Tag Archive | "politics"

China: Challenges for the Next South Korean Administration

This is the first in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations in the run up to the next Korean administration taking office on May 10. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia, the European Union, the Middle EastASEAN, Africa, and Latin America.

By Mark Tokola

A question frequently asked is whether the next South Korean administration will tilt towards China and away from the United States, based on Seoul’s purportedly shifting perception of the relative importance of the two countries.  In reality, it is not helpful to judge whether the United States or China are more important to the Republic of Korea.  There is no simple reply to the general question and, honestly, there is no reason to answer it.

Decisions are particular and based on practical requirements, not on answering a generalized question about which country is more important than another.  For example, Korean military procurement decisions almost always will be based on compatibility requirements with their U.S. military counterparts.  Jeju-do tourism authorities probably should look more towards accommodating Chinese tastes than American.  A Korean university looking to partner with a cutting-edge, innovative foreign university would be wise to partner with an American rather than a Chinese academic institution (15 of the world’s top 20 universities are American, none are Chinese).  Korean construction companies interested in participating in Asian regional infrastructure projects probably should head for Beijing or Shanghai rather than San Francisco or Dallas.

Moises Naim in his book, The End of Power, recommends that everyone should “get off the elevator” and stop obsessing about who is up and who is down.  Heeding that advice, we can discuss the challenges that South Korea faces in its relationship with China without re-measuring the distances between Seoul and Beijing, and Seoul and Washington. What is generally true is that South Korea will benefit from cooperative relationships with all three of the countries with which it has the most to gain or lose (exempting North Korea): the United States, Japan, and China.

The imminent question facing the next South Korean administration in regard to its relations with China is what to do about the THAAD anti-missile system.  The Park Geun-hye Administration in July 2016 accepted the U.S. offer to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea following North Korean ballistic missile tests.  The THAAD system will serve the purpose of protecting U.S. and ROK military installations and key southern sites, such as the port of Busan, which would be used to reinforce allied forces in the event of a conflict.  The threat is not imaginary; North Korea has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks.  China has vociferously opposed THAAD deployment as running counter to China’s strategic interests and has been explicit that South Korea’s relationship with China will suffer if THAAD is deployed.  Along with its public condemnations, Chinese tourism to South Korea has suffered and Korean firms operating in China have been subject to harassment by government officials.

There is a public debate within South Korea regarding THAAD deployment but the smaller part of the discussion is about the cost, effectiveness, or need for the system.  Most opposition to THAAD is about whether it is unacceptably damaging relations with China.  In the past, there might have been a debate in South Korea about whether THAAD was reducing the prospects of North-South diplomacy, but Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has been so belligerent, unyielding to international sanctions, and uninterested in dialogue with Seoul that THAAD’s effect on inter-Korean relations is barely mentioned.  It is all about China.

As a matter of fortunate timing, the next ROK administration will be spared the choice of whether to introduce THAAD to the peninsula.  Its hardware has already begun arriving and deployment is well underway.  If the new government does nothing, THAAD will be ready to counter potential North Korean attacks within months.  It would require a bold decision on the part of the new government to reverse course and dismantle a system that was already in place to defend the Republic of Korea against the North Korean threat.  China is still protesting, but there are rumors that the Chinese government is internally reviewing why its tactics failed to prevent THAAD deployment and is now looking forward to get past the problem.  China would be ill-advised to begin its relationship with a new ROK administration by pressing it hard with an extremely difficult demand to meet.

That is not to say that THAAD is forever.  If U.S. and Chinese pressure succeeded in dragging North Korea to the negotiating table, and if North Korea as a result of negotiations became less threatening to South Korea, there is nothing that would prevent THAAD from being withdrawn from the peninsula.  If the military threat THAAD is designed to guard against goes away, it would not need to remain.  If China mistakenly but genuinely believes that THAAD represents an American threat to Chinese strategic interest, rather than a North Korean threat to South Korean interest, then it would be clearly in China’s interest to push North Korea in a peaceful direction.  The next South Korean government may well point that out to them.

There are other issues that the new Korean administration will need to take up with China.  On the economic front, Seoul may point out to China that THAAD-related retaliation against South Korean economic interests, including tourism, imposes costs on both sides and will chill the atmosphere for future economic cooperation.  South Korean investors may think twice about whether to put their investment into China given China’s demonstrated use of commercial leverage for political purposes.  Large South Korean firms may now also consider it wise to diversify their activity to be less dependent on the Chinese market.  Regardless of THAAD, that might be prudent.  It will be worth reviewing implementation of the 2015 ROK-China trade agreement to see if it is working as intended.  The Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which would include both China and South Korea, is still there to be negotiated, and may have new life breathed into it by the U.S.-precipitated collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The next South Korean administration may prefer to stay out of disputes involving China that less directly involve Korean interests, such as the South China Sea territorial issues. That may prove impossible if China’s general regional assertiveness manifests itself in ways that affect Korea, such as the illegal activities of the Chinese fishing fleet, claimed Air Defense Identification Zones, or Chinese interference in maritime freedom of navigation.  As a virtual island, because its sole land border is with North Korea, South Korea depends upon air and sea lanes, and the international rules that guarantee their free use.  It is less an immediate issue than THAAD, but the next South Korean government may find itself at odds with China regarding China’s quest to exert control over China’s periphery in ways that do not respect the sovereign interests of the countries of the region.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Who will Conservative Voters Choose in the South Korean Presidential Election?

By Juni Kim

The fallout from President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has dramatically altered the state of conservative politics in South Korea. Despite two successive conservative presidencies and holding majority control of the South Korean National Assembly over most of the past decade, conservative politicians are now dealing with two fractured parties and no clear presidential contender to rally around. Conservative leaders had hoped former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon or Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn would enter the race and help unite the conservative vote, but both Ban and Hwang ultimately decided against running for office.

With the South Korean presidential election less than a month away, conservative Korean voters face an unclear voting dilemma. Hong Joon-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party (formerly known as the Saenuri or New Frontier Party) and Yoo Seung-min of the breakaway Bareun Party have polled in the single digits in recent weeks with no clear signs of gaining traction. With an increasingly tightening presidential race between frontrunners Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, how the conservative vote tips could be the deciding factor in the May 9th election.

The fractured state of the conservative parties has not appeared to dampen election enthusiasm among conservative voters. According to a Gallup Korea poll conducted last week, 94% of self-identified conservatives indicated they will or will likely vote in the upcoming election, which is also true of general Koreans polled. The actual participation rate is likely to be lower based on data from prior elections, but the intended participation for the upcoming election is similar to rates before the 2012 election, which had 75.8% participation of registered voters.

Conservative Preference for Candidates Intention

Among conservative voters, no single candidate holds a majority of the vote, though a majority of conservatives prefer either liberal candidate Moon Jae-in or centrist candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.  Both Hong Joon-pyo (22%) and Yoo Seung-min (5%) also lag behind the support for Ahn Cheol-soo (42%), who holds the largest share of conservative support. Although both conservative candidates expectedly polled better among conservatives, Ahn likewise experienced a bump in support compared to the overall poll numbers.

Conservative Preference for Candidates

Similarly, Ahn Cheol-soo currently holds a much higher 65% favorability rating over both conservative candidates, though Hong Joon-pyo and Yoo Seung-min hold higher favorability ratings than their progressive counterparts Moon Jae-in and Sim Sang-jung.

Conservative Preference for Candidates Graph

Conservative voting confidence has clearly been shaken by the fallout of President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. The Liberty Korea Party (then the Saenuri Party) went from being South Korea’s most supported party a year ago to polling in the single digits in last week’s Gallup Korea poll. Although Hong Joon-pyo has called for the Bareun Party to “come home” and create a unified conservative party with the Liberty Korea Party, the poll numbers suggest that even a party merger may fail to bring together the conservative vote. The damage may be too recent for the conservative candidates to overcome the prevailing political winds even in the unlikely scenario that a unified party is created.

The more significant question is if Ahn Cheol-soo can successfully court enough conservative voters to swing the election in his favor. Despite starting his political career among liberal circles, Ahn has campaigned as a centrist candidate, and his differences in security policy compared to Moon Jae-in may broaden his appeal among conservatives. With continuing North Korean provocations, security issues including the debate over THAAD deployment are likely to remain a prominent election topic in the weeks ahead, and one that conservative voters will pay close attention to.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.  

Graphics created by Juni Kim. Photo from travel oriented’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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South Korea’s Presidential Candidates: Setting the Board

By Juni Kim

With both the Democratic Party of Korea and the People’s Party selecting their nominees earlier this week, all of the major South Korean parties have finished selecting their candidates ahead of the presidential election on May 9th.

Below is a brief overview of the nominees from the major and minor South Korean political parties (listed in alphabetical order). Although there are other independent candidates vying for the presidency, the following five nominees are likely to play the largest roles in the election race.

Bareun Party’s Nominee: Yoo Seung-min

Yoo Seong-Min CardOnce a close aide to ousted President Park Geun-hye, Representative Yoo Seung-min defected twice from the then ruling conservative Saenuri Party (currently rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party) and helped establish the splinter Bareun Party last December. The Daegu representative has campaigned on the pledge of “medium burden, medium welfare,” which suggests a reworked welfare program from a higher tax rate. The candidate has also emphasized the importance of U.S.-Korea relations, saying “(I) will have to hold talks with China and North Korea at some point, but dialogue between South Korea and the US is the most important.”

Yoo handily won the Bareun party nomination with 62.9% of the primary vote, but the latest Realmeter poll shows Yoo’s national support at 2.2%, which lags far behind the other major party candidates. Despite the uphill challenge of taking on the more popular liberal candidates, Yoo has distanced himself from the idea of forming a conservative bloc with the Liberty Korea Party.


Democratic Party of Korea’s Nominee: Moon Jae-in

Moon Jae In CardDemocratic Party of Korea candidate Moon Jae-in enters the last month of the election season as the clear front runner for the presidency. In most polls, Moon Jae-in has maintained a formidable lead over his rivals. The most recent Realmeter poll shows his support at 34.9% with all other candidates polling at below 20%.

Moon previously ran for president in the 2012 election, losing to eventual victor and now former President Park Geun-hye by 48% to 52%. He is also closely associated with the late liberal president Roh Moon-hyun, who he worked with during his administration.

Moon has indicated that he would likely review the controversial deployment of the THAAD missile defense system if elected. He also criticized the North Korean policy of the previous conservative administrations and said, “If necessary, we will have to strengthen sanctions even further, but the goal of sanctions must be to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.” Moon has referred to himself as “America’s friend” and called the U.S.-Korea alliance “a pillar of our diplomacy.”

Justice Party’s Nominee: Sim Sang-jung

Sim Sang Jung CardSim Sang-jung of the minor progressive Justice Party enters the presidential race treading on familiar territory, having previously run twice for the presidency. During the 2012 election campaign, she withdrew her bid in support of having a liberal “unity candidate.” Her public support has hovered around the lower single digits, and her campaign faces the formidable task of taking on the larger better-funded parties in the election.

Sim earned her reputation as a labor activist in the 1980s and has become a prominent voice for progressive policies in the National Assembly. In September 2016, Sim suggested that economic incentives could be used to negotiate a nuclear freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program. She has also opposed the deployment of THAAD and criticized former President Park’s decision to pursue the defense system.




Liberty Korea Party Nominee: Hong Joon-pyo

Hong Joon-pyo CardHong Joon-pyo, the South Gyeongsang governor and former National Assemblyman, won the nomination last week for the conservative Liberty Korea Party, formerly known as the Saenuri Party. Hong inherits a difficult political situation from his party due to the repercussions of President Park’s impeachment that have tilted public support  towards the more liberal parties.

In order to form a stronger voter base, Hong has implored the Bareun Party to “come home” and merge together the two splintered parties. The Bareun presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min has remained resistant to the offer, and it is unlikely that the two parties will form a coalition before the general election.

Hong has pledged that he would maintain a hard-line policy against North Korea and would pursue negotiations with the U.S. for the possible redeployment of nuclear weapons in South Korea. His strong stance on defense extends to pledges on utilizing emerging technologies for security purposes and the creation of a special military unit to protect South Korea from North Korean commando threats.

People’s Party Nominee: Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn Cheol Soo CardAhn Cheol-soo, the former doctor and tech mogul turned politician, hopes to take the presidency with the party he helped establish last year. After sweeping through the centrist People’s Party’s primary, he benefited from a recent upswell of public support and is currently the top presidential contender behind Moon Jae-in at 18.7%.

Ahn previously ran for president in 2012, but eventually withdrew from the race and supported Moon Jae-in. Ahn has since distanced himself from Moon and in his nomination acceptance speech declared, “Ahn’s era has arrived.”

Ahn has supported the continued deployment of THAAD in South Korea and has stated disapproval of China’s objections over the missile system. He has also expressed willingness to talk with North Korea. In speaking with reporters, he said, “A summit between the South and the North should not be an end in itself… (but) if it can be a tool to solve problems, we should consider it.”


Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Digital South Korean Presidential Candidate trading cards created by Juni Kim.

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Overseas South Korean Voters: Impact on the 2017 Presidential Election

By Juni Kim

Since the revision of voting laws in 2009, parliamentary and presidential elections have been open to South Koreans living abroad. The South Korean National Election Commission estimated in 2014 that 2.47 million South Koreans live overseas, and about 1.98 million Koreans are of voting age (19 years and older). Over 158,000 Koreans abroad cast their ballots in the last presidential election, and though it was not the deciding factor in the 2012 election, previous presidential elections have been decided on relatively thin margins of 570,000 and 290,000 votes.

Early indications suggest that the overseas turnout for the upcoming 2017 election may be higher than 2012. In the first open registration day, more than seven times the number of voters abroad (23,304) registered compared to the same period in the past election (3,181). As of last Friday, more than 152,000 Koreans overseas are registered for the upcoming election, which is fast approaching the total 222,389 tally from the 2012 election.

With a likely higher voter turnout, it is worth examining the voting preferences of Koreans abroad in prior elections. The voting results of the presidential election displayed below shows the difference in candidate preferences between overseas South Korean voters and the overall South Korean vote. Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, the current frontrunner of the 2017 presidential election, enjoyed greater support overseas (56.38% of voters) compared to the overall vote (48.02%)

Overseas Voters

Last year’s National Assembly elections also demonstrated greater support for left-leaning politicians by overseas South Korean voters. The liberal Democratic Party of Korea (also known as the Minjoo Party) and the progressive Justice Party both received a larger share of the overseas vote (37.53% and 16.56% respectively) compared to the overall vote (25.55% and 7.24%). Conversely, the conservative New Frontier Party (also known as the Saenuri Party and recently rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party) received less support among overseas voters (26.93% compared to 33.50% overall).

Overseas Voters in 2016 Election

During the 2016 elections, the highest overseas voter turnout rates were for those in their 30’s and late 20’s, while older demographics over 40 saw a corresponding decline in voter turnout with increasing age groups. In comparison, the highest voter turnout rates for Koreans overall were among voters in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. These older voters, which are sometimes dubbed “5060” voters, tend to vote more conservatively while younger voters, dubbed “2030” voters, vote more liberally. The greater support for left-leaning parties overseas could be attributed to the differences in voting turnout by age compared to the general Korean population.

Overseas Voters Countries

The significance of the overseas vote is not lost on Korean politicians. During the previous presidential election, officials from both major South Korean political parties toured the United States, China, and Japan to campaign for their respective candidates. Candidates from last year’s parliamentary elections also appealed to voters abroad by making campaign stops overseas. The shortened election cycle this year may prevent presidential candidates from doing the same, but some surrogates have already made overseas trips on behalf of their candidate’s campaign.

Regardless, the larger voter registration numbers this year signal greater enthusiasm among Koreans abroad in participating in the upcoming election. While there are certainly a myriad of other factors that will shape the election narrative in the coming weeks, overseas voters will play an influential part of the election outcome.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Juho Choi, an intern at KEI, also contributed to this blog. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics done by Juni Kim.



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South Korea’s Presidential Election Timeline

By Juni Kim

On March 10th, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld the National Assembly’s vote to impeach President Park Geun-hye, which triggered the election process for South Korea’s next president. With May 9th selected as the new election date, South Korea’s political parties and candidates will embark on a feverish race over the coming weeks for the presidency. Adding to the urgency is each party’s primary process, which must be completed before the start of the general election. Each party has set their own primary schedule, with all parties set to announce their presidential candidates before candidate registration on April 15th and 16th. The below figures outlines the announcement dates for each major political party’s final nominee.

Candidate Timeline

The official start of the presidential campaign period follows on April 17th and lasts until the day prior to election day.  In order to accommodate South Koreans living abroad during the shortened election season, citizens can cast absentee votes from April 25th to 30th.  Registration for overseas voters has already skyrocketed compared to the prior presidential election, with more than seven times the number of voters within the first day of registration at 23,000 applicants. 204 voting stations will be set up in 116 countries by South Korea’s National Election Commission to handle the anticipated turnout. In South Korea, early voting opens on May 4th and 5th for residents that would prefer to vote before May 9th.

Election Calendar

For more information on the voting process and calendar, you can visit the National Election Commission’s website.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Should the U.S. Delay Announcing the Results of its North Korea Policy Review?

By Troy Stangarone

While the Trump administration has upended established expectations in regards to U.S. relations with Europe, China, Mexico, and for international economic policy, North Korea is perhaps the one area where the administration has taken a largely conventional approach. Reflective of the seriousness with which the administration takes the North Korea challenge, it is also one area where the administration is undertaking an extensive policy review before putting forward a policy. With the review set to be concluded by the end of this month, how should the administration proceed?

For much of the last decade, U.S. policy has been to preclude there being any daylight between Seoul and Washington when it comes to North Korea. With President Trump’s general inclination to reshape relationships and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye precipitating a snap election for a new president on May 9, the prospect exists for the United States and South Korea to find their preferred policy options out of alignment.

While the policy review is incomplete, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent trip to Seoul may have hinted at some of the conclusions that the review has reached. In his remarks, he stated that the policy of strategic patience has ended and didn’t preclude the possibility of the U.S. taking pre-emptive action against North Korea. He also indicated that the United States was not interested in negotiating a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program, but rather would only enter into talks to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. These are not significant breaks from current U.S. policy, and likely indicate that the review will lead to reenergized efforts to put international pressure on North Korean rather than an abrupt change of direction.

In ordinary circumstances, there would be no need for the new administration to delay the rollout of its North Korea policy, but with South Koreans heading to the polls on May 9 and the new government set to come into office immediately thereafter, it might be prudent to withhold any policy pronouncements until after the new South Korean government is in place.

There would be three clear advantages for the United States in refraining from immediately announcing the results of its policy review. First, it would preclude the United States, rather than North Korea policy itself, from becoming a key focal point in the elections. Second, it would avoid the perception that the United States was trying to foreclose options for the new government before it has come to power. Lastly, should there be difference in policy approach being considered in Seoul, it would allow the Trump administration and the new administration an opportunity to work out their differences in private before either party announced a new policy.

One of the most certain ways that North Korea would succeed in its attempts develop nuclear weapons and an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States would be through divisions in the U.S.-Korea alliance. If delaying the results of the U.S. policy review for two months helps to ensure that there continues to be no daylight between U.S. and South Korean policy on North Korea, that would be a small price to pay to maintain the unity of the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

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A Conversation on THAAD from the Chinese Perspective

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Yun Sun, Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center,  about the Chinese perspective on the THAAD missile defense system.

 The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.

 Jenna Gibson: Can you start by giving us kind of the big picture here from Chinese perspective? Why are they so opposed to that and how serious are they about trying to stop this deployment?

Yun Sun: Well, the Chinese explanation is that they believe this is a military threat to China’s nuclear capability. It’s because the radar could reach as far as 2,000 kilometers, so the Chinese view that their military deployment and their military exercises, basically any military operations inside mainland China, will not be able to escape the radar that the THAAD system will encompass, so they feel vulnerable. So, there is a security argument there.

There’s also a political argument where the Chinese argue that they see this as an effort by the United States to reinforce and re-strengthen their alliance relations with South Korea. And even with the possibility of the integrated missile defense system in Northeast Asia, the United States is intending to create a Northeast Asia NATO against China. That is a political dimension.

There is also an interesting leadership dimension. If you look at President Xi Jinping’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula since his inauguration in 2013, it is a very interesting shift as Xi Jinping had been trying to pull South Korea closer to China. So, there had been a deterioration of relations between China and North Korea, but at the same time, what forms a sharp contrast to that is a warming or rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul. So it’s almost like Xi Jinping’s personal foreign policy achievement that under him, South Korea has become much closer and much friendlier towards China. So, this THAAD deployment must have been very disappointing for the top Chinese leader, that this is his creation, his baby, and his campaign, and now it’s not coming to a good result.

Judging from the economic sanctions that Beijing has been willing to impose on South Korean, not only government, but primarily South Korean companies. I’d say that the Chinese are very serious about punishing South Korean entities for the deployment of THAAD. That represents Beijing’s determination and their seriousness to stop the deployment. But, I also think they understand that at this point, budget has already been allocated, the land has been secured, and the deployment has started. So, they have to understand that this is going to happen with or without their support or sanction.

 Jenna Gibson: So, things have seemed to come to a bit of ahead in a week or so with China allegedly cracking down on streaming of Korean TV shows, going after Lotte department stores, and possibly banning travel agencies from selling trips to Korea. Why has China seemingly stepped up their economic pushback against the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: The timing is because the deployment is finally going to happen materially. In the past, although the decision to deploy the THAAD system was made almost last summer, it was a political decision. So the Chinese have been persistently using different policy instruments, trying to change the calculus, change the decision by the South Korean government. So, I would say that until the deployment is completed and until the South Korean government tells Beijing unequivocally that the decision is permanent and is final, the Chinese will not stop pushing. So before the deployment is completed, Beijing will keep pushing.

 Jenna Gibson: So, I have a personal theory. I think that China is killing two birds with one stone here. They are seizing upon an opportunity to cut down on the popularity of Korean pop culture in China, which Beijing has been upset about it for years. What do you think about that? Is this more than just the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: If you look at how the Korean pop culture had been received and perceived in China by the Chinese government, you will find this interesting distinction that basically under President Lee Myung-bak, Korean pop culture was regarded as almost toxic in China. But, we will have to assume that this was very closely linked to the judgment that President Lee Myung-bak was pro-U.S. and anti-China.

Then, under President Park, the Chinese government policy towards Korean pop culture was actually quite positive. You’ll see Korean pop stars appearing on the Chinese New Year’s Festival gala on the Chinese Central Television, which is quite a high prominent treatment for foreign movie actors or pop stars.

So, I would say that the Chinese attitude towards Korean pop culture is still very much related to the political climate between the two countries. When the political relations are good, the Chinese are more likely to treat Korean pop culture with positive reception. But, when the political relations are bad, you will see that there is almost a ban for any Korean soap operas on Chinese TV today.

  Jenna Gibson: I will be really curious to see the things go forward, you know, how much are the Korean companies, how much is k-pop, how much are Korean dramas affected going forward? Is there any pushback? I’ll be really curious to follow that.

 Yun Sun: Yeah, so far, we haven’t seen that much of a pushback from the Chinese general public. You see this anti-Korea demonstrations in some of Chinese cities as well. You also see that one point, Korean cars were pretty popular in China, and now there are people who are vandalizing Korean cars on the street. So, what that says is the government’s ability to influence the public opinion on these matters is really strong.

There’s also the fact that local governments would assume that the central government want to see this anti-Korea sentiment bubbling from their locale. So sometimes, the central government may not be behind certain movement against a certain Lotte supermarket. But, a local government might be.

  Jenna Gibson: Now that the U.S. is clearly in the middle of this, too. We are the ones who are deploying THAAD and of course we are close allies with South Korea. So, what advice would you give to the United States in this situation? Is there a way to work with China on the North Korean issue right now? I know President Trump has been really emphasizing that China peace in solving the North Korean problem. Do you think that that’s the right way to go?

Yun Sun: I think the U.S. is doing the right thing. The deployment of THAAD is not about China, it is about North Korea. And if China doesn’t like it, it must address the source of the problem, which is the North Korean nuclear provocation. So, I think the U.S. is absolutely doing the right thing here.

And for the Trump administration, the U.S. does have this first mover advantage. After the Taiwan controversy, the Tsai Ing-wen phone call, and after President Trump’s comments in the past about how he is going to punish China on trade and is going to negotiate with China for a good deal, I think the Chinese are put on alert. They are very sensitive about what the U.S. might do to China next. And they are not in a very confident position to challenge President Trump. So that almost gives President Trump and his administration an edge, an advantage over China’s policy because China does not want to start a fight with the Trump administration either over North Korea or over the South China Sea.

So, I feel that there is room for the U.S. to push China. For example, there have been talks about more sanctions on North Korea, so China already preempted that. We are already suspending our co-import from North Korea for the rest of this year. What else do you want? You have to be very specific. If you ask us to cut our aid, especially the energy transfer and our food supply to North Korea, the United States will have to answer difficult questions like — what if this creates a humanitarian disaster in North Korea. So, I think the United States has to be very specific about it wants China to do and stand ready to answer the counter-questions that the Chinese will raise.

KEI Intern Jennifer Cho assisted with transcribing this interview.

Image from USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Impeachment of Park Geun-hye: What Comes Next?

By Troy Stangarone

After three months of deliberations, the Constitutional Court has unanimously accepted the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Since the scandal surrounding President Park and her confidant Choi Soon-sil first broke last fall, South Korea has gone through an extended political crisis. Protesters have gone to the streets in record numbers and the fallout from the scandal has led to the arrest of President Park’s former Chief of Staff, the head of the National Pension service, and Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-yong among others.  With the Constitutional Court having decided to accept the removal of President Park from office, what comes next?

A Snap Election and a Compressed Transition

With President Park removed from office, Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn will select a date to elect a successor. The election must be held within 60 days of the Constitutional Court’s decision. With the ruling having taken place on March 10, the current expectation is that the presidential election will be set for May 9. Acting President Hwang does have some discretion in selecting the date. With two holiday’s in Korea during the prior week, scheduling an election day earlier than May 9 may be complicated.

If regularly scheduled elections are unpredictable (see U.S., 2016 and UK, Brexit), snap elections are inherently more unpredictable. While the compressed timetable gives Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate in polls, an advantage, the dynamics in a short campaign could change quickly and provide few opportunities for a candidate to rebound should there be a sudden shift.

The new president will take over as soon as their victory has been certified by election officials and serve a full five year term. While prior incoming administrations had a transition period between a December election date and inauguration day on February 25, the new administration will have no transition period. Additionally, the inauguration date for presidents going forward, will move to the next president’s inauguration date, should there be no constitutional reforms to set a fixed date.

Compressed Political Primaries

With elections approaching, each party will need to select their candidate. In a normal election, the political parties would have sufficient time to implement a primary process. While the political parties control their primary process, we have already seen indications of how the process will be shortened. The Minjoo Party conducts a two round primary, unless on candidate receives 50 percent of the vote in the first round. As part of the primary, they hold a voting tour similar to the U.S. primary system where votes are staggered across different regions. In light of the compressed campaign calendar, the voting tour will be reduced to four areas for the upcoming election.

While Korean election law requires presidential elections take place over 23 days, there will be an incentive for the parties to select nominees as soon as possible to begin the process of unifying the party behind their standard bearer and putting in place a plan to win the upcoming election.

Game Changing Events

In the United States, every campaign heads into the final stretch of the election concerned that there could be an “October surprise.” The idea of the October surprise is that there is some unforeseen event that fundamentally reshapes the election in a way that the campaigns cannot control. Each campaign will need to prepare for such a game changing event, especially in what could be a fluid election race. In a short campaign cycle, even normally less significant events could alter the race if a candidate does not handle their response to changing events well.

Political Alliances

Should Moon Jae-in secure the nomination of the Minjoo Party nomination, he will be the odds on favorite to win. He currently leads all of the political contenders in the polls at 36.4 percent and narrowly lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election. During that election, the failure to quickly develop an alliance between Moon and the other main opposition candidate at the time, Ahn Cheol-soo, may have cost him the election. There have already been suggestions that other candidates may try to form an alliance to preclude Moon from winning the presidency. With South Korea now having four major parties, in the absence of an alliance, there is also a greater chance those opposed to Moon Jae-in would likely divide the opposition vote. This will be another factor to watch as the election proceeds.

Can Conservatives Smooth Their Divisions

During the impeachment debate, conservatives in South Korea split over whether to support President Park or to vote against the impeachment. Tensions between President Park’s strong supporters and other party members, however, predated the impeachment process. Ultimately, significant numbers of the then Saenuri Party (recently renamed the Liberty Korea Party) voted for the president’s impeachment and many of those who voted for the impeachment left to form the new Bareun Party. One of the story lines to follow will be whether conservatives are able to heal their rifts and put together a united ticket or whether divisions remain.

Will Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn Resign and Seek the Presidency?

Currently, the strongest contender for president from the conservative side is Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn. After Ban Ki-moon withdrew his candidacy, many of his supporters shifted their support to Acting President Hwang, who has risen to nearly 15 percent in one of the most recent polls. However, should Acting President Hwang decide to seek his own term as president, he would need to resign from his current role as Acting President and Prime Minister. If he does intend to run, he will most likely resign sometime shortly after setting the new date for the election so as to be eligible to run in the Liberty Korea Party’s presidential primary. Should he do so, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Strategy and Finance Yoo Il-ho would become acting president.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Fredrick Rubensson’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Means for South Korea

By Alex Ward

Contrary to popular belief, President Donald Trump has a coherent worldview: the United States does not get as much from the world as it should, and the main goal of American foreign policy should be to change existing structures and arrangements to ensure the most benefit for the American people. And while it may appear Trump’s foreign policy is now turning more conventional, it is important to remember that Trump does not have coherent policy understanding to make the world he envisions come true.

This is a major problem for Northeast Asia—a region, like many others, that pines for stability—and especially for South Korea. Besides Trump’s more provocative, but unlikely, statement during the campaign, namely, that South Korea along with Japan should acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves, his foreign policy has three big implications for South Korean policy planning.

First, South Korea cannot assume that Trump prioritizes its security or economic well-being. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis did very well on his recent “apology tour” to South Korea and Japan. In a readout of his meetings with ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-Se and Minister of National Defense Han Min-Koo, it said that Mattis’ trip demonstrates the “priority the Trump Administration places on the Asia-Pacific region, and on strengthening the US-ROK alliance.”

Those are nice words, but if the first few weeks of the administration, not to mention the entire campaign, have shown anything, no long-standing alliance or partnership is safe. Trump has questioned German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership, imperiled relations with Mexico, and even found a way to push Australia away. If South Korean leaders assume Trump may not someday purposefully or inadvertently weaken the US-ROK relationship, they should think again.

Trump is a one-man “red team.” He has come into the Oval Office with a zero-based approach to U.S. foreign policy. Any deal, any partnership, any alliance is up for renegotiation if Trump does not feel it is helping Americans more than helping the ally. Therefore, the day may come where Trump decides prioritizing South Korea’s security or economic well-being is no longer in America’s interest. The alliance’s perseverance is now not a guarantee.

Second, South Korea could establish itself as an important ally of this administration if it takes a hard stance against North Korea. North Korea’s missile test of a Pukguksong-2 received condemnation from China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. It reminded the global community that North Korea remains a threat to regional and global stability. For the Trump administration, it rightfully worries that North Korea may someday launch a missile at the American homeland, something Trump promised “won’t happen!

If there is a way for South Korea to ingratiate itself with the new White House, it must demonstrate itself a willing partner to deter North Korean aggression. The Trump administration has made clear its top three national security priorities will be China, Iran, and counterterrorism, primarily defeating ISIS. If South Korea can help in any way contain North Korea—and frankly keep it off of the President’s desk—then Seoul will be seen more favorably in Washington. The results of the South Korean presidential election will likely affect how the Trump administration views South Korea down the line.

Lastly, it’s about us, not you, anymore. In Trump’s inaugural address, he made the following statement:

We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families (emphasis mine).

In other words, do not expect the animating purpose of America’s relationship with South Korea to be about giving it the security and economic backing it needs to continue to grow. Now, as Janet Jackson would say, the question America will continue to ask is “what have you done for me lately?” Where once the United States simply wanted a strong partner in Northeast Asia, the Trump administration now wants a bilateral partner that helps bring jobs mostly to Middle America. This would mean manufacturing jobs that would otherwise go to young South Koreans, many of who pine for steady employment today.

Under Trump, the United States sees itself as “regular” country in the sense that it will unabashedly seek its own interests and not greatly contribute to global security and stability—just like most other countries. America will, at least for now, no longer be the leader of the free world and the liberal international order.

Dealing with America, then, will be a major challenge for South Korea. Seoul, and other world capitals, must answer the following question: how to keep the United States happy while also ensuring maximum benefit for their own citizens? Indeed, Trump now makes it so allies must first ask how they can help America instead of the other way around.

It is a new global paradigm. South Korea, like everyone else, must deal with this new reality.

Alex Ward is the Associate Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The South Korean Constitutional Court’s Impeachment Timeline

By Juni Kim

The revelations of Choi Soon-sil’s involvement in the administration of President Park Geun-hye and the subsequent scandal late last year have led to record low public approval ratings for President Park and her impeachment by the South Korean National Assembly on December 9th. This is only the second instance of a South Korean president being impeached, after President Roh Moo-hyun’s impeachment in 2004. The Constitutional Court, which began hearings for her impeachment last December, must either uphold or disapprove of the National Assembly’s impeachment motion.

The below graphic outlines the impeachment timeline and what are the next steps for the Constitutional Court.

Impeachment Timeline

The impeachment process requires six votes from the nine-member court for the impeachment to be upheld. Obtaining the necessary six votes is complicated by the end of Chief Justice Park Han-chul’s term on January 31st and Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi’s retirement on March 13th. Even with court vacancies, an approved impeachment still requires six votes. This means that only three votes are required to overturn the impeachment motion before March 13th, and only two votes are needed after that date.

Before stepping down from the court, Chief Justice Park implored the Court to reach a verdict before Justice Lee’s term ends. However, the Constitutional Court has scheduled additional hearings through February 22, and it is highly unlikely that a decision will be made before hearings are over. A decision could be reached after the date and before March 13th, but the Court technically has until June to make a final decision. If the impeachment motion is approved, the new presidential election must occur within 60 days.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Robert Heese’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.