Asia in Review Archive 2021

South Korea (Republic of Korea)

Date of AiR edition

News summary

20 July 2021

North Korea: Three university students tried for distributing South Korean videos 

(nds) North Korean authorities publicly tried three students charged with the view and distribution of “capitalist recorded material (videos)” from South Korea. and face “expulsion from the party, losing their jobs, and even exile.”

The trial comes amid recently growing efforts of the government to combat the spread of anti-socialist ideology. Last December, the government decided to enact a law that punishes more severely the possession of videos made in South Korea. [Daily NK]

20 July 2021

South Korea: New think tank to be created to push space program

(dql) The South Korean Science Ministry announced that it will establish a space policy-oriented think tank to bolster the country’s space development ambitions. The think tank is expected to conduct space-related research and analysis to provide guidance for the country’s space development policies,

The announcement comes after South Korea has recently intensified efforts on its space program. Its first indigenous space rocket is set to be launched in October and a lunar orbiter program planned for 2022, while more than 100 miniature satellites are supposed to be developed by 2031, when 14 low earth orbit communications satellites are to be launched to establish a satellite communications network to prepare for future 6G network technology, and test autonomous ship control systems and marine traffic services. 

South Korea’s push of its space program received a boost earlier this year following the conclusion of an agreement with the US which completely scrap its missile guidelines, which had hampered Seoul’s space launch vehicles development efforts. [Yonhap

20 July 2021

Japan-South Korea relations: South Korean President not to visit Tokyo for Olympic Games

(dql) South Korea announced that President Moon Jae-in’s decided not to visit Tokyo for the upcoming Olympic Games, scrapping plans for what would have been his first summit between the two leaders. The decision was prompted by a news report that a senior diplomat at Japan’s embassy in Seoul had said Moon was “masturbating” when describing his efforts to improve relations between the two countries.

This latest incident adds to already frosty relations over territorial claims and their wartime history, crushing previous hopes that the Tokyo Games might provide an opportunity for a fresh start for bilateral and regional cooperation. [Reuters]

13 July 2021

South Korea and the Netherlands seek cooperation in semiconductor industry

(nm) Against the backdrop of the current global chip shortage and the 60th anniversary of their bilateral ties, the Netherlands and South Korea have agreed to further their cooperation in the semiconductor industry. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte last week held a virtual summit to commemorate the anniversary and to discuss economic cooperation. Since 2016, the two nations have been sharing a so-called “comprehensive future-oriented partnership” that fosters bilateral cooperation in a variety of fields and is not limited to economic cooperation. The Netherlands is the biggest European investor in Korea and Korea’s third-largest investment destination in Europe. In 2020, trade volume between the two countries increased by more than 20 percent, defying opposite trends during the global pandemic. The chipmaker industry is the heart of the economic cooperation as both Dutch and South Korean companies are among the industry’s major players. Seoul is also currently seeking to reduce its reliance on materials from Japan which is another major actor in the industry and has imposed export curbs on certain vital materials due to bilateral tensions. In addition to chip cooperation, Moon and Rutte also explored cooperation in the fields of green energies, smart agriculture, and the digital economy. [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

13 July 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Discussions on Moon-Suga summit on the sidelines of the Tokyo Olympics 

(nm) With the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and tensions between neighbouring Japan and South Korea still not resolved, government officials from both nations are allegedly working out ways for South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to hold their first bilateral summit on the sidelines of the Olympics opening ceremony. Seoul government officials, however, have also made clear that while there is potential for Moon to attend the ceremony, his visit would depend on the condition of holding a results-oriented summit. 

No South Korean President has travelled to Japan for a bilateral meeting since 2011 and Moon had only visited Tokyo for a trilateral meeting involving China in 2018. While there has been some discussion on Moon attending the opening ceremony, Seoul is now clearly putting the onus on Japan to show efforts in improving ties. Moon has also faced domestic pressure as some politicians have advocated for him attending the ceremony in order to ease tensions, while others are more critical, suggesting that the Japanese side is not showing enough diplomatic efforts. [Korea Times 1]

Japanese-South Korean ties are still at their worst in years following a string of diplomatic, historic, and economic issues, including disagreement over the handling of wartime forced labour, the planned disposal of Fukushima wastewater into the Pacific Ocean, and Japanese export curbs on materials vital for South Korea’s semiconductor industry. Relations have more openly deteriorated ever since the Moon-Suga meeting set to take place on the sidelines of the recent G7-summit was called off by the Japanese side over tensions related to a group of islets that both nations claim sovereignty over. [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2

Adding pressure to the dispute, South Korea’s foreign ministry this week alleged UNESCO recently expressed “strong regret” over Japan not fulfilling its earlier promise to acknowledge the use of forced labour, including that of Koreans, during World War II at its World Heritage Sites. In 2015, some 23 Japanese historical industrial towns had been designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, triggering opposition by South Korea which had pointed at the use of Korean forced labour in those very cities and their character as a building block for Japan’s subsequent Korean occupation. [Korea Times 3] [DW, German]

13 July 2021

South Korea-US relations: Top nuclear envoys hold talks as Seoul seeks support for peninsula peace  

(nm) South Korea is currently stepping up efforts to attract international support for its efforts to strengthen Korean Peninsula peace. Seoul’s Vice Foreign Minister last week advocated for continued international support during the Ministerial Meeting of the Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament, while Seoul’s chief nuclear negotiator, Noh Kyu-duk, similarly held bilateral talks with his United States counterpart Sung Kim. During the Ministerial Meeting, Korean representative Choi reiterated the need for an international nuclear non-proliferation regime in order to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. The meeting came ahead of the review conference for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the only binding multilateral commitment to the goal of disarmament by five nuclear-weapon states. [UN]

Noh and Sung similarly discussed measures to implement the agreement reached during the May 21 Moon-Biden summit in which both leaders reaffirmed their efforts towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, President Moon thanked a group of visiting US Congress lawmakers for their support with regards to the promotion of “lasting peace for the Korean Peninsula”. Pyongyang is, however, currently negating any possibility of contact with the United States. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Herald 3]

13 July 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korean intelligence agency confirms cyberattack by the North 

Last Thursday, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed to federal lawmakers of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that cyberattacks conducted by the North targeted South Korean companies and public institutions. The NIS said it had taken measures to control the damage. The confirmation follows reports by South Korea’s Atomic Energy Research Institute of an alleged hacking attack by Pyongyang in June. Seoul’s ministry for information communication technology and innovation similarly reported last week that South Korea had experienced 78 ransomware attacks in the first half of 2021, indicating a rising trend as compared to previous years. 

According to one lawmaker of the intelligence committee, the NIS report found that while attacks on the public sector decreased by 4 percent from last year, cyberattacks on the private sector have increased by 13 percent. 

Pyongyang and its intelligence group, the General Reconnaissance Bureau, have supposedly used cyberattacks to the North’s financial benefit as it seeks to battle with international sanctions and the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. [The Diplomat] [Korea Times]

13 July 2021

South Korea: Supreme Court upholds prison terms for former national intelligence chiefs 

(nm) South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld the convictions of three former National Intelligence Service (NIS) chiefs who had been indicted on charges of providing illegal funds from the NIS to the presidential office. The funds allegedly amounted to 3.1 million USD per month. In 2018, a district court had found that while the three were guilty of unlawfully providing those funds, they could not necessarily be considered bribes as no favours were granted in return. The Supreme Court now confirmed the sentence of a January retrial after the court had ruled in 2019 that some of the money should be considered bribes. At the time of the transfers, the presidential office was held by then-President Park Geun-hye who has since been sentenced to a 20-year prison term on charges of abuse of power and coercion following her impeachment in 2017. [Korea Herald] [BBC]

13 July 2021

South Korea: New opposition party leader indicates tougher stance towards China 

(nm) The new leader of South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party (PPP), Lee Jun-seok, has caused some debate as he is indicating a tougher stance towards China, while sharply criticizing Seoul’s unification ministry. In an interview with Bloomberg, Lee said his fellow millennials will push against Chinese “cruelty” in places like Hong Kong, further stating “We’re definitely going to have to fight against the enemies of democracy.” Lee is the youngest ever selected leader of a major South Korean Party and participated in the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong-Kong. The Moon administration has been trying to balance its relationship with China as it seeks to strengthen its ties with the US while being on friendly terms with its largest trading partner. 

Further causing controversy, Lee also recently made comments advocating for the abolishment of the unification ministry, as well as the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. Members of his own conservative party, however, showed opposition towards this stance. In an interview, Lee criticized the separation of the foreign affairs ministry and the unification ministry – which is responsible for inter-Korean ties – as this allegedly led to the inefficiency of the ministry. 

As incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s five-year term ends in March 2022, Lee will be tasked with finding a conservative candidate for the PPP’s campaign. [Bloomberg] [Korea Times]

For an analysis of Seoul’s US-China dilemma and its stance towards the US “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, please see [The Diplomat]. 

6 July 2021

South Korea-Afghanistan relations: South Korean citizens asked to leave the country 

(nm) As NATO forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan and in consideration of fears of growing unrest in the country, all South Korean citizens are required to leave Afghanistan until the end July or face criminal sanctions, according to a South Korean foreign ministry official this week. Afghanistan is currently banned for travel along with five other nations with violations punishable by up to one year in prison or a fine. The official further said that there remains a small number of South Korean citizens in Afghanistan due to personal reasons who the government plans to support in their return to Korea. Since US forces withdrew, clashes between the Taliban and Afghan forces have fuelled fears over the further deterioration of the security situation in the country. [Korea Herald] [Times of India]

6 July 2021

South Korea’s Navy takes part in Pacific Vanguard maritime exercise

(dql) South Korea’s Navy on Monday has joined a weeklong US-led multinational Pacific Vanguard maritime exercise in Australian waters to boost cooperative operation skills at sea with the navies the US, Japan and Australia. The drills include an anti-submarine operation and a simulated battle. Seoul has dispatched the 4,400-ton Wang Geon destroyer, involving 200 crew members. [Korea Herald]

6 July 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Tensions rising as Moon commemorates industrial self-sufficiency 

(nm) Tensions between Japan and South Korea are rising again with South Korea last week adopting a series of measures exposing the historic drift between the two nations. On Tuesday, the National Assembly adopted a resolution condemning Tokyo’s plan to release the cooling water of the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. In April, the Japanese government had announced its decision to release the wastewater currently stored in tanks into the ocean as storage capacity is apparently going to run out in 2022. Neighbouring nations, including Korea, had protested the decision as their interests were allegedly not sufficiently regarded. The resolution now calls for close consultations with neighbouring countries, including the participation of the South Korean government in the joint investigation led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). [Korea Times 1]

Following the resolution, a parliamentary committee on Wednesday also passed a bipartisan resolution demanding the removal of the contested islets of Dokdo/Takeshima from one official Tokyo Olympics map and denouncing Japan’s included claim to sovereignty over the island.

Demands calling on South Korean President Moon Jae-in not to visit Japan in conjunction with the Olympics have since grown domestically. Some have even demanded a boycott of the games over the issue. The resolution now also urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take proactive measures. The islets have been a persistent issue in Seoul-Tokyo relations and have become an important symbol since Korea’s liberation from Japanese occupation. [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald]

On Friday then, President Moon declared South Korea’s industrial self-sufficiency, implying that Japanese export restrictions failed to show the intended effects. Japan has been imposing strict export regulation on industrial materials critical for chip and display industries – the heart of South Korea’s economy – since 2019. While Tokyo attributed the restrictions to Seoul’s failure to control trade of sensitive items, South Koreans widely regard the measures as a direct response to a court ruling ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labour. [Korea Times 3]

Long-standing tensions between the two nations have been showing more openly again ever since Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga had failed to meet on the sidelines of the June G-7 summit in England. The planned meeting was allegedly called off by the Japanese side when it was informed that South Korea’s navy would participate in military drills around the contested Dokdo/ Takeshima islets. The US Biden administration is seeking to bring the two sides together in an effort to establish a trilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. [Nikkei Asia]

6 July 2021

South Korea: Former industry minister indicted over abuse of power 

(nm) Former minister of trade, industry and energy Paik Un-gyu and a former presidential secretary for industrial policy were indicted on charges of abuse of power and interference with business after a high-profile criminal investigation into the early shutdown of the nuclear reactor Wolsong-1 has wrapped up. 

After the decades-old reactor had been shut down by the state-run Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power Co. (KHNP) in 2019, three years ahead of schedule, due to an economic viability survey, the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) found last year that the numbers of the assessment were unreasonably undervalued. The decision to close the reactor was part of President Moon Jae-in’s green energy efforts which seek to gradually increase the share of renewable energy while closing atomic power plants. According to state prosecutors, the decision to close down the reactor ahead of schedule had caused about 131 million USD in damages to the company. Paik is denying the allegations. [Korea Herald]

6 July 2021

South Korea: High-profile ruling party candidates announce presidential bids 

(nm) With the next presidential election set for March 2022, candidates of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party (DP) have officially announced their bids to run, setting of the race among the ruling bloc’s “Big Three”. Last Thursday, Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung who is one of the DP’s nine presidential contenders, announced his candidacy with a strong emphasis on transforming the country’s economy and on tackling social inequality. Lee is seen as one of the three most prominent DP candidates and is currently leading public opinion polls for the DP camp. Lee has been known for his straightforwardness, but could face challenges from forces within his own party. In 2017, he had lost to incumbent President Moon Jae-in in the DP’s primary. [Korea Times 1

This Monday, former DP leader Lee Nak-yon also officially announced his intention to run, presenting a five-point policy blueprint for South Korea which focusses on a new approach to social welfare, a middle-class economy, an amendment to the constitution to strengthen the socioeconomic approach, a diplomacy based on soft power, and the strengthening of South Korean culture. The announcement came after the DP had held its second national interviews on Sunday to select the candidates for the presidential elections. In the blind interviews conducted by 200 interviewers, Lee Nak-yon came in first place, followed by Representative Lee Kwang-jae, and Lee Jae-myung. The DP will announce their six final candidates on July 11. [Korea Herald 1]

In spite of the announcements, the ruling DP recently failed to generate public attention, while the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) is gaining popularity. Some observers contribute this trend to the public’s desire for a change in leadership after a series of policy failures, including failure to combat soaring apartment prices, aggravated by a major real estate speculation scandal involving local politicians and the state-run housing company. 

As the Moon government had been in disagreement with some of its own appointees, some of them are now considering running for the opposition PPP. One of those appointees is former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl who had resigned from his post in early March and has since led opinion polls. Lately, however, he has been struggling due to allegations of ethical missteps and corruption against family members in addition to allegations of abuse of power against himself. Yoon is running under the promise to restore justice and the rule of law in opposition to Moon’s plans for prosecution reform and seeks to normalize relations with Japan. He has yet to announce if he will run for the PPP. [Korea Times 2] [Nikkei Asia]

For an interview with Lee Jae-myung, please see [Korea Herald 2]

 

6 July 2021

South Korea: Labor union mass protests in violation of quarantine measures trigger legal action 

(nm) South Korea’s government announced to take legal action against massive protests rallying for improved labor conditions in violation of quarantine measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. On Saturday, about 8000 participants protesting in central Seoul demanded better labour conditions, the elimination of irregular job positions, and an increase of the minimum wage. As the Seoul Metropolitan Government currently only allows demonstrations of up to 10 people, it had denied permission for the gathering, notifying the unions holding the rally to step back from their plans. The local police agency now stated it had launched a special investigation team of 52 officers who would look into the case, while President Moon Jae-in similarly called the decision to take stern legal measures inevitable. 

The protests come amid rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the capital. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the major umbrella union organizing the event, responded it did share concerns over the spread of the virus, but urged the government to guarantee freedom of expression as it also allowed people to gather at outdoor sporting events and concerts. The KCTU announced it would go into a general strike in November. [Korea Times] [Korea Herald] [Reuters]

29 June 2021

South Korea: Major police reform puts local governments in charge 

(nm) South Korea’s biggest reform of the country’s police force since 1945 is to take effect on July 1, according to the National Police Agency. Pursuant to the plan introduced in 2018, local governments will be put in charge of regional police forces while many duties are being transferred over from the national police, including investigating certain forms of crime. The reform is part of the Moon administration’s larger efforts to adjust the investigative power of the nation’s law enforcement agencies. One of the most contentious issues of the current administration remains a major prosecution reform which aims to decentralize power and to create a special investigative office that could handle high-level cases. [Korea Herald]

 

29 June 2021

South Korea: Ruling party expels proportional representation lawmakers over property speculation scandal 

(nm) Preliminary results of investigations into the major real estate speculation scandal which had become public this March have led to political consequences in South Korea. Following first allegations by the state Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC), the ruling Democratic Party (DP) expelled two of its proportional lawmakers, thus terminating their mandate. Six additional DP lawmakers voluntarily left the party on recommendation. The ACRC will now also conduct a probe into lawmakers of the main opposition People Power Party (PPP).

The decision by the DP to expel its two lawmakers comes after the ACRC had found in early June that 12 DP lawmakers or their families were allegedly involved in the real estate scandal surrounding the state-run public housing company, Korea Land & Housing Co. (LH). The ACRC subsequently relayed its findings to a police-led special government investigation team. Following the results of the DP investigation, the commission is now also investigating 427 people related to the major opposition PPP, including its 101 lawmakers and their family members, on request of the party. The investigation is set to last a month with the possibility of extension. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Herald 1]

This week, the chief of a government task force investigating LH employees due to the same scandal further found that “several dozen” people were allegedly involved in founding a company to handle speculative property transactions, including LH employees, their relatives and acquaintances. He also spoke of a separate investigation into allegations of collusion between former LH employees and realtors to speculate in redevelopment areas south of Seoul. [Korea Herald 2

Unrelated to the LH scandal, presidential secretary for anti-corruption Kim Gi-pyo who had been appointed in March resigned last week over mounting criticism over the extent of real estate speculation he allegedly partakes in. Kim is reported to be owning millions worth of real estate with large portions of it apparently purchased through loans, a practice that the government has criticized for contributing to property speculation. [Korea Times 2]

29 June 2021

South Korea: Presidential race heats up 

(nm) With several high-profile politicians announcing their plan to declare their bid for presidency over this and next week, South Korea’s presidential race is considerably picking up speed nine months ahead of the March 2022 election. Ex-Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl officially declared his bid this Tuesday after stepping down in March over disagreement with government plans to overhaul the prosecution. Yoon is seen as the leading conservative candidate, although he has yet to decide if he will run for the main opposition People Power Party (PPP). [Korea Herald] [Korea Times 1]

In addition to Yoon, chairman of the government Board of Audit and Inspection, Choe Jae-hyeong, offered his resignation this week in what is seen as the first step towards declaring his presidential bid as opposition candidate. Similar to Yoon, Choe was also in conflict with the Moon government, in his case over the government’s anti-nuclear push. Due to the disagreement and several remarks, his resignation had been anticipated by political observers. The emerging picture of both Choe and Yoon running as possible opposition candidates, despite having been appointed by Moon, has led to some irritation on the side of Moon’s ruling Democratic Party (DP). [Korea Times 2][Korea Times 3]

Meanwhile, the DP decided not to postpone their primary elections to pick their candidate, terminating internal division on the issue. The DP primary is now set for September 10In the DP camp, Gyeonggi Province governor Lee Jae-myung and former DP chairperson Lee Nak-yon are expected to declare their candidacies on Thursday and next week respectively.  [Korea Times 4

29 June 2021

South Korea to participate in US-Australia joint military exercise 

(nm) This week, South Korea’s defence ministry announced plans to participate in a large-scale Australia-US joint naval exercise that is set for mid-July, the “Talisman Sabre” war games. It will be the first time that Seoul participates in the exercise, 

Seoul’s participation comes after a joint South Korea-United States statement that highlighted the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond”. China had responded disapprovingly to the statement. As Seoul is becoming increasingly integrated into the US Indo-Pacific Strategy, it becomes more difficult for the Moon government to strike a balance between the competing interests of the US and China. [SCMP] [Korea Herald]

 

29 June 2021

South Korea-Indonesia relations: Strengthening cooperation on joint fighter jet project

(nm) Last week, the South Korean and Indonesian foreign ministers agreed to strengthen cooperation on a joint fighter jet project, in addition to other mutually beneficial projects. The agreement was reached during Chung Eui-yong’s last stop of his five-day trip to Southeast Asia which had also included visits to Vietnam and Singapore.

Under a 2015 bilateral agreement, Indonesia agreed to contribute 20 percent of the cost for the joint development of the KF-X-fighters by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), which is seen as a cheaper alternative to the US-built F-35 which Seoul is so far using. Prototypes of the fighter had been unveiled in April, but Indonesia has been seeking renegotiations of its share since 2018. In addition to strengthening their commitments to the joint jet project, Chung and his counterpart Retno L.P.Marsudi also discussed expanding cooperation regarding vaccine procurement and public health efforts. [Korea Herald] [SCMP]

 

29 June 2021

South Korea and United States considering ending North Korea working group 

(nm) According to the South Korean Foreign Ministry, Seoul and Washington have agreed to terminate a controversial working group on North Korea as newly-appointed US special representative for North Korea, Sung Kim, is calling for dialogue with Pyongyang. Kim Yo-yong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, however, responded that the US had wrong expectations. 

The working group had been established in 2018 to discuss a host of issues in relation to North Korea, including denuclearization, sanctions enforcement, humanitarian aid, and inter-Korean dialogue, but Pyongyang said the channel was preventing any inter-Korean progress due to its focus on sanctions. Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun said Washington and Seoul would continue their dialogue and were hoping to send a signal to the North. 

The announcement came amid Sung’s five-day visit to South Korea to meet with top government officials, including President Moon Jae-in. The visit focussed on reiterating US efforts to seek dialogue with Pyongyang and to meet “anytime anywhere without preconditions”, as well as to stress the importance of trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo.  [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

In a separate development, a South Korean defence committee presided over by Defence Minister Suh Wook this week approved 2.56 billion USD plans to develop the nation’s own interceptor system to defend South Korean key military and security infrastructure against long-range artillery threats. The project is expected to begin next year and is set to be completed around 2035. [Korea Times]

For a close-up examination of President Moon’s role in inter-Korean peace efforts, please see this recent editorial in the [Time]. 

22 June 2021

South Korea and Japan hold talks to work on strained ties  

(nm) Representatives of South Korea and Japan held working-level talks this week in their efforts to overcome historic and other issues that have significantly strained their countries’ relation. The meeting between Seoul’s director general for Asia and Pacific affairs Lee Sang-ryeol and his Japanese counterpart Takehiro Funakoshi comes just before trilateral talks with newly appointed United States special envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in Seoul this week. 

During their talks, Lee stressed that Japan needed to show its efforts to resolve tensions over wartime issues, including forced labour and sexual slavery, continued territorial claims to the islets of Dokdo/Takashima, and Japan’s recent plans to release Fukushima wastewater into the ocean which were met with opposition by neighbouring countries. Due to the tensions between the two nations, Tokyo recently cancelled an agreed-upon meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Britain earlier this month. During this week’s meeting, both nations acknowledged the need to reach stable ties for the peace and stability of the region and beyond.  [Korea Herald]

22 June 2021

South Korea: Former Prime Minister announces run for presidency

(nm) The ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) presidential campaign is taking up speed as two additional candidates have declared their intentions to run in next year’s presidential elections. Last week, former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun officially announced his intention to run, while former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae announced her plan to officially declare her bid this week. 

In his campaign kick-off event, Chung focussed on eradicating inequalities and building a strong economy, running under the slogan “Strong Korea, Economic President.” He is considered a moderate with ample political experience. After being appointed as Prime Minister in January 2020, he led South Korea’s coronavirus response, but resigned in April 2021 to prepare his run for presidency. [Korea Times

Over the weekend, former Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae also expressed her intention to declare her bid this week, potentially running under the slogan a “Country that Elevates People”. Chung previously led the Moon administration’s campaign for the nation’s major prosecution reform as she served as justice minister until January of this year. [Korea Herald]

Both Chung and Choo enter into a tough race as they join several other DP members who have already announced their ambitions for presidency. Most notably, former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and former Prosecutor General Yook Seok-youl have already declared their bids and have led recent opinion polls. 

The presidential election is set for March 2022. 

22 June 2021

South Korea: Delivery workers reach deal on overwork after strike 

(nm) After a nationwide strike to draw attention to their harsh working conditions, delivery workers in South Korea have reached a tentative agreement with companies to cap drivers’ hours at 60 per week and hire additional workers to sort packages starting in September. Last week’s overnight strike of thousands of unionized workers in Seoul was triggered by the companies’ inaction in the implementation of a deal forged in January that seeks to prevent overwork. The deal had been reached by the Parcel Delivery Workers’ Solidarity Union, the government, and logistic firms after the deaths of 16 delivery drivers had given rise national attention late last year. 

With the coronavirus pandemic leading to stark increases in online trade, drivers’ workloads have similarly exploded, with some claiming to have worked 90 hours a week. As drivers are classified as irregular workers in South Korea, they are not subject to minimum wage or paid leave. [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Times]

22 June 2021

South Korea and Spain enter into strategic partnership

(nm) South Korea and Spain have entered into a strategic partnership as South Korean President Moon Jae-in has wrapped up his week-long Europe trip following the G7 Summit set in Cornwall, England which South Korea had been invited to as a guest nation. 

In addition to Spain, Seoul is maintaining so-called strategic partnerships with more than ten other countries. The term is used to describe a relationship in which two nations jointly discuss peace, regional and international issues and is seen as the third-closest form of bilateral relations that Korea carries. 

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Moon further agreed to strengthen cooperation in the fields of investment, education, and culture and signed several respective memoranda of understanding. The trip to Spain was preceded by the first state visit of a South Korean president to Austria since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1892 in which Moon forged a strategic partnership, too. [Korea Times] [Korea Herald]

22 June 2021

Inter-Korean ties: Lawmaker accuses North Korea of hacking atomic energy think tank 

(nm) According to one South Korean opposition lawmaker, North Korean hackers have conducted a cyberattack against South Korea’s state-run Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, potentially stealing valuable technology. Government agencies are currently addressing the damage. 

The alleged attack took place in May when 13 unauthorized, external IPs addressed the internal network of the institute. Some of the IPs were later tracked to the server of the hacking unit “kimsuky” which is connected to Pyongyang’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North’s military-intelligence division. The same unit is believed to have concluded several hacks on pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, last year. The institute confirmed the attack, but said it was still analyzing its source. [Korea Herald 1] [Nikkei Asia]

This week, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, an executive branch of South Korea’s government, further confirmed hacking attempts against the database of one of South Korea’s major shipbuilders specialized in submarine vessels and warships, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. The police and relevant agencies are currently investigating the attacks. [Korea Herald 2]

Cyberattacks are increasingly considered of geopolitical importance, leading some experts to recognize them as a potentially greater threat than North Korea’s missile arsenal. [Foreign Policy]

If you wish to gain a greater insight into the North’s cyber force, you might be interested in this illustrative magazine article in [The New Yorker]. If you wish to lean more about international humanitarian law and cyberwarfare, you might find this interview conducted by the [ICRC] of interest. 

15 June 2021

Indonesia: Transportation Minister meets with South Korean Ambassador affirming transportation cooperation

(sa) Indonesian Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi met with South Korean Korean Ambassador Tae Sung Park on 14 June 2021 in discussing the two countries’ commitments with regards to the former’s transportation projects. [Antara News]

Two key projects were discussed, the first project was the Bali Provincial Government’s collaborations with the South Korean government of which there are two components. The first component is to conduct a pre-feasibility study, through the KRNA, on the construction of a light-rail transit (LRT) connecting the Ngurah Rai Airport and Seminyak.  The second collaboration of the Bali Government is its financial cooperation proposal to South Korea for a feasibility study on the same LRT line. [Antara News]

The second project was the Jakarta MRT Fatmawati – Taman Mini Indonesia Inda (TMII) route, which South Korea expressed a desire to cooperate in its construction. Besides these two, several other projects were discussed such as a coal transportation railway line in Sumagsel, Hang Nadim Airport in Batam, and more. [Antara News]

15 June 2021

Inter-Korean relations: Seoul calls for reconciliatory spirit ahead of summit anniversary 

(nm) South Korea’s unification ministry called on North Korea to respect the spirit of reconciliation and to respond to efforts of dialogue as this week marks the 21st anniversary of the June 15 Declaration adopted in Pyongyang in 2000 which establishes the principle of peaceful reunification and the normalisation of relations between the two Koreas. 

Also, this week, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said Seoul would proactively push for cooperation to provide North Korea with Covid-19 vaccines, if Pyongyang agrees, as his nation is working towards becoming a “global vaccine production hub”.  

Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul have not significantly improved since the failed 2019 summit between Washington and Pyongyang which ended without a deal. Recent inter-Korean tensions include anti-Pyongyang propaganda leaflets which had been sent over the border from South Korea by activist groups in defiance of a recently established South Korean anti-leafletting law as well as the lifting of US guidelines on South Korea’s missile capabilities. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2]

15 June 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Bilateral summit meeting called off by Japan 

(nm) According to the South Korean foreign ministry, Japan has unilaterally called off a planned bilateral meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on the sidelines of last week’s Group of Seven (G7) summit in England, referring to the conflict around the debated Dokdo/Takeshima – or Liancourt Rocks – islets. South Korea, alongside Australia, India, and South Africa, had been invited to this year’s G7 summit as a guest nation. 

This week, South Korea is conducting its annual military drill on and around Liancourt Rocks which are at the center of a diplomatic dispute between the two nations as both claim them as part of their territory. The conflict around the islets erupts regularly and was renewed recently as Japan identified them as part of its territory on an official map for the Tokyo Olympics. [Korea Herald 1]

The planned bilateral meeting had been met with some anticipation and some observers had even speculated for a trilateral meeting including the United States which would have highlighted the three nations’ partnership in the Indo-Pacific region. According to one Japanese newspaper, the Japanese government also opposed the expansion of the Group of Seven to include South Korea. [Nikkei Asia 1] [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald 2]

Although the United States are currently trying to build a stable trilateral cooperation with both Japan and South Korea, wartime issues and economic tensions are considerable obstacles and have led to the deterioration of bilateral relations. A recent South Korean court ruling rejecting compensation claims by victims of wartime forced labour against several Japanese companies, however, supposedly opened up some room for a diplomatic solution to the issue. [Nikkei Asia 2

15 June 2021

South Korea-China relations: G7 summit exposes Seoul’s balancing act in US-China conflict 

(nm) As the Group of Seven (G7) leaders met for their annual summit last week, the need for South Korea to carefully balance the interests of the United States and its allies on the one hand and Chinese interests on the other hand has been exposed. In a joint statement issued after the summit, the G7 nations urged China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, but South Korea’s vice foreign minister claims no such topics were discussed in the meetings South Korea partook in, dismissing claims that Seoul’s participation in the gathering could lead to Seoul siding with the United States. In a phone call prior to the summit, Chinese foreign minister Wany Yi reportedly told his South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong, Seoul should not become trapped in a “biased” way of thinking and that both nations needed to maintain a “political consensus”. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner while the US functions as Seoul’s most important military ally. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald 1]

On the sidelines of the summit, President Moon Jae-in further met the leaders of several nations, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US foreign minister Antony Blinken. Blinken and Moon discussed follow-up measures to their nations’ May 21 summit, stressing multilateral efforts in the region, a speedy vaccine distribution, and the Myanmar conflict, while reaffirming their commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Following the summit, Moon also travelled to Austria as the first Korean president to make a state visit to the country since the establishment of bilateral ties in 1892. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald  4] [Korea Herald 5]

15 June 2021

South Korea: Supreme Court remands bribery case of former vice justice minister 

(nm) South Korea’s Supreme Court has remanded the bribery case of former Vice Justice Minister Kim Hak-ui to a lower court for retrial last week as it called into question the reliability of the testimony used against Kim. According to the court, it could not “rule out the possibility” that one witness altered his testimony due to appeasement or pressure on side of the prosecution. The relevant witness had changed his initial position after being questioned by the prosecution. 

Kim faces several charges in different cases. In 2019, he had been indicted on charges of receiving bribes and sexual favours, was however cleared of all charges by a district court and later found partially guilty of bribery by an appellate court. He is further involved in a controversial case in which the Ministry of Justice allegedly enforced an illegal exit ban to stop him from leaving South Korea in 2019. [Korea Herald]

 

15 June 2021

South Korea: Main opposition party elects youngest-ever leader

(nm) South Korea’s major opposition People Power Party (PPP) elected 36-year-old start-up founder Lee Jun-seok who has never served as lawmaker as its new leader. With the election, Lee became the youngest leader of any major political party in the nation’s democratic history, indicating the much-debated generational shift in South Korean politics and reflecting growing calls for change. Following the election, polls indicated a rise in public support for the conservative party. 

In his acceptance speech, Lee said the PPP’s task now was to win the presidential elections set for March of next year and to end the divisive type of politics that has dominated South Korean political culture for decades. Lee himself is too young to seek presidency as the constitution requires presidential candidates to be at least 40 years old. 

Soaring housing prices and deepened inequality have contributed to a decline in President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party’s popularity in recent local elections, exposing young voters as a crucial voter block. [Nikkei Asia] [Bloomberg] [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

 

8 June 2021

North Korea: Investigations into UN sanctions violations 

(nm) According to reports, both the South Korean government and the United Nations are currently considering investigations into allegations that two oil tankers previously owned by South Korean companies were transferred to North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions. 

The allegations were raised in a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) which is part of the US-American think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies. A South Korean government official last week disclosed that the government and related agencies would examine the case more closely. Pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions, any member state is prohibited from the “direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer” of “any new or used vessels,” unless previous approval by the Security Council had been obtained. It yet remains to be seen if the South Korean companies knew that the tankers would ultimately end up in the North Korean fleet. [AMTI] [Korea Herald]

According to a report by the news platform Radio Free Asia, a spokesperson of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged the submission of relevant information to the United Nations Security Council Sanctions Committee, saying that allegations brought to the attention of the committee would be investigated. Norway is currently chairing the committee. [Korea Times]

 

8 June 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Seoul court rejects wartime forced labour lawsuit against Japanese companies 

(nm) A Seoul district court this week dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 85 victims of wartime forced labour against 16 Japanese companies. In its decision, the court referred to the 1965 Korea-Japan Settlements Claims Agreement which normalized ties between the two nations and covered victims’ rights to damages, saying proceeding with the case could breach international law as the settlement could not be exercised through lawsuits. 

This week’s decision came as a surprise as South Korea’s Supreme Court had ruled in a similar case in 2018 that the 1965 agreement did not terminate the victims’ right to seek reparation individually, leading to diplomatic tensions with Japan. In April, the same Seoul court had meted out a decision which similarly rejected a compensation lawsuit by 20 victims of wartime sexual forced labour against Japanese companies. [Nikkei Asia] [SCMP] [Korea Herald 1]

After the ruling, South Korea’s foreign ministry announced it remains open to discussing solutions on the issue of wartime forced labour with Japan, taking into consideration the court rulings, victims’ rights, and Korea-Japan relations. [Korea Herald 2]

The ruling comes amid strained relations between the two nations. Last week, the foreign ministry had called in a Japanese diplomat over an official map on the Tokyo Olympic website depicting the islands of Dokdo/Takeshima as part of Japanese territory. The conflict had led to some calling for a South Korean boycott of this year’s Olympics and further added to economic and historic tensions. [Korea Herald 3]

8 June 2021

South Korea-US relations: US follows up on closer cooperation after May summit  

(nm) Two weeks after the much-anticipated May 21 Biden-Moon summit in Washington, the United States are reaffirming their commitment to strengthened relations with South Korea through a string of pledges. Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on NATO members to deepen their cooperation with South Korea, as well as with other partners in the region including Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. [Korea Times]

Meanwhile, the US Pentagon also affirmed that US commitment to the defense of South Korea remains unaffected by the recent lifting of the Revised Missile Guidelines which had limited South Korean missile development since 1979, partly to avoid tensions with China and Russia. Some 28,500 troops that Washington still retains in South Korea are not affected by the lift. [Korea Herald 1] [Nikkei Asia]

Furthermore, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong had also met with three visiting US lawmakers in order to discuss bilateral ties. [Korea Herald 2]

 

8 June 2021

South Korea: Military culture in limelight amid suicide of officer

(nm) Following the death of a member of South Korea’s air force after she had been allegedly sexually harassed by a colleague, President Moon Jae-in has called for a complete overhaul of the nation’s military culture. Air force chief Lee Seong-yong further stepped down one day after a master sergeant had been arrested on charges of molesting and injuring his female colleague.

Reacting to the public outcry sparked by her death, Moon also ordered a separate task force be created to overhaul military culture and urged the National Assembly to pass laws that would allow soldiers to be tried in regular civilian appeals courts by removing the high military court. He further ordered an investigation into how the case had been handled by the air force and military prosecutors.  [Korea Herald 1] [SCMP] [Korea Herald 2]

 

8 June 2021

South Korea: Interim results of investigation into real estate scandal published

(nm) South Korea’s government has published the interim results of its probe into a massive public housing scandal that had infuriated South Korean politics after becoming public in March. Authorities have arrested 34 and referred 529 people to prosecution in relation to allegations that public employees had used insider information to purchase land prior to it being publicly declared for development. The investigation covered 646 cases and more than 2,800 public officials, local civil servants, and their families. Among those arrested are the former head of a local government and a local assembly member, while a local court issued an arrest warrant for a former executive of the state-run Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) which finds itself at the centre of the scandal. The government further seized about 82 million USD in illicit gains from speculative investments. 

Amid soaring housing prices, the scandal and ensuing public outcry are also seen as having contributed to recent dire poll and election results of the ruling Democratic Party (DP). Following the interim results, the DP this week demanded that twelve of its lawmakers leave the party. [Korea Herald 1] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Times 1]

Reacting to the scandal and interim results, the government this week announced it would undertake a major reform effort of the housing corporation, leading to a 20 percent cut of the company’s workforce. The cut intends to streamline the company’s organizational structures, including by abolishing and transferring some of the non-core administrative functions. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times 2]

 

1 June 2021

International climate summit: Global leaders commit to inclusive green recovery 

(nm) South Korea hosted the mostly virtual two-day international climate summit P4G Seoul Summit this week, bringing together foreign leaders and international organizations to discuss inclusive green recovery and paths toward carbon neutrality. The summit was concluded by the Seoul Declaration in which participating parties committed to limit temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius in line with the Paris Agreement and to reduce dependency on coal-powered energy generation. It further recognized the impact of the climate crisis on economic, social, security, and human-rights related issues. 

P4G stands for the initiative Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 which seeks to find inclusive solutions to environmental challenges. This year’s participants included representatives from the United States, the European Union, Thailand, the International Monetary Fund, and Denmark. Colombia plans to host the next summit in 2023. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Herald] [Yonhap]

Just before the summit, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had also agreed to strengthen ties through a “comprehensive green strategic partnership,” marking Seoul’s first bilateral green partnership with another country. [Korea Times 2]

1 June 2021

South Korea: Vice justice minister offers to resign 

(nm) South Korean Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu abruptly offered to resign last week following controversy over an unpunished assault against a taxi driver that had happened last November. In a statement issued to reporters, Lee explained his decision saying the ministry needed a “new worker” who could help the justice ministry reinvent itself for the remaining year of the Moon government. Lee had been appointed in early December and soon faced criticism as he allegedly got away unpunished following the incident in November. Last week, prosecutors called him in for questioning. They had also been investigating if the case had followed due process norms as allegations emerged that Lee further demanded the driver to destroy evidence of the incidence. [Korea Times] [Yonhap]

1 June 2021

South Korea: Plans to revise citizenship pathway for children faces opposition  

(nm) The planned revision of a law allowing children of permanent foreign residents to more easily obtain Korean citizenship has triggered protests in South Korea as some people believe the revision aims to benefit the Chinese community. Under a draft of the revised Nationality Act, children under the age of 6 will be immediately eligible for citizenship, while those aged 7 and above will have to have lived in South Korea for a minimum of five years. A petition challenging the draft has garnered more than 317,000 signatures, claiming potentially benefitting Chinese people already enjoyed “many rights” and that the measure was inappropriate for tackling domestic demographic issues. [Korea Times]

 

1 June 2021

South Korea: Young politician wins primary for opposition party leader, indicating generational shift 

(nm) As calls are growing for a generational shift in South Korean politics, both the conservative main opposition People Power Party (PPP) and the liberal ruling Democratic Party (DP) are stepping up reform efforts. 

Based on two opinion polls of the general public and party members, the PPP recently selected five out of eight candidates for its chairposition, with 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok emerging as winner of the primary. Lee, a reform advocate with no prior experience as lawmaker, had been regarded as an underdog until polls preceding the primary indicated strong support, especially by young voters. The PPP will pick its new chairperson in a party convention on June 11. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

Following the primary, calls for reform efforts are also growing within the DP which had to face dire poll results in recent weeks. Last week, three-term lawmaker Lee Kwang-jae officially announced his bid for presidency, stating: “We need a political revolution in which a shift in the times, generation and players takes place,” similarly alluding to young voters. In addition to Lee, two more DP members have officially declared their bids so far. [Korea Times 3] [Korea Times 4]

1 June 2021

Philippines to get Russian, South Korean, Turkish armament

(lp) The Philippines will get 90 Russian-made troop carriers, as announced by the Philippine Department of National Defense. The two countries also seek to strengthen their ties in the areas of vaccine, defense, space and energy cooperation. Moreover, the Department of National Defense (DND) will buy patrol vessels, submarines from South Korea for the Philippine Navy. And the Philippine Air Force expects to receive a first pair of Turkish T-129 attack helicopters in September. [Philippine Information Agency] [Inquirer] [Manila Bulletin]

 

1 June 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Renewed tensions over islands trigger calls for Tokyo Olympics boycott  

(nm) A national petition as well as prominent South Korean politicians are exerting pressure to boycott the Tokyo Olympics set to begin July 23, as Tokyo remains firm on the Korea-controlled Dokdo islets. An official map on the International Olympic Committee’s website indicates the islets, which Japan claims and calls Takeshima, as part of Japan’s territory, fuelling historic tensions over the disputed islands. The Korean Foreign Ministry has been urging Tokyo to delete the islets from the map altogether ever since they appeared as part of Japan’s territory in July 2019, but Tokyo had responded only by making the dots less visible. Chung Eui-yong, Korea’s foreign minister, indicated last week that Japan’s “wrong behaviour” would not be tolerated, while former Prime Minister and leader of the ruling Democratic Party Lee Nak-yon also wrote that the government would “have to take stern measures by alle means possible, including the Olympic boycott.” A petition calling for boycotting the Olympics should Tokyo not delete the islets from the map was signed by 32,000 people.  [SCMP] [Korea Herald]

The dispute adds to existing tensions over historic wartime issues in relation to Japan’s colonisation of the Korean peninsula and trade issues. 

 

1 June 2021

Inter-Korean ties: North Korea breaks silence on Moon-Biden summit, warning of arms race  

(nm) North Korea has broken its silence on the May 21 Biden-Moon summit this week, criticizing the US decision to lift restrictions on South Korea’s ability to build ballistic missiles and warning of an arms race on the Korean Peninsula. After having lifted the payload limit on South Korean missiles in a prior decision, Biden and Moon had used the summit to announce the termination of the so-called missile guidelines which had been limiting the range of South Korean missiles to 800 km. Some observers believe support for Seoul’s military capabilities is part of US efforts to effectively counter China in the region. The statements published by Korean state media were, however, attributed to “an international affairs critic,” indicating that Pyongyang has yet to develop an official response. Some experts interpret this as leaving room open for dialogue with the US. [Korea Times 1]

The Biden administration had announced the completion of its North Korea policy review in April, saying that it would take a “calibrated” and “practical” approach, followed by the summit with Moon in which both sides stressed the need for diplomatic dialogue by building on the 2018 Singapore Agreement. South Korea has recently tried to build up its defense capabilities as the North had launched its first missile test in a year in March. A recent report by the US think tank 38 North also finds signs of ongoing activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. [The New York Times 1] [SCMP] [38 North]

Following the lift, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced it would push to develop and diversify the nation’s military systems, including investments in its space system. Last week, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also visited Seoul to declare Germany’s support in terminating the arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Seoul’s Unification Ministry, meanwhile, also said it would seek to restore communication and dialogue with the North, based on the conditions created by the summit [Korea Herald] [n-tv, German] [Korea Times 2]

For why the specific diplomatic route chosen by the US and South Korea may be miscalculated, see this opinion piece in [New York Times 2]. 

If you are interested in a more detailed analysis of the US-South Korean alliance after the summit,  see [The Diplomat] or [Council on Foreign Relations].

25 May 2021

South Korea-US relations: Moon and Biden hold summit 

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden met for their first bilateral summit in Washington last Friday, concluding a five-day visit by Moon to the US. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate on issues including North Korea, Covid-19 vaccination efforts, semiconductor manufacturing, and regional peace and security. They further agreed to terminate guidelines restricting Seoul’s missile development. However, no stance was taken on how to deal with China and the related issue of South Korea’s cooperation with the Quad alliance. 

Biden and Moon secured partnerships in their Covid-19 vaccination efforts and in the semiconductor industry. South Korea agreed to produce US-developed vaccines, while the US will help to vaccinate about 500,000 South Korean service members. South Korea has recently struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses for its population and had first been left out as the US sought cooperation with other allies, including the Quad forum. In the business realm, they further agreed to cooperate in the electric battery and semiconductor industry “through the promotion of increased mutual investments as well as research and development cooperation.” Four major South Korean companies, including Samsung, simultaneously announced plans to invest about 39 billion USD in the US. Biden is currently seeking to strengthen US domestic chip production amid growing technological challenges from China and a global chip shortage during the pandemic, which turned the widely-used technology into a topic of geopolitical salience. [Korea Times 1] [Nikkei Asia 1]

On China, both sides avoided any direct remarks, but the joint statement made references to peace in the Taiwan Strait, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and beyond, as well as a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” 

China reacted to the statement on Monday with Chinese Ambassador Xing Haiming claiming Beijing was aware it was targeting China, while China’s Foreign Ministry condemned it for interfering in domestic affairs and violating basic norms governing international relations. 

Seoul is facing the sensitive task of balancing US and Chinese interests due to their strategic and economic importance to Korea, respectively. Although some observers believe the statement indicates a tip in Washington’s favour, others believe it shows that Washington and Seoul have yet to agree on how to deal with China. [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald] [Nikkei Asia 2]

Alongside the summit, Moon also visited a White House Medal of Honor ceremony, honoring a Korean War veteran and highlighting the countries’ longstanding military alliance. On Thursday, Moon further held talks with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on how to promote bilateral relations. After a meeting with US Vice President Kamala Harris, Moon reaffirmed his country will be standing with the US in “defending liberal democratic order,” strengthening the alliance while avoiding a tough stance on China. [Korea Times 3] [Korea Times 4] [Nikkei Asia 3]

The full text of the Moon-Biden joint statement is available at [Korea Times 4]. 

For commentaries on the importance of the US-South Korea alliance, please visit [Carnegie Endowment] and [The Diplomat].

 

25 May 2021

South Korea: All local governments pledge carbon neutrality by 2050 

(nm) All local governments of South Korea have pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, promising steps to implement climate-friendly plans in phases, to explore projects that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to enhance their adaptability to the climate crisis. Federal Environment Minister Han Jeoung-ae celebrated the declaration, saying it marked the first time globally that every local government of a country made such commitments, adding carbon neutrality could not be achieved without the involvement of local governments. He also vowed to lend technical and financial support. 

The declaration marks the beginning of the “Green Future Week” which leads up to the 2021 P4G Seoul Summit, an international event hosted by South Korea that seeks to foster market-based partnerships that support sustainable and green growth. In October 2020, President Moon Jae-in had already declared his country’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. [Korea Herald] [IISD]

25 May 2021

South Korea: Ruling party’s real estate policy exposes internal division  

(nm) South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party (DP) is facing internal opposition as the party’s new leadership introduced its revised real estate policy, exposing internal party divisions. The DP’s new special real estate committee is currently considering measures to lower property tax burdens on homeowners and to loosen lending rules for first-time homebuyers, triggering opposition by some DP members who criticize that the measures are intended to “cut taxes for the rich.” 

After crushing defeats in recent local elections which are seen as key barometers for next year’s presidential election, the DP is currently seeking to reattract voters. Amid soaring housing prices and a major real estate scandal, housing policies have often been blamed for the defeats. [Korea Herald]

In a different bid to attract young voters, politicians also hotly debate South Korea’s mandatory military service which is seen by some as unjustly targeting young men without proper recognition or compensation, leading to especially dire poll results in this voter group. In April, one DP lawmaker suggested introducing female conscription in order to promote gender equality. According to a recent statement by South Korea’s gender equality minister, the debate had, however, inflamed divisions between the sexes rather than narrowed social gaps. [SCMP]

18 May 2021

South Korea requests IMO involvement in conflict over Fukushima wastewater

(nm) South Korea is stepping up efforts to explore means of cooperation with regards to the planned release of wastewater from Japan’s Fukushima power plant into the sea. Last week, the Ocean Ministry announced it had asked the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to examine ways of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear monitoring body, to ensure the safety of the release. Additionally, a media report said last week that Seoul is seeking to establish a joint consultative body with Tokyo in order to discuss the release. Tokyo is allegedly reviewing and leaning toward accepting the proposal. 

In April, Japan had finalized its decision to discharge the wastewater of the wrecked Fukushima power plant, starting in 2023. The decision triggered fierce protest by neighbouring countries over an alleged lack of proper consultations and concerns over the safety of the proceedings. Tokyo claims the release is inevitable as storage space will run out in 2022 and says it will be safe considering the water will be filtered and diluted. 

The plans had only added to already strained ties between the nations over wartime issues and economic tensions. According to diplomatic sources, South Korea’s chief of intelligence had recently visited Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in order to improve relations. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]

 

18 May 2021

South Korea: Moon’s PM and cabinet ministers appointment raises criticism 

(nm) Last week’s appointment of a new Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers by President Moon Jae-in was met with criticism by South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party (PPP). 

New Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum’s term officially started last Friday after his conformation bill had been passed by the National Assembly on Thursday night amid fierce objections by the PPP against the government’s pick for three cabinet positions. The nominations for oceans, science, and land ministers had come under fire due to alleged ethical missteps involving their families. While Moon’s pick for ocean minister has since resigned, science minister Lim Hye-sook and land Minister Noh Yeong-ouk have been appointed. In addition to Lim and Noh, two other minister nominees received parliamentary approval last week, trade minister Moon Sung-wook and labor minister An Kyung-duk. The appointments are part of assumingly the last great Cabinet reshuffle in the Moon administration which had been announced last month. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald

According to a report by Amnesty International, concerns are also growing about the risk of arbitrary detentions of government critics as had happened prior to the 2020 national parliamentary elections. You can read the full report [here].

If you wish to follow the 2021 presidential elections more closely, you might also find the UBC blog [Mongolia Focus] of interest. 

 

18 May 2021

Sri Lanka secures $500 million concessional loan from South Korea

(lm) Sri Lanka on May 10 announced it had secured $500 million in concessional loans from South Korea after both sides signed a new Framework Arrangement for a period of two years. Provided by South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF), the loans come at a concessional interest rate of 0.15 to 0.20 percent, repayable over 40 years with a 10-year grace period. [NewsFirst]

The announcement comes a month after Sri Lanka had secured a long-awaited $500 million loan from the China Development Bank, the second tranche of a $1 billion bailout Colombo sought from Beijing last year. [AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2]

Earlier, Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves had dropped to $4.05 billion, their lowest in over a decade, with tourism plummeting following the onset of COVID-19. Public coffers also took a massive hit as export earnings and foreign remittances dropped drastically due to the pandemic. The dwindling foreign reserves also caused the currency to plunge to 203 Sri Lankan rupees to the dollar, a record low.

 

18 May 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korean court rejects injunction request on sales of Kim Il-sung memoir 

(nm) A Seoul court last week rejected the injunction request filed by several NGOs seeking to ban the sales and distribution of a memoir by North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung. 

In April, a small South Korean publisher had made available all eight volumes of Kim Il-Sung’s memoir “With the Century” for the first time in the South, which depicts Kim as a heroic fighter resisting Japanese atrocities during the 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula. Materials like the memoir are deemed illegal under a South Korean national security law that restricts the distribution of North Korean propaganda in the South. In 2011, the nation’s Supreme Court had explicitly called the very same book “an item of expression that benefits the enemy,” deeming it illegal. The now-rejected injunction request had claimed the sales and distribution of the book infringed on constitutional rights to human dignity, harming the basic order of free democracy. That claim was, however, dismissed by the Seoul Western District Court which argued that the applicants’ rights to human dignity had not been infringed and that they could not claim the exclusive rights of the Korean people. [Korea Herald 1] [Wall Street Journal

The Moon administration is currently seeking to decrease tensions with the North. This week, a unification ministry spokesperson expressed disappointment over Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw from a World Cup qualifier set to take place in the South next month, after it had been confirmed that the North would withdraw from the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup altogether. The event had been regarded as an opportunity for inter-Korean engagement through sports. [Korea Herald 2]

18 May 2021

Expectations grow around this week’s US-South Korea summit 

(nm) Expectations are rising around this week’s May 21 summit between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and his US-American counterpart Joe Biden in Washington. It is only the second face-to-face summit of the Biden administration after Japanese Prime Minister had visited in April, stressing the importance of the Asian alliance for the US administration. According to experts, the summit will likely focus on how to revive diplomatic efforts with North Korea, facilitating inter-Korean peace, how to deal with an increasingly assertive China, semiconductor chip investment, and vaccine cooperation. 

In relation to North Korea, the US had announced the completion of its North Korea policy review on 30 April. Although details of it still remain undisclosed, officials have outlined a “calibrated, practical” approach that is open to diplomacy and focussed on the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula rather than “a grand bargain […] [or] strategic patience,” a strategy welcomed by several nations, including South Korea. However, some experts also expect Moon to try to get Biden to be more flexible on North Korea, including supporting the Singapore agreement forged between former President Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 that seeks to establish US-North Korea relations. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2

An equally sensitive issue is US and South Korean engagement with China and the related rumoured possibility of Seoul joining the US-led security alliance denominated the Quad. The alliance compromised of the US, Japan, India, and Australia has recently been promoted by Washington as an informal network for cooperation, suggesting that Korea’s participation might not target China. Last week, South Korean ambassador to the US told reporters that Seoul was reviewing possibilities of cooperation with the alliance’s working groups on vaccinations, emerging technologies, and climate change. [Korea Times 3]

Other topics might include cooperation in the semiconductor chip industry and in vaccination efforts. South Korea has recently struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses and officials in both countries have hinted at a possible partnership. Additionally, the US is currently exploring ways to regain control of the global chipmaker industry which, following a major shortage during the pandemic, has gained considerable geopolitical salience. South Korean manufacturers are considering large investments in the US, while Moon is said to be accompanied by a delegation of important industry representatives. Last week, the Moon government additionally announced large-scale investment plans in its national chipmaker industry.  [Korea Times 4] [The Diplomat] [Korea Herald][Nikkei Asia]

11 May 2021

South Korea-Japan relations: Foreign ministers agree on ”future-oriented” bilateral relations 

(nm) More than twenty years after Japan and South Korea had promised to build a “future-oriented relationship” based on cooperation and historical reconciliation in the Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan], the two nations have yet again agreed to establish “future-oriented” bilateral ties. In their first in-person meeting and on the sidelines of the G7 summit in London, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong of South Korea and his counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi agreed to closely cooperate for the peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world as well as in consideration of their efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Relations between the two nations have recently been frosty and plummeted after Japan had announced its plans to release Fukushima wastewater into the ocean, with the South Korean government claiming the decision had been made without full consultation with neighbouring countries. The issue only added to historic tensions over wartime sexual slavery, a recent South Korean Supreme Court ruling ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labour, in addition to Japanese export controls on key materials vital for South Korea’s semiconductor and display industry.

The latest talks, however, also provide a glimmer of hope with both sides stressing the earnest wish for communication. The United States is also currently seeking to bring the two sides together in order to trilaterally cooperate on North Korean denuclearization efforts and counter China. In a prior meeting, also on the sidelines of the G7 summit, the three respective foreign ministers had similarly reaffirmed their commitment to concerted trilateral cooperation to dismantle Pyongyang’s weapons programme and to push for the adherence to UN Security Council resolutions. [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Times]

 

11 May 2021

South Korea and Britain agree on vaccine cooperation, South Korea and Israel to sign FTA 

(nm) In talks held one day after the G7 summit in London, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Great Britain agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation in order to jointly tackle climate change and the fair distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. They further vowed to lend each other support in hosting their respective forums on climate change this year and to faithfully implement a post-Brexit continuity free trade agreement signed in 2019. [Korea Herald]

This week, Israel will also sign a free trade agreement with Seoul, the first such agreement with an Asian market, according to Israel’s foreign minister. Similar agreements between Israel and China, Vietnam, and India are currently being negotiated. [Reuters

For a pessimistic analysis of British engagement in the Indo-Pacific amid China’s rise, please see this recent opinion piece in the [SCMP].

 

11 May 2021

South Korea: Ruling Democratic Party kicks off presidential race, seeking to attract young voters 

(nm) Amid dire poll results and defeats in the recent Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) has kicked off its national election campaign with two-term lawmaker Park Yong-jin announcing his bid for presidency on Sunday. In a press conference, the 50-year-old referred to younger voters who have recently turned away from the DPK and President Moon Jae-in, calling for a “generational change in politics.” Park is the first candidate to announce his bid for presidency, with others expected to make their candidacy official in the coming weeks. In addition to Park, the ruling party’s so-called Big Three, Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, former Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon, and former Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun are also considering declaring their candidacy. 

In a press conference held at Cheong Wa Dae to celebrate the fourth anniversary of his inauguration, Moon also addressed the voters’ “severe punishment” in recent elections, leading him to agree to modify some of his real estate policies. Failure to curb skyrocketing housing prices, a row of corruption scandals involving government officials, as well as a massive public housing scandal involving the state housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) have been blamed for the DKP’s weak results in the April mayoral elections. Especially young voters and young men in particular have been shown to have turned away from the ruling party, as indicated by polls. In order to mitigate political costs, some DPK lawmakers have recently argued in favour of amendments to the mandatory military service system, including cash benefits, or ending it altogether.  
[Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Herald]  

11 May 2021

South Korea: Ex senior prosecutor handed down three-year jail term

(dql/nm) In the high-profile Lime Asset management scandal, involving former and incumbent government officials and politicians, former senior prosecutor Yun Gap-geun was sentenced to three years in prison for bribery.  

The court found him guilty of accepting about 220 million won (196,250 USD) in kickbacks from the former Lime Asset vice president Lee Jong-pil in 2019, in return for using his influence as then lawyer and an opposition party official to persuade the chief executive of Woori Bank, one of South Korea’s four largest banks, to resume sale of Lime funds that had been suspended amid allegations of Lime’s financial irregularities.

Lime Asset, formerly South Korea’s largest hedge fund manager, had been investigated over its cover-up of massive losses incurred by the company’s fraudulent fund product and subsequent suspension of fund redemption worth an estimated 1.6 trillion won. In January Lee was sentenced to 15 years in prison for deceiving investors by concealing the massive those losses. [Korea Times] [Korea Herald 1

In a different case, an independent panel this week recommended the indictment of Seoul prosecution chief Lee Sung-yoon on charges of abuse of power. The panel had been created to review the validity of the ongoing probe, after the Supreme Prosecutors Office accepted Lee’s request for outside legality review in April. Lee is currently being investigated over allegations that he unduly used his power to block an inquiry into the allegedly illegal exit ban imposed on a former senior official. Lee has denied the allegations. The panel’s recommendations are not binding. [Korea Herald 2]

11 May 2021

EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership

(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]

Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]

Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.

Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.

For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].

11 May 2021

Inter-Korean relations: North Korean defector questioned over violating leaflet ban  

(nm) After North Korean defector and activist Park Sang-hak had claimed to have sent about 500,000 leaflets into the North by balloon, in violation of a new South Korean anti-leaflet law, he was questioned by the Seoul police this week, after his office had been raided the previous week. His claim had led to further tensions between the North and the South as Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, called the alleged launches an “intolerable provocation,” warning of retaliation.

Park is the head of the defectors’ group Fighters for a Free North Korea which supposedly has engaged in leaflet actions more than 60 times since the beginning of records in 2010. Late in April, he had claimed to have sent a total of ten balloons with approximately 500,00 leaflets, 500 booklets, and 5000 1USD notes toward the North in order to, according to him, deliver the truth about South Korean society, politics, and liberal democracy to the North Korean people.

Sending propaganda leaflets across the border is banned under the revised Development of Inter-Korean Relations Act. Park is the first person to be investigated since the legislation, which has been criticized by human rights groups as limiting freedom of speech, took effect in March. He vowed his group would keep sending leaflets into the North, even if he should be imprisoned. [The Guardian] [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

4 May 2021

South Korea: Advancing military radar technology

(dql) South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development, the country’s national agency for research and development in defense technology, announced that it has completed the development of a new high power and high sensitivity radar technology capable of detecting stealth fighter jets. In a thinly veiled reference to North Korea, the agency added that the new technology will be used for wide area surveillance to monitor military aircraft operated by neighboring countries near the Korean Peninsula. [Yonhap]

4 May 2021

South Korea-Vietnam relations: Foreign Ministers discuss bilateral ties

(dql) South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held phone talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Bui Thanh Son on Wednesday to discuss bilateral ties and regional issues. Both ministers agreed to cooperate on promoting the strategic cooperative partnership of the two nations as next year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties. The top diplomats assessed that the two nations have continued bilateral trade and investment despite the COVID-19 pandemic and agreed to continue cooperation to facilitate trips by essential workers including business people. 

In particular, Chung expressed concerns over Japan’s planned release of radioactive water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean. The ministry said that Son, in turn, stressed transparency, responsibility and safety with regard to the marine environment. [KBS]

4 May 2021

South Korea-Japan-US relations: Military chiefs discuss cooperation on North Korea

(nm) South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Won In-choul and his counterparts Gen. Mark Milley of the US and Gen. Koji Yamazaki of Japan held trilateral talks in Hawaii last week, affirming their commitment to strengthen their cooperation in response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programmes. They further discussed the “importance of promoting a rules-based international order in the region.” 

During the meeting, the US official asserted the US would “[remain] prepared to provide extended deterrence,” and reaffirmed its “ironclad commitment” to defending the US allies. General Won emphasized the importance of the cooperation for the peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as in the Northeast Asia region, while Japan’s official stressed cooperation regarding the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions. [Korea Times]

The talks were held on the sidelines of a change-of-command ceremony at the US Indo-Pacific Command, with Navy Adm. John Aquilino succeeding outgoing commander Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, and amid efforts of the Biden administration to re-strengthen the US alliance with Japan and South Korea to counter China in Asia. 

Davidson, who looks back on a 39-year long career in the US Navy, said during the ceremony: ““Make no mistake, the Communist Party of China seeks to supplant the idea of a free and open international order with a new order, one with Chinese characteristics, one where Chinese national power is more important than international law.” [Korea Herald] [Stars and Stripes

4 May 2021

South Korea-US relations: Moon-Biden summit set for May 21 

(nm) South Korea and the US have confirmed that the countries’ Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden will meet on May 21 in Washington to discuss bilateral ties and cooperation. It is the second in-person visit of a foreign leader during Biden’s president, after Japanese Prime Minister Suga visited the White House in April, signaling the elevated role of the two East Asian countries for Biden’s China policy.

Although a detailed schedule has not yet been set, Moon and Biden are expected to have an in-depth discussion on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the nations’ stances towards China, furthering economic and trade ties, as well as joint responses to global challenges such as the Covid-19 pandemic. 

When asked about the thornier issue of the possibility of Seoul joining the US-led regional security alliance denominated the Quad, a Cheong Wa Dae official maintained Seoul could participate in such formats as long as it complies with the principles of “transparency, openness and inclusiveness” and as it abides by international norms. Regarding speculations that Moon might request US support for Seoul’s vaccination efforts, the official responded the two sides have yet to fine-tune the pandemic-related agenda. [The New York Times] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Herald]

In a latest development, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and his US counterpart Antony Blinken this Monday also agreed on close cooperation in their efforts to achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, in bilateral talks at the margins of a G7 gathering and shortly after the Biden administration completed its North Korea policy review. The ministers also agreed to try to find common ground between their governments’ regional policies and to collaborate on Covd-19 vaccination efforts and climate change. [Korea Times]

4 May 2021

South Korea: Defector group launches anti-North Korea leaflets action

(dql) An activist group in South Korea headed by a defector from North Korea confirmed that it had in defiance of a recent legal ban released balloons into North Korea which carried half a million leaflets decrying the government in Pyongyang as “hereditary dictatorship”, along with 500 booklets, and 5,000 one-dollar bills. 

The action marks the first ‘leaflet’ protest against Kim Jong-un’s regime since a ban came into force in March, amid fears that such protest actions could provoke North Korea and endanger people living near the border. The law which provides a maximum prison term of three years or a fine of 30 million won (27,400 USD), was enacted in December after North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office in the border town of Kaesong last June in response to Seoul’s failure to prevent an anti-Pyongyang leaflet action. 

The law has been criticized by human rights activists accusing the South Korean government of curtailing free speech at the behest of Pyongyang. [Korea Herald] [Reuters] [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]

4 May 2021

South Korea: Supreme Court upholds revocation of parliamentary mandate  

(nm) South Korea’s Supreme Court last week rejected the request of five former National Assembly lawmakers the now-disbanded leftist Unified Progressive Party (UPP) to restore their status as lawmakers. According to the court, the decision was a “logical consequence” considering that it was required to exclude members of the party from the national parliament after the Constitutional Court had decided on the disbandment of the party. 

In an unprecedented decision in 2014, the Constitutional Court had ruled to disband the left-wing UPP, stating the party was organizing activities with the hidden goal of establishing a North Korea-like communist state. According to the court, the party’s lawmakers had to lose their seats in order to “secure the effectiveness of the disbanding of the party,” a consequence not expressively stipulated in relevant laws. 

The Supreme Court now confirmed the decision but equally asserted it would be more appropriate to stipulate such consequences in laws. [Korea Times]

 

4 May 2021

South Korea: Ruling Democratic Party seeks reform amid dire poll results 

(nm) The ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) last week elected Rep. Song Young-gil, a five-term lawmaker and head of the National Assembly Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, as its new chairman. Song is seen as being tasked with launching reform efforts within the party, ten months ahead of the 2022 presidential election and weeks after the party’s crushing defeats in the April mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan, the country’s two largest cities.  

Speaking at a press conference at the National Assembly, he particularly stressed the need to “strengthen democratic communication” within the party as well as to give more attention to young voters. Policy-wise, he vowed to focus on stabilizing the real estate market in addition to increasing the supply of Covid-19 vaccines. 

The DPK’s current political crisis is particularly attributed to failed attempts to stabilize the housing market, adding to a major real estate scandal involving public officials, as well as the delays in Covid-19 vaccine supplies. Both the DPK and President Moon Jae-in’s public approval ratings are currently at their lowest ever since Moon’s inauguration back in 2017, at roughly 30%. Especially young voters seem to have turned against the ruling party, as suggested by the by-elections exit polls. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [SCMP]

4 May 2021

South Korea: Parliament passes legislation addressing conflicts of interest

(nm) South Korea’s National Assembly last week approved an anti-conflict-of-interest bill which prohibits public officials, including lawmakers, from using information related to their professional responsibilities to conduct transactions for personal gains.

Under the new law, any of the approximately 1.9 million officials subject to the law who wishes to conduct personal transactions within the domain of their public duties needs to declare the transactions in advance. Violations may be sanctioned criminally with a sentence of up to seven years or a maximum fine of about 63.000 USD, in addition to other disciplinary measures. 

Additionally, the law imposes new regulations concerning family connections at public agencies, companies and subsidiaries, disclosure obligations related to personal and family-related wealth and previous private sector activity for lawmakers and related to personal property transactions for public sector employees involved in real estate or land purchase operations. 

The passage of the bill comes against the backdrop of a massive land speculation scandal involving employees at the state-run housing developer Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) as well as public officials accused of and now under investigation over charges of insider trading. [AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]

27 April 2021

South Korea: Appellate Court rules in favour of asylum seeker

(nm) The Seoul High Court last week ruled in favour of an asylum seeker, stating it was illegal for the Korean government to reject his refugee application simply because Korea was not his final destination. The decision was made on appeal from the Ministry of Justice after it had lost in a lower court last June. 

The man had arrived and tried to apply for refugee status at Incheon International Airport in February last year, on the basis of political persecution in his home country. The immigration service at the airport, however, rejected the application, stating a transfer passenger was ineligible to file a refugee application and that it should be filed at an immigration checkpoint instead. Following the rejection, the man stayed in the airport transit zone for 14 months. He is now staying in government-mandated 14-day self-isolation in an accommodation outside the airport. [Korea Times]

27 April 2021

South Korea-US-North Korea relations: Moon calls for cooperation to keep peninsula peace

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged the United States to kick-start negotiations with North Korea on denuclearization, which Moon called a “matter of survival” for the South, after two years of no diplomatic progress on the issue. In an interview with The New York Times, he also called on the US to cooperate with China on North Korea as well as on other issues, considering that escalating tensions between the US and China could undermine any effort of denuclearization.

The statements come at a crucial moment as US President Biden is expected to meet with Moon in Washington next month, while Pyongyang has resumed weapons tests. Additionally, the Biden administration is currently in the final stages of its North Korea policy review and has already started reversing some of the former administration’s foreign policy decisions. Moon also stated that former US President Trump had “failed to pull it through,” but equally voiced support for the 2018 Singapore agreement concluded between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un that sets out broad goals for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Moon further called for “gradual and phased” steps towards denuclearization and a “mutually trusted road map,” stressing the necessity of concessions and incentives – a strategy that several conservative critics have dismissed, arguing Pyongyang would simply undermine international sanctions.

Moon is currently in his final year of his presidency and scrambling to reclaim his diplomatic legacy. While playing a critical mediating role in the 2018 negotiations between the US and North Korea, his work has since mostly unraveled. In addition to stalling negotiations, his domestic approval ratings have also plummeted. [The New York Times]

This week also marks the third anniversary of the historic inter-Korean April summit held between Moon and Kim in April 2018. Then, the two leaders vowed to work for peace and reunification on the Korean Peninsula, the first such meeting between leaders of the two Koreas in eleven years. Both sides also signed the so-called Panmunjom Declaration – named after the border village where they met – in which they pledged to commit to the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula, improve inter-Korean relations, and officially end the 1950-53 Korean War. [Korea Herald 1]

In a different vein, the chief of the US Strategic Command last week affirmed the US was ready and able to deter any aggression from North Korea, stressing the US security commitment to the South. [Korea Herald 2].

For the case made for prioritizing engagement over pressure when dealing with North Korea, please see this piece by the US research programme [38 North]. 

 

27 April 2021

South Korea: Speculations around vaccine swap deal with US 

(nm) South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong last week revealed that Seoul had seriously discussed vaccine cooperation with the United States, including a “vaccine swap deal.” But as Washington sees little potential for sharing its stock yet, several media outlets speculated that the lack of support was related to Korea’s negative stance about joining the US-led Quad alliance. South Korea’s foreign ministry has since denied the reports.

South Korea is currently facing difficulties in securing enough vaccine doses. Meanwhile, a US State Department spokesperson explained last week that it had discussed vaccine arrangements with Canada, Mexico, and the Quad – the regional alliance involving Japan, India, and Australia – leading to the speculations. This week, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense dismissed claims that Korea and China had discussed the Quad alliance with “an unequivocal no.” The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post had reported earlier that Chinese officials had tried to find out from their South Korean counterparts if Seoul had any intention of joining the alliance. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times 1]

The speculations have highlighted the dilemma that South Korea faces, as China – the country’s largest trading partner – seems increasingly concerned over Seoul possibly joining the alliance that is seen by China as an “anti-China coalition.” There have been media reports in the past weeks claiming Washington had “strongly requested” South Korea to participate, but the Korean government has steadily denied such reports. The US is also seeking to build a stronger trilateral alliance with Japan and South Korea, which some see as a possible mini-Nato in Northeast Asia, challenging China’s influence in the region. [South China Morning Post] [Korea Times 2]

27 April 2021

South Korean court sides with Japan in wartime sexual slavery case 

(nm) A South Korean court last week ruled in favour of the Japanese government in a lawsuit filed by 20 plaintiffs, including eleven victims of wartime sexual slavery. The Seoul District Court dismissed the case citing sovereign immunity, contradicting an earlier court ruling from January that mandated the Japanese government to compensate the victims who are euphemistically referred to as comfort women. The plaintiffs announced they would appeal last week’s decision.

The rulings are part of the victims’ effort to hold the Japanese government legally accountable for forcing or luring young women into working in brothels run by the Japanese military before and during the Second World War. The January decision was seen as a landmark victory as it was the first case won by survivors. The judge argued Japan could not claim exemption from a case involving “anti-humanity acts systematically planned and perpetrated by the Japanese Empire.” Tokyo had rejected the ruling, referring to a 2015 agreement under which Japan acknowledged its responsibility, apologized, and set up a fund for the survivors. The judge in last week’s lawsuit, on the contrary, cited the agreement and warned that “diplomatic clashes become inevitable” if courts make exceptions from the principle of national sovereignty. 

Experts, however, have cautioned not to expect dramatic changes in Seoul-Tokyo relations which are at their lowest in years. This week, the foreign ministry again called in a Japanese diplomat due to renewed claims by Japan over the islands of Dokdo/Takeshima in its annual foreign policy paper. The United States are currently urging both countries to resolve their conflict and improve ties in order to effectively cooperate on the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, as well as on China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. [The New York Times] [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald]

27 April 2021

China, Japan, South Korea reaffirm commitment Biden-hosted climate summit

(dql) At last week’s virtual Leaders’ Climate Summit, hosted by US President Joe Biden and attended by 40 head of states and governments, China, Japan, and South Korea countries reaffirmed their commitment to fighting climate change.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s climate-related goals of peaking carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and becoming carbon neutral before 2060. He also announced that coal-fired power generation projects will be strictly controlled, while the increase in coal consumption will be strictly limited over the 14th Five-Year Plan period until 2025 before being phased down in the 15th Five-Year Plan period. [Xinhua]

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced new, more ambitious targets for Japan of reducing carbon emissions, now set at 46% from levels of 2013, a rise of more than 70% compared with the government’s previous goal of 26%. [Nikkei Asia]

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, vowed that South Korea will cease state-backed financing of coal-fired power plants overseas and announced plans to strengthen the country’s emissions reduction commitment under the Paris agreement by raising its current target to reduce emissions by 24.4% by 2030 from 2017 levels. [Bloomberg]

For a critical assessment of a rebound in global coal demand in 2021, with a rapid increase in coal-fired power generation in Asia accounting for 80% of the rebound, see the recently released Global Energy Review 2021 of the [International Energy Agency]. 

Hosting the summit, US President Biden underscored his administration’s efforts to reclaim US leadership in global climate governance following former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from international climate commitments.

Biden warned in his summit opening speech that climate action was “a moral imperative, an economic imperative,” but asserted that it was at the same time “an opportunity to create millions of good-paying jobs around the world in innovative sectors – jobs that bring greater quality of life, greater dignity, to the people who are performing those jobs in every nation.”

Confronted in the US with a resilient opposition of the Republican Party to his climate-related policies, this remark is directed not only towards the leaders attending the summit and the international community, but also and foremost towards his domestic critics.

As for the US emission reduction commitment, Biden said that the US seeks to have greenhouse gases dropped by 50% by the end of the decade from 2005 levels, almost nearly doubling the reductions that the Obama administration had committed to in the Paris climate accord. [White House] [The Hill]

27 April 2021

South Korea: Immunity of lawmaker lifted over suspicion of embezzlement

(dql) South Korea’s parliament approved a motion to lift the immunity of ruling Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Sang-jik to allow the prosecution to arrest him. 

Lee is the founder of the cash-strapped budget carrier Eastar Jet and currently under investigation on charges of embezzlement and breach of trust. He is accused of colluding with his nephew and senior company official, who was indicted in February over suspicion of causing about 38.47 million USD in financial damage to the airline by paying off long-term loans early and underselling company shares to a specific subsidiary. [Korea Herald]

20 April 2021

Indonesia, South Korea to deepen defense relation

(nd) Last week’s high-level visit by Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto to South Korea highlighted the increased security interests between the two countries. Although security ties date back and a defense agreement was signed in 2013, recently there is a push to boost relations and broaden cooperation to fields of cybersecurity. This forms part of a general South Korean policy to enhance ties to Southeast Asia.

At the center of the most recent trip was the rollout of the KF-X indigenous fighter jet, which Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attended virtually, highlighting the importance paid to the relationship. Still, the Indonesian approach to the KF-X/IF-X fighter jet program, which has been delayed due to issues on both sides, was not commented or clarified. [The Diplomat 1] Their presence none the less signify their continued commitment for acquisition, further diversifying Indonesia’s air force, whose majority is from USA and Russia. Due to its superior features, the acquisition of KF-21 might impact the future balance of military air power in Southeast Asia. In comparison to defense needs due to Indonesia’s geography and the plan to modernize the military, though, the acquisition is more likely aimed at preserving a status quo that initiating an arms race. [The Diplomat 2]

20 April 2021

Inter-Korean relations: South Korea seeks to toughen regulations on internet-based exchanges with North Korea 

(nm) South Korea’s unification ministry has announced plans to require its citizens to obtain government approval prior to exchanging digital files of films or books with North Koreans via the internet. The ministry had announced plans in January to revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act so that it would require prior approval from the ministry to exchange “immaterial things” via electronic tools, as well as via information and communication networks. Contrary to media reports, the law does not affect radio broadcasting toward the North, according to the ministry’s spokesperson. As the two nations have not signed an official peace treaty, it is currently necessary to have all inter-Korean contact approved in advance or reported to the government afterwards. [Korea Herald 1]

The announcement comes amid inter-Korean tensions over what has been called a quiet arms race that could jeopardize the delicate peace on the peninsula. Last week, North Korean outlet Tongil Voice denounced the South’s plans to purchase weapons as an attempt to accelerate preparations to invade the North. The report refers to Seoul’s decision to import 36 large US combat helicopters by 2028. [Korea Herald 2] [The New York Times]

 

20 April 2021

South Korea-US relations: Moon and Biden to hold talks late in May 

(nm) South Korean President Moon Jae-in will travel to Washington late next month to meet US President Joe Biden, following Biden’s invitation. The first summit between the two presidents is expected to focus on the denuclearization of North Korea and peace on the Korean peninsula, as the Biden administration is in the final stages of its North Korea policy review. In addition to denuclearization, the two parties are also expected to discuss strained relations between South Korea and Japan, responses to China’s increased assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as cooperation in other fields, including infrastructure spending and supply chains in key materials, such as semiconductors.

The meeting will be held about a month after last week’s talks between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as the Biden administration is seeking to strengthen its alliances in Asia. [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

South Korea and the United States are also currently in discussion on climate change related issues. Over the weekend, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong hosted a meeting with US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to review bilateral cooperation to fight climate change, following a meeting between Kerry and Chinese officials on the same issue and ahead of the multilateral virtual Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by Biden this week. Both sides affirmed the need for their countries to take leading roles in order to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Moon will participate in the Leaders’ summit on Friday which is meant to encourage countries to make stronger commitments, joining up to 40 world leaders. [Korea Herald 1] [Korea Herald 2] [Council on Foreign Relations]

20 April 2021

South Korea: Japan’s decision to release Fukushima wastewater triggers protests 

(nm) Adding to already strained relations between South Korea and Japan, the Japanese government last week decided to release wastewater stored in tanks at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean. The decision sparked a wave of protests in South Korea, both by civic groups and politicians.

In an immediate response, Seoul has called the decision “utterly intolerable” and summoned the Japanese Ambassador Koichi Aiboshi, while President Moon Jae-in ordered his aides to review the possibility of legal actions against the decision, including taking the case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. [The New York Times] [Korea Herald 1]

This week, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong, voiced more conciliatory tones, saying that South Korea had little reason to object to Tokyo’s plans if the release follows related International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. He also urged Japan to meet three conditions: providing sufficient scientific evidence and sharing information; having more consultations in advance; and guaranteeing South Korea’s participation in IAEA’s safety verification process. [Korea Times 1]

South Korea’s oceans minister nominee, added that the government is preparing “detailed countermeasures,” to protect the public from potential harm caused by the wastewater release, but made clear that the “top priority is to have the Japanese government retract the decision.” [Yonhap]

Meanwhile, several civic groups have also condemned Japan’s plans, with some of them protesting in front of the Japanese embassy. A group of progressive university students staged a four-day sit-in, while merchants warned of the effects on the Korean fisheries industry. [Korea Times 2] [Korea Herald 2]

20 April 2021

South Korea: Major Cabinet shake-up 

(nm) In a move, widely seen as is aimed at bringing new momentum to the administration of President Moon jae-in after the crushing defeat of the ruling Democratic Party (DP) in both mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan earlier this month, the President announced the nomination of five new ministers and a new prime minister.  The major reshuffle is expected to be the last of his presidency which will terminate next year.

Kim Boo-kyu, a former four-term lawmaker and minister of interior and safety, is nominated to replace Chung Sye-kyun as prime minister. Chung had resigned earlier last week in order to prepare for a presidential bid which could set off a high-stakes race to win the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) ticket to the presidential election. The 71-year-old has yet to officially declare his bid for presidency. [Korea Herald]

Moon also replaced five ministers, including Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum who has been come under pressure after a land speculation scandal involving civil servants at Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) had become public. Byeon had previously been head of LH. In addition to Byeon, Moon also nominated a new science minister, a new minister of trade, industry and energy, a new minister of employment and labour, as well as a new minister of oceans and fisheries. 

The nominees are yet to be confirmed by the National Assembly. Considering that most of the nominees hold prior bureaucratic experience, the reshuffle is seen by some as a move to ensure greater stability, rather than pushing for reform. [Korea Times]

20 April 2021

South Korea celebrates historic pro-democracy April Revolution 

(nm) On Monday, President Moon Jae-in visited a national cemetery in Seoul, paying tribute to the victims of the April 19 Revolution in 1960, to commemorate the historic pro-democracy movement which was led by students protesting vote-rigging in presidential elections. The two-week mass protest left 183 killed and 6,259 wounded in a police crackdown. Moon also urged the nation to “move toward a more mature democracy without stopping, while remembering the great history of democracy on this land.” [Korea Times]

20 April 2021

South Korea: Migrant workers’ period of stay extended amid labour shortages and travel restrictions 

(nm) South Korea’s justice and labour ministries have announced plans to extend the permits of migrant workers and migrant children in South Korea. Migrant workers whose period of staying and working in South Korea is set to expire this year are allowed to extend their stay for one year, an attempt to relieve labour shortages at small businesses, as well as in farming and fishing communities, and in reaction to Covid-19 induced travel restrictions. The special measure will affect about 115,000 non-professional employment and employment visa holders. 

In a separate decision, the justice ministry announced it would issue temporary stay permits to undocumented migrant children who are born and have lived in South Korea for more than 15 years. The policy will run until February 2025. It is limited to children who graduated from elementary school before February 28, 2021, middle or high school students will be granted other visa types. Additionally, the children’s parents will be given temporary stay permits. Approximately, 100-500 children are expected to be subject to the policy. [Korea Herald] [Korea Times]

 

13 April 2021

South Korea-US relations: Military cost sharing deal formally concluded

(dql) Ending years of contentious negotiations under former US President Donald Trump, the Biden administration and the South Korean government have formally signed the military cost-sharing deal. Under the 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a six-years deal, Seoul agrees to proportionally adjust its share of the cost burden according to increases defense expenditures in the years 2022 to 2025, with an estimated rise by 6.1% per year. For 2021, Seoul will also pay nearly 14% more while there will be increase for 2020 compared to 2019.

The previous SMA expired in 2019. In the subsequent negotiations Trump demanded a 400% increase while Seoul offered an increase of 13%. [NK News]

13 April 2021

South Korea: Ruling party’s crushing defeat in mayoral vote

(dql) South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party (DP) suffered a crushing defeat in last week’s mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan, the country’s two biggest cities, with candidates from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) winning by big margins of 57.5% to 39% in Seoul and 63% to 34% in Busan. Taking responsibility for the election results, DP leaders resigned en masse. President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, will reportedly reshuffle his Cabinet as early as this week in response to the election defeat. [Korea Herald] [Korea Times 1] [Korea Times 2]

The vote is widely considered as an important barometer of public opinion ahead of the presidential election next year, with the results suggesting a resurgence of the PPP amid growing discontent of the public with the DP and the Moon administration over economic policy failures, corruption scandals and property speculation cases. [BBC] [Reuters]

13 April 2021

South Korea: Homegrown supersonic fighter set revealed

(dql) South Korea’s arms procurement agency announced that the country’s first homegrown supersonic fighter jet, the KF-21 Boramae, will be ready to fly with weapons aboard by 2028. Released last Friday, the fighter jet, is expected to undergo flight tests through 2026 and become combat ready by 2032.

With all tests successfully completed, South Korea will join an exclusive group of nations which have developed an advanced supersonic fighter, including the US, Russia, China, Japan, France, Sweden and a European consortium of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain. [Korea Herald] [Asia Times]

A joint project between South Korea and Indonesia in which Seoul holds 80% of shares while Jakarta seeks 20%, the KF-21 is facing problems as Indonesia has not made its milestone payments after the initial tranche of 203.4 million USD. Furthermore, Jakarta has not sent back Indonesian personnel working that is involved in the project and that were withdrawn due the COVID-19 pandemic. A talk between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto failed to address this issue. [Defense World]

13 April 2021

South Korea-Germany relations: Foreign Minister agree on joint peace efforts on Korean peninsula

(dql) South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong last Friday led a phone talk with his German counterpart Heiko Maas to discuss their countries’ bilateral relations as well as South Korea’s efforts to achieve lasting peace on the Korean peninsula, with Maas expressing Germany’s willingness to support the peace efforts. Maas added that Germany has been pushing to diversify cooperative ties with Asian countries, including South Korea. [Yonhap]

13 April 2021

South Korea-Iran relations: Tehran releases seized South Korean tanker and its captain

(dql) Iran has released a South Korean-flagged tanker and its captain detained in Iran in January. Iran seized the tanker near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, accusing it of violating pollution rules. Apart from the captain, the 20 crew members were set free in February.

The seizure came amid tensions over the freezing of Iranian funds in South Korean banks under US sanctions leading to accusations against Tehran of using seizure as bargaining chip. Tehran has denied those claims but the release of the ship and the captain comes at a time when Seoul and Tehran have reportedly made progress in unlocking the funds in closed-door talks. [AP News]

Currently, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun is in Iran for talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and other government officials to improve bilateral ties. The first trip to Iran by a South Korean prime minister in 44 years, it is believed that the issue of frozen assets of at least 7 billion USD Iranian money features high in the agenda. [Tehran Times]

6 April 2021

South Korea-China relations: Bilateral talks amid Sino-US tensions

(nm) On Saturday, South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in the Chinese city of Xiamen in South Korea’s first ministerial level meeting in China since 2017, signaling an effort to rebuild relations after a fallout over the deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system in South Korea. Both sides agreed on planning new security talks and discussed a possible visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the South. Beijing also called for increased co-operation on trade, high-tech development, and North Korea, as a number of leading Chinese firms were hit by US sanctions. While Beijing voiced support for a China‑South Korea free trade agreement, strengthening 5G technology and other high-tech issues, Seoul’s statement remained more vague, referring to “strengthening substantive cooperation” and “a range of forms of cooperation.” Both sides did, however, express hope to hold a trilateral summit with Japan. Concerning North Korea, they vowed to seek a process for a “political” resolution. 

South Korea has recently seen its geopolitical value rise as it has become a focal point in the competition between China and the United States. Since the new Biden administration is seeking to strengthen its alliances in the Indo-Pacific and as concerns over a nuclear threat by North Korea grow, the South is increasingly seen as a strategic player in the region. Chung has, however, stated the US and China are equally important partners, adding that this stance is anything but “strategic ambiguity.” While the US is considered South Korea’s “sole ally” and the cornerstone of its diplomatic and security policy, China is the country’s largest trading partner. [Korea Times] [South China Moring Post] [Nikkei Asia] [Korea Herald]

6 April 2021

South Korea, US, Japan hold three-way meeting

(nm) South Korean, US, and Japanese top officials last week held their first trilateral meeting after US President Biden took office to discuss, amongst other topics, issues with regards to North Korea, peace and security on the Korean Peninsula, as well as supply chain security. The meeting was held in Maryland, United States. 

In a joint statement following talks on Friday, the three raised concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and reaffirmed their goal to address denuclearization through “concerted trilateral cooperation,” as well as the “need for a diplomatic solution to the issue.” They further stressed the “imperative of full implementation” of relevant UN Security Council sanctions against the North. [Korea Herald 1]

The meeting comes amid the final stages of the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review. A US State Department spokesman last week stated that denuclearization will be at the centre of any US policy toward the North. Efforts by Washington to engage with Pyongyang diplomatically have so far remained unresponsive. South Korean National Security Adviser Suh Hoon also used the opportunity to hold bilateral talks with his Japanese and US counterparts. In his talks with US representative Jake Sullivan, Suh pointed at the positive effect that good inter-Korean relations might have on denuclearization talks. [Korea Herald 2] [Yonhap]

According to one US officials, the three parties were also set out to discuss the current semiconductor shortages, considering that international chip supply has increasingly become a national security concern. Although Taiwan is the world’s biggest contract chipmaker, South Korea is also home to the headquarters of key industry players, such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, coming in close to Taiwan capacity-wise. [Nikkei Asia

South Korea and Japan currently struggle to revive positive bilateral ties due to trade issues and wartime history. In an effort to address the conflict, South Korean and Japanese diplomats held closed-door meetings in Tokyo last week, one day after Chung had also expressed hope that he would meet with his Japanese counterpart sooner than later. The United States is currently pushing for closer trilateral ties with South Korea and Japan, an effort to counter growing competition with China, as well as a defiant North Korea. [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald 4]

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]