Tag Archive | "north korea"

How Might Joe Biden as President Deal with Korea?

By Robert R. King

In 2001, Senator Joe Biden became Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  At the time, I was Chief of Staff for Congressman Tom Lantos of California, who had just became Ranking Democratic Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier that same year.  Before Lantos’ election to Congress, he had spent a few years in the late 1970s as a senior foreign policy advisor to Biden, and the two of them had become close friends.  They had traveled together internationally on many occasions, and after 1981 when both were serving in Congress, they worked together on a number of international projects.

Lantos set up a meeting in 2001 to talk with Biden about how the two might work together on a number of fractious foreign affairs issues since both were the leading Democrats of the foreign policy committees of the House and the Senate.  We met in Biden’s personal office in the Russel Senate Office Building, and as Democratic Staff Director Lantos invited me to join the meeting with Biden and his committee chief of staff.

We arrived just as Biden got back from a vote in the Senate chamber, and we were together for an hour or so before Lantos had to hurry back for a vote in the House of Representatives.  The meeting began with Biden discussing in great detail the previous evening’s episode of The West Wing—the American serial political drama (1999-2006) which was widely praised by critics, political science professors, former White House staffers, and which received 26 Prime Time Emmy awards including four awards for Outstanding Drama Series.

Biden was deeply into the issues raised in that television episode.  He had been a presidential candidate for a time during the 1988 campaign, and he was known to have presidential ambitions.  After hearing his analysis of The West Wing it was clear to me that he was still interested.  Biden’s interest in The West Wing episode focused on two issues:  how do you define what is the right decision on a public policy issue and how carry it out within a democratic system that requires approval of a fractious Congress and everything is done in the media spotlight.  His analysis convinced me he understood the political process and he had the right values.

With Joe Biden now President-elect Biden, pundits and astrologers are beginning the parlor game “What will President Biden do about _____ [insert your favorite issue].”  Unlike the election of Donald Trump four years ago, we have a much better idea of what Biden is likely to do.  He has a long track record in the realm of public policy, while Trump’s previous experience was limited to being a reality television personality and selling his name on properties whose mortgages were held by Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes.

Biden was a United States Senator for 36 years, and he was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for that time.  He was chair of the committee for 3½ years and it’s Ranking Democratic Member for 8½ years.   Most recently he served 8 years as Vice President, where he was involved in the highest level discussions, particularly on foreign affairs.  The principal reason Biden was chosen to be President Obama’s running mate in 2008 was his foreign policy experience, which Obama lacked.

What could we expect President-elect Biden to do with regard to policy on Korea when he moves into the Oval Office?  What might be different than what we have seen over the last four years?

Likely Policies toward South Korea

Biden gave a “Special contribution” to Yonhap, a principal South Korean news agency, that provides some indication of the President-elect’s thoughts on Korea policy.  The piece entitled “Hope for Our Better Future” was principally focused on issues that Korean-Americans would be most concerned about—immigration to the United States, the failure of President Trump to deal with the Covid pandemic, and economic recovery.  He also emphasized the South Korean and United States cooperation and sacrifice in the Korean War.

A couple of sentences were particularly forward-looking:  “As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.  I’ll engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula, while working to reunite Korean Americans separated from loved ones in North Korea for decades.”

Biden has been a particularly vocal advocate of United States allies, and he has supported international cooperation to deal with common international problems.  Trump, on the other hand, has disengaged with the international community.  It is been not just “America first,” but America alone.  Trump has demanded that South Korea (and Japan) pay considerably more to maintain U.S. troops there, and his belligerent pressure tactics reflect his background as a brash real estate mogul rather than a diplomatic approach to a common national security problem for both the U.S. and South Korea.  This is very much like pulling out of the World Health Organization and defaulting on a $62 million obligation to the UN agency in the midst of an international pandemic.

United States relations with South Korea are impacted by the U.S.-China relationship, and even under Biden there are likely to be issues that will require diplomatic effort to navigate.  Biden, however, will be more sophisticated in diplomacy.  Trump thinks in terms of his real estate tycoon Art of the Deal mentality, whereas Biden understands the importance of careful diplomatic negotiation.

Likely Policies Toward North Korea

Look for less focus on summit meetings with the North Korean leader from President Biden.  In less than two years President Trump has met three times with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.  Despite international media frenzy for all three meetings, the President has little to show for his effort.  The Singapore summit (June 2018) received international attention, the United States received 55 sets of remains, some of which may be U.S. military servicemen.  The Hanoi summit (February 2019) ended abruptly and before final meetings were held with recriminations for the failure.  The third meeting was a hand-shake at the DMZ border with nothing of substance accomplished.

The principal reason for the failure of the meetings was that senior staff were not given the mandate to pull together agreements that both sides were willing to accept.  The two leaders exchanged “beautiful letters,” “love letters,” but nothing of substance resulted.  As one Biden advisor said “There’s no question that the era of love letters will be over.”  Look for Biden to meet with Kim only if a meeting has been thoroughly prepared in advance.  A photo op will not be enough to justify a meeting with the President of the United States.

North Korea seems to have missed the possibility that Vice President Biden might become the U.S. President, because they have been especially negative in name calling the United States’ new leader.  A year ago in November 2019, the North Korean news agency KCNA was particularly critical of Joe Biden, then one of several Democratic candidates for President.  (Keep in mind that in North Korea KCNA is the official voice of the government—the equivalent of the White House spokesperson, not something like The Washington Post or CNN expressing a point of view.)

Biden was repeatedly called a dog—“a rabid dog only keen on getting at other’s throats. . . . wandering about like a starving field dog. . . . No wonder, even the Americans call him ‘1% Biden’ with low I.Q. . . . ‘mad Biden’”  He “had the temerity to dare slander the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK,” and this “was the last-ditch efforts of the rabid dog expecting his death.”

The era of “love letters” with North Korea may be over, but that does not mean that the United States will end its efforts to engage North Korea and reach a deal on denuclearization. But it will take a different approach, one that is less personal and more professional. A more professional approach to North Korea and a focus on restoring trust in the U.S.-Korea alliance are two key changes that we should expect from President-elect Biden.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.   

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

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The Inherent Limitation of a Pro-Engagement Posture

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On September 22, a 47-year-old fisheries official was shot dead by North Korean troops along the Yellow Sea coast.
  • The Korean Coast Guard later reported that the victim was likely looking to defect to North Korea.
  • The administration was criticized for its “soft” response as 68.6% believe that the government is mishandling the case.

Implications: A South Korean government that approaches North Korea with an explicitly pro-engagement posture runs the risk of facing political pushback when Pyongyang engages in provocative behavior. Although his pro-engagement policy helped bolster public confidence in the government during rapprochement with Pyongyang in 2018, Moon Jae-in now faces a more skeptical public in the face of a more hostile North Korea. Reflecting these shifting views, the government’s efforts to explain the situation have been interpreted by some as “defending” North Korea’s position.

Context: Despite these risks, South Korean administrations that take office without an explicitly pro-engagement policy have not succeeded in making headway with the North Korean regime. For instance, President Park Geun-hye approached engagement with Pyongyang with a much softer tone than her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, focusing on “mutually binding expectations based on global norms.” Even though Seoul during this time maintained a moderate position that was neither too hawkish or dovish, Pyongyang remained visibly skeptical and no major diplomacy breakthroughs took place.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Sophie Joo, Sonia Kim, and Chris Lee.

Picture from the flickr account of the Republic of Korea

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Bottom-Up Diplomacy with North Korea Hits a Roadblock

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • North Korea’s state-sanctioned Korean Christian Federation (KCF) has not commented on its South Korean counterpart’s draft of a joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, raising the possibility that this ceremony might be canceled for the first time in more than 30 years.
  • Many observers were caught by surprise as the KCF had traditionally maintained close ties with both South Korean and international religious organizations even during periods of heightened tensions.
  • The communication freeze by the KCF follows the announcement by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification on May 26 that it will revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act to ease grassroots exchanges with North Korea.

Implications: Any approach to North Korea, whether top-down or bottom-up, ultimately rests on Pyongyang’s receptiveness. Therefore, Kim Jong-un’s unwillingness to engage may forestall President Moon Jae-in’s efforts to maintain momentum around inter-Korean engagement through exchanges between grassroots and civic organizations. The lack of response from the North Korean christian organization is indicative of this challenge. Seoul had hoped that these non-governmental exchanges would sustain interest in state-led projects like inter-Korean tourism and reconnecting railways that are currently immobilized because of the diplomatic impasse.

Context: South Korea’s Korean Conference of Religions and Peace has been a consistent advocate of engagement with Pyongyang even as relations between the Koreas began to deteriorate in 2019. As a pan-religious consultative body, KCRP has long championed interfaith cooperation as a means for engaging the two Koreas. In 2017, members of the group discussed matters related to inter-Korean exchange with President Moon Jae-in during his first month in office.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim.

Picture from Universal Peace Federation

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The Media Cultures that Shape News on North Korea

By Andray Abrahamian

A month ago we ended a thrilling rollercoaster news event that helped temporarily distract us from coronavirus news: the health of Kim Jong-un. This story was due to some specific features of newsgathering and reporting on North Korea. With a bit of hindsight on that maelstrom, it might be worthwhile to zoom out and take a look at the media cultures that help shape North Korea news more generally, when there isn’t necessarily a “BREAKING” headline to get our attention.

Three media cultures create the majority of English-language news about North Korea: the United States, United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea. All three have unique characteristics and generate news in specific ways to meet particular goals and standards.

In the United States, news production rests on the foundational value of objectivity, though that has come under strain in the past decade. But this principle isn’t applied evenly, of course. One area in which the objectivity norm is less robust when news covers foreign policy issues generally and war/conflict in particular. The United States is, of course, in conflict with North Korea.

In Britain, “rather than objectivity, notions of truth, independence and ‘fair play’ held greater appeal”, according to one scholar [1]. Partisanship is allowable, so long as the subject is dealt with equitably and rationally. When the subject is deemed to be acting wholly unfairly, however, the requirements for fairness in news coverage are understandably diminished. North Korea as a news subject finds itself in this position, as does, say, Dominic Cummings. This is particularly true for British tabloids, which pursue “righteous causes” with a vigor largely unseen in American media.

South Korea finds its news media embedded in a politicized and polarized environment. With a relatively short history of media freedom, large media companies tend to cleave closer to the state than in the other two countries. That state that is involved in an ongoing structural competition for legitimacy with its Northern neighbor, even when the government in Seoul is pursuing a policy of rapprochement.

These media cultures agenda-set for reporting worldwide on this topic. The United States is a media hegemon, whose media outlets command the attention of media in other languages. The UK is home to several agenda-setting media outlets, notably the BBC, the Times and the Guardian. South Korea is less influential globally, but produces a great volume of news about North Korea, often translated into English.

In the United States, as noted, the objectivity norm is reduced when covering foreign affairs. This is partly because media are reliant on official sources for content. (One study from the 1970s found that 75 percent of front-page stories on the Washington Post and New York Times depended on official sources.) The U.S. government can therefore present the information that is to constitute the news story and then simultaneously give the official opinion on it, framing the information from the beginning. If a journalist can find an opposing view, it tends to remain a subordinate “counterpoint” in the binary relationship between the two.

This doesn’t mean media are simply complicit in how officials frame foreign affairs and conflict. As Daniel Hallin puts it, “officials, in their efforts to control political appearances, necessarily challenge the autonomy of the media, and journalists naturally resist” [2]. But, as Michael Schudson, another media scholar, notes: “the media are obligated not only to make profits but to maintain their credibility in the eyes of readers,” as well as “expert and often critical sub-groups in the population, particularly in Washington, D.C.” [3].

This is an important frame and might manifest itself, for example, by describing North Korean acts as “saber-rattling”, while the US and allies conduct “shows of force”. This is easy to slip into. After all, if you ascribe to small-l liberal values and a liberal world order, perspectives favorable to Pyongyang are usually fundamentally opposed to both American values and strategic interests. How does one find an objective viewpoint on such a country and its policies?

That fact that the DPRK doesn’t respect human rights and individual rights in the same way as western democracies also challenges the “fairness doctrine” of British media. This can happen with conservative, establishment press like The Economist, which famously had a cover of Kim Jong Il captioned “Greetings, Earthlings!” and bid him farewell when he died with a self-referential “Farewell, Earthling’s”.

UK tabloid news outlets are even more likely to mock North Korea. When The Sun snuck two journalists onto a tour of North Korea in 2012, “tricking” the regime, they noted that apartments in Sinuiju were “a sham, they were all windowless and empty. Despot Kim Jong-il had ordered the ‘homes’ to be built to make it appear to the Chinese that North Koreans were living well.” People were of course “zombie-like”. They also produced commentary about a “glum” circus: “The Sun’s shocking pictures expose the despotic regime’s everyday cruelty that will outrage animal lovers.” Still, the headline: “North Korea’s got Talent: Animals Made to Skate in Secretive State” is pretty amazing.

These descriptions are dubious and the point about the apartments manifestly nonsense. The point here is fairness becomes unnecessary when describing a place that is so alien, difficult and visits all manner of woes on its own citizens. And also on bears, who I agree should not be forced to skate.

Finally, South Korean media culture fits into what Hallin and Mancini call the “polarized pluralist model”. In this model, the processes that disembedded news media from political parties, interests and the state has not taken place. Pre-democratic South Korea has left a legacy wherein the expectation of cooperation between media and government is high. The government also has more leverage over news organizations than in the UnitedStates or UK.

There is a conservative press and a progressive press, both of which favor different approaches to North Korea, though overall within the framework of an alliance and good relations with the United States. The DPRK is a competitor state, after all, even if a pro-engagement administration like the current one is in power.

Along with this news-industry model, the specific news culture allows single anonymous sources to be the basis of a story, something not really possible in the United States or Britain. News stories can be much more “rumor-y” in Korea in general.

The nature of government leaks and anonymous source stories on North Korea, of which there are many, does change according to which kind of government is in power. Under the previous two conservative administrations, the stories pushed in the direction of the media tended to emphasize instability, human rights violations and deprivation. Under this progressive one, stories are more likely to emphasize stability, reasonable leadership and areas where compromise might be possible. What matters for English-language news is these are the pool of leaks that get picked up by the South Korean press, then sometimes re-interpreted by western outlets.

Ultimately, none of this is about what is true or false per se. But as media consumers being aware without being hyperbolic – no need to scream “fake news” or any of that nonsense – is important as we attempt to understand a difficult and complicated country.

Andray Abrahamian is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute, Visiting Scholar at George Mason University Korea, and Senior Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.


[1] Mark Hampton, “The ‘Objectivity’ Ideal And Its Limitations In 20th-Century British Journalism,” Journalism Studies Vol. 9, No. 4, (2008): 477.

[2] Daniel Hallin, The Uncensored War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7

[3] Michael Schudson, The Sociology of News (New York: Norton, 2003), 40.

Picture from flickr account of Eli

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Religious Group Advocates for People to People Diplomacy

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On June 16, North Korea blew up its joint liaison office with South Korea in a display of antagonism towards the Moon administration for failing to prevent activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets.
  • As a response to the demolition of the building, the Korean Conference of Religions and Peace (KCRP) issued a statement cautioning for calm amid rising inter-Korean tensions.
  • In the statement, KCRP also called for both Koreas to expand the role of cooperative projects, such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tour program.

Implications: Bolstered by the Moon administration’s efforts to enhance people-to-people ties between North and South Korea, the KCRP represents one of many domestic stakeholders that will continue to advocate for engagement with Pyongyang despite deteriorating conditions. While the latest provocations by North Korea diminish the likelihood of near-term talks between the governments, these grassroots organizations will prevent the political appetite for engagement from falling to zero. In fact, the stalled diplomatic process has pushed these grassroots organizations to more actively underscore the importance of individual-level inter-Korean projects.

Context: Founded in 1968, The Korean Conference of Religions and Peace is a leadership group that represents seven major religions in South Korea. As a pan-religious consultative body, KCRP has long championed interfaith cooperation as a means for engaging the two Koreas. In 2017, members of the group discussed matters related to inter-Korean exchange with Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s newly elected president at the time.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant, Sonia Kim, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr account of user Brian Hammonds

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South Korea’s Approach To Anti-Pyongyang Leaflets

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On June 4, the Ministry of Unification announced plans to ban the deployment of balloons carrying anti-Pyongyang leaflets after North Korea issued a warning against these activities earlier that day.
  • On June 9, North Korea threatened to cut off all inter-Korean communication lines and did not answer routine military hotline calls from the South.
  • On June 11, the Ministry of Unification filed a legal complaint against two North Korean defector groups that sent anti-Pyongyang leaflets for violating inter-Korean cooperation, environmental, and aviation laws. The Ministry will also take steps to revoke government-issued business permits for those organizations.

Implications: The South Korean government’s recent decision to ban the deployment of anti-Pyongyang leaflets is consistent with the Moon administration’s ongoing effort to engage with North Korea. North Korea has issued threats over the leaflets before and Pyongyang routinely expresses its displeasure with Seoul by suspending communications. In response, the Moon administration has been looking for ways to prevent leaflet launches since 2017. Notably, this is the first time that the South Korean government invoked the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act and other laws to penalize groups that sent the leaflets.

Context: Previous conservative administrations have also used law enforcement to stop activist groups from deploying balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets to the North. However, the government’s responses were ad hoc and corresponded with the escalation of tensions with the North. Indeed, the government has never imposed punishments – the administration of both Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye rejected the notion that such balloon launches were illegal and did not take further legal steps to ban them outright.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant, Soojin Hwang, Sonia Kim, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture sources from Wikimedia commons

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South Korea Pursues Bottom-Up Inter-Korean Engagement

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On May 26, the Ministry of Unification announced its plan to revise the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act to simplify administrative procedures and to allow wider cross-border exchanges with North Korea.
  • On May 27, the U.S. State Department said South Korea’s attempts to increase engagement with North should be pursued in parallel with North Korea’s denuclearization.
  • On May 12, South Korea’s Minister of Unification said the ministry is planning to prioritize the inter-Korean tourism project, after the COVID-19 crisis is resolved, that would allow its citizens to visit North Korea.
  • During the May 10 speech, President Moon reiterated his vision to bolster inter-Korean cooperation.

Implications: Seoul is exercising its option to pursue a bottom-up approach to inter-Korean engagement while government-to-government efforts are stalled. The proposed revision of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act aims to designate municipalities and civilian groups as agents for cooperative projects with the North and ease regulations for more individual-level interactions. The government hopes that these revisions would promote exchanges between the two Koreas and facilitate state-led projects like inter-Korean tourism and reconnecting railways in the long run.

Context: President Moon invested significant political capital in inter-Korean détente since he took office in 2017. However, many of his efforts have been hampered by broader geopolitical challengesdomestic opposition, and an uncooperative North Korea. With the ruling Democratic Party now fully in control of the National Assembly, the Moon administration is likely to leverage the momentum to push ahead with its desired North Korean policy.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user TeachAgPSU

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Korean Sentiments Toward China Continue to Worsen

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • A recent survey by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace found that only 26% of South Korean respondents believe that China would be a supportive partner of unification on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Recently, the arrest of a Chinese national who entered South Korea without documentation has prompted an investigation into potential espionage activity.
  • Negative perceptions towards China have been evident since tensions over the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in Korea.

Implications: Negative views towards China may intensify as the Korean public places greater attention on inter-Korean issues. The recent Carnegie survey revealed that public sentiments towards China became more hostile when framed in the context of unification. While survey data does not show how COVID-19 has affected attitudes towards Beijing, the recent espionage probe into a Chinese national may further color perceptions of the bilateral relationship. As the Moon administration has greater political space to advance inter-Korean ties, the increased focus on relations with North Korea may further exacerbate negative attitudes towards China.

Context: According to a 2015 Pew Research poll, 61% of South Koreans had favorable views of China. However, a December 2019 poll showed only 34% of South Koreans have a favorable view of China, while 63% have an unfavorable view. A major catalyst for the deterioration in attitudes may stem from Chinese retaliation against Korea’s installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery. Chinese boycotts against Korea products cost companies like Lotte nearly USD 2 billion in losses.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from flickr user Haluk Beyazab

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Two Prominent Defectors Elected to South Korean National Assembly

By Robert R. King

Two prominent North Korean defectors were elected to membership in South Korea’s National Assembly in elections held on April 15th.  This is the first time that two defectors will sit in the South Korean legislature.  Thae Yong-ho was elected to represent the Gangnam District of Seoul, and Ji Seong Ho was elected on the Freedom Party group list.

Both Mr. Thae and Mr. Ji are members of the opposition United Future Party group in the Assembly.  The ruling majority party group, the Democratic Party and another allied party won 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the United Future Party and a party affiliated with it won 103 seats.

The majority of Assembly members are chosen to represent a single constituency, but in addition, some Assembly members are chosen from a party list with the number of representatives for each party group determined by the proportion of the total votes cast in the entire country for that group.  The South Korean electoral system was changed before this election to give a slight advantage to smaller parties in order to encourage better representation for minority interests.  Roughly two-thirds of representatives are chosen by constituencies and about one-third from party lists.

The two former North Koreans now serving in the National Assembly both have a high profile that extends well beyond the refugee community.  Both are well known in South Korea, and both have international reputations.

Thae Yong-ho, one of the most prominent North Korean officials to defect to South Korea, was formerly the Deputy Chief of Mission at the North Korean Embassy in London when he successfully fled with his family in August 2016.  Thae was elected to represent the Gangnam district of Seoul, which is one of the most exclusive areas of the capitol city.  Gangnam has been described as the Beverly Hills of Korea, and it achieved fame well beyond Korea in 2012 when K-pop entertainer Psy released his music video “Gangnam Style” inspired by and filmed in the Gangnam District.

Thae is the most senior North Korean official to defect since Hwang Jang-yop in 1997.  As the second in command of the North Korean Embassy in London, Thae was heavily involved in North Korean efforts in Europe and its financial activities.  He was a highly regarded diplomat.  Since his defection, he has been a prominent commentator, testifying before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.  His memoir of his time as a North Korean diplomat was a best seller in South Korea and was praised by specialists.

Ji Seong Ho escaped from North Korea by illegally crossing into China in 2006, and he has been a prominent advocate for North Korean refugees in South Korea.  He grew up in the North during the devastating famine of the 1990s.  When he was stealing coal to survive during the famine era, he lost consciousness from lack of food and was run over by a rail car and critically injured.  He lost a leg and several fingers, which were amputated without anesthesia.  He later escaped into China, almost drowning when he illegally crossed the Tumen River.  He survived and crossed China with the help of brokers and religious activists.  He eventually succeeded in reaching South Korea.

Since arriving in South Korea, Ji has raised awareness about North Korea and sought to improve human rights in the North.  He established the organization Now Action & Unity for Human Rights (NAUH), and he has supported broadcasting news and information programing to North Korea and aiding defectors.

Mr. Ji was highly visible in the United States in January 2018 when he was a guest at the first State of the Union Address of President Trump.  When the president introduced him during the speech, Ji waived his crutches above his head.  He also was with a group of North Korean defectors who met with the President in the oval office a few days later.

Significance of Electing Defectors to Parliament

Mr. Thae and Mr. Ji are the second and third North Korean defectors to serve in the National Assembly in Seoul.  Cho Myung-chul, a North Korean defector and a former professor in the North, was the first refugee to serve as a member of the Assembly from 2012 to 2016, and he was elected on the party list.  Mr. Cho was from a politically-well connected family in the North, and he taught at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang.  He defected to South Korea when he was visiting China in 1994.  He held senior positions in the Ministry of Unification in the South before his election to the Assembly.

Under South Korean law, refugees from the North are entitled to citizenship in the South when they arrive.  News reports suggest that this election had a particularly high level of defector participation because of dissatisfaction with President Moon Jae-in’s policy of reconciliation with the North, which has been particularly unpopular with refugees.

The defectors were not a major factor in the election results, however.  The total number of defectors resettled in the South over the last two-and-a-half decades is less than 35,000.  Although defectors may have been motivated to participate in the election, the numbers are still small enough they were not a major factor, even in the election of members on the party list.  The defector vote had little impact on the election of Mr. Thae in the Gangnam constituency since few refugees can afford to live in that high-rent district.

Placing two individuals in favorable political position on the ballot to aid their election is a positive sign of inclusiveness on the part of South Korea’s Freedom Party.  These two individuals do not bring a large bloc of voters with them, but at a time when there has been criticism about treatment by the South of refugees from the North, the election of two defectors to the National Assembly is a positive and hopeful signal.

The Coronavirus and the Election

In assessing the significance of two defectors serving in the National Assembly and what that might mean about South Korean attitudes, it is important to keep in mind that the coronavirus is the overwhelming concern of people in most areas of the world today.  The results of the election reflect that issue more than matters involving of defectors, foreign policy or Korean unification.

The election played out over the successful handling of the pandemic in South Korea by President Moon Jae-in, not over his policies toward North Korea or even the economy.  President Moon was not on the ballot since in South Korea the presidential and parliamentary elections are on a different schedule.  The next parliamentary election will be held in four years in 2024, but the next presidential election will be held in 2022.  South Korean presidents serve only a single five-year term.

The positive handling of the coronavirus by the administration of President Moon was a major boost for Moon’s Democratic Party.  The Democratic Party and another affiliated party won 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, while the opposition United Future Party and its affiliate won 103 seats.  Reports called this election a “landslide.”

The election result was particularly surprising since Moon has had problems over the last year with his effort to improve ties with North Korea while the North has resumed missile testing and played hard-to-get to Moon’s wooing.  At the same time the country was facing tough economic problems.  President Moon’s approval rating had fallen to 30 percent a year ago.

Seoul’s handling of the coronavirus was the principal factor in the turnaround, and the South did a masterful job.  As Professor Victor Cha said, South Korea’s response “has become the gold standard for flattening the curve.  The South Korean response—a blend of quick action and policy innovations coordinated by the national government—has proven enormously effective in containing the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The Moon government’s success in dealing with the coronavirus was given even greater luster when contrasted with the U.S. federal government’s limping, struggling efforts to deal with the health crisis.  The first coronavirus death in the United States and in South Korea occurred one day apart.  Since that time, South Korea per capita has tested three times as many of its citizens as the United States, and South Korea’s mortality rate is also one-third the U.S. rate.

The success of South Korea’s effort to deal with the coronavirus gave Moon a major boost.  In late January his approval rating was 41 percent, and at the time of the election this week it stood at 57 percent.  The election results reflected Moon’s approval ratings—Moon’s Democratic Party won 180 of 300 seats in the National Assembly, an increase of 60 seats over the previous Assembly.  Furthermore, turnout for the election was the largest in three decades.

North Korea policy was not a prominent issue in the National Assembly elections; nevertheless, the election of two North Korean defectors as Assembly Members is a positive sign that the refugees can participate fully in the political life of South Korea.  That is an important message for refugees who face difficulties adjusting to life in a very different culture when they arrive in the South, but also for South Koreans.  The defectors were elected with the votes of South Koreans, not other defectors.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.  

Cover photo of National Assembly by Lig Ynnek’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. Photo of Thae Yong-ho by Voice of America from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Ji Seong-ho from the White House photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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A New Milestone in Advocacy for Defector Community

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

What Happened

  • On February 18, a group of North Korean defectors formed a political party called the South-North Unification Party.
  • The Unification Ministry recently announced plans to provide greater support for North Korean defectors.
  • According to the Unification Ministry, the average monthly income among North Korean defectors living in South Korea exceeded $1,681 for the first time in 2019.

Implications: Direct participation in electoral politics by people who escaped to South Korea from the North suggests that Seoul’s effort to integrate the defector community into society is delivering results. If the South-North Unification Party is able to send a delegate to the National Assembly in April, it would be a major milestone as only one North Korean defector has ever served in South Korea’s legislature to-date. Political mobilization by the community parallels improvements in living standards for North Korean defectors who have benefited from the steady expansion of services under successive administrations. The launch of this new political party shows that the community feels sufficiently assimilated to participate in policy discourse – albeit their campaigns spotlighting areas where the community has experienced persistent discrimination.

Context: As of December 2019, there were 33,523 North Korean defectors in South Korea. Annual surveys by Korea Hana Foundation showed that the quality of life for North Korean defectors has improved over the past decade. For instance, the number of respondents who said they were satisfied with their lives in South Korea rose from 67.3% in 2012 to 72.5% in 2018. The employment rate increased from 48.3% in 2012 to 60.4% in 2018. School dropout rates also decreased from 10.8% in 2008 to 2% in 2017.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Gordon Henning, Soojin Hwang, Hyungim Jang, and Ingyeong Park.

Picture from RFA by 서재덕

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