Tag Archive | "social issues"

Number of North Korean Defectors Declines

By Robert R. King

North Korean “defectors” or refugees are one of the most visible and tragic consequences of the North Korean government’s abysmal policies denying its own citizens internationally acknowledged human rights, including the right of freedom of movement.  The decision to leave North Korea is not easy, and it is one that has very difficult and dangerous consequences. Since the devastating famine in North Korea in the mid-1990s some 35,000 citizens in the North have left their homes and been able to resettle in South Korea.  An additional thousand or two have settled in Europe and some 225 have been admitted to the United States.

This number is only a small portion of the numbers who have gone illegally to China.  It also does not include probably thousands of others who have attempted to leave the North, but been captured in the attempt to leave and died in prison camps.  It does not include those who have been killed trying to leave by North Korean border guards, who have orders to shoot defectors if they are discovered trying to leave.  Chinese border guards and police authorities are complicit because they routinely return to the North any escaping refugees they capture.

Figures on refugees reaching South Korea, the United States and elsewhere in the last year are significantly lower than in the recent past.  From the mid-1990s until the end of 2019, some 33,523 defectors resettled in South Korea.  The number who resettled during 2019, however, is the smallest number in the last two decades, and represents a consistent decline from a peak of 2,914 in 2009 to only 1,047 last year.

The number of defectors admitted to the United States from 2006 to 2019 has been small—218 for a decade and a half.  But the number has declined, as one journalist described it, “to a trickle,” and no North Koreans were granted asylum in 2019 for the first time since the U.S. began accepting North Korean refugees.  This is down from the peak number of defectors coming to the United States in 2008, when 38 were admitted.  While immigration to the United States is down across the board because of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration, in the case of North Korea it appears to be more a question of the numbers leaving the North have significantly declined.

North Korean Policy to Discourage Defections

The decline in defectors leaving the North is largely due to North Korean policy, which has been more aggressive since Kim Jong-un became leader in late 2011.  Penalties for North Koreans caught trying to leave the country are harsh.  The UN Commission of Inquiry on DPRK human rights reported that defectors are deemed “to have committed ‘treason against the Fatherland by defection’ under the Criminal Code,” a crime that is punished by a minimum of five years of “reform through labor.” (COI Detailed findings, paragraphs 380-492.)  North Korean border guards have orders to shoot illegal border crossers, and credible media reports clearly indicate that the border guards understand and fulfill those orders.

Refugees leaving the North almost all cross the border with China because the North Korean border with South Korea (the De-Militarized Zone or DMZ) is so heavily guarded that access from the North is particularly difficult.  A North Korean soldier who attempted to cross the DMZ between North and South in November 2017 was shot five times by fellow soldiers as he fled to the South.

In addition to aggressively seeking to prevent border crossing, Kim Jong-un has also undertaken a media campaign designed to reduce the attractiveness of life in South Korea by highlighting “re-defections”—the return to the North of a tiny number of defectors who left and resettled in the South.  They are portrayed as having become disillusioned with the South and they were warmly welcomed home by the North.

A number of widely publicized media events involving “re-defectors” have sought to portray South Korean, American, and other human rights activists who helped refugees as “deceptive, dangerous, and exploitative people.”  The events have shown misguided defectors being welcomed when they return to the North, and the media has played up the theme that they were not punished for returning home.

One returnee, who appeared on North Korean national television gives a flavor of these programs:  “When I deplaned [in Pyongyang], quieting my thumping heart, I was stunned by the cordial reception.  I felt at that time how affectionate and great the motherland is to me.  The dear respected Kim Jong-un did not blame me, who did so many wrongs in the past, but brought me under his warm care.  He showed profound loving care for me.”

The media events have also sought to show that though the South may be more affluent, North Koreas living in the South are an underclass who suffer discrimination and have a lower quality of life than the South Korean elite.  Despite this official message, however, the number of defectors who have returned to the North is small.  Official South Korean figures in 2015 indicate that less than 3 percent of defectors whereabouts were unknown, but of that number most were living in other countries and only about a dozen were known to have returned to the North.  A member of the South Korean National Assembly reported that during the four-and-a-half years from 2015 to September 2019, only 12 defectors were identified attempting to return to the North.

Conditions in the South for Defectors  

Despite South Korean government programs to provide help, resettlement is difficult in a very different and very competitive economic, social and political system.  The suicide rate of North Korean defectors in South Korea is triple the rate for South Koreans.  Nam Young-hwa, president of the Women’s Association for the Future of the Korean Peninsula, suggested that this higher suicide rate was due to the traumatic sense of isolation and financial difficulties that defectors face.

Recent Ministry of Unification data reported that Northern refugees were approaching salary and employment figures of Koreans born in the South, but there is still a gap.  In 2019 refugees earned on average the equivalent of US$1,720 per month, while Southern-born Koreans earned $2,220, a difference of about $500.  North Koreans participating in the economy last year was 62.1 percent, only slightly lower than South Korean-born citizens at 63.3 percent.  Defectors satisfaction with their quality of life in the South in 2019 increased to 74.2 percent satisfied, which was 1.7 percent above the previous year.  These figures suggest that Northerners are not at the same level as Southerners, but differences between the two groups are not huge.

An event that provoked national soul-searching on the treatment of defectors in late July of 2019 was the discovery of the bodies of a 42 year-old North Korean defector and her six-year old son in their apartment in Seoul.  No food was found in the apartment, and the woman’s bank account balance was zero.  Authorities concluded that the woman and her son had apparently died of starvation.  The woman had been trafficked as a bride to a man in rural Northeast China.  She was aided in escaping from China and resettled in South Korea, and in 2018 she returned to China, where she divorced her husband, and then returned to Seoul with her son.  A spontaneous shrine sprang up in Seoul as people who did not know the woman or her son mourned her death.

The incident highlights the difficulties of the resettlement of refugees from the North in the South.  Many have done well, others have had problems adjusting, but most miss family and friends that they left behind when they migrated to the South.

The South Korean government has been sensitive and attentive to the difficulties and problems of the refugees.  A few months after the death of the defector and her son, the Ministry of Unification announced that it will provide additional support to over 550 North Korean defectors who were found to be facing harsh living conditions.  The Ministry also said it will continue to monitor refugee living conditions to determine if specific individuals need additional support in an effort order to prevent such tragedies.

Despite the problems of adjustment in South Korea, defectors who have returned to the North are few in number.  As we noted earlier, Kim Jong-un has sought to highlight refugees who have returned to the North with media events and much hoopla.  But most defectors have heard stories of the brutal treatment of North Koreans who have been apprehended attempting to leave the country or who have been returned by Chinese police authorities after an unsuccessful effort to leave.  Reports of police brutality are likely to be found more believable than those of the leader showing “loving care.” 

North-South Rapprochement and Impact on Seoul’s Attitude toward Defectors

In the past, conservative South Korean governments used the defector issue to tarnish the reputation of the North for its human rights abuses.  The government of President Moon Jae-in since 2016 has actively pursued a policy of engagement with the North, which has undermined Seoul’s previous support for defectors. Pyongyang clearly would like to see an end to Seoul’s support for Northern defectors.

Most of the politically active refugees in the South lean to the conservative side of the political spectrum.  Highlighting the conservative political leanings of defectors is the recent announcement by Thae Yong-ho, former North Korean deputy ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of the most senior DPRK officials to defect to the South.  Thae said he will seek election to the National Assembly in the 2020 elections as a representative of the conservative Liberty Korea Party.

The shift in policy by the Seoul government has been evident.  In May 2019 the South Korean government devoted effort and energy to securing the release of seven defectors who fled the North and were being held in China.  The case, which Seoul was handling quietly, became public.  South Korea’s Foreign Minister did not discuss details with the press, but she expressed concern for the safety of the refugees and emphasized the delicacy of discussions with China.

Six months later in November 2019, the Seoul government expelled and returned to Pyongyang two North Korean sailors who sought to defect and who were suspected of killing sixteen shipmates.  The incident including the return of the two sailors was not made public by the South Korean government until journalists discovered and publicized a text message confirming the repatriation.  The South Korean National Assembly launched an investigation into the matter.

The decision of the Moon Administration to return the two sailors was made without granting them access to an attorney, without a court hearing on the case, and without allowing them to appeal the government’s decision to repatriate them.  This was the first time ever that North Koreans were repatriated by the South Korean government because of crimes they were alleged to have committed in the North or because their intent to defect may have been dishonest.

That same month, 11 North Korean refugees crossed into Vietnam on their on their way to South Korea.  After their arrest for illegal entry in Vietnam, it was announced that they would be returned to North Korea.  The Moon Jae-in government in Seoul was criticized for failing to use its diplomatic influence with Hanoi to press for the refugees to be allowed to continue their journey to South Korea.  Despite South Korean media giving extensive publicity to the plight of the defectors, the Foreign Ministry in Seoul only pursued the issue after European organizations became involved.

There have been other indications of a change by Seoul.  In the March 2018 the Moon government’s budget boosted funds for inter-Korean cooperation while aid for South Korean human rights efforts were significantly cut, including a 31 percent reduction in aid for defectors.  The government justified that cut because the number of new refugees has declined.  The budget funding for human rights groups focused on North Korea was significantly cut back, despite no indication of progress on human rights issues in the North.  The Ministry of Unification’s Human Rights Foundation saw its funds cut 93 percent and the budget for the database maintained by the Ministry on human rights abuses by the North was cut by 74%.

Furthermore, in November 2019, the South Korean government did not sponsor the annual UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The South sponsored every annual UN resolution from 2008 to November 2019.  A letter to President Moon from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations from Human Rights Watch and 66 other international human rights organizations questioned the South Korean government’s position on human rights, in particular failing to cosponsor the UN General Assembly resolution critical of North Korea’s human rights record.  The letter also called for the South Korean government to investigate and publish the results of the investigation into the repatriation of the two North Korean fishermen whose basic human rights were violated under South Korean law.

This criticism of South Korea was particular noteworthy because Moon Jae-in is a human rights attorney and his Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha served for over six years as the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.  South Korea’s search for reconciliation and reunification with North Korea, as well as the United States’ quest for denuclearization of the North, are awkward bedfellows with a policy of actively helping and protecting North Korean refugees.

Public support in South Korea for the plight of North Korean defectors has limited how far Seoul can cut back defector support in order to achieve other goals with Pyongyang.  Despite clear indications of what the Moon government would like to do in its support for defectors, the government announced that it would provide additional support for some 553 North Korean defectors who were facing difficult living conditions just a few months after the death by starvation of a defector and her young son.  It is clear that strong public sentiment in South Korea has constrained how far the government can go in cutting back on helping 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.  

Photo from the PBS NewsHour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What the United States Can Do to Help North Korea with the Coronavirus

By Troy Stangarone

In response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China, North Korea has closed its border to tourists and commerce with China and Russia to prevent the spread of the disease in North Korea. But helping North Korea address the crisis would not only be the right thing to do, it could also serve as an entryway for the United States build trust needed for future talks on other issues.

Officially, North Korea’s self-imposed quarantine has worked. It has not reported any cases of infection to the World Health Organization.  However, North Korea is an opaque society and there have been indications that the disease has spread to North Korea. Five North Koreans reportedly died in the area of Sinuiju from symptoms similar to the coronavirus, while there are reports that a North Korean in Pyongyang may have contracted the virus as well.

While North Korea has made progress in some areas since its healthcare system went into decline in the 1990s, it still lacks the tools that other countries have to deal with contagious viruses such as the coronavirus. At this critical moment, North Korea likely needs access to facial masks and sanitizers to prevent the virus from spreading. For those who have contracted the virus, North Korean doctors would need equipment and supplies such as ventilators, medication to stabilize blood pressure, and intravenous fluids to treat the virus.

It is unclear in recent years if North Korea has put the proper resources into building up its healthcare infrastructure. Moreover, access to these supplies has been made more complicated in recent years as aid organizations have faced additional challenges in working in North Korea from international sanctions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does recommend facial masks for travelers, but it notes that proper sanitation is also an important part of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.  While North Korea has increased domestic production of facial masks to try and meet demand, it is unclear if it is producing versions of facial masks that most effective and it would likely also need help in ensuring proper sanitation products are available.

This is where the United States could provide assistance to North Korea. Sanctions were never intended to inhibit the shipment of non-dual use medical supplies and it will be much more difficult to contain the virus if it there were to be a serious outbreak in North Korea.

The United States could offer to provide North Korea with additional supplies of hand sanitizer and facial masks to help prevent the spread of the disease. Or, if that were objectionable to North Korea, the United States could work help facilitate their provision from NGOs willing to provide North Korea assistance.

In addition to providing supplies, the United States could offer to have the CDC consult with North Korean doctors via phone or programs such as Skype. Should there be a wider outbreak, then the CDC could also coordinate other needed supplies that North Korea may need to treat the infected.

While the United States should not offer this assistance with the hope of it inducing North Korea to return to talks on its nuclear weapons programs, it could help in improving the relationship in the long-term. Building mutual trust requires taking steps that demonstrate that one party in a dispute is willing to help the other rather than just continue a cold stalemate.

However, if the United States did reach out to offer North Korea help, it should be done through discreet channels to allow North Korea greater latitude to accept the aid. Public pronouncements might be misperceived in North Korea as U.S. efforts to suggest it cannot contain the spread of the coronavirus on its own. Discrete cooperation, instead, is likely better for both countries.


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

Photo from Uri Tours’ photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Another Accident Suggests Public Safety Shortcomings

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 Lunar New Year’s Day, six people died when a faulty gas pipe exploded at a vacation rental home in Gangwon Province.
  • Subsequent investigation revealed that the facility had been operating illegally and that the faulty gas pipe had also been installed illegally.
  • The local government had promoted this vacation rental facility on its official website as part of its effort to grow tourism traffic to the province.

Implications: Despite increased emphasis on public safety from the central government, the inconsistent enforcement of regulations continue to create vulnerabilities. The Gangwon provincial government was prompted to engage in safety checks at lodging facilities after a similar gas explosion two years ago. However, regulators were unable to inspect rental vacation homes that were illegally listed as multi-dwelling homes. As a result of rigid regulatory interpretations, lodging facilities that potentially posed the greatest threat to the public were left out from routine inspections. This occurred even when the government had information that proved that these facilities were operating illegally. This case suggests that Korean regulators may be weighed down by bureaucratic rigidities and poor inter-agency coordination, creating obstacles for the consistent enforcement of safety regulations.

Context: The 2014 Sewol accident is the most notable example of a recent public safety failure. Laws were in place to restrict the dangerous practice of loading cargo above the regulated level. However, official inspectors failed to verify the specifications of the vessel Sewol after it was remodeled. This negligence led to the maritime accident that killed 304 ferry passengers. The disaster had major political ramifications as the Park Geun-hye administration was scrutinized for both shortcomings in preventative regulations and its poor handling of the disaster response. The recent resort accident shows that ensuring public safety remains a persistent public policy challenge in South Korea.

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

Emblem from the Republic of Korea government

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Steady Improvements in Gender Equality

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 share of parental leave taken by fathers increased from 1.4 percent in 2009 to 21.2 percent in 2019.
  • According to a survey, 43.2 percent of respondents said they saw a reduction in gender discrimination during last year’s Chuseok holiday; however, 39.3 percent of respondents also saw no changes.
  • Female participation rate in the South Korea military rose from 5.5 percent to 6.8 percent last year. The South Korean government aims to increase the figure to 8.8 percent by 2022.
  • In November, the South Korean military promoted Kang Sun-young to a two-star general, the first woman to hold this rank.
  • The National Assembly passed a new law requiring large companies to have at least one woman on its board of directors.

Implications: Without waiting for voluntary changes in societal attitudes towards gender equality, the South Korean government is spearheading a series of progressive laws that are delivering modest but important advances. Developments in the past ten years suggest that measures such as male parental leave have had an impact on traditional concepts around gender roles. More men are participating in what had been traditionally viewed as a woman’s job, including food preparations during holidays and childcare. Simultaneously, women are also taking on jobs that were conventionally seen as a male occupation. Female participation rate in the military is rising and may experience stronger growth when more female officers rise to positions of authority and demonstrate that the military is a viable career for women.

Context: Although there are promising signs that gender equality is improving, South Korea still has a long way to go. The gender wage gap in South Korea is one of the highest among the OECD countries. Some young Korean women refuse to marry and have children due to the discrimination women face in a traditional family. Furthermore, non-traditional gender issues are still largely neglected. Report of a 1.3% increase in female participation in the military followed the discharging of a trans-woman from the military for transitioning during her service.

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

Picture from flickr user damopabe

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10 Issues to Watch for on the Korean Peninsula in 2020

By Kyle Ferrier, Sang Kim, Yong Kwon, and Troy Stangarone

After the U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, 2019 was supposed to be the year that the United States and North Korea worked out a deal to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. It was not to be. The talks fell apart at the Hanoi summit, dashing hopes for increased inter-Korean cooperation, and the process never got back on track.

The breakdown of U.S.-North Korea talks, however, wasn’t the only major relationship to face trouble in 2019. South Korea’s relations with Japan hit a low point as Tokyo surprised everyone by placing national security restrictions on three key chemicals for the production of semiconductors, threatening South Korea’s most important export industry.

South Korea’s economy also took a hit. The trade tensions with Japan, in combination with the U.S.-China trade war, already slowing exports of semiconductors, and slowing global growth, resulted in South Korea’s lowest level of GDP growth since the Global Financial Crisis.

As we look forward to the rest of 2020, there will be significant focus on developments with North Korea and South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Political change could be in the offing as well, as elections are set for the National Assembly and the presidency in the United States. But domestic issues dealing with the elderly and South Korea’s declining fertility rate will also be in focus.

With that in mind, here are 10 issues related to North Korea, South Korean politics, and U.S.-Korea relations to follow that will have an impact on the Korean peninsula in the year to come:

Efforts to Denuclearize North Korea

Despite realizing the first ever U.S.-North Korea summit meeting in 2018, talks between the United States and North Korea largely came to a halt last year. The question for 2019 is what comes next in U.S.-North Korea relations. With Pyongyang announcing that it no longer feels bound by its prior pledges not to conduct nuclear weapons or ballistic missile tests, there are concerns that the Korean Peninsula may return to the “fire and fury” period of 2017.  Alternatively, North Korea could attempt to return to talks with the United States and to strike a deal prior to the 2020 presidential election. However, the North Korean leadership likely recognize that any attempts to negotiate deal could be undone by a change in administrations in the United States.

More likely, North Korea will continue to increase its stockpile of weapons and engage in efforts to advance its weapons technology, while avoiding the types of tests that might force the international community to tighten the sanctions on its economy. In the absence of a provocative test by North Korea, another issue to watch will be how well the sanctions regime will hold. Russia and China have already signaled that they may have a waning patience for sanctions.

Reaching an Agreement on U.S.-Korea Military Burden Sharing

Contentious negotiations between Seoul and Washington on a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) – determining how much South Korea contributes to hosting U.S. military forces – have unsurprisingly lapsed their December 31 deadline. The Trump administration’s call for Seoul to increase its 1.02 trillion won contribution by 400% caused a stir among South Koreans in the second half of last year. The sheer size of the proposed jump seemed to suggest that the U.S. underappreciated their country’s support for the alliance and led many to question the nature of the relationship. Talks are set to resume this month, but it’s unclear in what direction they are heading. In late December the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported Washington’s asking price had dropped to only a 10-20% increase, which U.S. officials later denied.

The conditions of a new SMA could have significant implications for the alliance, though there are still many unanswered questions. Other than the amount, the other significant aspect to follow is duration. If the U.S. again pushes for a one-year deal – rather than the multi-year agreements that both sides usually agreed to prior to the Trump administration – it could be a big gamble for South Korea given the U.S. presidential election in November. Since Trump himself is by all accounts driving the U.S. position, if he were to lose his re-election campaign then his Democratic opponent would be much less likely to pursue such a hardline stance. However, should Seoul and Washington strike a one-year deal and Trump wins in November, the new SMA talks could be even more of a challenge to the alliance than they have been recently.

Revitalizing the South Korean Economy

The South Korean economy is in the doldrums. GDP is expected to have only grown by 2 percent last year, the lowest since the wake of the global financial crisis in 2009. Even if the government were to hit its 2.4 percent growth target – which many see as too ambitious – it would mark the first time since at least 1954 that the country recorded back-to-back years of lower than 2.5 percent growth.

Getting the economy back on track is among President Moon’s highest priorities for this year. Though the administration’s “income-led” growth policies have produced limited results so far, the Blue House will amplify its efforts this year with new plans for infrastructure, job creation, and social spending. But, the question still remains whether these initiatives will be enough to reinvigorate the economy. Moon’s detractors continue to argue his policies still don’t do enough to account for business interests and are therefore destined to fail. What will likely have a much greater impact on the direction of the South Korean economy this year, however, are major developments abroad. Increased demand for semiconductors and a resolution between Beijing and Washington on trade issues could be a boon for the economy, just as much as further uncertainty could act as a drag.

The Course of South Korea’s Relations with Japan

Last year saw relations between South Korea and Japan hit one of their lowest points since the normalization of relations in 1965. In response to a South Korean Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 that Japanese companies were liable for their use of forced labor during the Second World War, Japan decided in July to place national security restrictions on three key chemicals for the production of semiconductors and later to remove South Korea from its “white list” of trusted exported partners. South Korea responded by removing Japan from its “white list” of trading partners and announcing that it would not renew its military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan – though that has been delayed for the moment.  Despite lower level meetings and a meeting between President Moon and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in late December, South Korea and Japan have been unable to resolve their disputes. The question for 2020 is whether the two sides will be able to find a resolution to their economic and historical disputes that would allow them to improve relations, or whether this could become the new normal.

Can 5G Help Improve the Prospects of South Korea’s Semiconductor Industry?

With Samsung and SK Hynix two of the world’s dominant producers of memory chips, along with the U.S. based Micron, South Korea was well placed to take advantage of the growing demand for memory chips in recent years. In 2017 and 2018, a surge in demand in the semiconductor industry helped to turn memory chips into South Korea’s top export item, accounting for nearly 14 percent of exports in 2018 and up from just 5 percent in 2014. However, the super cycle began coming to an end in the second half of 2018 and sales continued to decline throughout 2019.  The prospects of recovery have been clouded over the last year by Japan’s new export restrictions and the U.S.-China trade war. They have also been hindered by the slower rollout of 5G around the world due to U.S. efforts to convince countries not to use Huawei for their 5G infrastructure. However, there is hope that as 5G comes online in more markets demand for new 5G capable phones, along with the continued growth in data centers, will help to boost the prospects for South Korea’s most important industry.

How the U.S. Presidential Elections Could Impact Policy

Although taking place outside the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. presidential election in November will have a significant impact on the Korean Peninsula. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 brought about a significant shift in how the United States manages its alliances with countries such as South Korea and its policy towards North Korea. The shape of U.S. policy on issues related to burden sharing, trade, and North Korea will likely all depend on whether Trump is able to win reelection. Those policies could all shift if the Democratic nominee or another Republican were to win the White House in 2020 if Trump were removed from office.

Legislative Election in April will likely Shape the Platforms and Outlook of Korea’s Major Parties

In addition to the U.S. presidential election in November, South Korea will hold a critical election in April for all 300 seats in the country’s unicameral legislature. This election will serve as a litmus test for the public’s confidence in the incumbent administration’s direction and determine President Moon Jae-in’s ability to advance policies during his remaining time in office. Taking a broader view, the election is historic because new faces representing new constituents will take their seats in the next legislative session. The National Assembly’s recent decision to lower the voting age from 19 to 18 will bring 530,000 potential new constituents to the polling booth in April. It is unclear yet how this will impact support for either conservative or progressive parties – but this will no doubt impact the platforms of respective parties looking to win the support of this new cohort. This perhaps partly influenced the leading parties’ decision to retire prominent legislators who had long been the face of the political establishment. Examples include former ruling party legislator and presidential chief of staff Im Jong-Seok and former opposition leader Kim Moo-sung. The upcoming general election, therefore, acts as a beginning of a new period for the increasingly assertive National Assembly.

Can South Korea Improve Its Fertility Rate

South Korea faces a demographic crisis. South Koreans are living longer and South Koreans born a decade from now are expected to have among the longest lifespans of any group of people in the world. However, the question facing South Korea is how many children will be born when the country attains this public health success? In 2018, South Korea had a total fertility rate of 0.98, a historic low, and the final data for 2019 is expected to be even lower. Through September of last year, births were down 8.9 percent from 2018. It will take time and significant social change to return to anything close to the number of births that would allow Korea to reach the replacement rate of 2.1, but the key to watch in 2020 is whether South Korea is able to introduce measures to reverse the current trend and return to a total fertility rate of at least 1.0. The odds are likely stacked against it.

Will the Government Comprehensibly Tackle Elderly Poverty?

President Moon Jae-in pledged to improve the social safety net upon his election in 2017. Since then, the South Korean government’s efforts to assist underemployed youths, curb the financial burdens of childcare, and raise the minimum wage have received the most attention from economists and the media. This can be attributed to the expectation that these policies will have the most impact on South Korea’s human capital resources and industrial productivity in the years ahead.

However, the country’s biggest social welfare crisis is elderly poverty. 2017 data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) revealed that 43.8 percent of South Koreans over the age of 65 live in relative poverty (defined as earning 50 percent or less of median household income) – well above the average of 12.5 percent for OECD member countries. This is more than any other country in the 34-country community. While the government does distribute a basic pension to elderly who are in the bottom quintile of income earners, the policy (covering around 35 percent of seniors) provides an insufficient amount to those who qualify and leaves those who do not qualify in a precarious economic position.

Moreover, with the future tax base falling alongside declining birth rates, the National Assembly Budget Office noted that reserves of the National Pension Service will reach zero in 2054.

In response to the crisis, President Moon has pledged to increase the basic pension by nearly 50 percent and double the number of job openings for older workers. However, the challenge is not simply a financial one – reports suggest that many elderly also suffer from loneliness and associated mental health issues. This has manifested in several social challenges, including growing crime rate among elderly and the highest elderly suicide rate among OECD countries. Therefore, resolving the elderly poverty crisis will require a more in-depth solution that incorporates community participation and increased public funding.

How YouTube Shapes Media Consumption in South Korea

In 2019, South Koreans spent more time on YouTube than any other mobile apps.  South Koreans teens spent an average of 42 hours a month watching YouTube videos and people in 20s spent about 31 hours. It is also interesting that people in the 50s and above watch a significant amount of YouTube videos with an average of 20 hours a month, more than people in the 30s and 40s. The number of South Korean smartphone users also hit a record high in 2019, now over 91% of the population own smartphones. People now have instant access to content whenever and wherever compared to traditional cable TVs.

So what are they watching? There is a wide variety of content available for any audience across the age range, from mukbang, music videos, product reviews, kids channel, lectures, cooking, to politics and news. YouTube is not only a source of entertainment but increasingly becoming a resource for self-learning and information. It also became an attractive space where people can create their own content to share with others and even make a profits. Because of the popularity and influence of YouTube, being a YouTube creator made it to the topic 3  dream jobs for South Korean elementary schoolers, followed by athletes and teachers.

Given the wide accessibility and popularity, creating a YouTube channel has been a trending communication strategy for companies and even government agencies to send their message and expand their audience. In 2020, YouTube will continue to influence and impact how South Koreans consume online content and we will see more media content tailored toward YouTube users.

Kyle Ferrier is Fellow and Director of Academic Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America, Sang Kim is the Director of Public Affairs and Intern Coordinator, Yong Kwon is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone Senior Director and Fellow. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image created by Juni Kim Senior Manager for Operations and Technology at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Image photos from the flickr Creative Commons photostreams of The White House, the Republic of Korea, and the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

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An Adversarial Media? Or Bad Public Policy?

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 placed emphasis on stabilizing the real estate market in his New Year’s press conference. He stressed the importance of the media’s cooperation in policy implementation.
  • The government is hinting that it will reintroduce permitting requirements for putting a property on the market – a controversial policy that was briefly tabled under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
  • Despite the government’s appeal, the media is pushing back against the policy proposal.

Implications: President Moon’s call for media cooperation betrays the administration’s suspicion that many progressive policies have failed because of negative coverage by an adversarial press. This implicit suggestion also justifies the incumbent administration’s reintroduction of a policy that was withdrawn by a previous government. But with or without a supportive media narrative, the log record of successive administrations failing to stabilize real estate prices will significantly shape the public’s outlook on the government’s capacity to curb the current economic realities.

Context: The proposed “selling permit system” requires prospective home sellers to first receive government approval before their properties could be listed on the market. During the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the government considered the policy but faced severe media backlash. Most mainstream newspapers argued that excessive government intervention in the market would further destabilize real estate prices. The criticism eventually led the government to indefinitely postpone the policy’s implementation.

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

Picture from user Chris Harber on Flickr

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South Korea’s Mixed Message to Immigrants

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

  • In 2019, the government introduced new measures to attract skilled foreign workers, hedging against a declining working-age population.
  • In November, the Ministry of Justice eased visa requirements for foreign workers in key manufacturing industries.
  • In December, South Korea also extended the maximum period of stay for seasonal migrant workers in the agricultural and fisheries sectors.
  • Simultaneously, stricter rules for a long-term residency visa (F-2-7) took effect on January 2, 2020.

Implications: The South Korean government’s efforts to invite foreign workers have moved far ahead of laws that facilitate the long-term stay of those same immigrants, sending mixed signals about the government’s agenda. Recent revisions to the country’s immigration policies exemplified this disparity. The government recently extended the stay period of temporary workers and simplified the application process for skilled workers who are looking to fill positions in vital industries. Meanwhile, requirements for residency visas, which allow greater freedom of movement and a longer stay in South Korea, were toughened. Similarly, it became more difficult for skilled international workers to extend their stay in Korea or receive the same visa status for their immediate family.

Context: Demographers estimate that the working-age population in South Korea will drop by an average of 300,000 annually, significantly curbing the country’s economic growth potential. In response, the government is seeking to supplement the labor pool with foreign workers. Currently, however, efforts to attract more foreign nationals are mostly limited to temporary low-income workers or skilled workers in some key manufacturing industries. Widespread misconceptions around existing social programs that are aimed at integrating immigrants and prejudices against foreign nationals partially contribute to the government’s cautious approach to increasing the number of residency visa recipients.

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

Picture from flickr user Raymond Cunningham

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South Korean Online Service Giants’ Submission

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

  • During the Parliamentary audit, a member of the National Assembly’s Science, ICT, Broadcasting, and Communications Committee pointed out that the real-time-search-keyword service by major Korean portal sites is misused for marketing purposes.
  • There is an ongoing debate about the role online comments and real-time-search-keywords have on political opinion-rigging.
  • The recent death of K-pop star Sulli increased public voices in favor of banning or reforming online comments and real-time “hot keyword” services.

Implications: While governments elsewhere struggle to discipline and shape the behavior of big social media platforms, South Korean online service companies show greater sensitivity to public scrutiny. Even though more than 70% of South Koreans use Naver for their search engine and Kakao monopolizes 95% of South Korean messenger app use, Naver and Kakao both remodeled their portal in response to public scrutiny. This may reflect the outsized leverage of government regulators as these online platforms do not have a significant audience outside the South Korean market and Seoul’s jurisdiction.

Context: There are concerns that the government may try to suppress legitimate public policy criticisms by forcing online platforms to self-censor. Notably, political pressure on portal operators appears to intensify during election seasons. Because South Korean online service providers lack the resolve or leverage to pushback regulators, concerned observers believe that these companies may accede to political interests at the expense of free speech.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from user TFurban on flickr

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People-Centered Economy vs. Innovation

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 October 7, Tada, a ride-hailing mobile app platform, announced that it would increase its number of vehicles from 1,400 to 10,000.
  • In response, 12,500 taxi drivers gathered to protest against Tada on October 23.
  • On October 28, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office indicted the heads of Tada on charges of operating illegal passenger transportation business.

Implications: The South Korean government is struggling to balance its dual aim of promoting innovative business and protecting workers in existing industries. The government has been cutting regulations to accelerate innovative growth and incentivize startups. However, some innovations inevitably displace some traditional industries. The transportation industry is one of the most salient examples of this conflict. Recently, prosecutors indicted Tada executives following massive protests by taxi drivers who argued that the government should halt Tada’s illegal operations. The Korea Startup Forum, an advocacy group for local startups, voiced concerns that the indictment might nullify government’s efforts to boost innovation.

Some observers are concerned that the case against Tada might have a cooling effect on startups and investments in innovations related to the sharing economy. Because the indictment against Tada comes on the heels of similar cases involving Uber and Kakao, some have accused the government of “much talk but little action” on innovation.

Context: This is not the first time that the taxi industry fought against ride-sharing platforms. The government has been attempting to find a “win-win” solution that would allow startups like Tada to operate while appeasing taxi drivers. In July, the transport ministry proposed a plan in which service like Tada would contribute a portion of their earnings to a public fund that would purchase taxi licenses. However, both Tada and taxi drivers were dissatisfied with the government’s suggestion.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from user Ged Carroll on flickr

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Reports of Defector Dissatisfaction Raise Questions About Resettlement Process

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

  • Since 2015, 12 North Korean defectors in South Korea were caught trying to return to North Korea.
  • During the same time period, 64 defectors applied for refugee status in Europe and the United States despite receiving settlement in South Korea, according to new government data.
  • According to the 2018 Settlement Survey of North Korean Refugees in South Korea, 72.5% of North Korean refugee respondents were satisfied with life in South Korea.

Implications: With cases of North Korean defectors attempting to leave South Korea, Seoul will likely focus more heavily on social integration when formulating its resettlement policies going forward. Following the incident in August when a defector and her son starved to death, the inquiry initially focused on whether public services are materially failing this community. But survey data revealed that defector dissatisfaction was not predominantly driven by economic conditions. Most defectors cited difficulties separation from family back in North Korea (27.4%) and discrimination and prejudice (18.3%) as principal challenges to integration. Only 14.9% of respondents cited economic difficulties.

Context: The number of North Korean defectors to South Korea has fallen since Kim Jong-un came to power seven years ago due to tighter border controls. As of June 2019, 33,022 North Korean defectors live in South Korea. Although still a relatively small community, research by Steven Denney (University of Toronto) and Chris Green (Leiden University) show that there is variation within this community’s attitudes towards South Korea. Denney and Green attribute this to people older than 55 having a different resettlement experience than their younger cohorts. Specifically, they hypothesize that the need for younger age defectors to compete with native-born South Koreans for jobs, build social networks, and substantively integrate into South Korean society negatively influence their resettlement experience and feelings of ethnic solidarity.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of Soojin Hwang, Hyoshin Kim, and Rachel Kirsch.

Picture from Ceosad on Wikimedia 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.