Tag Archive | "South Korea"

The Inherent Limitation of a Pro-Engagement Posture

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

What Happened

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

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

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

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

Picture from the flickr account of the Republic of Korea

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Battle over Justice in the Cyberspace

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 response to high-profile sex criminals receiving sentences that are deemed too lenient, online activists built the website “Digital Prison” to publicly expose charged individuals.
  • The suspected operator of Digital Prison was arrested for violating privacy laws and the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) banned access to Digital Prison.
  • A second Digital Prison website was established following KCSC’s shuttering of the original.

Implications: The government and the public are competing to advance their respective vision for justice in cyberspace. Digital Prison is one of these efforts, which many supporters see as rectifying perceived failures of the legal system to sufficiently punish sex abuse cases. In this environment, the many members of the public expressed anger that the government shuttered the website without changes to the court’s approach to sex offenders. The creation of the second Digital Prison website demonstrates that members of the public will continue to use digital platforms to highlight what they see as a miscarriage of justice.

Context: The general sense that the government is not sufficiently protecting people also threatens to escalate into real-world violence. With the imminent release of an infamous rapist, some citizens have discussed plans to mete out collective punishment. These discussions occurred despite police announcing several plans to ensure women’s safety in the area where the ex-felon would be released. In response, the National Assembly is proposing new legislation that would impose harsher punishments on sex criminals as a means to forestall vigilantism.

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

Picture from flickr user Takashi Nakajima

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Overworked and Underpaid Delivery Service Workers

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

  • Over 4,000 delivery workers nationwide threatened to stop sorting parcels as a protest against heavy workloads ahead of the Chuseok holiday.
  • These workers backtracked from the boycott after the Labor Minister pledged to increase manpower and improve working conditions.
  • This year alone, seven parcel delivery workers died from overwork, as the coronavirus outbreak led to a sharp surge in the parcel delivery demand.

Implications: South Korean workers most exposed to the economic hardships in the pandemic economy enjoy the least amount of protection as the Moon administration’s progressive labor policies privilege full-time employees. The struggles of many delivery workers highlight the government’s lack of attention on issues of excessive work hours and unfair wages affecting part-time and gig workers. For instance, the recently introduced 52-hour workweek ceiling does not apply to these delivery workers. This reality persists despite President Moon Jae-in recognizing that delivery workers play a leading role in overcoming COVID-19.

Context: According to a report by the Korea Transport Institute, delivery workers are often on the job for more than 70 hours a week, sometimes without any breaks or time to eat a meal. Moreover, members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions claim that there has been a lack of preventative measures to safeguard the health of delivery service workers since the onset of the coronavirus. In fact, during the past few months, the Korean government appears to have been more focused on keeping the national economy intact by boosting the interests of both major corporations as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

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

Picture from Wikimedia Commons account of Roadgo

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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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Anti-Graft Proposal and Compulsory Military Service

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 main opposition People Power Party (PPP) intends to propose a revised bill that would forestall attempts to exercise undue influence in military service affairs.
  • This move comes amid allegations that the Justice Minister used her influence to help her son obtain special treatment during his military service.
  • In the revision, lawmakers call for stronger action against people who request illegal favors, regardless of whether or not those favors were accepted.

Implications: The proposed revision to the current anti-graft law reflects South Korea’s high sensitivity to issues related to compulsory military service. Rather than only punishing the illegal outcomes of influence peddling, the bill proposes to penalize attempted solicitations. By initiating this change, the main opposition party hopes to leverage the popular outrage to gain ground in the polls. Meanwhile, support for the Democratic Party and President Moon Jae-in has dropped significantly among men and the younger generation as a result of growing criticism surrounding the Justice Minister and her son.

Context: The government’s growing concern around the growing manpower deficit may be also shaping its more stringent posture on military service affairs. For instance, the Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism decided not to exempt K-pop stars from military service – a difficult decision as this relinquishes both serious export revenue and soft power capital.

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

Picture from the Republic of Korea Army account on Wikimedia Commons.

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Long Shadow of the Samsung’s Fight with International Activist Investors

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 the ongoing investigation into whether Samsung manipulated stock prices to facilitate a merger between two subsidiaries, Korean prosecutors faced scrutiny for ignoring independent recommendations against an indictment.
  • Domestic pundits now add that continuing the investigation into Samsung may strengthen hedge fund Elliott Management’s legal case against the Korean government.
  • This comes amid growing anxiety that legal probe into the conglomerate could harm the broader economy already affected by the pandemic-induced recession.

Implications: Many domestic market influencers see aggressive foreign activist investors as a bigger threat than potential improprieties by domestic conglomerates. Citing international media reports, many Korean market commentators argued that the government’s ongoing probe into Samsung could strengthen Elliott’s lawsuit against Korea’s sovereign wealth fund in a related legal case. These activist investors were initially seen as potential forces that could help discipline perceived improprieties by large companies like Samsung. However, Elliott’s decision to sue the Korean government may have turned that initial enthusiasm into anxiety.

Context: Elliott Management was a minority shareholder of a Samsung subsidiary that were merged to secure Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong’s controlling share of the conglomerate. The hedge fund claimed that their buyout was underpriced, reportedly incurring losses as high as USD 770 million. It blamed Korea’s National Pension Service, another minority shareholder, for casting the decisive vote sanctioning the merger. This became the basis for the lawsuit against the Korean government at the Investor-State Dispute (ISD) Tribunal. However, the ISD rejected an earlier attempt by Elliott to access government files to bolster their claim.

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

Picture from an article published in The Investor on July 10, 2017

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Will Seoul Become Asia’s Media Hub?

By James Constant

In July, the New York Times announced that it would move its Hong Kong-based digital news operation to Seoul over the course of the next year in response to the Chinese territory’s powerful new national security law, which went into effect in June. Already, press freedom in Hong Kong has come under attack. Jimmy Lai, the publisher of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested under the law on August 10, and Hong Kong work visas for foreign journalists are now reportedly being vetted by a new national security unit.

The Times’ move to Seoul can be explained both by the worsening environment for journalism in Hong Kong and the generally poor state of press freedom in Asia. The paper mentioned that Bangkok, Singapore and Tokyo were also considered, and cited South Korea’s “friendliness to foreign business, independent press, and its central role in several major Asian news stories” as factors weighing in Seoul’s favor. South Korea is currently ranked 42nd out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Index, the highest in Asia, with only Taiwan approaching Korea’s ranking. Singapore, which has been floated as a potential landing spot for international financial firms based in Hong Kong, has an atrocious record on press freedom, and the city-state’s Media Development Authority has broad censorship powers. Taiwan’s geopolitical situation precludes effective China coverage. Tokyo is even farther from Southeast Asian news stories than Seoul, and Japan has seen a backslide in press freedom since the Specially Designated Secrets act went into effect in 2013.

Considering the current situation, the New York Times is not alone – the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post are also considering moving staff from Hong Kong. Should they do so, Seoul is an attractive option – if only because other options in Asia are so limited.

It wasn’t long ago that South Korea was mired in its own dark days of media repression, which extended to foreign correspondents. Steven Butler, who worked for the Financial Times and Christian Science Monitor in Seoul during the mid-1980s, recalled that the South Korean government “wanted foreign correspondents, but didn’t want them to write things they didn’t like. During the Chun Doo-hwan administration, they would invite you out to lunch, then pull out an article you wrote.”  John Burton, who worked for the Financial Times in Seoul in the 1990s, after Korea’s democratization, wrote a story about a corruption scandal surrounding the son of then-President Kim Young-sam. He said his editors received a request from the government that Burton leave the country.

Reporters for international news organizations have had a much easier time in more recent years. The most notable example of overreach by the current Moon Jae-in administration against foreign media was its racially-tinged singling out of a Korean Bloomberg reporter and describing his article as “borderline traitorous” for likening Moon to a North Korean spokesman. After facing heavy criticism from reporters’ organizations, the Blue House quickly walked back its statement.

While conditions have certainly improved over time, one of the most worrying elements of South Korea’s current press freedom situation is the potential for a regression in the future. Moon’s predecessor, now-imprisoned former President Park Geun-hye, presided over a cultural blacklist, and South Korea’s World Press Index ranking reached an all-time low of 70 in 2016, Park’s last year in office.

In separate reports on press and political freedom in South Korea published during the Park administration, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Reporters Without Borders, and Freedom House, an American watchdog group, all cited criminal defamation laws and the National Security Act as key tools of repression. These laws remain unchanged today.

Revealing facts can still be punished by up two years in prison under the current defamation law. The National Security Act, introduced in 1948, provides stern penalties for vaguely-defined acts that may benefit North Korea, and was used in 2012 to imprison a photographer for satirically retweeting messages from a North Korean Twitter account. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called for the National Security Act to be repealed. As long as these laws remain on the books, reporters in South Korea must be wary of running afoul of them, with the inevitable result being self-censorship.

These concerns may seem minor compared to the new atmosphere of hostility to the press descending over Hong Kong. But Seoul currently has an opportunity to position itself as the new capital for international media in Asia, which could confer the same kind of cosmopolitan image to the city that Hong Kong currently enjoys.

In August, the Seoul city government set up the Seoul International Financial Office in Yeouido, which offers a variety of benefits for international financial firms looking to relocate to the city. South Korea has presented no similar plan for relocating media companies, but addressing problems in the legal code would be a good first step.

Revisions to South Korea’s National Security Act and draconian defamation laws could make the country Asia’s undisputed leader in press freedom, considering the miserable state of much of the region. South Korean politicians have long demonstrated their interested in bolstering the capital region’s prestige as a global city through major infrastructure projects like the Songdo International Business District and Incheon International Airport. By rethinking their approach to focus on revising the law to promote free expression, South Korea would be well-positioned to turn Hong Kong’s potential loss of prestigious international media companies into Seoul’s gain.

James Constant is an MA candidate in East Asian Studies at Leiden University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Picture from the flickr account of Andreas Komodromos.

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Public Image Decline of South Korean Churches

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

  • Pastors in South Korea claim that church-linked COVID-19 outbreaks have tainted the public image of churches in the country.
  • Most recently, a church in Seoul emerged as the source of the country’s second largest infection cluster following a spike in cases associated with a religious sect in Daegu earlier this year.
  • 2015 Gallup Korea poll finds that more South Koreans, particularly those in their twenties and thirties, are moving away from religion.

Implications: Scrutiny of churches amid the coronavirus pandemic highlight how religious institutions are losing their social influence in South Korea. While Christianity continues to be the leading faith in South Korea, more of the country’s population is abandoning faith entirely. This is reflective of a national trend towards increasing secularism, especially among young people who often feel out of touch with religion. In fact, some Koreans find that churches are out of step with issues like abortion and homosexuality. And still others are critical of instances of failed church leadership. Thus, once considered to be an integral part of civil society, churches in South Korea are now seen as less relevant than they were in the past.

Context: According to the Pew Research Center, South Korea has the world’s third-largest age gap in religious affiliation. Less than 40 percent of those under 40 are religious while 63 percent of those over 40 are. Experts argue that young adults are too occupied by the demanding education system and job market to spend much time on religious activities.

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

Picture from the flickr account of New Morning Korean Church

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Stricter Regulations on Social Media Marketing

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 Korea Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) announced new requirements for social media influencers to explicitly state whether their product endorsements are tied to corporate sponsors.
  • This move came after several YouTubers with millions of subscribers were criticized for their engagement in a covert promotional practice called “backdoor online advertising.”
  • Both influencers and companies that fail to comply with the regulations will receive a fine of up to 2 percent of related sales and revenue or 500 million won (USD 422,000).

Implications: Public opinion plays a significant role in shaping government policies towards social media content. Widespread backlash against online influencers who failed to disclose their corporate sponsorship drove the recent revision in online advertising guidelines. Additionally, with an increasing number of active users on social media platforms, the KFTC seems to have recognized the need to enforce stronger rules that protect consumer rights. Amid the rapid growth of the Korean digital advertising market, the country’s regulatory watchdog will most likely increase its monitoring of this space.

Context: Last year, the KFTC cracked down on multiple corporations, including Dyson Korea, LG Household & Health Care, and L’Oreal Korea for indirectly advertising their products on social media. At around the same time, the state-run Korea Consumer Agency surveyed 582 commercial postings, finding that only 174 revealed that they were advertisements. Among the 174 postings, however, many had unclear disclosures that belied their true functions.

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

From the Wikimedia Commmons account of 지식테이너김승훈

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The Economic Impact of Covid Bolsters Samsung’s Legal Position

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

  • Samsung’s vice chairman Lee Jae-Yong was indicted on charges of engaging in stock price manipulation, unfair trading and other illegal means to tighten his control over the country’s biggest conglomerate.
  • However, the court did not issue an arrest warrant, raising doubts on the strength of the prosecution’s case.
  • This coincides with Bank of Korea’s recent announcement that the economic decline in 2020 may be deeper than the previously expected contraction. It also lowered growth projections for 2021.

Implications: Adverse economic conditions created by the pandemic may prevent the Korean government from disciplining the country’s conglomerates. Although Samsung has been on the defense since revelations of its involvement in ex-President Park Geun-hye’s influence-peddling scandal, the company has leveraged the economic uncertainty to renew the argument that harm to the company could damage the national economy. More broadly, the COVID-induced recession has allowed conglomerates to justify layoffs without consultation with labor unions.

Context: The belief that disciplining conglomerates could negatively impact the national economy is widely circulated. In response, the Korean government has been highlighting the role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the development and export of testing kits in the ongoing global health crisis. By presenting SMEs as competitive actors on the global market, the government may look to disarm the common argument that companies like Samsung are too important to face legal consequences for its behavior.

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

From the flickr account of juan nuñez parilli

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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.