Tag Archive | "politics"

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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Economic Concerns Dominate Political Discourse

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

  • Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung and former conservative politician Yoo Seung-min exchanged barbs on social media over whether the incumbent administration has given up on economic issues.
  • This comes as controversy mounts over the lack of public relief for delivery workers who are being overworked by the retail industry.
  • The government’s failure to halt runaway housing prices continues to receive heightened attention, prompting policymakers to consider rolling back property taxes.

Implications: Despite concerns ranging from the ongoing pandemic to Pyongyang’s diplomatic intransigence, economic issues dominate the political discourse in South Korea. Housing unaffordability elicited the most scrutiny. Notably, a majority of survey respondents in their 20s and 30s – a cohort that strongly supported President Moon Jae-in in the 2017 election – expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts to rein in real estate prices. Simultaneously, the government has not satisfactorily addressed concerns of marginalized workers who are overworked and underprotected by the current system. In this environment, the social media exchange between Governor Lee Jae-myung and Yoo Seung-min may foreshadow the central debate in the upcoming 2022 presidential election.

Context: The focus on bread and butter issues marks a shift in political discourse since President Moon began his term in 2017. The previous election came on the heels of popular protests against the previous administration’s corruption. Engagement with North Korea also loomed large in the first two years of President Moon’s term as Pyongyang first escalated tensions and then made peace overtures. As late as Spring 2020, the nation’s focus was on the pandemic – with the electorate rewarding the ruling party with a near-supermajority on the merits of the government’s handling of the COVID outbreak. Nonetheless, scrutiny from both the public and opposition parties are now focused on the government’s handling of the economy.

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

Picture from the user Republic of Korea on Flickr 

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Government Struggles to Juggle Messaging around the Crisis

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

  • The government announced that it would provide a one-time voucher worth USD 17 to all nationals above the age of 13 to help with their phone bills.
  • Simultaneously, the government will pay telecommunications service providers USD 784 million to bolster their operations.
  • Current opinion polls show that 58.2% of respondents believe the subsidy is wrong.

Implications: As the pandemic places growing strains on the economy, the Korean government is struggling to balance the public messaging around individual sacrifice and its efforts to bolster domestic corporations. Critics point out telecommunications firms should be competing to lower their fees instead of receiving handouts. They were also critical of the vouchers, which were seen as too little to make any long-term impact on the people’s finances. The South Korean public is expressing growing disquiet around the ongoing emphasis on personal sacrifice while the government appears more interested in shoring up corporations.

Context: Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced the government to soften its posture towards domestic corporations. The economic uncertainty has raised fears that harm to these national industries could have wider consequences on the economy. Domestic corporations have used this environment to their advantage, justifying layoffs without consultation with labor unions and advocating for lower punishment for past misdeeds.

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

Picture from flickr user Jens-Olaf Walter

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Why Did Kim Jong-un Call for a Party Congress?

By Stephan Haggard

How are we to interpret Kim Jong-un’s surprising decision to call a Party Congress for early 2021? The regime held ad-hoc Party Conferences in September 2010 and April 2012—before and after Kim Jong-il’s death—in order to cement the succession. But Party Congresses are still rare: the one held in May 2016 was the first since 1980, despite the fact that they are nominally to be held every five years and stand at the organizational apex of the Party’s formal structure.

The Announcement was made at the 6th Plenary (of the 7th Central Committee), and indirectly referenced the external shocks the country has faced not only from sanctions and the unexpected failure at Hanoi but from the COVID border shutdown (the “unexpected and inevitable challenges,” including those in “the region surrounding the Korean peninsula.”)

What got attention, however, was the blunt mea culpa in the formal decision to convene the Congress that was splashed across the front page of Rodong Sinmun: that

“…the economy was not improved in the face of sustaining severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges, thereby planned attainment of the goals for improving the national economy has been seriously delayed and the people’s living standard not been improved remarkably.”

Picking through the small shards of information we have suggests a number of hypotheses for an all-party gathering, including an effort to strengthen institutions and taking the weight off of anniversaries in the fall to extend the time horizon of recovery. But the most obvious interpretation follows a plain reading of the announcement: that the North Korean economy is in worse shape than we—or the leadership—had thought.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

If the Congress is being held for the reasons the announcement suggests–to try to right the economic ship–what does that ultimately portend? Could the current shock actually generate a real about-face and more wide-reaching reforms? Hope springs eternal, but there is little evidence to support such a fundamental shift. Rather, the Congress is more likely to engage in blame-shifting purges while simultaneously outlining new economic plans not fundamentally different than those that have just failed.

Kim Jong-un’s response to progress on the Pyongyang General Hospital can be read as a microcosm of how the Congress could go. A prestige project nonetheless designed to showcase populist policy priorities, the effort is not going well. In July, Kim offered up a scathing assessment of the state bodies tasked with implementing construction. According to KCNA coverage and analysis by Ben Silberstein, Kim Jong-un claimed that the construction coordination commission had failed to carry out the instructions of the Party. It would therefore need to be held to account by the relevant departments of the Central Committee, including through sacking the commission as a whole and making “strict referral of them.”

As Silberstein points out, this shadow dance is now virtually an institutional feature of the socialist sector of the North Korean economy, in which the party makes plans that are unrealistic then blames lower level officials for subsequent failures. There are already open hints that the Five Year Plan has been running well-behind schedule: at Party Plenum in December and indirectly confirmed in the agendas of the Politburo and SPA meetings in April. And mentions of corruption suggest that the de facto mixed economy model is a disability when resources are scarce and private entrepreneurs and households are hoarding. The Congress could thus be a wider forum for shaking up the economic ministries, launching a crackdown on corruption—in short, a resort to controls–while not fundamentally shifting course.

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings: It’s About the Party and Appointments

A second hypothesis that is complementary to the first is that Kim Jongunn is in fact seeking to use institutions more effectively. A number of analysts have noted the uptick in meetings. Setting aside Central Military Commission meetings, these include an “emergency” Politburo gathering at the end of July, and another one in mid-August; a Workers Party of Korea “Executive Policy Council” meeting; and the Central Committee (CC) plenum that rendered the decision to convene the Congress.

A charitable interpretation would see Kim Jong-un seeking to institutionalize his rule; for example, there was explicit mention in the announcement that the Congress should in fact convene every five years that is worth citing at length:

“Calling for regularly convening the congresses of the Party, the supreme guidance organ of the Party, in order to confirm the line, strategic and tactical measures for steering the development of the times and the revolution and adjust and reinforce the leadership body for guaranteeing their execution, he advanced the important guidelines for the operation of the congress. “

If Kim does in fact have health problems, then such institutionalization could even be in anticipation of a succession, as was the ad hoc Party Conference in 2010.

Yet another possibility is that the regime might undertake more fundamental institutional changes. Instead of simply re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship, the leadership could move toward a more deliberative policy-making model along the lines of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee (which has itself been weakened by the accretion of power in the hands of Xi Jinping).

But there is little evidence of any deviation from the system’s highly centralized, leader-oriented structure. Rather than moving toward a more institutionalized, consultative or deliberative model, the Party Congress will probably be used to exhort, cajole, monitor and ultimately to threaten and instill fear. The run-up to the Congress could—in line with the observations above—be preceded by a substantial shakeup of personnel, again for blame shifting reasons; Martin Weiser among others has picked up on this theme and provided detail on recent moves in this regard.

Timing is Everything

A final cluster of hypotheses center on timing. As we are seeing in spades in the U.S. elections, the timing of key political events is consequential. In this regard, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump face quite similar challenges: will the economy rebound on a schedule that permits them to claim credit in advance of elections (in the U.S.) or the usual round of fall anniversaries (in North Korea).

Moreover, the U.S. elections themselves may warrant hosting a major party meeting after November, as knowing who is in the White House would add some clarity to North Korean planning.  Kim Yo-jong’s recent comments likely signal as much and that there is little expectation of an October surprise in Pyongyang.,

Yet if we are expecting some fundamentally new departure in North Korean foreign or domestic policy, the Congress is almost certain to disappoint. What evidence do we have that the fine tacking between strategies in Pyongyang that analysts have been forced to pore over the last nine years really have had much enduring consequence on where the regime is going?

Stephan Haggard is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute and the Lawrence and Sallye Krause Professor of Korea-Pacific Studies, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program and distinguished professor of political science at the School of Global Policy and Strategy University of California San Diego. 

Photo from Wikimedia commons.

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Regionalism: Fading Shadow or Unyielding Ghost?

By Ingyeong Park

Are Korean citizens still voting based on their region’s long-standing affiliation with the conservative or liberal party? This is a perennial question in South Korea after every election, and the latest general election on April 15 was no different. Even though President Moon Jae-in’s ruling Democratic Party clinched a landslide victory, traditionally progressive Honam region (North and South Jeolla Provinces) and traditionally conservative Yeongnam region (North and South Gyeongsang Provinces) appeared unwilling to shift their political allegiances. However, a closer look at the data suggests that these voting patterns may not be a hard-set rule in the years ahead.

Political regionalism is a prominent feature in modern Korean political history. During the 7th presidential election in 1971, Park Chung-hee from the conservative party focused his campaign on the Yeongnam Region while his progressive rival Kim Dae-jung concentrated his efforts in the Honam region. In the end, Park Chung-hee won 65.62% of the votes in South Gyeongsang province and 73.35% in North Gyeongsang. Similarly, Kim Dae-jung won the majority of the votes in the Jeolla Provinces.

This pattern of voting remained a prominent electoral dynamic even after democratization in 1987. According to research by Ajou University Professor Moon Woojin, although the effects of regionalism did soften in the 1996 and 2000 legislative elections, its impact on elections has not diminished in the intervening years.

Some reports covering the 2020 National Assembly elections suggested that regionalism had deepened. Candidates from the conservative United Future Party won in 56 constituencies out of 65 open seats in the Yeongnam region, while progressive candidates from the Democratic Party won 27 out of 28 districts in the Honam region. In fact, the Democratic Party secured fewer seats in the Yeongnam region compared to the previous general election.

However, outcomes from individual district races may not present the full picture. Despite conservative party candidates winning most of the seats in the Yeongnam region, the number of votes gained by the Democratic Party in the region has increased compared to the last general election. In the 2016 legislative election, only  8 of the 18 candidates from the Democratic Party in the city of Busan (sitting in the heart of South Gyeongsang Province) won more than 40% of the votes. In the most recent contest, 16 candidates from the progressive camp won more than 40% of the votes in the city.

According to the newspaper Hankyoreh, the increased share of the votes that the Democratic Party received in the Yeongnam region is reflected in the number of proportional seats gained compared to the last general election. The outlet also mentioned that evidence of persistent regionalism may be an optical illusion created by the first-past-the-post voting system.

The bigger concern for the future of the electoral system is whether the newly implemented mixed-member proportional representation (PR) system would be able to elevate the representation of minority parties as it was intended. So far, the two major parties have proven capable of cannibalizing votes intended for smaller parties by creating satellite parties. This will likely become a growing issue in future elections.

Ingyeong Park is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. She is a student of political science and diplomacy at Ajou University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from the user Republic of Korea on Flickr 

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Koreans Vote for Continuity with the Ruling Party

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 April 15, South Korea held its 20th National Assembly election.
  • The ruling Democratic Party (DP) and its satellite party won 180 out of 300 seats, while the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) and its satellite party won 103 seats.
  • Lee Nak-yeon, former prime minister and a strong presidential candidate, won by a 20% margin against UFP leader Hwang Kyo-ahn who was also considered a potential presidential candidate before the election.

Implications: Power shifts between the two major parties over the past several election cycles suggest that Korean voters are more comfortable voting for the party in power. The recent trend diverges from the established assumption that voters tend to vote for the opposition party to check the ruling party. Since 2004, South Korea has seen more cases of the president’s party winning the legislative election or the candidate from the party with a parliamentary majority winning the presidential election. This year’s general election followed this trend, further encouraging the public to see it as a preview of the 2022 presidential election. With the DP’s three-fifths majority in the National Assembly, media outlets are openly speculating that former Prime Minister Lee’s odds in the presidential election have significantly increased.

Context: Since 2004, South Korea mostly had the same party in power in both the executive and legislative branches. In the 2012 legislative election, the conservative party won and then swept the presidential election later that year. The liberal party won the 2016 general election and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in won the 2017 presidential election after President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. Going further back, incumbent president Lee Myung-bak’s conservative party won the 2008 legislative election by a wide margin – and in the 2004 legislative election, President Roh Moo-hyun’s liberal party secured a majority in the National Assembly.

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

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

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High Turnout Points to Policy Success

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

  • 66.2% voter turnout in the recent National Assembly election was the highest in 28 years.
  • Voter participation has gradually increased since 2008 when turnout was at 46.1%.
  • Lawmakers’ decision in December 2019 to lower the voting age from 19 to 18 increased the number of eligible voters by 530,000.

Implications: While many have attributed the heightened voter turnout to President Moon’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, persistent efforts to increase the pool of eligible voters deserve attention. Since 2008, lawmakers adopted successive measures to enfranchise a greater number of cohorts. As a result, suffrage was extended to overseas residents in 2012. There was also a parallel increase in demand for expanded suffrage during the past few years. Notably, protests in 2016-17 against President Park Geun-hye may have motivated younger South Koreans to demand voting rights. Polling of high school students in 2017 showed a 41.3% year-to-year increase in support for lowering the voting age from 19 to 18.

Context: As previously highlighted in the previous issue of Korea View, government support for the newly franchised voters did not keep pace with the expansion of suffrage in many areas. A proposal to increase the number of polling booths abroad was rejected by the National Assembly in 2019. Simultaneously, the government was unable to respond effectively to citizens abroad who were unable to vote in their local diplomatic missions and requested vote-by-mail. Similarly, the government’s plan to educate newly franchised 18-year voters also fell short because of schools being shuttered to contain the spread of COVID-19.

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

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

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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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How Does South Korea’s New Election System Work?

By Soo Jin Hwang

Last year, South Korea adopted a new mixed-member proportional representation (PR) system. The revision aimed to improve representation by making it easier for previously underrepresented political parties to win a larger share of seats in the National Assembly. Simultaneously, it was a politically advantageous move for the ruling Democratic Party (DP), which calculated that opposition parties would lose more influence in the legislature. Aware that the new PR system would likely disadvantage its chances at the polls, the main opposition United Future Party (UFP) – until recently the Liberty Korea Party – tried to hedge by creating a satellite party. This prompted the DP to take similar measures in response. As a consequence of these maneuvers, voters at today’s election received the longest ballot in Korea’s election history. More pressingly, these countermeasures by the major parties may ultimately undercut the effort to make politics more inclusive.

How does the new system work?

The revised PR system disadvantages major parties because it distributes proportional seats based on the new “compensatory system.” The new calculation aims to offset overrepresentation from district seat races (determined through first-past-the-post voting). Of the 47 seats reserved for PR, 30 are allocated through the new compensatory system which subtracts the number of district seats that the party won from the percentage of votes cast for the party, and then divides the number by two.

The remaining 17 slots are allocated based on the “parallel voting system” which has been used for all PR seat distribution before the reform. For instance, Table 1 and Table 2 shows that Party A gets less, and Party B gets more seats under the new law.

Political Maneuvering Around Electoral Reform

Since parties that won more district seats would be awarded fewer seats reserved for PR, this new electoral system was disadvantageous for bigger parties. The purpose of the revision was to allow minor parties to be better represented in the legislature and make South Korean politics, traditionally dominated by two major parties, more inclusive.

Aware that this new electoral system would cost them seats, the main opposition party tried to prevent the bill from passing. By contrast, the ruling DP pushed hard to pass the bill because it maintains close relations with smaller liberal parties. Together, they agree on several essential platforms. As a result, the DP saw the electoral reform as a vehicle to empower their ally parties while reducing UFP’s seats.

When the electoral reform bill was finally passed, UFP introduced a satellite party, Future Korea Party (FKP), which would only compete for PR seats. This was an effort to offset the number of seats that the conservative opposition party would lose under the new compensatory system. In response, the ruling DP formed Together Citizens’ Party (TCP) to counter UFP’s tactics. Both UFP and DP were criticized for these maneuvers.

Despite the public criticism, the two parties still considered the creation of satellite parties to be advantageous. As evident in the scenarios laid out in Table 1 and Table 2, Party C – which would have gained a total of 9 PR seats under the previous electoral system – can gain around 19 PR seats with a satellite party under the new system. Party A, in Table 2, has more than twice of support than party C, and yet, only receives 5 PR seats.


The reform is not likely to bring immediate change in the South Korean political landscape. By raising the chances of minor parties winning more seats in the National Assembly, the new system did prompt several organizations and new minor parties to register and run in today’s election . For instance, North Korean refugees in South Korea created a political party for the first time. There is also a party called Chungcheong Future Party, which only focuses on constituencies in Chungcheong Province.

Many other groups sought to launch a party this year, but failed to meet the minimum number of registered members required to compete in the election. Nonetheless, their pledges are still eye-catching. For example, Marriage Future Party is a party that is focused on assisting with marriages and childcare. Another example is the Nuclear Party that supports South Korea’s withdrawal from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and building nuclear weapons.

Merits of these political platforms aside, unless the two major parties embrace the reform without trying to bypass it with their satellite parties, these new minor parties are unlikely to achieve anything more than making the ballot longer for voters on election day.

Soo Jin Hwang is currently an intern at the Korea Economic Institute. She holds a master’s degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from user Republic of Korea on Flickr 

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Role of Coronavirus Overstated in General Elections?

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

  • President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating fell 5% between mid-January and the final week of February, according to Gallup.
  • Conservative politicians have criticized Moon’s handling of the epidemic since the initial stages of the outbreak.
  • A poll by Hankook Research revealed that 50% of constituents identifying as centrists disapprove of the government response to COVID-19.

Implications: While President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have fallen in the past 6 weeks, the impact of the coronavirus on people’s confidence in the government may be overstated. President Moon’s approval rating fell from 47% in the second week of January (before the first confirmed coronavirus case in South Korea) to 42% in the final week of February as the number of coronavirus patients grew to nearly 3,000. However, Moon’s approval ratings have been fluctuating between 39% and 49% since October 2019. Although additional polling suggests that the government’s handling of the outbreak may affect the voting behavior of some cohorts in the upcoming general election, Korean presidents commonly head into legislative elections with falling approval ratings.

Context: Fluctuating approval ratings of previous administrations suggest that public health crises may have less impact on voter sentiment than analysts assume. For example, President Lee Myung-bak faced the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-2010, which infected 700,000 Koreans and killed 260. Despite the high rate of infection, Lee’s approval rating grew to 54% during the height of the epidemic and still enjoyed 48% support by the time the outbreak was declared over in April 2010.

It is also true that every preceding South Korean presidential administration experienced a natural erosion of public support. About a month before the 2012 legislative elections, President Lee’s approval rating stood at a mere 26% – a shadow of President Moon’s current 42%, one month before elections on April 15, 2020. As KEI’s Junil Kim noted in a previous blog article, every South Korean president sees their ratings continue to fall as their term continues. In that sense, President Moon is actually playing with an advantage, having entered office in 2017 with historically high approval ratings.

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

Photo from the Republic of Korea’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.