Tag Archive | "politics"

Challenges in Relations with the U.S. under the Moon Administration

This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Kyle Ferrier

The United States is a crucial security and economic partner for South Korea. Not only is the U.S. treaty obligated to defend South Korea, but 28,500 American troops are stationed below the DMZ. Should an armed conflict arise on the peninsula Washington would assume operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces. Since its implementation in March 2012, the KORUS FTA has helped to secure the U.S. as South Korea’s second largest trading partner, making it the cornerstone of the bilateral economic relationship. While the strength of these ties is built on a foundation of shared values transcending leadership transitions over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly disputed fundamental aspects of the relationship. For the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, just as central to resolving the issues raised by Trump will be understanding his approach to foreign affairs.

Trump won the U.S. presidential election last November on a platform of radical change. In contrast to the mood of Obama’s campaign in 2008 which employed slogans such as “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” complemented his bleak portrayal of a broken American system abused by elites and foreign countries alike. Trump often put South Korea in his crosshairs, claiming they did not pay enough for U.S. troops stationed there—going so far as to suggest withdrawing military personnel in exchange for allowing Seoul to have nuclear weapons as a cost saving measure—and criticizing the KORUS FTA for destroying U.S. jobs.

Once elected, Trump was quick to reverse course on the alliance, assuring President Park of U.S. commitment just one day later. Since then South Korea has hosted a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although these visits are an extension of initial efforts to reassure Seoul, they are contrasted by Trump’s “disruptive” approach to foreign policy, which draws on his campaign rhetoric, prioritizes his interpretation of American interests, and is underwritten by unpredictability. The disruptive approach is seemingly being applied to adversary and ally alike, which directly impacts South Korea through U.S. policy on North Korea as well as issues of alliance management and bilateral trade.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stated Obama’s second term policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea is dead, yet it may just be going by a different name. At the onset of his presidency, Trump was relatively quiet on North Korea, with some hoping this might be interpreted as a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un. However, since mid-March the administration has taken a more forceful stance. Secretary Matthis first announced the end of “strategic patience” on his trip to Seoul. Soon after, multiple senior officials and even Trump himself claimed military options were back on the table, particularly a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Then, after a two-month policy review, the administration released its agenda of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which some have noted is remarkably similar to “strategic patience.” Both are centered on pressuring Beijing to influence Pyongyang and waiting for credible indications from the North that they are willing to reduce their illicit weapons programs. Despite posturing otherwise, security realities in Northeast Asia look to be constraining Trump to largely continuing Obama’s approach, at least for the time being, which is more than can be said for alliance management and trade relations.

Although Trump seemed to be shying away from campaign calls for Seoul to pay more for U.S. military presence on the peninsula, recent comments raise new questions, particularly for an upcoming milestone in the alliance. Trump’s call for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system in an April 28 interview was refuted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster only a few days later. However, it was not enough to erase the negative impact on the public discourse in South Korea, unnecessarily complicating Moon’s promised domestic review of THAAD’s deployment. The president’s comments also raise questions over how he may attempt to shape the renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that is set to expire at the end of this year, which governs the burden sharing arrangement. It is certainly conceivable that Trump may influence SMA negotiations by similarly calling for Seoul to contribute more to the alliance, including the potential to leverage OPCON.

The last major challenge for the Moon administration will be addressing Trump’s criticism of the KORUS FTA. Trump has repeatedly attacked the trade deal, citing the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with South Korea, though it is still unclear if he will pursue the actions he has espoused. KORUS was one of only two trade agreements singled out for not meeting expectations in The President’s Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR, the other being NAFTA. Trump recently suggested that he might terminate the agreement if South Korea was not open to renegotiations, similar to the approach he has taken with NAFTA.

Whereas the relevant senior U.S. officials have attempted to counter Trump’s disruptive approach to North Korea and the alliance, competing coalitions within the administration on trade further obscures how U.S. policy might be carried out. On the one hand, there are those who favor policies more traditionally associated with protectionism: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Director of the new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer. And on the other are those who support greater global engagement: Director of the National Trade Council Gary Cohn and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Although it is not yet clear how the U.S. will seek to pursue new concerns over KORUS—despite generally favorable reports by USTR and the US International Trade Commission released in the past year—the first major hurdle will come at the end of June when Commerce and USTR are expected to release their findings from a major review of all bilateral trading relationships.

How soon the Moon administration attempts to address these challenges with the United States will significantly dictate their potential impact on U.S.-South Korea relations. Whether it is growing pains or a more structural issue, the Trump administration’s implementation of foreign policy so far has negatively influenced South Korean public opinion. While the newly adopted policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is remarkably similar to “strategic patience,” the process of getting there raised serious questions about U.S. credibility through concerns such as the location of the USS Carl Vinson and the perception that Washington would pre-emptively strike North Korea without consent from Seoul. Efforts by senior U.S. officials to smooth over some of Trump’s more controversial remarks have helped to stabilize relations, but the U.S. loses face each time. Even so, there are still contentious remarks that have not been sufficiently addressed.

Recent polling shows Trump’s popularity in Korea has sharply declined—falling below China’s Xi Jinping who is punishing South Koreans over THAAD. Koreans still view the U.S. favorably, yet it is unclear how long this duality can be sustained. A poor public opinion of the United States would severely constrain Moon’s ability to successfully coordinate the issues Trump has raised, which should make early and direct dialogue with his counterpart in Washington a high priority.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

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Poll of Polls: South Korean Presidential Polls April 25-May 1

By Juni Kim

With the South Korean presidential election a little over a week away, frontrunner Moon Jae-in has maintained his lead while his closest competitor Ahn Cheol-soo continues to fall in the polls. Ahn, who nearly matched Moon’s polling numbers in early April after a surge in support, has dropped off considerably in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo continues to rise in the polls with the largest increase in support (4.2% over last week’s poll of polls) among the presidential contenders.

The shift in support between Ahn and Hong is likely due to conservative voters turning towards Hong’s more traditionally right-wing appeal and Ahn’s underwhelming performance in televised debates. Although the conservative vote is still split, Hong is now the most preferred candidate among self-identified conservatives at 36% (compared to Ahn’s 29%) according to the latest Gallup Korea poll, and 42% of conservative voters indicated they had a more favorable view of Hong after watching the television debates.

 Poll Average Graph Week 2

Although the shift in the polls is promising for Hong’s camp, an upset election result by either Hong or Ahn is unlikely at this point. Both candidates had the lowest marks among general voters for their performances in the debates, and Moon has maintained his polling lead over the past few weeks. 221, 981 votes have already been cast in last week’s overseas voting, including over 48,000 ballots cast in the United States, and early voting starts in South Korea this Thursday. Politics, especially in recent years, is subject to stranger than fiction twists and turns, but barring a monumental “May Surprise,” South Korea is likely to have its first progressive president in nearly a decade.

The polls included in our aggregate poll are from listings on the South Korean National Election Commission’s website. For more information, you can visit this page and see the polling data (in Korean) from each research organization. Our aggregate poll includes polls conducted by Realmeter, Gallup Korea, ResearchView, Hankook Research, R&Search, KSOI, MetriX, and Ace Research. Last week’s poll of polls was updated with polling information from the week of April 18-24 that has been released since the prior blog was published. The updated numbers for last week’s polling results are as follows: Moon Jae-in (41.3), Ahn Cheol-soo (30.6), Hong Joon-pyo (10.1), Sim Sang-jung (4.2), and Yoo Seung-min (3.6).

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.

Images created by Juni Kim. Photos from 박근혜 공식앨범‘s flickr page, Chihoon Byun’s flickr page, 철수 안’s flickr page, ddeohee’s Twitter page.

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Chinese Tourists to South Korea Drop 40 Percent in March Amid THAAD Row

By Jenna Gibson

It’s official – new numbers from March confirm that China’s THAAD retaliation has significantly cut into South Korea’s tourism industry.

According to new data released today by the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Chinese tourists arriving in South Korea fell 40 percent year-on-year in March 2017.

Only 360,782 Chinese visitors came to South Korea in March, down from 601,671 in March last year.

Considering that China’s alleged travel ban only took effect on March 15, about halfway through the month, it’s possible that April’s drop could be even more dire.

South Korea’s tourism industry is heavily reliant on Chinese visitors – in 2016, they made up 47 percent of all tourist arrivals and 70 percent of sales at Korean duty free shops.

According to a previous KEI article, “Chinese tourists spent an average of $2,391 per person while visiting Korea – meaning the 8 million Chinese tourists who visited Korea in 2016 brought nearly $20 billion into the local economy.” So, if the 40 percent cut in visitors results in a corresponding drop in revenue, the Korean tourism industry could lose up to $7.7 billion as a direct result of China’s THAAD retaliation.

Chinese Tourism Graph March

There is a silver lining in the March tourism data. Despite this massive 40 percent drop in visitors from China, the total number of people entering South Korea in March was down only 11.2 percent over March 2016. This is thanks in large part to a 22 percent jump in visitors from Japan, the second-largest group of tourists in Korea after China.

Other countries such as Taiwan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Mongolia also showed significant increases. This may be a good sign for the Korean government, which is heavily targeting Southeast Asia and the Middle East to diversify the industry and decrease their reliance on tourists from China.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is reportedly focusing more on advertising in Southeast Asia and Japan, and Seoul has started posting signs at major tourist destinations in Bahasa Indonesia, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese.

In addition, the KTO has been increasing their focus on tourists from Muslim-majority countries, helping local restaurants get halal accreditation and even hosting a Halal Restaurant Week at the end of last year to highlight Korean food options for Muslim visitors.

Meanwhile, just after the ban took effect, the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy promised to provide 400 billion ($349 million) to support businesses affected by the THAAD retaliation, including those in the tourism industry.

This is not the first crisis that the Korean tourism agency has dealt with in recent years. During the peak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in July 2015, total tourism arrivals were down 53.3 percent over the year before, including a 63.1 percent drop in arrivals from China. Later that year, the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute estimated that MERS cost the tourist industry 3.4 trillion won ($3 billion) in lost revenue. The fact that the tourism industry was able to bounce back from that significantly greater drop bodes well for its ability to deal with this crisis as well.

While it remains to be seen how deep this THAAD spat will cut the Korean tourism industry over time, it is clear from these new numbers that the Chinese retaliation should not be taken lightly. As the THAAD system continues to go through the deployment process, Korea will have to keep an eye on the immediate as well as secondary effects of China’s policies.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson. Photo from Tom Page’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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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. 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 conservatives, 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 vote. The damage may be too recent for the 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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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.