongyang might be ready to launch a new ballistic missile submarine. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Times 3] [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

The United Nations sanctions committee focussed on North Korea’s nuclear programme asked its experts to investigate the launches last week, an announcement that was met with criticism by Pyongyang. The Security Council also voted to extend the committee’s mandate until April 2022 as it was about to expire. Responding to the United Nations, Pyongyang issued a statement denouncing the organization’s “double standard” and infringement on the North’s sovereignty. An official of the country’s foreign ministry stated, “it does not make any sense” that only the North’s “righteous self-defensive measures should be singled out for denunciation,” although several other countries fire projectiles for the purpose of increasing their military strength. [Korea Times 4] [Korea Herald 3]

Pyongyang further accused US President Biden of provoking the North and threatened to further build up militarily after Biden had condemned the launches as a violation of UN resolutions and warned “there will be responses if they [North Korea] choose to escalate.”

Bilateral dialogue between the two countries on the North’s denuclearization has stalled after an abrupt fallout in February 2019. The US is currently undergoing a North Korea policy review and has started to strengthen relations with partners in the region, especially Japan and South Korea. [South China Morning Post] [Korea Times 5]

This week, South Korea’s defense ministry also called for active support by Russia and for cooperation in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as part of a broader strategic dialogue. The dialogue follows last week’s meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong in which Lavrov “particularly emphasized the importance of efforts to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia, as well as on the Korean Peninsula,” further calling on “all concerned countries […] to renounce an arms race and activation of all kinds of military activities.” Russia has recently moved to close ranks with China as the US is pushing to build a system of regional democratic alliances in the Indo-Pacific. It was the first South Korean-Russian ministerial meeting in Seoul since 2009. [Yonhap] [Korea Times 6]

For an analysis of the fate of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, see this recent blog entry by [Brookings]. For a commentary arguing in favour of reaffirming the Singapore Joint Statement as early as possible, see this piece by [38 North 2], and for an analysis of key choices facing the Biden Administration amid its North Korea policy review, please see this piece by [38 North 3]. If you wish to gain more information on the content of North Korea’s arsenal, see [The New York Times].

30 March 2021

South Korea: National Assembly approves legislation in response to land speculation scandal

(nm) After an ongoing land speculation scandal involving officials from the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) has been dominating South Korean domestic politics for several weeks, the National Assembly last week passed three bills that aim to eradicate public officials’ illegitimate real estate transactions.

The revisions to various related laws expand possible sentences for public officials involved in speculations and allow for the confiscation of financial profits gained from real-estate deals based on insider information. They further expand the reach of compulsory asset declaration requirements to lower-level government officials involved in real estate-related assignments which formerly only applied to high-ranking public officials. [Korea Times]

This week, President Moon Jae-in also urged for a law on preventing conflict of interest among public officials, in his first participation in an Anti-Corruption Policy Consultation Council meeting in nine months. Attempts to pass a relevant law had failed several years ago over failure to reach a compromise between lawmakers. Moon also replaced the presidential office policy chief after a controversy surrounding him leasing his Seoul apartment.  [Yonhap 1] [Yonhap 2]

National anger had erupted earlier in March after civil groups had uncovered a massive public housing speculation scandal. Several officials from the government agency responsible for building new towns and housing amid soaring house prices, Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH), are suspected of using privileged information to buy undeveloped land south of Seoul, register it for farming and planting trees before developers of government housing must then pay for the trees in addition to the land – a common trick of dubious real estate speculators in South Korea. The scandal is set to play a relevant role in the Seoul and Busan mayoral elections on April 7, as well as in the lead-up to the presidential election next March. [The New York Times]

30 March 2021

South Korea: Mayoral election campaigns kick-off

(nm) With the 7 April Seoul mayoral by-election approaching, election campaigns in the ruling progressive and the opposition conservative bloc are heating up. Oh Se-hoon of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) will campaign as unified candidate for the conservative bloc after winning a public opinion survey against Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People’s Party last week. Candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), Park Young-sun, equally kicked off her campaign last Thursday. 

Although Park was leading public opinion surveys when she first announced her candidacy in late January, Oh has recently taken the lead by great margins, in particular among young voters. Park’s popularity has seen a steep drop as the national land speculation scandal involving public officials of the state-run Korean Land and Housing Corp. (LH) has sparked public outrage towards the Moon Jae-in government. 

The by-election is generally viewed as a barometer for the presidential election next year and positive results for Oh could also support his possible ambitions for presidency. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald]

23 March 2021

South Korea: Efforts to strengthen cooperation with the UAE, India, Russia, and LAC

(nm) South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook is visiting the United Arab Emirates and India this week. Suh will visit the UAE from Monday to Wednesday to meet his counterpart Mohammed al-Bowardi and other key military officials, as well as to visit South Korea’s special warfare unit which is deployed in the UAE to support with building training programmes for the country’s special forces.   

From Thursday to Saturday he then visits India where he will meet his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh to discuss cooperation on military technologies and to participate in the opening ceremony of the Korea-India Friendship Park that holds a monument commemorating those who have lost their lives during the 1950-53 Korean War. India provided the largest medical units to South Korea during the conflict. Some observers have speculated that the two countries will rather use the opportunity to address the US-led Quad alliance – a security alliance comprising the US, Australia, India, and Japan which as seen as opposition to China – after it had met virtually on March 12. [Korea Herald 1]

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced he would visit Seoul this week for three days to meet with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, and to jointly celebrate the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations. While Russia and South Korea have maintained active relations in spite of the pandemic, the visit comes amid rising interest in the Korean Peninsula as the US Biden administration is seeking to revive multilateral discussions. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]

Last week, Seoul also hosted the Korea-LAC Digital Cooperation Forum, LAC standing for Latin American and Caribbean countries. Officials from Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, and Costa Rica had come together to discuss ways how they could partner with Korea on digital technology. Chung also held separate meetings with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano who voiced hope for expanding bilateral trade and investment and with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo Vila who similarly expressed expectations for expanding economic cooperation between South Korea and Central and South America in areas such as infrastructure, information and communications technology, as well as health care and medicine. Officials from Colombia met with President Moon Jae-in to discuss cooperation on environment and digital innovation, in addition to business opportunities for South Korean companies in Colombia. [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald 4]

23 March 2021

South Korean and US Foreign and Defense Ministers meet for foreign policy talks

(nm) Last week, South Korea and the United States held their first foreign policy talks since President Biden took office as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III embarked on a two-day visit to South Korea. Both sides stressed the significance of their alliance for the entire region with Blinken calling it the “linchpin for peace, security, and prosperity for the Indo-Pacific region.”

Key topics included the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, cooperation between South Korea, the US, and Japan, as well as the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON). South Korean Minister of Defense, Suh Wook, said his ministry will push ahead to build a strong security relationship with Japan, a particularly notable statement considering current tensions between the two countries and the fact that South Korea seriously considered leaving an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan only last year in protest of export curbs. The US and Korea’s defense ministers additionally agreed to continue joint efforts to transfer wartime operational control to Seoul, although the process might take longer than expected as full military tests are being delayed due to the pandemic. Although they are undergoing a conditions-based, rather than a times-based, transition, President Moon Jae-in hopes to regain military control before the end of his term in May 2022. [Yonhap] [Korea Herald 1]

Together with Moon they then went on to discuss North Korea’s denuclearization and cooperation to counter growing competition from China, albeit not agreeing on a joint rhetoric. While the United States seeks greater cooperation with its allies in the region, especially Japan and South Korea, to combat “unprecedented threats from China and North Korea,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong stated “It is unimaginable for us to pick either the US or China.” Seoul finds itself in a dilemma between reliance on the US to rein in aggression from North Korea, while maintaining strong economic ties with China. 

Concerning the growing nuclear threat from North Korea, both sides confirmed their commitment to a complete denuclearization of the peninsula. Blinken again stressed the importance of engaging with partners and allies, but also acknowledged that China “has a critical role to play” in any diplomatic effort with the North, considering that China is the chief financial and political benefactor of the isolated country. Moon is also keen on restarting dialogue between North Korea and the US but struggled to regain relevance in negotiations after the US and North Korea ended their engagement without an agreement in 2019. [Korea Herald 2] [The New York Times, $]

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had however warned the US in Pyongyang’s first direct statement toward the Biden administration after the US-South Korea joint military drills, stating that Washington should refrain from “causing a stink” if it “wants to sleep in peace for coming four years.” She further opened the possibility for military provocation toward the South, declaring she had already reported the options for critical measures to Kim Yong Un. North Korea’s first vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui also said Pyongyang will ignore the US while it keeps its “hostile policy” in place, after Washington had tried to reach out to North Korea but received no response. [The Diplomat] [Korea Herald 3] [38 North]

Blinken also accused North Korea of committing “systematic and widespread abuse,” saying “We must stand with the people demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms and against those who repress them.” The South Korean government, on the other hand, showed itself more reluctant and refrained from calling out the North, stating “We have our concern for that matter but we have a lot to go over first,” and adding “We could see rights conditions improve there while we make progress on building peace on the Korean Peninsula.” [Korea Times] [Korea Herald 4]

After the high-level diplomatic meeting, National Assembly speaker Park Byeong-seug held a videoconference with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday to discuss remaining issues, while the foreign ministry’s director general for North American affairs, Koh Yun-ju, and deputy US assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, Marc Knapper, launched a new regular working-level policy dialogue to discuss diplomatic and security issues. Blinken, for his part, travelled on to Alaska to meet with China’s top two diplomats on Thursday and Friday.[Korea Herald 5] [Korea Herald 6]


23 March 2021

Japan-US relations: Allies agree on concerns over China

(dql/zh) U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and their Japanese counterparts – Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi – met last week for “two plus two” security talks in Tokyo. The visit to Japan marks the first overseas diplomatic journey for Blinken and Austin as representatives of the new Biden administration and is immediately followed by a visit to South Korea. After four years of relative U.S. inattention to its allies, US President Biden has pledged to rebuild ties with foreign friends, choosing two partners central to Washington’s challenges with a rising China and an increasingly nuclear North Korea. “It’s no accident we chose [South Korea] for the first cabinet-level overseas travel of the Biden-Harris administration, along with Japan,” Blinken remarked when he arrived in Seoul. [Wall Street Journal] [War on the Rocks]

During their meeting the Ministers exchanged and shared common concerns over a range of China’s policies and actions, made public in their joint statement, including human rights violations in Xinjiang, “unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea” and “unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo” over East China Sea islands disputed between China and Japan. They also agreed on the importance of “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.

Further issues discussed at this meeting included cooperation in the areas of coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the situation in post-coup Myanmar. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan] [AP]

Coming just a few days before the meeting with Chinese senior foreign policy officials, the visit of Blinken and Austin to Japan and South Korea (see entry below) aims at solidifying the tripartite US-Japanese-South Korean alliance (despite frosty Tokyo-Seoul relations over wartime issues) as part of the global front of the US and its allies envisioned by US President Biden’s to confront China. Blinken reassured Japan of the US commitment to the alliance and vowed that the US “will push back if necessary, when China uses coercion or aggression to get its way.” [Reuters] [VoA]

China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to fiercely reject the Ministers’ joint statement on China “unlawful” claims in the South China Sea, calling it a “malicious attack on China’s foreign policy,” which “grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs, in an attempt to harm China’s interest.” Furthermore, it called Japan “a strategic vassal” of the US, while asserting China’s “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” [Reuters]

An opinion piece in [Foreign Policy] argues that as the strongest US ally in the region, rather than only name and shame, Japan could develop a “more ambitious and flexible toolkit” to address China’s human rights issues and defend liberal values.

23 March 2021

South Korea: Perjury case in relation to former PM permanently closed 

(nm) South Korean Justice Minister Park Beom-kye has expressed disappointment over the decision by senior prosecutors to close the alleged perjury case involving former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook, after they had met last week to re-examine the case.

Han, a representative of the liberal bloc, had served as prime minister between 2006 and 2007 and was imprisoned from 2015 to 2017 after she was convicted of accepting illegal political funds from a businessman while in office. Han has claimed innocence, arguing the charges were politically fabricated. Allegations surfaced last year that prosecutors had forced fellow inmates of said businessman to give false testimonies against Han in order to win her conviction. Following questions sparked by the Supreme Prosecutors Office (SPO) dismissing the perjury charges against two witnesses and investigators earlier in March, Park had ordered the SPO to conduct a full review into the allegations as the statute of limitations on the case expired this week. 

Park now voiced dismay by the prosecutors’ decision to close the case and stated it was “questionable” if the meeting properly satisfied the purpose of his investigation command. The disagreement reveals the breach that has lingered between the prosecution and the justice ministry for years. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

23 March 2021

South Korea: Land speculation scandal keeps dominating domestic politics 

(nm) The land speculation scandal involving public officials of the state housing company Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) is still dominating South Korean domestic politics three weeks after it was uncovered by civic groups. The scandal has led to a row of political and investigative measures.

Last week, the government identified 28 more public sector employees who had purchased land at the sites in question, 23 of whom are suspected of engaging in speculative transactions and will be referred to the police for investigation. The 28 were identified during the second stage of an inquiry into the scandal which covered 8,780 public servants of local governments and employees of public corporations and add to 20 LH officials who had been identified during the first round. [Korea Herald 1

Responding to the scandal, the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) submitted a proposal to the National Assembly that seeks to launch a parliamentary inquiry into all Cheong Wa Dae employees, public servants across municipal and local governments, as well as officials of housing organizations. Additionally, the PPP and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) are in discussions on passing an independent counsel investigation bill and a survey into land transactions of all sitting lawmakers. While the DP demands to expand the geographical scope of the investigation as well as its time frame, the PPP is trying to take on real estate-related corruption in an intense political environment considering public discontent over housing prices, but is expected to be reluctant to include development projects of previous conservative administrations. [Korea Herald 2

The DP also agreed with the government on pushing for expanding the asset declaration system of civil servants to include public servants of all ranks and positions and to mandate the prior declaration of property purchases. [Korea Times 1

In addition to these political measures, the police have raided the land ministry, the LH headquarters and regional offices, as well as a branch of Nonghyup Bank suspected of providing loans for land purchases. [Korea Herald 3]

President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have crashed to their lowest levels since he took office in 2017 as pressure is mounting over soaring home prices. Successful efforts in rooting out property-related irregularities among public officials are seen as vital ahead of the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections on April 7, as well as the presidential election next year. [Korea Times 2] [Nikkei Asia]

16 March 2021

South Korea moves to ban military exports to Myanmar

(nm) In response to the military coup and violent crackdown of pro-democracy protests in Myanmar, South Korea has moved to suspend defense exchanges, ban arms exports to the country, and reconsider its development assistance, according to the foreign ministry last week. Simultaneously, it declared to allow Myanmar nationals to remain in South Korea on humanitarian grounds until conditions stabilize. Approximately 25,000 Myanmar nationals will be covered by the special permits. 

While the last defense export from South Korea to Myanmar was issued in 2019, Seoul still spends millions of dollars on development projects in the Southeast Asian country. The ministry said it would reconsider some of the cooperation, but would continue to fund projects that are directly related to the livelihood of the population and humanitarian aid. [Yonhap 1] [Yonhap 2] [Reuters]

Last week, Burmese residents and some Democratic Party lawmakers also came together to give a press conference in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Seoul, calling for the revival of democracy and holding up three-fingered signs as a symbol of resistance and solidarity for the people in Myanmar. South Korean and Australian foreign ministers also came together last week to discuss a coordinated approach to the situation in Myanmar, in addition to other issues such as the upcoming G7-summit. [The Korea Herald 1] [The Korea Herald 2]

16 March 2021

US senior envoys to visit South Korea this week

(nm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are scheduled to visit Seoul on Wednesday for a two-day visit, embarking on the first overseas trip by senior members of the Biden administration. The two are expected to hold a two-plus-two-meeting with their respective South Korean counterparts, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook, after their Asia trip in Japan on Monday.

Japan and South Korea are the US’ most important allies in the region and the visit is seen by many as a chance to establish ground rules and strengthen an allyship prior to a possible confrontation with Beijing. Diplomatic observers also see the meetings as a way to mediate in a dispute between Japan and South Korea over both historic war-time-related issues as well as current tensions over export controls, thus strengthening the trilateral partnership. This, in turn, supposedly allows for addressing problems in relation to North Korea and China, as well. [Korea Times]

The US’ row of diplomatic efforts started on Friday with a virtual summit of the so-called Quad allies – Australia, India, and Japan. In that meeting, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the denuclearization of North Korea and stressed the need to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North. South Korea, meanwhile, said it would consider joining the regional security forum in an “transparent, open, and inclusive” manner. The nation has previously been reluctant to join the forum, which was established in 2007 to counter growing power by China, as China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. [New York Times 1, $] [Yonhap 1] [Yonhap 2]

The meeting is also expected to conclude a defence-cost sharing deal between Washington and Seoul relating to the stationing of about 28,500 US troops. After a year and a half of stalled negotiations under the Trump administration over the share of costs that Seoul was to shoulder, the two allies had eventually agreed to increase South Korea’s payment by 13.9 percent. [New York Times 2, $] [The Korea Herald 1]

For an evaluation of the future of US-ROK relations after the cost-sharing deal and South Korea’s foreign policy for the remainder of President Moon Jae-in’s administration, see [The Diplomat].

Last week, Blinken also confirmed that the US will not ease its sanctions on Iran, including the release of about $7 billion in Iranian funds currently frozen in South Korean banks, until Iran comes back into compliance with its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the well-known nuclear deal. He thereby flatly dismissed the possibility opened by South Korea to release about $1 billion of said funds for humanitarian purposes, should the US agree. The funds have been frozen in South Korea since shortly after the US quit the nuclear deal under the Trump administration in May 2018. Since assuming office in January, the Biden administration has been urging Iran to comply with the deal, stating the US would then also re-enter the agreement. [The Korea Herald 2]

16 March 2021

SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020

(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)

Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.

23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]


16 March 2021

South Korea: Minister offers to resign amid widening land speculation scandal

(nm) South Korea’s Minister of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Byeon Chang-heum offered to resign to take political responsibility in the widening land speculation scandal involving state housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) whose president he was during the time when most of the land purchases – now under investigation – were made. 

His offer comes as police have raided the homes and offices of local public servants and council members, widening its investigation into the scandal that triggered fierce public outcry in response to which the ruling Democratic Party (DP) proposed a parliamentary probe into all sitting lawmakers, employees at state-run institutions, and high-level government officials.  

Twenty employees of the state housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) are currently under investigation for alleged use of insider information to buy land located south of Seoul, between April 2018 and June 2020 before it was designated as a major public housing development site by the central government. Fourteen additional public officials have been confirmed to have purchased land in the region, including members of the municipal governments of the two cities affected. One opposition lawmaker, Kwak Sang-do of the People Power Party, even claimed that more than 70 employees were possibly involved. 

Fearing negative repercussions of the scandal for the upcoming mayoral elections in the country’s two largest cities Seoul and Busan on April 7 as well as for the presidential election set for March 2022, the DP has announced to take harsh measures against party members found guilty, including life-long expulsion. [Yonhap 1] [The Korea Herald 1] [The Korea Herald 2] [Yonhap 2] [Nikkei Asia

16 March 2021

Cambodia, South Korea to invest in mine clearance

(nd) South Korea has announced to fund Cambodia’s mine clearance efforts with $10 million from 2021 to 2025.It forms part of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victims Assistance Authority (CMAA) and is also supported by Australia, New Zealand, UNDP and the government. Mines severely affect the lives and food security of residents, their access to safe water, adequate housing, safe and secure land for cultivation and irrigation, roads. Part of the project are immediate emergency response and medical treatment, physical rehabilitation and therapy, socio-economic inclusion and mine risk education. [Khmer Times]

9 March 2021

South Korea: Massive land speculation scandal triggers political consequences

(nm) As housing prices continue to climb nationwide, a large-scale land speculation scandal involving public officials sparked public outcry and political consequences.

Allegations surfaced that employees of the state housing cooperation Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) had used pre-announcement information to buy about 10 billion won (§8.88 million) worth of land in Gwangmyeong and Siheung, both close to Seoul, before a massive state housing development project was announced there in February. In response, the government launched an interagency team to investigate the allegations, involving the Prime Minister’s office, the land ministry, and local governments. This week, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun additionally ordered the creation of a police-led investigative team as President Moon Jae-in urged for systemic cooperation between administrative and investigative forces. He also called on the prosecution to earn public trust, following public doubt about the results of the first investigation.

Reform of the state prosecution, which was criticized for holding wide-ranging powers while being seen as too close to business interests, was one of Moon’s top priorities when assuming power in 2017. Under his administration, the police were vested with more investigative powers and the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) was established, responsible for high-level civil servant corruption cases. However, according to Moon, more steps are still needed to separate prosecution and investigative rights. [Korea Times 1] [Yonhap] [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

In response to reducing the prosecution’s investigative authority, Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl also resigned last week, stating he “can no longer see the collapse of justice and common sense which our society has built up for a long time.” His resignation had been anticipated since the Moon administration started pushing for the establishment of the Serious Crimes Investigative Agency under the Ministry of Justice, which would strip the prosecution off its authority to investigate certain types of crimes. President Moon accepted his resignation an hour after it was offered. It is widely perceived as a move to open the way for Yoon to run in next year’s election, as Yoon stressed he would continue to serve the people. [Korea Times 2] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Times 3]

In a separate development, prosecutors last week raided the headquarters of the SK Group, one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, investigating possible involvement in the alleged creation of an illicit fund by Choi Shin-won, chairman of the SK Networks Co, a trading unit belonging to the group. Prosecutors also indicted Choi who had been arrested last month on charges of embezzlement and breach of trust, for creating the slush fund worth US$198 million and for his alleged involvement in stock manipulation. [Korea Times 4]

9 March 2021

US, South Korea agree on defence cost-sharing, overcoming friction 

(nm) South Korea and the United States have agreed on a defence cost-sharing deal for the upkeep of about 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, ending a stretch of friction over the issue caused by former US President Trump demanding a hefty increase in Seoul’s contributions and criticizing free-riding. The deal is yet to be approved by the South Korean legislature.

The new “Special Measures Agreement” was reached in a three-day in-person meeting in Washington and will replace the previous arrangement that expired at the end of 2019. Although exact terms have not been disclosed, the US State Department claimed that the proposed agreement contained “a meaningful increase” in payments by South Korea. The two allies were unable to reach a deal in spite of multiple rounds of negotiations since September 2019, mainly due differences over the share that South Korea was to contribute. According to a US State Department spokesperson, the deal reflected the Biden administration’s “commitment to reinvigorating and modernizing our democratic alliances around the world to advance our shared security and prosperity.” [Korea Herald 1]

Some observers believe the deal will require Korea to meet certain US expectations, such as an increased Korean role in the region and participation in the US-led anti-China competition. At the end of the Korean War, the United States and South Korea signed a treaty of mutual defence, providing the basis for the stationing of US troops. Since 1990, South Korea has been paying for the presence of the troops. [Korea Times] [Nikkei Asia]

On Monday, the two allies also launched a springtime combined military exercise, its scaled-backed character owing to the Covid-19 situation. Both sides have stressed that the exercise is regular and defensive in character. As stated by a military official, it seeks “to maintain our joint readiness posture and to support diplomatic efforts fort the denuclearization of and peace on the Korean Peninsula.” [Yonhap 1]

Additionally, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit South Korea in March, after a three-day trip to Japan. According to sources, the US might seek to hold a “two plus two” meeting, including the US and South Korea’s respective ministers, which would be the first such gathering since October 2018. A possible agenda could include advancing stalled denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea, progress in the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), as well as cooperation on global issues such as cyberthreats. Washington is also likely to seek to strengthen trilateral cooperation with Japan as part of a new focus on strengthening alliances. [Yonhap 2] [Korea Herald 2]

2 March 2021

South Korea: Seoul mayoral election candidates chosen 

(nm) The ruling Democratic Party and the minor opposition People’s Party have both declared their respective candidates for the April 7 Seoul mayoral election. Former Startups Minister and four-term lawmaker Park Young-sun won the Democratic Party’s ticket in the party primary with 69.56 percent, beating sitting lawmaker Woo Sang-ho. Elected candidate for the People’s Party is its leader Ahn Cheol-soo who won his primacy against Keum Tae-sup. 

The main opposition People’s Power Party plans to pick its candidate on Thursday. The PPP and PP have agreed to present a unified candidate, thereby increasing their chances of winning the mayoralty. Equally, ruling DP candidate Park will compete with the elected candidates of the Transition Korea party and the Open Democratic Party, when selecting a unified candidate for the liberal bloc. 

The Seoul by-election is considered a critical barometer of public opinion ahead of the 2022 presidential election. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]  

2 March 2021

South Korea ratifies UN conventions on workers’ rights and forced labour  

(nm) South Korea’s National Assembly ratified three key International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on the suppression of forced labour, on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize, and on the right to organize and collective bargaining. They are among the four out of eight conventions South Korea had so far failed to adopt after joining the ILO in 1991, due to resistance of the country’s business sector and conservative politicians. In his election campaign in 2017, President Moon Jae-in made pledges to push for the ratification of the conventions.

The fourth convention on the abolition of forced labour has been set aside by the government due to clashes with domestic laws regulating labor in prisons.

Labour groups have welcomed the move, but urged for swift revision of national laws in contradiction to the conventions. [Yonhap]   

2 March 2021

South Korea: Parliament approves bills to combat child abuse

(nm) South Korea’s National Assembly has approved a revision of a child abuse law, making the death penalty a possible punishment for perpetrators of fatal child abuse amid a growing number of recent deaths of abused children. 

The revised law allows for convicting child abusers of murder even if they did not intend to cause death, stipulating a minimum sentence of seven-year imprisonment and the maximum capital punishment. 

The parliament also approved a reform bill to strengthen protection against online child abuse. Among others, the new law provides for a jail sentence of up to three years or a fine of up to more than 26.000 USD for repeated online conversations or sexual activities causing sexual desire, shame or disgust. It also scraps the statute of limitations in cases of producing, exporting and importing content involving sexual exploitation of minors. 

These new laws come in response to increasing numbers of child abuse reports which have constantly increased over the past years and almost tripled between 2015 and 2019 to 30.000.  [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

2 March 2021

South Korea: Supreme Court upholds not-guilty verdict for objector of reserve force duty 

(dql) In a historic first, the South Korean Supreme Court, the country’s top court, upheld a lower courts’ decision to acquit a man who was indicted for breaching the Homeland Reserve Forces Act after he refused to fulfill mandatory reservist training duty citing his belief in nonviolence. In the ruling, the Court recognized personal beliefs, not religious reasons, as legitimate justification for refusing to perform the duties of reserve forces.

Signaling a further liberalization of the country’s conscription system, the decision follows a 2018 ruling of the Constitutional Court in which it ordered to stop penalties against men refusing conscription on grounds of their religious faith or their personal beliefs in nonviolence. [Korea Times]


2 March 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Moon reaffirms openness to talks at Independence Movement Day celebrations 

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stressed his openness to talks with Japan in his speech delivered during a ceremony to mark the 102nd anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement Day, presenting a ‘two-track’ approach towards improving South Korean-Japanese relations. While expressing his determination to improve both countries’ “cooperation and forward-looking development,” he at the same declared that “the Korean Government will always pursue wise solutions based on a victim-centered approach.” [Yonhap]

This second track refers to disputes over Japan’s wartime rule on the Korean and rulings of South Korean courts ordering the Japanese government and Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Korean victims of sexual enslavement and forced labour during that time. Bilateral relations have plummeted to historic lows over the issues over the past years. [Korea Times] [Korea Herald]

The March 1 Independence Movement Day refers to a protest movement led by Korean students calling for independence from Japan, and protesting forced assimilation into the Japanese way of life. 

2 March 2021

South Korea-US-Iran relations: Diplomats discuss Teheran’s assets frozen in Seoul 

(nm/dql) South Korea held talks with the US as well as with Iran in talks over the possible release of 7 billion USD in Iranian assets frozen in two banks in South Korea due to US sanctions, with Iranian and South Korean media reporting that an agreement between Seoul and Tehran to unfreeze the funds was reached. [Korea Herald] [Korea Times] [Forbes]

The talks have been prompted after a Korean flagged oil tanker along with 20 crewmembers had been seized by Iran in early January. The seizure has been widely seen as a move to put pressure on South Korea over the locked assets. Iran denied these claims saying that vessel was captured for violating environmental protocols. All crewmembers but the captain have since been released, widely seen as result of progress in closed-door talks. [East Asia Forum] [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2

Whether concessions of US allies like these can be a momentum for the Biden administration to build on to “reengage in meaningful diplomacy” and to get Iran to return to compliance with Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), remains to be seen given that Tehran declined to participate in a meeting last weekend with the US and several European countries to discuss the nuclear deal saying that it will not respond to “gestures” and that the “US must first […] lift its illegal sanctions on Iran.” [DW]  

For a critical assessment of the Biden administration’s insistence on Tehran implementing the JCPOA first see Alireza Ahmadi in [National Interest] who argues that “much of the Biden administration’s calculations seem to be based on assessments that see Trump’s maximum pressure campaign as having supplied leverage.” He adds that against this background Tehran’s position would be that it “makes little sense […] to return to some form of unilateral full compliance for a limited amount of actual economic benefit only to then engage in a years-long negotiation where it has little leverage and is being called on to surrender its regional interests and deterrence capacities.”


23 February 2021

South Korea: Senior Presidential Secretary for civil affairs to remain in office

(nm) Shin Hyun-soo, top aide to President Moon Jae-in and secretary for civil affairs and justice, has withdrawn his resignation after offering to leave Cheong Wa Dae after a feud with the new justice minister. Moon had turned down the resignation last week. 

The former prosecutor offered his resignation only two months after being appointed to the post where he is tasked with mediating between the Justice Ministry and the prosecution as they are in ongoing disagreement over prosecution reform. Shin initially offered to resign in protest against newly appointed Justice Minister Park Beom-kye unexpectedly announcing a prosecution reshuffle.  

The opposition criticized the events showed a lack in management of state affairs and Cheong Wa Dae’s weakened control. Deputy floor leader of the main opposition People Power Party, Kim Sung-won, reacted to reports suggesting Shin insisted on resigning in spite of Moon’s disapproval, stating “Moon’s lame-duck presidency is deepening as he nears his final days in office.” Moon’s tenure will end in May next year. After three controversial tenures, Shin is the fourth presidential secretary for civil affairs under the Moon administration and the first former prosecutor to hold the office. It remains to be seen if Shin will stay in office, as Moon is said to be working on a modest reshuffle in Cabinet positions in the coming weeks. [Korean Herald] [The Korean Times]  


23 February 2021

South Korea: Chief intelligence agency mulling briefing in parliament on alleged illegal surveillance

(dql) Pressured by accusations of illegally surveilling in 2009 as part of a background vetting some 1.000 politicians and other social figures, including all the then-incumbent lawmakers as well as journalists, civic activists, legal professionals and TV celebrities, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), South Korea’s chief intelligence agency, announced that it is considering providing the parliament a briefing on condition of non-disclosure of the data to the public. The NIS, however, made clear that it would not agree to the requested release of the collected information. 

The ruling Democratic Party (DP), which has been zeroing in on the allegations, also demands that Park Hyung-jun, who during 2009 and 2010 served as then President Lee Myung-bak’s chief secretary for political, held accountable for the alleged surveillance. Park is currently campaigning and leading in the race for the mayor of Busan, set for April 7, as a preliminary candidate for the main opposition People Power Party which accusing the DP of abusing the accusations against the NIS to this election. [Korea Herald]

23 February 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Japanese diplomat called in over Dokdo conflict 

(nm) South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called in a Japanese diplomat to lodge protest against Japan’s conduct of the ‘Takeshima Day’ event to renew Tokyo’s claim over the islet Takeshima, called Dokdo in South Korea. 

The uninhabited islet has been effectively controlled by South Korea since the 1950s and has become a recurring source of conflict between Japan and South Korea as Tokyo continues to claim them as part of its sovereign territory in policy papers, public statements, and school textbooks. The conflict adds to strained bilateral relations between the two nations over wartime history and trade issues. [Korea Herald

23 February 2021

South Korea, Japanese and US diplomats agree to cooperate on peninsula denuclearization and peace 

(nm) Japanese, South Korean, and US-American diplomats have agreed to closely cooperate to achieve complete denuclearization and lasting peace on the Korean peninsula after South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, Noh Kyu-duk, met with US and Japanese representatives in video talks last Friday to discuss North Korea-related issues. They also agreed to hold follow-up consultations. The talks come as the US Biden administration is conducting a review of its entire policy toward North Korea. [The Korea Times]

The agreement comes at a time when South Korea and Japan are caught in dire bilateral relations over long-running issues concerning wartime forced labour. Last month, a Seoul court had ordered Japan to make reparations to 12 former sexual slavery victims called “comfort women,” with one of them now demanding that Seoul brings the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as Japan refuses to accept the court’s ruling, citing sovereign immunity. [Korea Herald

Meanwhile, South Korea Defense Ministry released a report which concludes that North Korea has expanded its missile development facilities and beefed up its missile and other conventional weapons. They includesSeveral new types of ballistic missiles have such as its version of Russia’s Iskander, and the US’ Army Tactical Missile System, but also advanced submarine-launched ballistic missiles. [Yonhap]


16 February 2021

South Korea: Resignation of Supreme Court Chief Justice demanded

(dql) South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party (PPP) has demanded the resignation of the country’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Meong-su, adding that the party would file a criminal complaint in case Kim refuses to meet the demand. 

Kim has been facing mounting pressure over the past weeks after media reports revealed that he lied when he denied out of political reasons that a Supreme Court judge in May last year offered his resignation who at that time was facing a looming impeachment motion over charges of interfering in a number of politically controversial trials in 2015 and 2016 when he was serving at a District Court.

The judge was eventually impeached by the parliament last week. It was the first impeachment of a sitting judge in the country’s modern history. [Korea Herald] [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]

16 February 2021

South Korea: Bills on reducing use of plastic and disposable items 

(dql) South Korea’s Ministry of Environment announced revisions of the country’s environmental laws aimed at limiting the use of plastic and other disposal items. Inter alia, the revisions forbid using paper cups, plastic straws and stirrers inside cafes and eateries, and ban plastic bags from retailers and bakeries and prohibits. They also include new regulations on packaging requiring manufacturers to produce easily recyclable wrapping material in compliance with a set thickness, color and weight ratio. [Korea Herald]

In an earlier development, the Economic Promotion and Safety Control of Hydrogen Act – the word’s first hydrogen law – came into effect on February 5. Under the law South Korea aims to set up a total of 500 and 1,000 hydrogen-specialized companies by 2030 and 2040, respectively, to gear up the country’s green hydrogen production and supply systems. [Business Korea]


16 February 2021

South Korea to invest 3.9 billion USD in defense sector research and development

(dql) South Korea’s Ministry of Defense announced that it will invest nearly 4 billion USD in research and development in the defense sector in 2021 in an attempt secure cutting-edge technologies and strengthen the industry’s competitiveness.

Under the Ministry’s 2021 plan, it will push for the development of indigenous weapons parts and establish consortiums of companies, universities and research centers to carry out various development projects. [Korea Herald]


16 February 2021

South Korea-US nearing new US troops cost-sharing agreement 

(dql) Seoul and Washington are reportedly close to a new cost-sharing agreement for 28.500 US troops in South Korea. Observers believe that the deal taking shape will be a multi-year agreement that increases South Korea’s contribution at about the 13% compared with the previous agreement. Furthermore, the final agreement could include mandated hikes in South Korea’s defense budget, as well as an understanding that Seoul will make certain military equipment purchases.  

In earlier rounds of negotiations, the Trump administration demanded an increase of 400%. [CNN]

9 February 2021

First impeachment of a sitting judge in modern South Korea

(dql) In a historic first, South Korea’s National Assembly led by the ruling Democratic Party voted 179 to 102 to remove Lim Seong-geun, a High Court senior judge for interference in a number of politically controversial trials in 2015 and 2016 when he was serving at a District Court. It is now up to the Constitutional Court to determine Lim’s fate.

Lim stood accused of using his position as a senior judge to step in and influence a libel case filed by the former government against a Japanese journalist in 2015 who published an article in which he questioned the whereabouts of then President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) at the moment of the deadly sinking of the ferry Sewol a year earlier. In February 2020, a Seoul court acquitted him of the power abuse and other charges while recognizing his “unconstitutional act” of interfering in trials. [Korea Times]

9 February 2021

South Korea: Ruling party pushes for new anti-fake news legislation

(dql) South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party announced its decision to step its efforts to introduce legislation within this month to which would increase the burden of responsibility of news media, internet portals, YouTubers and bloggers for fake or false news and allow a victim of fraudulent or illegitimate information circulated online to claim from those responsible for the spread of the information an amount of indemnity three times higher compared to amount under current law. 

The legislative move comes against the background of a torrent unfounded claims or rumors circulated on the internet and other social media platforms have posed challenges to administering state affairs, including curbing COVID-19 pandemic or safeguarding the privacy of individuals. [Korea Herald]


9 February 2021

South Korea-US relations: Moon and Biden agree to deepen countries’ ties

(dql) During a phone talk last week, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Biden agreed to further deepen the alliance, which thus far has been focusing on peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region, into a more comprehensive partnership capable of contributing to enhancing democracy, human rights and multilateralism beyond Asia. Furthermore, the two leaders reaffirmed their common goal of denuclearized Korean Peninsula and pledged to swiftly draw up a joint North Korea strategy. They also agree to jointly strengthen efforts to improve relations between South Korea and Japan as part of building stronger trilateral ties. [Korea Herald]


9 February 2021

South Korea’s 2020 Diplomatic Paper calls Japan “closest neighbor”, again 

(dql) Reflecting a fresh push for improving ties with Tokyo frayed over wartime issues, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has resumed the designation of “closest neighbor” for Japan in its 2020 Diplomatic White Paper, saying that “Japan is South Korea’s closest neighboring country that we should work with not only for bilateral relations but also for the peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world.” The 2019 version called Japan only a “neighboring country,” compared to “the closest neighbor geographically and culturally” and a “partner” as the 2018 White Paper.

Both countries’ relations have sharply cooled down after South Korean courts in 2019 ruled in favor of Korean victims seeking damages from Japan and Japanese companies over wartime sexual enslavement and forced labor. Tokyo retaliated with export restrictions against Seoul. [Korea Herald]

2 February 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korea’s defense White Paper confirms North Korea not an enemy

(dql) In its 2020 defense white paper South Korea avoided to designate to North Korea as an enemy. However, it reiterates its 2018 stance saying that the military considers forces that threaten or violate South Korea’s sovereignty, territory, people and property as an enemy.

Furthermore, the paper claims that North Korea has “expanded its ballistic missile units, strengthened special forces with modernized equipment and reinforced exercises to attack strategic targets,” specifying the Pyongyang possesses 13 missile brigades under its strategic force command, a rise of four units compared to 2018. The units are believed to operate short-range Scud missiles for South Korean targets, Rodong missiles with a range of about 1.300 kilometers and Musudan missiles with a range of 3.000 kilometers, capable of striking the strategic U.S. military base in Guam.[KBS] 

2 February 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Tokyo not a “partner” anymore, South Korean defense white paper says

(dql) Reflecting strained relations between South Korea and Japan, the former has downgraded the status of the former in its defense white paper by dropping “partner”. While, In the previous 2018 version of the biannual report both countries were described as “geographically and culturally close neighbors as well as partners cooperating for global peace and prosperity,” the current one reads considers the two countries as “close neighbors that should cooperate not only for the two countries’ relationships but also for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world.” [Kyodo News]

2 February 2021

South-Korea: Final stage of assembling first prototype of indigenous fighter jet

(dql) South Korea’s South Korea announce a prototype of what would be the country’s first indigenously developed fighter jet is in the final stage of assembling. Since 2015, South Korea has been working on the development of a homegrown cutting-edge fighter aircraft to replace the Air Force’s aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 jets.

The prototype is expected to be made public in April, with 2026 eyed for the completion of development after ground and flight tests. Forty units are expected to be delivered to the Air Force by 2028 and another 80 units by 2032.

The aircraft is expected to be capable of flying at a maximum speed of Mach 1.81, with a flying range of 2.900 kilometers. [Korea Herald]


2 February 2021

South Korea: Constitutional Court rules new anti-corruption agency is constitutional

(dql) South Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the establishment of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) – the country’s new powerful anti-corruption investigation agency – does not violate the principle of separation of power and, therefore, is constitutional. 

The ruling was made in response to two complaints filed in February and May last year by lawmakers from the major opposition the People Power Party and others claiming that the agency violates the constitutional value of separation of powers.

The agency is authorized to investigate corruption cases involving former and current public officials, including the president, and their families. It also has the power to indict when it comes to crimes involving the chief justice, prosecutor general, judges, prosecutors, high-ranking police and military officials.

It officially began operation earlier in January, 25 prosecutors and 40 investigators, among others. [Korea Herald]


2 February 2021

South Korea: Parliament set to impeach a judge for the first time 

(dql) Led by the ruling Democratic Party (DP), a group of some 160 lawmakers proposed a motion to impeach a senior High Court judge over allegations of judicial power abuse by interfering in politically sensitive trials between 2015 and 2016 in this capacity as judge at a district court back then.

The approval of the motion in this week’s parliamentary session is certain as a quorum of one third of the 300 members of parliament, while the DP commands 176 seats. It will be the first impeachment of a judge in South Korea.

The opposition People Power Party rejected the motion calling it “the mega-sized ruling party’s attempt to tame the judiciary.” [Yonhap]

26 January 2021

Japan-South Korea relations: President Moon Jae-in seeks diplomatic solution in forced labor compensation issue

(dql) South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in described the possible sales of Japanese companies’ assets to compensate groups of South Koreans over wartime labor as “undesirable” for bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan, adding that he would prioritize a “diplomatic solution” between both countries “that is   also satisfactory to the plaintiffs.”

His statement comes at a time when South Korean plaintiffs who won damages suits against two Japanese companies in South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 over forced labor during World War II, are taking legal steps to seek sales of assets of the companies in South Korea to enforce the compensation payments. IT comes also shortly after a South Korea court in a ruling earlier this month ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to South Korean ‘comfort women’ during World War II.

Moon’s remark is seen by analysts as an attempt to ease high running tensions between Seoul and Tokyo over the issues of forced labor and ‘comfort women’ during Japan’s rule over the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945, as it marks the first time that he indicates opposition to a legal solution of the matter. Tokyo has thus far uncompromisingly refused to accept any of the recent related decisions of South Korean courts, arguing that all compensation issues had been settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty. [Kyodo News]

26 January 2021

South Korea: New anti-corruption agency launched

(dql) South Korea launched a new powerful ant-corruption agency, the Corruption Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO), with President Moon swearing in former judge as the inaugural head of the agency. 

The CIO is tasked with investigating and indict corruption cases that involve former and incumbent high-ranking officials, including the president, government members and lawmakers, as well as senior ranks of the judiciary, prosecution, police and military. Previously, the power to investigate and indict in any criminal case has been in the hands of the prosecution, making the establishment of the CIO a major shift in South Korea’s criminal justice system.

The new body is part of the reform of the country’s prosecution which Moon had pledged to realize during his presidential campaign in 2017 aimed at reducing the far-reaching powers the prosecution still enjoyed prior to the reform. [Korea Herald] [Yonhap]

19 January 2021

Japan-South Korea relations: Diplomatic feud over comfort women ruling heats up

(dql) In a recent ruling a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to 12 South Korean “comfort women”. [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2] Recent official related statements in both countries indicate a further worsening of already highly strained relations.

On the one side, Japan appears not willing to accept the ruling. Japan’s Foreign Ministry called it a “violation of international law,” and demanded that South Korea “take appropriate action to correct,” the court’s decision, adding that it was the responsibility of Seoul to “bring wisdom together” and suggest a solution. Lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urge the government to take decisive action, suggesting to take South Korea to the International Court of Justice or to delay sending it’s the new ambassador to South Korea. [Kyodo News]

On the other side, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry declared that it respects the court’s decision, and requested Japan to avoid ‘excessive responses’ to the court’s ruling, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged Japan to “swiftly work toward ‘future-oriented’ bilateral relations,” and to continue dialogue in spite of pending issues between the two nations. [Korea Times] [Yonhap]

Video talks between both countries’ diplomats held on Friday to discuss the issue ended inconclusive. The press release of the South Korean Foreign Ministry summarized the outcome, stating that both sides agreed on the importance of “continu[ing] communication and dialogue to resolve pending issues,” as well as “close consultations going forward.” [Korea Herald]

19 January 2021

China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” 

(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043. 

The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership. 

Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”

As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]

For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017. 

19 January 2021

South Korea: Jail sentence for former President Park upheld by Supreme Court

(dql) Ending a lengthy legal process, South Korea’s Supreme Court last week upheld a 20-year jail sentence for former President Park Geun-hye on corruption charges over which she was impeached in 2016. The impeachment was confirmed by the country’s Constitutional Court in 2017, making Park South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be thrown out of office. [France 24]

Finalizing of her prison term opens for Park the avenue of a special presidential pardon. Such a pardon for her and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak has been proposed by the leader of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party earlier this month as a gesture of national unity. [Korea Herald

Speculations on such a presidential move have widely spread since then. But in a latest development, Moon in his new year’s press conference Monday clear made that he won’t grant the pardons in the near future arguing that given, that the legal processes have only been concluded recently and that both continue to deny their past wrongdoings and refuse to accept the court rulings, granting an amnesty would lack  a consensus in the society which is highly divided in this question. [Yonhap]

12 January 2021

South Korean delegation on diplomatic mission in Iran after capture of South Korean flagged tanker by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards

(dql) A South Korean diplomatic has been in Iran since past weekend to negotiate the release of a South Korean-flagged tanker and its crew seized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard last week in the Strait of Hormuz.

While Tehran officially claims that the vessel was captured for violating environmental protocols, it appears that the seizure is a move of the Islamic Republic aimed at increasing its leverage over Seoul ahead of negotiations over around seven billion USD in Iranian revenue from oils sales which are frozen in South Korean banks due to US sanctions on Iran. [Aljazeera]

Negotiations kicked off on Monday, but prospects for a release of the tanker look dim as Tehran insists on access to its assets. [Korea Herald]

The ship seizure marks the latest in a string of escalations of tensions between the US and Iran since US President Trump withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in 2018 and reinstated sanctions suspended by the agreement. In January last year a US drone strike killed a top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran has resumed enriching uranium up to 20% at its underground Fordo nuclear facility, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels. [AP] [BBC]

12 January 2021

Japan-South Korea relations: South Korea court orders Japanese government to pay compensation to ‘comfort women’

(dql) In a move further escalating already high running tensions between Japan and South Korea over forced labor during Japan’s rule on the Korean peninsula 1910-1945, a South Korean Court has ordered the Japanese government to pay damages of 91.000 USD to each of 12 victims of war-time sexual slavery. 

In 2016, the victims sued the Japanese government in 2016 for kidnapping, sexual violence, and torture during World War II. In its ruling the court acknowledged that they were subjected to dozens of forced sexual acts by Japanese troops every day.  

Japan rejects the ruling, calling it “absolutely unacceptable,” while indicating that it will not comply with it by saying that “the Japanese government was not subject to South Korean jurisdiction.” [The Guardian] [Deutsche Welle][CNN]

12 January 2021

South Korea: President not to consider pardons for convicted predecessors

(dql) The Office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in rejected a report of a newspaper which claimed that the Office is considering ways to grant pardons to former Presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, the two former presidents jailed for abuses of power and corruption offenses.

The issue surfaced earlier this month after a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Party, who is tipped as one of the key presidential hopefuls for the election in 2022, publicly announced his intention to ask President Moon Jae-in to pardon his immediate predecessors. [Korea Herald]

Meanwhile, the country’s population is almost evenly divided on this issue. Findings of a survey show that 47.7% of respondents approved an amnesty for the two former presidents, while 48% said they were against such a move. [Korea Bizwire]

5 January 2021

South Korea: Mitsubishi appeals asset seizure court order

(dql) Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has appealed a South Korean court’s order to seize its assets held in South Korea soon after the relevant legal process to compensate victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor took effect late last month. The public notifications to the company entered into force last week after the company failed to comply with a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court ordering the company to pay compensation to five victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula. 

In line with the official stance of the Japanese government, Mitsubishi argues that South Korean citizens cannot make any compensation claims as the reparation issue was fully and finally settled in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea. The Korean government, however, insists that the agreement was not intended to settle individual claims against Japan for war crime or crimes against humanity, referring to by documents presented during the negotiations which specifically exclude claims for personal injuries incurred by Japan’s violations of international laws. [Korea Herald] [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]


5 January 2021

South Korea: President Moon announces nominees for last Cabinet reshuffle 2020

(dql) Amid lowest approval ratings since assuming the presidency in 2017 [Yonhap], South Korean President Moon Jae-in last week announced nominations for a last reshuffle of his Cabinet in 2020 as well as for the post of the head of the new Corruption Investigation Office for high-ranking officials (CIO). The CIO is one core part of Moon’s desired reform of the country’s prosecution for which he has been facing fierce resistance from the main opposition People Power Party (PPP). 

The nominees include Park Beom-kye and Han Jeoung-ae, both lawmakers from the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), as Justice Minister and Environment Minister respectively, as well as Hwang Ki-chul, a chair professor at Kookmin University, as Minister for Patriots and Veterans Affairs. Moon’s pick for the post of the CIO head is Kim Jin-wook, a former judge and a Constitutional Court scholar. [Korea Herald]

Moon’s latest reshuffle comes after he had made nominations for four other ministries earlier in December of whom he appointed two of them as new Ministers of Interior and Safety as well as of Health and Welfare after their hearing reports were adopted by the parliament. [Korea JoongAng Daily]