The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Category: South Korean Politics (page 2 of 48)

PM offers to resign, President Park meets with K-Pop fans in Peru

Oh, how the blogging gods have conspired against me.  I have been working on pieces and considering titles: “Prime Minister impeached, President Park impickled” and “PM impeached, PGH in Peru“.

Alas, they are not to be.

According to the Korea Herald, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo submitted his resignation today to President Park Geun-hye amid accusations that he took bribes from Sung Won-jong.  Sung named Lee Wan-koo among seven others in a note found on Sung’s dead body, which was found hanging from a tree in an apparent suicide.

“Prime Minister Lee offered his intention to resign to President Park as of April 20,” the Prime Minister’s Office said. “The president will decide whether to accept his resignation or not after she returns from her trip.”  A presidential spokesman, Min Kyung-wook, accompanying her in Lima, Peru, confirmed the announcement of the Prime Minister’s Office.

President Park is currently in the middle of a 12-day Latin America trip.  Park departed on the first anniversary of the Sewol Ferry sinking, this Korean generation’s where were you moment akin to Americans’ Pearl Harbor, FDR death, JFK assassination, John Lennon murder, or WTC 9/11 attack, and amid the growing bribery scandal that threatens not only Korea’s government’s credibility but also constitutional succession:  the prime minister is first in line in case of the South Korean president’s incapacitation.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the Sewol Ferry sinking’s first anniversary, the crisis engulfing PGH’s presidency, and by-elections on April 29, less than two days after President Park’s return,  Blue House Foreign Affairs and National Security Secretary Ju Cheol-gi said in a media brief one day before PGH’s departure, “there is no good reason to delay the trip, and it must go forward as planned. We have to create opportunities to help the economy, and ethnic Koreans in Central and South America are looking forward to the trip, so we will do what needs to be done.”

President Park is scheduled to return to Korea next Monday and as of this writing has no plans to cut short such an important tour of South America.  “President Park Geun-hye met with hallyu fans in Peru, Sunday, during the second leg of her South American tour. …Park’s encounter with 14 Peruvian hallyu enthusiasts took place at a hotel in Lima at the request of some of the fan clubs.”

President Park meets with K-Pop fans in Peru

President Park pictured at an important meeting with part of and receiving a present (???) from a contingent of 14 K-Pop fans in Peru

“I heard that members of the fan clubs learn Korean dance and ‘hangeul’ (Korean alphabet) together,” Park said. “These activities will bring our two countries closer,” she added.

Park’s other important accomplishments on this trip include a pledge from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to accelerate efforts toward ratification of their free trade agreement (FTA,) which was signed more than two years ago.

I have seen no press information whether members of the Korean press corp have deigned to ask President Park “might she return?”

(Damn you, blogging gods.)

UPDATE:  PM’s resignation tender written large on CNN’s front page.  According to CNN’s article, “Park is in Peru and is expected to arrive back to South Korea on April 27.”

CNN Front page April 21, 2015

(I have no further updates on the K-Pop diplomacy initiative.)

Random Thoughts from the First Anniversary of the Sewol Accident

Absconding President and Angry Parents

On the day of the first anniversary of the accident that took more than 300 lives, President Park Geun-hye hurriedly absconded the country for a previously scheduled 12-day tour of four South American countries.

Her decision to leave the country on that particular day has been the source of much tongue wagging, for understandable reasons, as can be seen from John Power’s tweet here.

(For those who do not read Korean, Power’s tweet translates to: “Are there cases in other countries where the president has left on the first anniversary of a big tragedy?”)

The president’s decision does, indeed, stink, just like the way the government’s response to the aftermath of the tragedy has stunk for the past year. But would her being at the ceremony helped? What would it have accomplished?

When President Park visited the memorial site in the morning before she left for South America, the families of the victims refused to meet with her. Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was also blocked from paying his respects by the families. Never mind that he was not in office when the Sewol accident took place.


Prime Minister being blocked from paying his respects

Prime Minister Lee being blocked from paying his respects


People on this blog have told me that the president should have “bitten the bullet.” But what kind of bullet would she have bitten? It’s quite clear that the families are not looking for an apology from the president. They don’t even want to see her or allow her to pay her respects or even allow her cabinet ministers to do the same.

Their anger is understandable. However, seeing how they do not seem to wish to have their anger assuaged, at least not by President Park, I do not see how the president’s presence at the ceremony would have helped to improve things in any way, shape, or form.

It’s true that President Park has handled the aftermath of the sinking very poorly, amateurish, in fact. There is no question about that. However, as I have said before, I am convinced that her decision to leave the country yesterday may have been the least bad decision that she could have made about attending the ceremony.

For reasons that could have been avoided, President Park has become such a toxic figure to so many people that her presence there would have only exacerbated matters.


Korea the Police State?

Here is the way Merriam-Webster defines “police state.”

A political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.

There was a time when this description DID apply to South Korea. The Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan administrations come immediately to mind.

Other examples of police states that come to mind are North Korea, Nazi Germany, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and Apartheid South Africa.

Modern-day South Korea, however, is NOT an example of a police state. Regardless of anyone’s rhetoric.

So why am I bringing this up? That’s because any time a massive rally or protest takes place, and the protesters are met by thousands of police officers, people never seem to fail to mention, carelessly I might add, that Korea is either turning into a police state or is already a police state.

For instance, Se-Woong Koo, the editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé published this image on his Facebook page, which he captioned by saying:

“The sad reality of South Korea: a police state protected by frightened barely legal kids wielding video cameras from people holding flowers.”

Simply because there is a large police force in an area where thousands of mourning (and potentially angry) protesters have all gathered together for a common cause just a stone’s throw away from the Blue House does not mean that the country has turned into a police state.

Mr. Koo is not the only person to be guilty of resorting to this type of logic. Many people think the same way.

What I do not understand is the mentality behind it. Why is it that it never seems to occur to some people that it was precisely the presence of huge numbers of police officers on the scene that prevented potential rioting without actually having to use excessive force? Why do some people immediately jump to the conclusion that any police presence is “excessive” or “an overreaction?”

More importantly, what would those same people be saying today had there not been such a police force and the ceremony had become more violent?

And it is not that hard to imagine that any mob could grow violent. The fact of the matter is that violent protests are not unheard of in Korea. There have been times when what started out as peaceful protests ended with arson (see here and here). There was also that one time when the chief of the Jongno Police Precinct was assaulted by demonstrators in what was supposedly a peaceful political protest against the ROK-US free trade agreement.

Just because yesterday’s rally was not marred by violence does not mean that the police can afford to take chances and simply assume that thousands of mournful and angry protesters in Gwanghwamun Square will not decide to do something as foolish as trying to storm the Blue House.

The police erred on the side of caution. This is something to be praised, not derided.

So what police state are people talking about? I don’t see one. Do you?

Captain Abandons Ship

One year ago today, April 16, 2014, and caught with his pants down, a Captain cowardly and scurrilously abandoned ship rather than face his responsibilities to his constituency.  He has since been tried, vilified, found guilty (in both legal court and court of public opinion), and sentenced for likely the remainder of his natural life to prison.   His name is now forgotten; his heinous reputation lives on.

Today, April 16, 2015, we commemorate the incident and the victims of the Sewol Ferry tragedy.  Park Geun-hye, her ship of state perilously listing amid bribery scandals that reach to the highest levels of her administration and threatening to sink her presidency, is embarking on a scheduled 12-day tour of four South American countries.  The timing of PGH’s trip and its minor importance have raised eyebrows.

On April 14, Blue House Foreign Affairs and National Security Secretary Ju Cheol-gi  offered a  media brief detailing PGH’s schedule and the significance of the tour.  “Central and South America are a land of opportunity, a place where we can reveal the potential for exchange and cooperation in diverse areas – including ICT, electronic government, nuclear power, and large-scale infrastructure – based on the cultural affinity created by the spread of Hallyu [the Korean Wave],”

According to the Hankyoreh’s unnamed sources, “there were also objections inside the Blue House to the timing of the trip, but no one came forward to officially call it into question.”  Playing the Get Out of Jail Free, papal dispensation, American Express Black, uber-trumper of all trumps, economy card, Ju deflected arguments that Park’s trip should be delayed out of respect for the Sewol sinking anniversary and amid the Sung Wan-jong/Prime Minister bribery scandal:  “There is no good reason to delay the trip, and it must go forward as planned. We have to create opportunities to help the economy, and ethnic Koreans in Central and South America are looking forward to the trip, so we will do what needs to be done.”

A year ago, people called the Sewol sinking Korea’s 9/11.  It wasn’t.  The similarities stop with what both represented to Americans’ and Koreans’ collective consciousness.  Even there, the Sewol tragedy falls short.  I can’t imagine the American president failing to adequately commemorate an occasion of such searing, binding pain in his people’s psyche …while scheduling an optional overseas trip …on the incident’s first anniversary …excusing himself citing money.

President Park’s trip comes amid the choking smoke engulfing her Prime Minister, her deputy for government affairs.  Korea is a less than one generation out of military dictatorship by coup and self-coup nascent democracy in a country without a culture or history of democracy, and the President’s spokesman sees “no good reason to delay the trip”?  As an expat living in Korea, I don’t know whether to take comfort in the President’s confidence or cover for her incognizance.  Regardless, the President’s overseas trip feels wrong.

…and no, the thought of the photo of the Sewol Captain abandoning ship serving as a visual metaphor for Park Geun-hye’s trip never entered my mind, and I am not incredulous that no Korean political cartoonist has drawn or photoshopped PGH’s head onto this piece’s featured image.

Suicide – A New Political Tool?

I can well understand Moon Jae-in at this point in time.

He realizes that he was robbed by the more radical elements in his own party during the last election and, now, he is attempting to realign his platform and change his focus and image by becoming much more pragmatic in his goals.

ticket_to_rideFor a completely different approach to politics, then there is this case within the Saenuri Dang: the case of the suicidal Saenuri Dang Prime Minister, who encouraged the corruption probe (War against corruption) that has caught him as well:

. . . Prime Minister Lee bet his life on his innocence Tuesday, but he refused to step down, although the ruling party made clear that it wouldn’t provide a shield for him.
“If there is evidence that I had taken the money, I will lay down my life,” Lee said during a National Assembly hearing.

All on the heels of Sung Wan-jong’s suicide due to a corruption probe by the prosecutor’s office. (link)

Using the threat of sucide to put off the very investigation that the PM demanded is unprofessional.  I would really hope that, if the PM decides he should kill himself, his leadership skills would inspire his beleagered compatriots to follow him.  Only then can this strange cycle of politcal evolutionary extinction end.

Sung Wan-jong suicide aftermath: the noose tightens

Sung Wan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found dead yesterday.  Police suspect suicide.  Sung was Keangnam’s chairman until he resigned last month amid the widening anti-corruption investigation that touched Keangnam Enterprises and Sung’s personal business.

Sung was scheduled to appear Thursday at a court hearing over a detention warrant.  Prosecutors earlier this week charged Sung with misappropriating up to 46 billion won of government subsidies, based on falisfied accounting records.  Authorities suspect Sung embezzled 25 billion won of those funds “and was engaged in accounting fraud to the tune of 950 billion won.”  Sung denied all allegations of wrongdoing and even “strong” connections with the Lee government.

According to police, Sung left his house 5:11 a.m.  Sung’s chauffeur and sons found a suicide note in Sung’s house, and Sung’s family reported Sung missing to police at 8:06 a.m.  Police traced his two mobile phones and detected a signal in Pyeongchang-dong, (near an entrance to Bukhansan, his favorite hiking spot)  Jongno District at around 8:40 a.m and dispatched a manhunt with more than 1,300 officers.   At 3:32 p.m. and approximately 300 meters from the ticket office at Bukhansan, a police dog found Sung’s body hanging from a tree on an “untrodden” path near Jeongto Temple.  According to an officer at Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency,  “It was where Sung frequently went for a walk. He was hanging from a necktie tied to a branch two meters above the ground.”

Sung Jong-wan body from KT

Police officers carry the body of former Keangnam Enterprise Chairman Sung Woan-jong down from a mountainside, Thursday. Sung is believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree on Mount Bukhan in northern Seoul the same day. / Korea Times Photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Sung’s suicide “comes amid parliamentary probes into the Lee administration’s resource diplomacy policy.  The probes began to investigate allegations that Lee administration officials embezzled public funds during the government initiative.”

No, I’m not so cruel as to refer to Sung in this post’s lede.

At a press conference on Wednesday and less than 24 hours before his suicide , Sung dropped the 2MB bomb, specifically implicating former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak’s administration.  Korea Joongang Ilbo reported Sung’s statements as the following:

“I’m not an MB-man [someone close to former President Lee].  How can a victim of the former government become an MB-man? I actually worked for President Park Geun-hye, who was running the Grand National Party’s primary.”

The Joongang Ilbo observed, “Sung emphasized his innocence and shed tears.”

The Korea Herald published the following account of Sung’s Wednesday news conference,

Sung, a former Saenuri Party lawmaker, had called the investigations a politically-charged witch hunt.

“I am a victim of the Lee administration,” he said at Wednesday’s news conference, hours before his disappearance.

“I am much closer to President Park Geun-hye.”

“Many other companies had participated in resource development projects (under the Lee administration) at the time,” he added. “I do not understand why only we are being targeted.”

Police disclosed fragments of the suicide note Sung left in his house.  “I’m an innocent man who should be cleared from suspicions,” he wrote. “I will kill myself to prove it.”

Well, now. I’m convinced.

I do not understand the Asian custom (or is it only Korean custom?  My question is genuine, and I really do not know) of “proving” oneself innocent in the face of such scandalous, disgraceful, and especially criminal charges when presented with overwhelming tangible substantiating evidence through suicide.

Sung’s suicide makes prosecution’s pursuing its resources diplomacy case difficult.  Keangnam Enterprises played a major role in the probe. In another cultural difference I find incomprehensible, with suicide often accepted as proof of innocence, inquiries into the wider investigation often stop.

Nonetheless, make no mistake about it:  all, from business to governmental agency and education institutional, investigations so far show an Lee Myung-bak connection.  Lee Myung-bak seemed to have given enough rope in his time as president, and the noose appears to be tightening around him.

I’ll end with Sung’s last wish:  “Bury me next to my mother.”

(For a summary and impression of the extent of the anti-corruption probe, see here.)

PGH’s Bipolar Presidency

I have never been so happy to be proved wrong.

I posted first on September 30, Pardon moi, and again on December 29, Pardon moi? (redux), that the Park Geun-hye administration seemed to be sowing the seeds of parole or even pardon for conglomerate owners and family members imprisoned for economic crimes such as embezzlement, breach of trust, and incurring losses to their companies.

PGH’s administration slung the dung, fertilizing the field:  in September,  two high ranking officials (Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn and Deputy Prime Minister for Economy Choi Kyung-hwan) from two separate ministries made two separate statements on two consecutive days signaling leniency.  On Christmas Eve ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung and the day after Christmas Floor Leader Lee Wan-koo seemed to partake of the holiday parole punch.

I went so far as to “handicap the paroles and perhaps some pardons happening between Korea’s New Years: sometime after solar New Year, sometime before March 1, and with a probability density centered around Seollal.”  “…in absence of a major public backlash (they clearly anticipate and desire to diffuse the minor public backlash) the pardons will happen.”  Long-time Marmot’s Hole regulars laid their bets, waging virtual beers.

Then, …nothing.

In March, the PGH administration pulled a one-eighty, going polar opposite, and cataloging the (thus far) discovered corruption presents a daunting task:

  • A 105 member team “consisting of prosecutors, state auditors, police and taxation officials” targeted alleged malpractices involving Ilgwang Gongyeong, one of Korea’s largest defense brokers.  On March 11, prosecutors arrested Ilgwang Gongyeong chairman Lee Kyu-tae on charges that he “inflated the costs of procuring an electronic warfare training system from a Turkish defense firm” and “pocketing some 50 billion won ($44.4 million) by defrauding Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration.”  On March 12 prosecutors arrested a senior official of an affiliate of Lee’s company “for complicity in the case.”
  • In mid-March, a wide-ranging POSCO probe grabbed headlines, and POSCO’s share price plunged on March 31.  The investigation has spread to POSCO group and netted its first high-profile arrest at POSCO E&C  in a slush fund scandal Tuesday .  “The prosecution is expanding its probe into how the slush fund was created and used amid allegations that former President Lee Myung-bak’s key aides are at the end of the money trail.”
  • Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office is investigating Lotte Group’s shopping subsidiary for allegedly creating a slush fund.  According to the prosecution, “billions of won was sent from Lotte Shopping’s head office to affiliated businesses — Lotte Department Store, Lotte Mart, Lotte Super and Lotte Cinema — between 2011 and 2012, and why the money was transferred was unclear. The money was later withdrawn in cash.”  The Seoul Regional Tax Office imposed a 60 billion won fine on LG Group for tax evasion in 2013.
  • Dongguk Steel is suspected of, among other crimes, evading taxes, inflating the cost in the construction of a power plant, and fabricating the amount of goods imported from Japan and Russia.
  • On March 18, prosecutors raided Keangnam Enterprises Co., a Seoul-based builder, investigating allegations Keangnam misappropriated 10 billion won.  Investigators are also “looking into an alleged corrupt transaction between Keangnam Enterprises and the Korea Resources Corporation (Kores) in 2010.”  **UPDATE:  Lee Tae-hoon at The Korea Observer has reported the former head of Keagnam Enterprises has disappeared “hours before he was set to appear before police for a hearing to determine the legitimacy of his arrest”, leaving behind a will and suicide note. **  UPDATE 2:  “The body of Sung Woan-jong, former chairman of Keangnam Enterprises was found some 300 meters from a ticket booth in Mount Bukhansan. The cause of death needs to be investigated but reports said he appeared to have hung himself.”
  • Other companies under investigation include Kosteel, state run Korea National Oil Corporation (KNOC),   SK Innovation, KEPCO, and others in a search that seems to have given Goooooooogle its name.

According to Yonhap, the investigations began in mid-March “after Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo declared an ‘all-out war’ on corruption in an apparent attempt to prop up weak public support for President Park Geun-hye.”  The Korea Herald in an editorial Unfit corruption busters – Anticorruption agencies should check themselves first lamented,

There may be some political purposes behind this harsh corruption busting ― like taking revenge against former rivals and taming big businesses and the civil service. Nevertheless, it is imperative that we deal sternly with all cases of corruption.

Seeing the anticorruption war unfold, however, we cannot but raise a fundamental question: Are our anticorruption warriors clean enough to fulfill their mission? Few would say yes.

The recent cases point to the sad reality that some of our anticorruption agencies are rotten to the core. Police raided six tax offices in Seoul and Gyeonggi in a corruption probe last week. Before that, four senior officials ― two from tax offices and two from the Board of Audit and Inspection ― were caught having sex bought for them by those who they are supposed to be checking up on.

The case of the BAI officials is outrageous. They had dinner with officials from the Korea Electric Power Corp. and its affiliate ― the bill for the meals and drinks for the four was 1.8 million won ― and went to a hotel with two women who work at the restaurant.

KEPCO and its affiliates are subject to audits of the BAI and it is not hard to understand why they provide such generous entertainment to BAI officials. What’s more comical is that the two officials belong to the audit agency’s internal audit team which has been expanded in the wake of previous graft cases.

It is not rare for BAI and tax officials to be implicated in graft or other corruption cases. But the recent cases should reawaken Park and her aides to the importance of cleaning up the powerful anticorruption officials first.

PGH’s administration’s probes have widened from businesses to governmental agencies and educational institutions.  Only churches have (thus far) remained unscathed.  I suspect that will change in short time.

Interpretations for PGH’s administration’s about face run from trying to shore up her flagging poll numbers through providing a distraction to the Sewol Ferry saga to Korea’s political tradition of vanquishing one’s political enemies.   I opened the piece with PGH’s administration’s plans to pardon chaebol chiefs. “Nut rage” ended any possibility of that, and left PGH only with her campaign pledge.  I find all credible, not mutually exclusive, and additive.

The extent of the corruption should not surprise anyone who has been in Korea for any length of time.  Although I feel sad (I’ve made no secret of one aspect of my anonymous life:  my wife and children are Korean and of Korea) on the precipice of publishing, I remain a hopeful idealist.  The best thing that could happen to Korea is massive uncovering of the entrenched, unseemly side of Korean culture.

Pardon moi for taking a water droplet’s credit for its contribution to the flood.

A Nagging Reminder About Trust & Transparency

This BBC article, on the current discontent the families of the Sewol victims have with the government’s position, is to the point:

Committee chairman Lee Suk-Tae, one of the members nominated by the families, said that the “attempt to appoint maritime ministry officials, who should be the very subject of our own investigation… is completely unacceptable” . . . We need full political independence to get to the bottom of this tragedy and to prevent accidents like this from happening again.” A statement from the victims’ families said that “the priority for the government should not be monetary compensation but getting to the bottom of the incident, salvaging the wreckage and finding the last missing persons”.

which really contrasts to the comments I personally heard from one conservative constituent in Taegu, who mockingly accused the Sewol families of holding out for more money.

If the next president ends up being any other candidate than a Saenuri candidate, it will be because of this lack of transparency and trust generated by the government and the party that has continually not acted upon one of the most obvious needs of society – having a government that can be trusted.

Anti-Corruption Law Passed – Weasels Ride Woodpeckers – End Times Are Near


These are strange days indeed – The National Assembly (South Korea) actually passed an anti-corruption law that calls for up to three years in prison for journalists, teachers and public servants (?) who accept single cash donations or gifts valued at more than a million won, or about $910 (USD).  When I read this and see photos like the one above, I am wondering if the eschaton is at hand.

So He *Did* Intervene in The Election


For those that remember the story of Won Sei-hoon, former director of the NIS, that carried out a Tweeter campaign to bolster Park Guen-hye’s presidential campaign, it may come as a suprise that  the previous district court ruling that determined there was not enough proof that he tried to intervene in the election, was thrown out.

Won, instead won a brand-new go-to-jail card for three years:

The Seoul High Court, on Monday, dismissed the lower court’s decision and said he had also violated election laws. “It is fair to say Won had the intention to intervene in the election,”
(Judge Kim Sang-hwan)

I guess no one asked if anyone instructed him to do this, though Won was quoted as saying he did what he did “for the safety of my country and its people”.  Likewise, one might also say that the Seoul High Court overthrew the previous ruling for the integrity of the country and its people.

Having the Intellegence to Know When to Slap the Right Hand

tricky handsThe Bible speaks of the “left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing” and when applicable to a government, this is usually bad news since it could imply a “deep government” that exerts undue control over a democratic process.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina has announced plans to disband Argentina’s intelligence agency after the suicide (murder) of prosecutor Alberto Nisman – hours before he had been due to testify against senior government officials about the government cover-up of Iran’s role in a bombing that took place in 1994 (cite).

President Kirchner was quoted:

“I have prepared a bill to reform the intelligence service,” President Fernandez said, adding that she wanted the proposal to be discussed at an urgent session of Congress. “The plan is to dissolve the Intelligence Secretariat and create a Federal Intelligence Agency,” she said that a new leadership should be chosen by a president but would be subject to a Senate approval. (cite)
“Combating impunity has been a priority of my government,” she added. She further stated that the existing intellegence service “has not served the national interests”.

Considering the heavy-handed direct interference of the NIS (1, 2, 3)  and the CIA (torture instead of gathering actual information) in their respective governments, the undue political interference in the Prosecutor’s Office in Seoul, and the use of these intellegence services to further the political aims of a select group of politicians, it is past time to make a greater committment to our respective societies’s democracy and make these agencies anew.

Shhhhhhh . . .

gagConsidering the current concern with satire and free speech, Hyung-Jin Kim’s (AP) article on Shin Eun-mi, the Korean-American woman that has been accused of saying nice things about the DPRK, is a recent report concerning the National Security Act, free speech in South Korea and the politically inspired abuse of such in South Korea.

Shin Eun-mi is due to voluntarily leave today (?) after the Prosecutor’s Office issued a request to have her deported from South Korea today, due to her praise of the DPRK. The Prosecutor’s Office has also requested that she be barred from returning to South Korea for five years and that she be required to apply for a visa to return after that time, even though US citizens do not need a visa to visit South Korea (link). Shin Eun-mi’s “praise” has been construed as being a violation of the controversial National Security Act (an abbreviated translation of it is here). This has also not been the first time a foreign national has been expelled from South Korea for expressing pro-DPRK views – last year, a Chinese student was expelled for such for “suspicions of ‘aiding the enemy'”. (link) The National Security Act has long been a means by which critics of the ROK Government and DPRK supporters, both, have been prosecuted and imprisoned for up to seven years.

This issue illustrates the political intolerance that has characterized the current administration in squashing not only those that say good things about the DPRK but those that criticize the politicians in power and those that would expose the majority party’s incidences of violating the law though means of illegally manipulating government agencies, such as the NIS, or the use of media allies to help thwart investigation into their own violations of law.
Even the closest ally of South Korea thinks that the South Korean Government has gone too far in suppressing what most Americans would consider to be a freedom of speech issue:

. . . In a rare note of criticism of a key ally, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that despite South Korea’s generally strong record on human rights, the (South Korean) security law limits freedom of expression and restricts access to the Internet.

A fair description about the current state of South Korean politics and its effect upon free speech and political commentary, by Jamie Doucette and Se-Woong Koo, describes how the security act and government have grown bolder in using the issue of state security to supress those that would indulge their opinions:

. . . In this essay, we argue that this rhetorical shift has been accompanied by an expansion of what South Korean intellectuals term ‘politics by public security,’ a phrase used to describe the use of public security as a ground for stifling dissent and criticism. What is unique about the present moment is not simply the evocation of a threat to national security but the extent to which state agencies have been actively involved in this process, whether it be in the form of direct electoral interference, the leaking of confidential state documents, or the initiation of probes into prominent critics of the government from across the liberal-progressive opposition. In what follows, we examine the recent sequence of events from NIS electoral interference to the more recent move to disband the United Progressive Party in order to better understand distorting effects to Korean democracy brought about by this recent rhetorical shift and its intricate relation to ‘politics by public security.’

A link to this essay can be found here

Pardon moi? (redux)

Pardon me for resurrecting a prior post.

Voices for imprisoned conglomerate owners’ paroles and even pardons are gaining volume in Park Geun-hye’s ministries.  Floating pardons over a long yuletide weekend, the Blue House seems to be taking a page from the White House’s old play book.

On Christmas Eve, ruling Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung argued for paroles and even special pardons for businessmen behind bars. “As the nation’s economy is struggling, those who need to work should work. Investment is impossible without the owner’s decision,” Kim said.

The day after Christmas, Floor Leader Lee Wan-koo banged the parole drum. “If the government requests discussions about conditional release of business people, we can consult with the main opposition party.”  Party spokesman Park Dae-chul gave an official statement:  “The role of entrepreneurs is important in order for Korea to revive the economy that remains in the doldrums. We urge the government to deeply agonize over the issue given the two criteria of economy and law.”

Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters that he did not know whether the president’s office was considering granting parole to businessmen, adding the Justice Ministry, not Cheong Wa Dae, is the authority on the matter: “Entrepreneurial parole is the justice minister’s own right.

The Joongang Ilbo added, “although the Blue House did not officially endorse granting parole for the convicted executives”, deference to the Justice Ministry could be “interpreted as its tacit recognition of the need to allow company heads more leniency in the legal system.”  In an opinion piece, the Joongang Ilbo went so far as to say “the minister’s comments could well translate into his de facto consent.”

Those eligible for parole include SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won and his younger brother Jae-won.  The older Chey has served 23 months of his four-year sentence for embezzling tens of billions of won of his company’s money.  LIG Group Chairman Koo Bong-sang is also eligible for parole, having served 26 months of his four-year sentence for defrauding 215 billion won ($198 million) from investors.

Serving less than one-third of their terms, other imprisoned chaebol leaders are ineligible for parole; a presidential pardon is their only opt out of prison. A rouges’ gallery sampling includes the following:

  • CJ Group Chairman Lee Jae-hyun –  Sentenced in September to a three-year prison term for embezzlement, breach of trust, and tax evasion totaling 165.7 billion won (US$159.5 million). Having served only four months, Lee has been granted temporary medical parole to remain in the hospital for treatment following a kidney transplant.
  • Taekwang Group Chairman Lee Ho-jin – Sentenced to 4 1/2 years for embezzlement and breach of trust.  Having served 63 days behind bars, Lee has been hospitalized for two years and waiting for a liver transplant.
  • Former STX Group Chairman Kang Duk-soo – Sentenced in October to six years for cooking the company’s books for 584.1 billion won ($556.2 million) and embezzlement (67.9 billion won).  To his credit, “the figures were much smaller than the charges raised by the prosecution, which had claimed Kang’s accounting fraud and embezzlement reached 2.3 trillion won and 340 billion won, respectively.”
  • Tongyang Group Chairman Hyun Jae-hyun -Sentenced in October to 12 years in prison for fraud.  Hyun ordered Tong Yang affiliates to issue 1.3 trillion won (US$1.2 billion) worth of virtually worthless corporate bonds and commercial paper. “The business tycoon systematically covered up the companies’ troubled finances by asking media to delete or tone down articles questioning their financial health,” the court added.

All news stories and opinion pieces seemed to omit that the heads of Korea’s ministries are appointed, not elected, and Korea’s is not a coalition government.  The Justice Minister, appointed by PGH, serves at the President’s pleasure and carries out the President’s policies.  If Chung Wa Dae were against granting paroles, all speculation would end with a simple no.

Complicating the Justice Ministry’s plans for paroles and pardons are candidate Park Geun-hye’s own words (“There will be no special pardons of tycoons“) and the recent nut-rage incident, which brought to the surface Koreans’ long suffering and ever broiling sense of Korean chaebols’ families’ perceived entitlement and privilege.

These handful of minority, though perhaps plurality, shareholders have successfully held their companies and other shareholders hostage and hoodwinked the Korean government and media into thinking that the whole of the Korean economy depends on their captaining of their companies …which they embezzled from and defrauded …which is the reason they are in prison.  The Joongang Ilbo opined against a “quid pro quo”, that “the government must not grant them parole in exchange for promises to increase investments. It should be a matter of principles, not a business transaction.”  Under what principle should an embezzler of nearly $200 million dollars be paroled from serving his four year sentence?

All this makes me wonder how Apple would fare if Steve Jobs were to die or what Microsoft would do if Bill Gates retired to pursue philanthropy.  Given Korea’s dependence on Samsung, the real elephant in the economy, what would happen if Lee Kun-hee suffered an incapacitating heart attack?

I handicap the paroles and perhaps some pardons happening between Korea’s New Years:  sometime after solar New Year, sometime before March 1, and with a probability density centered around Seollal.

Pardon my French, but ce qui la baise?

More on the dissolution of the UPP

Over at Korea Expose – which if you’re not reading, you really should be – Ben Jackson has posted a wonderful analysis of the reactions to the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and what it means for Korean democracy.

I agree with the bulk of what Ben has to say. Judging simply from what I’ve read, I think the Constitutional Court’s decision was a bad one – if you’re going to disband a political party, an act not completely unheard of even in mature democracies, you’ve got to do so based on a criteria much more severe than anything I’ve seen yet in regards to this case. And while I might sympathize – for reasons such as this – with those uncomfortable with letting possibly pro-North Korean lawmakers sit in the National Assembly where they could cause trouble, even the Israelis allow openly anti-Zionist Arab parties to sit in the Knesset, and frankly, as Ben pointed out, there are probably bigger threats to Korea’s democratic order than a tiny minority party that is held in contempt by large swaths of the Korean public, including not a few progressives. In addition, the international optics of the decision are not good, and Amnesty International is already expressing concern. Some view the decision to drag the party before the court as political retribution for UPP party chief Lee Jung-hee’s trashing of President Park Geun-hye during the 2012 presidential debates, although frankly, Lee’s rhetoric may have actually helped Park more than it hurt.

Having said that, it is remarkable that the court not only decided to disband the UPP, but it did so in a 8-to-1 decision. Centrist justice Kang Il-won and even progressively minded justice Lee Jung-mi voted in favor of dissolving the party, which makes you wonder what exactly they heard during proceedings that was so bad that they gave an entire party the political death sentence. Moreover, opinion polls (printed in conservative papers, granted) suggest over 60% of the public supports the court’s decision.

As I said in the comment section of Korea Expose, it’s impossible to talk about the court’s decision without talking about former UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, who is currently doing a nine-year stint for incitement to rebel. What Lee did, and more to the point, how the UPP handled what Lee did, was almost comically bad, as I wrote back in 2013:

It seems everybody can agree that the UPP’s response to this crisis has been, in a word, abysmal. The Chosun, of course, notes that the UPP went from “there was no meeting” to “there was a meeting, but nothing about guns and blowing stuff up was said” to “there was a meeting and ‘guns’ and ‘blowing stuff up’ might have been mentioned, but the NIS is manufacturing the context” to “we were only joking.” You know you’ve truly screwed the pooch, however, when you’ve got UPP members going to the Hankyoreh to bitch about how the party leadership has thrown the party in crisis by a) refusing to apologize for Lee’s bizarre comments and behavior and b) lying to the public despite internal agreements to come clean right at the beginning.

Although justices Kang and Lee didn’t say anything in particular, the Segye Ilbo, citing lawyers and academics, suggests that the records from Lee’s investigation swayed the two into deciding with the majority. And indeed, the decision text mentions controversial comments made by Lee, including those regarding his refusal to sing the national anthem. (UPDATE: You can read the court’s decision in English here, and in Korean here).

The Chosun Ilbo sheds even more light on this. Although during proceedings, the UPP argued that you couldn’t connect the activities of some party members – i.e., Lee and comrades – to the party as a whole, the court decided that the decision by the party to defend Lee when the party was coming under fire for his actions meant Lee’s sins were the party’s sins. OK, I might not have gone in that direction, but the Chosun notes that there’s more, and it’s sort of ironic both for Lee and the party. During the criminal trial, Lee and his seven co-conspirators argued that the so-called Revolutionary Organization (RO) was not a secret organization, but rather a party event held to figure out a direction for the party’s anti-war activities. Suwon District Court, however, rejected this and judged the RO to be a secret organization that was plotting an insurrection. In the appeal, however, Seoul High Court found insufficient evidence that the RO existed and acquitted him plotting an insurrection (the court upheld the conviction for inciting rebellion, however). More to the point, the court accepted some of Lee’s arguments, namely, that his comments were made during a party meeting. So while the decision was good for Lee personally – he got three years shaved off his original 12-year sentence – it was bad for the party, which now looked like it was hosting events where people talked about blowing up vital infrastructure in the event of a North Korean invasion. Not pretty.

Moreover, the party and its predecessors have had serious internal issues in the past at least partly linked to its leadership’s attitudes toward North Korea (and its protection of members implicated in North Korea-related crimes), most notably in 2007 and 2012.

Still, while I’m much less despondent than co-blogger Anonymous_Joe or Ben, I do find myself agreeing with the lone dissenting voice on the court, who argued that it was wrong to punish the entire party for the actions of a few members and that Korea has laws – including the National Security Law – which could effectively remove seditious individuals from the policy making process. Moreover, if it’s potentially traitorous lawmakers you’re worried about, he argued, the National Assembly has its own measures to deal with them. Disbanding a party should be a last resort, and one ideally left to the voters at election time.

Sounds reasonable to me.

Anyway, a major theme in the conservative press is that Korea’s progressive movement needs to reinvent itself by cutting ties with pro-North Korean types – see today’s editorials in the Dong-A Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo (the Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, is still having too much fun beating up on the UPP). And sure enough, you can find progressive figures saying just that. Still, if the conservative press’s lectures come off nearly as annoying to progressives as progressive commentators’ lectures to conservatives sound every time we get spanked at the polls, I imagine the advice will fall on deaf ears. Instead, progressives are still wondering how the hell the Constitutional Court made its decision, and if today’s Hankyoreh editorial is anything to go by, what you’re going to hear are louder calls for reforming the Constitutional Court, where seven out of nine of the justices are selected by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the ruling party and all are former high-ranking court officers or prosecutors, both of which are viewed as bastions of conservatism. The Hani suggests adopting the practice of the German constitutional court, the model for Korea’s (not extending to the architecture, sadly), where justices need to be approved by a parliamentary two-thirds vote.

The Letter “D” as in . . .

Defamation is a problem for many in Korea, whose enforcement (or lack of enforcement) quite often infringes upon free speech, if not democracy itself.  The Wall Street Journal has a good, short piece on this issue here.

Have You Seen This Man?


Apparently, he was reported to be in the vicinity of the Blue House but there is some disagreement with this sighting and there are concerns that more than this man may be missing.  If you spot him, please call the Segye Ilbo, since they have invested some effort in locating this fellow.

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