Asian Correspondent » Andy Jackson Asian Correspondent Fri, 03 Jul 2015 10:16:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Korean conservatives win a close election Wed, 11 Apr 2012 16:49:35 +0000

The ballots are still being counted, but it is apparent that the conservative New Frontier Party will remain the largest party in Korea’s National Assembly.

A South Korean elderly woman casts her vote for the parliamentary election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 11, 2012. (AP photo)

As of midnight, the Chosun Ilbo projects that the NFP will hold 152 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats.  The progressive Democratic Unified Party is ahead in 127 races while its junior partner, the leftist United Progressive Party, will pick up 13 for a total of 141.  The regional conservative Liberty Forward Party is projected to get five seats while independents will win the remaining three.

While the results show a drop in support for the NFP compared to the 2008 elections, they are a pleasant surprise for a party that was expecting to receive an electoral beating only a couple of months ago.  That turnaround can be attributed to leadership and hard campaigning of NFP chairwoman Park Geun-hye, missteps in the DUP’s nomination process, and the DUP’s mishandling of issues like the recently approved free trade agreement with the United States.

While several of the races are extremely close and can change with late returns fromt the hand-counted ballots, there are a few things that can be noted now:

The Fate of some Big-Wigs (and one who used to be one)

  • Park Geun-hye is high on the NFP’s proportional representation list (which accounts for 54 of the National Assembly’s 300 seats), so she is safely in.  Furthermore, the election results make her quest for the party’s presidential nomination later this year unstoppable.  Only Park Geun-hye can stop Park Geun-hye at this point.
  • Former DUP chair Chung Sye-kyun won easier in Jongno, Seoul.  The district is considered the political heart of Korea because it includes the presidential mansion and Gyeongbukgung, Korea’s last main royal palace before the 1905 Japanese occupation.  The win will raise Chung’s profile and give any presidential ambitions he has a boost.
  • Moon Jae-in, one of the leading candidates on the left for the presidency, won his race in Busan, despite a spirited challenge from political novice Son Su-jo.  However, his project to make major inroads in Busan for progressives failed.  The DUP only gained three of the city’s 18 seats while the NFP won the other 15.
  • DUP presidential nominee Chung Dong-young was crushed in his quixotic attempt to win a seat in the conservative Gangnam district in Seoul.  Perhaps this will finally put a stake in Chung’s political career.
  • Speaking of the political undead.  Rhee In-jae, who is probably the most detested man in Korean politics, has survived another election.  This time he won with the minor Liberty Forward party, beating back challengers from the DUP and NFP.

If these results hold, we can expect Park Geun-hye’s star to rise further and for the DUP’s leadership to fall on their swords.

One interesting result of this election is that Korea appears to finally be falling in with Duverger’s law, which states that electoral systems that are primarily single-member districts tend to create two-party rule.  It has taken several elections since the restoration of democratic rule in 1987, but it looks like we finally have two clearly dominant parties with the rest just picking of scraps.  That is especially clear when you note that several of the seats that the minor UPP won tonight were gifted to them as a result of their alliance with the DUP.

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The Battleground: Korea’s National Assembly Election Mon, 09 Apr 2012 05:22:09 +0000

New Frontier Pary chair Park Geun-hye campaigns in Busan ahead of the April 11 National Assembly Elections (Hankyoreh/Kang Chang-kwang photo)

Korea’s April 11 National Assembly elections are upon us.  The latest polls taken before a government-mandated blackout on polling last week showed that the election was going to be extremely close with the conservative majority New Frontier Party roughly even with the combined strength of the main opposition Democratic Unified Party and the minor left-wing Unified Progressive Party.  This is a good time to get a lay of the land for this election.

Capital Region (Seoul, Incheon, Gyeonggi)

The capital region is by far the biggest prize on election day, with 112 of the National Assembly’s 246 districts located there.  The results of local elections in 2010 and the victory by a progressive in last year’s special election for the Mayor of Seoul indicate that the left is likely to make inroads into the advantage the NFP gained in the area in the 2008 election.  Late polling showed that many races in the region were close.  However, that closeness will likely drive up interest and voter turn-out, which traditionally has helped progressives.

Advantage: toss-up

Chungcheong (Daejeon, North Chungcheong, South Chungcheong, Sejong City)

This region in the center of the country has swung both ways over the past decade.  A complicating factor for the NFP is that it is the home region for the minor conservative Liberty Forward Party, which could result in some DUP wins in districts where conservatives split their votes.  There have been calls for the conservative parties to form a united front in the region, but that hope is unlikely to be realized in time to have an impact on this election.

Advantage: DUP/UPP but close

Yeongnam (North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang, Busan, Daegu, Ulsan)

Yeongman is the home base of the NFP and party chair Park Geun-hye is from the Daegu area.

The left has made inroads in Ulsan/Busan/South Gyeongsang in the past.  Former president Roh Moo-hyun is from the area and Ulsan is a stronghold of labor unions.  However, heavy campaigning by Park in Busan and return of traditional voting patterns will likely limit how much the progressives can gain in the area this time around.

Advantage: NFP in a rout

Honam (North Jeolla, South Jeolla, Gwangju)

The left will swept this area by a large margin.  The only question is whether the UPP will win the seats handed to them by their deal with the DUP or lose them to former DUP members who left the part to run as independents.

Advantage: DUP/UPP in a shut-out

The after-thoughts (Gangwon, Jeju)

Rural Gangwon Province is a former NFP stronghold that has become competitive over the past few elections.  Jeju Island will also likely split its votes.

Advantage: toss-up

The PR List

Fifty-six of the 300 seats up for grabs are awarded to the parties by proportional representation, in which each party receives seats roughly proportional to their share of the vote on the nation-wide PR ballot.  The latest Realmeter poll on the subject gives a slight advantage to the DUP/UPP alliance but their 4.8 percent lead is dwarfed by the 13.8 percent of voters who have not picked a side yet.

Advantage: DUP/UPP but close

The bottom line

This election is looking like a toss-up.  While the NFP will likely have a plurality in the National Assembly, the combined total of the DUP and UPP seats should give them just under 150 seats compared to roughly 140 for the NFP.

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Korean legislative election is tight, really tight Sun, 25 Mar 2012 03:36:41 +0000

With just two and a half weeks to go before Korea’s National Assembly elections, all signs indicate that the race is extremely close.

 Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye Pic: AP

How close?  The title that the polling firm Realmeter chose for its latest poll is illustrative: New Frontier = Democrats + Progressives (새누리 39.4% = 민주 33.7% + 진보 5.7%).  In other words, the conservative New Frontier Party polled at the exact same level as the combined numbers of the two progressive party’s aligned against them: the Democratic United Party and the Unified Progressive Party.  The minor conservative Liberty Forward Party, which only competes in the central Chungcheong provinces, came in at 2.3 percent.  Nineteen percent of poll respondents were undecided, a large number so close to election day.

In an analysis of the current situation, the Hankyoreh newspaper predicted that the NFP would win 145 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly while the DUP-UPP alliance would pick up 142.

After victories in local elections in 2010 and the special election for mayor of Seoul last fall, it looked as if the progressives were poised to seize a clear majority in the legislature.

However, the NFP’s fortunes began to improve after turning to former party chairwoman Park Geun-hye to once again lead the party.  The simple act of putting her in charge helped the party distance itself from unpopular president Lee Myung-bak.  Park barely lost to Lee for the party’s presidential nomination in 2007 after a long and bitter contest.  Since then, she has challenged Lee several times, most famously over the Sejong City project.

Park also reformed the party’s nomination process, making the process more open.  In the meantime, the DUP and UPP were engaged in backroom deals to divvy up some of the safe progressive districts between them.  To make matters worse, a scandal emerged over the nominating process in those seats that were contested in primaries, resulting in UPP chairwoman Lee Jung-hee being forced to give up her nomination for a National Assembly seat in Seoul. A plurality of voters reported being more positiveabout the NFP’s nominating process than that of its rivals.

UPP chair Lee Jung-hee

UPP chair Lee Jung-hee was forced to give up her National Assembly nomination following a primary-rigging scandal

Then there are the policies.  The DUP has been taking hits over the past few weeks for its shifting positions on the recently-ratified free trade agreement with the USA and a navel base on Jeju Island.  There is also concern that progressives have not figured out how to pay for some of their social welfare proposals.

If the progressives cannot find a way to avoid such goals, they could very well find themselves out of power for another four years.

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Romney sweeps to victory in US Pacific islands Wed, 14 Mar 2012 23:45:52 +0000

While the big news in the US presidential race yesterday was Rick Santorum’s close victories in Alabama and Mississippi, Mitt Romney quietly completed the Pacific island territory caucus hat trick.  Romney added a victory in American Samoa to wins a few days earlier in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Due to American Samoa’s non-partisan voting system, party caucuses there are especially small; about 70 Republicans met in a bar and grill to cast their votes and elect delegates to the Republican national convention in Tampa, Florida in August.  Party chair Victor T. Tofaeono was confident that the American Samoan delegation would find itself on the winning side:

We’re excited and look forward to the national convention to cast our nine delegate votes for Gov. Mitt Romney, the next President of the United States.

Romney’s cause was no doubt added by the fact that his campaign was the only one to seriously compete on the islands.  Matt Romney and his wife Laurie campaigned for his father ahead of each caucus, something that local party activists no doubt appreciated.

Mitt Romney and his wife, Laurie, meet Guam's Republican vice chairman Victor Cruz. The younger Romney had the difficult assignment of touring several tropica islands on behalf of his father's campaign. (Rick Cruz/Pacific Daily photo)

Romney’s wins in American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas gave him all of the 27 available delegates from those territories.  Romney also won in the state of Hawaii, picking up 9 delegates to Santorum’s 5.  Romney’s 36-to-5 delegate advantage in the Pacific islands more than offset Santorum’s  32-to-23 delegate margin in Alabama and Mississippi.

While residents of America’s Pacific islands have citizenship rights, the territories themselves do not have seats in Congress under the American constitution and thus do not have votes in the general election.  However, both major parties allow the territories to send delegates to their conventions.

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Conservatives gain ground ahead of Korean legislative elections Tue, 13 Mar 2012 18:53:34 +0000

It appears that the New Frontier Party has done the right thing in once again turning to Park Geun-hye in its time of need.

Park has helped the NFP overcome its ties to unpopular president Lee Myung-bak to soar past its main rival, the progressive Democratic Unified Party, in the latest Realmeter poll.  The NFP gained four percentage points to stand at 40.3 percent while the DUP slipped 3.6 points to 32.7 percent.  The two parties were tied at 36.3 percent last week.  The 7.6 point shift is the biggest of one-week change of the year so far in weekly poll.

Park’s status as a key rival to President Lee is likely a major part in the NFP’s rise.  Her presence as the party’s head, along with her purging of some pro-Lee figures from the party’s candidate pool, have allowed the party to successfully distance itself from Lee, who ran on the conservative ticket for president in 2007.  That has allowed the party to rise to its more natural level of support and lessens the chance that many voters will vote against them on April 11 as a way to voicing disapproval of the president.

Park Geun-hye has led the NFP back to the top of public opinion polls

Another factor is the DUP’s relationship with the minor Unified Progressive Party.  While the agreement between the DUP and the UPP to cooperate in the April legislative elections helped realize the dream of a unified progressive front. The deal to give the UPP a free shot at several safe seats in the southwestern Jolla region has antagonized part of the old guard, who have vowed to run for seats there as part of an ad hoc alliance.  If those alternative candiates can gain traction, it will force the DUP to divert resources towards securing its political base in the southwest, something that the alliance with the UPP was suppose to prevent.

The NFP’s rise under Park’s leadership is reminiscent of 2004, when party leaders arranged a hugely unpopular impeachment of president Roh Moo-hyun.  Faced with public outrage and a potential disaster at the polls, party leaders turned to Park, a long-time conservative leader and the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee.  Park helped the party maintain its political base in the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces, helping the party stay relevant and preventing Roh’s Uri Party from gaining a constitutional majority in the legislature.

While we can expect some kind of correction next week after so big a shift, the NFP’s rise back to the top this week is part of a trend that has been going on for several months.   The conservatives trailed their progressive rivals 29.1 percent to 39.7 percent in January and slowly clawed their way to even last week.

The poll was taken of 3,750 people contacted via random digit dialing (3,000 by landlines and 750 on cell phones) over the course of five days.  The margin of error is 1.2 percent with a confidence of 95 percent.

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South Korean parties face divisions ahead of elections Mon, 05 Mar 2012 17:56:29 +0000
Both of South Korea’s major political parties are facing internal divisions ahead of the April National Assembly elections, which could add further unpredictability to the race.

The majority conservative New Frontier Party is facing a major split after its nominating committee excluded roughly 30 sitting legislators from primary elections to be held later this month.  The exclusion is part of inter-m chairwoman Park Geun-hye’s attempt to revitalize the party’s sagging support.  Supporters of President Lee Myung-bak claim that they are taking a disproportionate hit in the process.  There is a danger that the struggle could lead to excluded candidates banding together in a short-term political alliance much like Park’s supporters did with some success in the 2008 legislative elections, although Lee’s low popularity and the different political terrain in 2012 would make that more difficult.

Democratic Unity Party candidate hopfuls protest in front of party headquarters demanding a fair nomination process ahead of the April 11, 2012 elections. Korea Times/Koh Young-kwon photo

In the meantime, the main opposition Democratic Unity Party continues to struggle with its own nomination process.  Several lawmakers who were denied a spot on the ballot have pledged that they will run as independents, a strategy that was successfully used by former Democratic presidential candidate Chung Dong-young after he was denied a ballot spot in a special election in 2009.  The division could complicate already difficult negotiations between the DUP and other progressive parties on forming an electoral alliance for the legislative elections.

To make matters even more interesting, the latest Realmeter poll has the NFP and the DUP tied at 36.3 percent as the DUP continues to lose support among continuing signs of political ineptitude.

In other news, Seoul’s Jongno district, considered to be Korea’s political prime real estate due to its location near the presidential mansion and the former royal palace, will once again feature a battle of political heavyweights.  The NFP’s Hong Sa-duk, former vice speaker of the National Assembly will face former chair of the DUP’s predecessor and possible presidential candidate Chung Sye-kyun.

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South Korean conservatives show renewed strength ahead of April elections Tue, 28 Feb 2012 12:27:30 +0000

Things are looking up for the New Frontier Party.

South Korea’s leading conservative party has been in a tailspin ever since losing a special election for Seoul mayor in October.  However, a new pair of polls suggest that the party, which recently changed its name from the Grand National Party, may have begun to reverse its slide ahead of legislative elections on April 11.

A poll taken by the Hankyoreh newspaper and the Korea Society Opinion Institute on February 24 and 25 shows the conservatives ahead of the leading progressive Democratic Unity Party:

When asked which party they would vote for in the April 11 general election, 38.2% of respondents said the SP, and 32.9% that they would vote for the DUP. These were followed by the Unified Progressive Party with 3.1%, the Liberty Forward Party with 1.7%, K Party with 1.5% and the New Progressive Party with 1.1%.

(As an aside, “SP” is an odd acronym formed by combing the first letter of the Korean-to-English transliteration of the New Frontier Party (Saenuri) with the English word “party”.  Why they did not just use NFP is beyond me, although a possible explanation is that the editors have not yet decided on whether to translate the Korean “새누리당” into “New Frontier Party” or “New World Party”.)

Other recent polls had shown the DUP slightly ahead of the NFP, but the most recent poll by our friends at Realmeter has the conservatives rising almost four percentage points to 36.5 percent, just behind the DUP’s 37.5 percent.

The Hankyoreh reports that public approval of reforms in the conservative party’s nomination process may have fueled its recent rise in the polls.  The NFP has added a primary system to its party nomination process, which will allow wider input into whom the party nominates in the April elections.

Park Geun-hye is again leading a conservative comeback

Another factor may be the the leadership of Park Geun-hye.  The daughter of popular former dictator Park Chung-hee helped the party avoid electoral disaster in the 2004 legislative elections and endured a box-cutter attack while campaigning for the party in local elections in 2006.  Her steady hand, and the distance she has maintained from unpopular conservative president Lee Myung-bak, may help the NFP retain a plurality in the National Assembly.  That would remove an possibility of her not winning the party’s nomination for the December presidential nomination.

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“Chink in the Armor”: Racism or a lax copy editor? Sun, 19 Feb 2012 03:26:33 +0000

An undrafted player from Harvard (not exactly a basketball powerhouse) spends his time as a bench warmer in a struggling NBA team until injuries to several starting players give him a chance to start.  He takes the ball and runs with it.. up and down the court, demonstrating great skill, helping his team get on a winning path and drawing fan interest.  Over the course of several games, he becomes a star.

Then the inevitable happens: he struggles in a game and his team loses.  ESPN, America’s leading sports network, announces “Chink in the Armor” under a picture of the star.

One problem: The player in question, Jeremy Lin, is an American of Chinese ancestry.

ESPN's groan-inducing headline

If you are still not getting the problem, you might not know that the word “chink” can be a derogatory term for a Chinese person or someone (like Lin) of Chinese ancestry.

However, as our friends at The Hindu have noted, the word as used in expression “chink in the armor” means something completely different:

The word ‘chink’ has nothing to do with a ‘Chinaman’. This ‘chink’ is a rather obscure word meaning ‘slit’ or ‘narrow opening’. In the old days, as a form of protection, soldiers used to wear armour. If the armour had a slit, then it became a weak spot, which enemies took advantage of.

In fact, as has been noted elsewhere, the term has been used by ESPN over 3,000 times in reference to players of all ethnicities.

Despite that, ESPN quickly pulled the headline and issued an apology:

Last night,’s mobile web site posted an offensive headline referencing Jeremy Lin at 2:30 am ET. The headline was removed at 3:05 am ET. We are conducting a complete review of our cross-platform editorial procedures and are determining appropriate disciplinary action to ensure this does not happen again. We regret and apologize for this mistake

The network also apologized for an ESPN news anchor’s use of the term when referring to Lin.

The most likely explanation is that it was inadvertently used as a common term, possibly by a young writer who might not have remembered that, while it can be used when talking about a member of any other ethnic group in the world, “chink in the armor” is verboten when talking about someone who is Chinese.  Case closed.

Frankly, I would not have bothered posting on this except that various folks are raising a fuss over it.

*   *   *

I faced a similar problem once here at Asian Correspondent.  In November of 2009, I did a post on diplomacy regarding North Korea, China and the United States.  To encapsulate the gist of the article, I used the headline “Keep the North Korean tar baby stuck to China“.  For those of you not familiar with the term, it refers to an old story in which rabbit is stuck to a doll made of tar and almost eaten by a fox.

The term can also be a racist reference to black people if used in a different context.  Well, apparently the editor who chose the picture to go with that post was not familiar with the term because he or she chose to use a picture of President Obama to accompany it.  To make matters worse, in the format that we used at the time, the picture of Obama was placed right next to the words “tar baby”.

Needless to say, I was aghast when I checked the post a few hours later.  I quickly switched the picture of Obama with one of Kim Jong-il and have chosen my own pictures for most posts since then.

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Presidential poll: Moon Jae-in neck-and-neck with Park Geun-hye Sat, 18 Feb 2012 15:24:40 +0000

Political activist, Moon Jae-in, has moved into a virtual tie with Grand NationalNew Frontier Party chairwoman, Park Geun-hye, in a hypothetical head-to-head presidential election.  The latest poll from our friends at Realmeter has Park with 44.3 percent to Moon’s 43.0 percent.

Moon joins software businessman, Ahn Chul-soo, as a leading progressive contender to the conservative Park.  The same poll has Ahn at 49.5 percent to 41.3 percent for Park in a two-way race.  However, part of Ahn’s charm at the moment is that he is remaining aloof of politics and remains a blank canvas upon which members of the public can paint their ideal candidate.  Once he does take the plunge, openly declare his presidential ambitions, and stake out policy positions, he is likely to find much of his support fleeting.

Moon Jae-in is showing renewed strength as a presidential candidate (Naver photo)

Moon is a more satisfying choice than Ahn among politically active progressives because he is a more known figure.  He is a long-time activist and was an ally of former president Roh Moo-hyun who has been working to unify Korea’s often fractured left before legislative elections in April.  That work has given him connections inside most of the major progressive political organizations, something which could help him emerge as a consensus candidate on the left ahead of December’s presidential election.

Moon’s greater depth of support is starting to show in Realmeter’s open presidential preference question, which showed Moon steadily moving up at the expense of Ahn.  The latest numbers available show Ahn at 20.8 percent and Moon at 19.4 percent with Park at 31.3 percent.  The same survey in early January showed Ahn at 27.5 percent and Moon at 8.5 percent with Park at 29.3 percent.  Those numbers indicate that Ahn’s good head-to-head numbers against Park may conceal a softness in his support.

Moon’s strength within progressive political circles and his comparative steadiness in polling make him, rather than Ahn, the most likely progressive opponent of Park Geun-hye in December.

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The coming year in South Korean politics Tue, 03 Jan 2012 18:12:30 +0000

This is going to be a doozy of a year for South Korean Politics, with two major elections amid an ongoing transition in North Korea’s leadership.

The first election will be in April for the National Assembly.  All 299 seats will be up in the vote, 245 in single-member districts voted  and 54 by proportional representation.*  The conservative Grand National Party has generally had a rough go of it in by and local elections over the past several years and progressives are working on a unified effort for April.  That will make it difficult for the GNP to hold on to its legislative majority.

The National Assembly election will set the stage for what will likely be a tough presidential nomination fight on both the right and the left, leading to a raucous general election in December.

Park Geun-hye will fail again in her quest to be the president of Korea

With that in mind, here are some predictions for the election year:

  1. Korea will finally be a two-party system.  In a somewhat belated application of Duveger’s Law, Korea seems to be settling into a two-major party system with minor parties on the right and the left falling in support.  The need to economize votes will add pressure on the center-right Liberty Forward Party and the left-wing New Progressive Party to join or at least enter electoral alliances with the major parties.  The Unified Progressive Party will be the biggest holdout, although dissatisfied politicians on the right and left may form small ad hoc parties ahead of the April elections.
  2. The Democratic Unified Party will win a plurality, but not a majority, in the National Assembly.  Although there will only be two major parties, the remnants of smaller parties and local victories by independents will prevent either of the major parties from winning a majority of seats in the National Assembly. While the left has been on the march as of late, they still have not closed the deal with the Korean people, many of whom will fear a repeat of dysfunction of the Roh Moo-hyun administration.  The most likely result will be the DUP winning about 145 seats to the GNP’s 135, with minor party candidates and independents holding the balance of power with roughly 20 seats.  The latest Realmeter poll has the DUP at 30.6% with the GNP 30.5%.  Both parties are beaten by the 32% who plan to vote independent or have not decided.
  3. (Here is the big one.) Neither Park Geun-hye nor Ahn Cheol-soo will be president of Korea.  That may seem strange since they are far ahead of all other potential presidential candidates in the polls, but both have problems that will be exposed over the course of the next several months.  That will be the subject of a post later this week.

*If you do not know the difference between the two systems:  In single-member districts, voters vote directly from a list of individual candidates to decide who will represent their community in the National Assembly.  Every district has a different list of candidates.  Under proportional representation, voters nationwide get one vote for which party they prefer.  As long as a party gets at least 3% of the PR vote, it will receive seats roughly in proportion to the percentage of votes it received.

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With blood in the water, Korean progressives in an electoral feeding frenzy Tue, 27 Dec 2011 03:21:12 +0000

The victory by Park Won-soon, a long-time activist backed by progressive groups in a close election for mayor of Seoul last October, has gotten Korea’s left salivating at the prospect of sweeping victories in next year’s national assembly and presidential elections.  With a chance to control both the Blue House and the legislature, the various parties on the left are starting to focus on winning elections rather than turf battles with fellow progressives.

Park Won-soon's win in the Seoul mayoral election on October 27 has South Korean progressives feeling good about their prospects in the 2012 general elections (AP/Lee Jin-man photo)

To better prepare for those elections, the center-left Democratic Party has combined with progressives and the Korean Federation of Trade to form the Democratic Unified Party.

The far left also wants to see its share in the National Assembly increased.  The old national liberation leftist Democratic Labor Party has joined forces with Rhyu Shi-min’s People’s Participation Party to form the Unified Progressive Party.  The unification may help both parties shed images that have held them back; the DLP’s image as a collection of pro-North Korean extremists and the view that the PPP is simply a personal vehicle for Rhyu’s presidential ambitions.  On the flip side, the union combines the DLP’s organizational muscle with Rhyu’s image as a more mild (if not moderate) progressive who carries the banner of former president Roh Moo-hyun.  The new party hopes to increase its number of seats in the National Assembly from seven to at least 20, which will allow it to form a floor negotiating group and give it a larger share of the the assembly’s operating budget.

The ultimate goal of all these efforts is to create a grand unified progressive party.  That may be a bridge too far but the two major parties on the left could form a temporary alliance in legislative elections in the spring.  They will need to to avoid splitting the progressive vote; the apparent progressive surge is fueling a rush of candidates registering to run under the DUP and UPP banners, with filed candidates in the capital region from those two parties outnumbering those seeking nomination in the main conservative Grand National Party by more than 3-to-1.  The feeling that 2012 will be a good year for the left will make it more difficult for the remaining party’s to give up on the chance to significantly expand their electoral footprint in the name of unity.

The latest Realmeter poll has the GNP at 31.2%, followed by the DUP at 30.9% and the UPP at 6.1%.  A massive 31.8% support either support minor parties, independents, or are undecided.

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Opinion: A Chinese takeover of North Korea? Unlikely Sat, 24 Dec 2011 16:59:56 +0000

With characteristic alarm, Georgetown professor and former George W. Bush administration advisor Victor Cha, sounded a warning in the New York Times about a possible Chinese takeover of North Korea.

Although Cha correctly views China as the biggest non-Korean obstacle to Korean reunification*, noting that maintaining a divided Korea has long been Chinese policy (certainly since it became apparent in the 1990s that any reunification would come largely on Seoul’s terms), he then speculates that the Chinese may go “all in” and make it an unofficial part of China:

For Xi Jinping, expected to become China’s president over the next year, the first major foreign policy decision will be whether to shed North Korea or effectively adopt it as a province.

All indications are that Beijing will pursue the latter course, in no small part because of a bias among its leadership to support the status quo, rather than to confront dramatic change. And yet “adopting” North Korea could be dramatic in itself. China may go all in, doling out early invitations and new assistance packages to the young Mr. Kim, conditioning them on promises of economic reform.

While China has become increasing present in the North Korean economic system, Cha overestimates Beijing’s power over Pyongyang for several reasons:

  • Pyongyang has largely avoided economic reforms to integrate itself into the world trade system.  That leave North Korea less vulnerable to outside pressure, even Chinese pressure.
  • North Korean xenophobia extends to China.  Despite claims that the Chinese and North Koreans were as close as “lips and teeth“, Pyongyang has always seen its partnership with Beijing as one of necessity rather than friendship.  Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, nearly lost the 1950-1953 war against South Korea and United Nations forces because he resisted Mao Zedong’s repeated offers to enter the war because of fear of Chinese dominance, relenting only when it because obvious that MacArthur’s forces would not stop until they reached the Amnok (Yalu) River.  After the war, the elder Kim made a point of trying to keep equidistant relations between Beijing and Moscow.
  • North Korean fear of Chinese dominance runs deep.  North Korea draws a historical connection(PDF) to the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo (37 BC to 668 AD), one of the “three kingdoms” of ancient Korean history.  Goguryeo’s major claim to fame is its defeat of successive Chinese invasions.  Perhaps Goguryeo’s most famous figure is Eulji Mundeok, a general credited with probably killing more Chinese than anyone in history except Mao.  The Goguryeo connection to North Korean ideology points to resistance to foreign dominance in general but resistance to Chinese dominance in particular.
  • The North Koreans are adept at weeding out potential fifth columnists in their ranks.  Kim Il-sung purged both the pro-Chinese and pro-Soviet factions within the government in the 1950s.  There have been periodic purges since then to weed out people who might not loyally follow the Kim dynasty.  There is little reason to believe that Kim Jong-un and his inner circle would be any less willing to purge officials whom they believe to be insufficiently loyal.  That would make it much more difficult for Beijing to be able to use a faction of the North Korean govenment to achieve dominance.

North Korea will likely remain a tarbaby for Beijing; something it does not like but which it cannot get rid of.

Kim Jong-un pays respect to his father, the late Kim Jong-il on December 20 (Korean Central TV still)

*By far the biggest obstacles to reunification are from the Koreans themselves, in the form of the Kim dynasty desire to hold on to power in the North and South Korean fears of the negative economic and social impact of having to absorb the moribund North Korean system into its own.

(NOTE:  I am back posting after several months off for business and family reasons.  I thank the editors at Asian Correspondent for their understanding during my absence.)

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Opinion: North Korea to be ruled by collective leadership Fri, 23 Dec 2011 03:34:01 +0000

Kim Jong-un will be at the top, but he will not be lonely (Yao Dawei/AP Photo)

There has been speculation about Kim Jong-un’s ability to hang on to power in North Korea following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, this week.

The younger Kim, dubbed the “Great Successor” by the North Korean government, has only had official government titles for about a year.  His grooming for the position was considerably shorter than than the transition that led to his father taking over the family rulership of the country.  If fact, by the time national founder Kim Il-sung died in 1994, Jong-il had been groomed for leadership for well over a decade and had taken over much of the day-to-day business of running the country.

Jong-un has had almost none of that experience and, as Jong-il’s third son, his rise to the post is a violation of Confucian norms that still hold sway in North Korea.

There has been some speculation that National Defense Commission deputy chairman Jang Song-thaek will become a rival of the younger Kim for power.  Jang is Kim’s uncle by marriage, having married Kim Jong-il’s younger sister Kim Kyong-hui in 1972.  Jang and his wife both rapidly rose in the North Korean hierarchy, with Jang serving in the Defense Commission and Kyong-hui working in the Political Bureau and being named a general.  Jang also has an powerful ally in Ri Yong Ho, chief of the staff of North Korea’s army.

Certainly the younger Kim will need Jang’s experience and connections in the bureaucracy to prevent a power struggle or unrest.  However, Jang and other potential claimants to leadership in North Korea know that any overt change in leadership would break the cult of personality which is one of chief bonds holding the rickety North Korean state together.  Once those bonds are broken, there could be a free-for-all battle for power amid a general unraveling of central authority.

So the old hands need Jong-un as much as he needs them.  For the moment, that mutual need will hold those various elements of the government together.

However, should things fall apart, one of the other descendants of Kim Il-sung could rise to power.  While Kim Jong-il’s older sons are by all accounts not fit to lead, there is a female of the line who apparently ready for prime time:  Jong-un’s cousin Kim Sul-song.

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Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon quits, sets up race for his seat Fri, 26 Aug 2011 15:28:49 +0000

Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon resigned Friday after a failed referendum on free school lunches in the city’s school system.

While that may seem a small reason to upend the choice of voters, who twice voted Oh into the mayor’s office, the referendum was at the center of an emerging contentious debate about expanding public welfare.

The school lunch conflict started after progressives, mostly from the main opposition Democratic Party, swept into power in Seoul local elections last year.  After much debate and gnashing of teeth, they passed a measure that ended means testing for free lunches in local schools.  Supporters contended that providing the meal free to the children of wealthier citizens eliminates a social stigma for poor children. Conservatives countered that it makes no sense to give the meals to rich kids for free, especially when such a move would eat into school budgets.

Oh was so concerned about the development that he launched a campaign for a referendum reversing the change in the school lunch policy.

Oh's pleading with the public to vote was not enough to get them to come out to vote. (photo source unknown)

Perhaps concerned about how the vote would turn out, progressive groups took advantage of the general low turn out for non-presidential elections and called for a boycott.  Their efforts succeeded when the referendum failed to achieve the one-third turn out required for it to be valid.

In announcing his resignation, Oh took responsibility for his failure but said that the fight over putting wealthy and middle-class Koreans on public welfare was far from over:

Today, I resign from the mayoral duty, assuming responsibility for the referendum results.  I want to fulfill my responsibility by quitting now to minimize the political debates and administrative vacuum. I think this is in accordance with the will of the people.

In light of my resignation, I hope debates on excessive welfare will have more depth and intensity.

The Democrats seem prepared to take the public welfare debate to the next level as well, with party chair Sohn Hak-kyu calling full steam ahead (previous link):

In light of the victory in the free lunch vote, we have to follow people’s order with a more humble attitude. We have to make an audacious move to push for a universal welfare program and economic democracy with more confidence.

“Economic democracy” here being the right for every larger segments of the population being able to vote themselves funds from the public treasury.

Oh’s resignation sets up an interesting by-election on October 26.  Some possible candidates from the left include Han Myeong-suk, who lost to Oh last year and People’s Participation Party chair Rhyu Shi-min, who lost his race for governor of Gyeonggi Province last year.  Both Han and Rhyu have seen their standing fade since those loses and need a boost if they wish to become serious contenders in next year’s presidential election.

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Overcoming fraud in Korean digital dating Fri, 19 Aug 2011 12:36:10 +0000

Koreans have embraced the use the of technology to enhance their quests to find mates.

The use of social dating sites has bloomed as young singles, struggling to find someone suitable in their immediate social and work circles, use social dating sites in the hope of lassoing love.

There have been problems with the new technology-based dating, most of which revolve around the fact that people can never be sure their online partners are exactly who they say they are.  This sets the stage for identity fraud and other scams.

As online connections develop, victims begin to feel an emotional connection to the people with whom they have been chatting.  People even begin to fall in love with their online partners before they have even met.

Which is why we see cases like the one detailed in a question posted on a web page  from a 34-year-old secretary about her online boyfriend, whom she had “dated” for several months online but had never met in person:

He is asking to borrow $3,000. I have some money set aside. Should I lend it to him, or is this a scam?

That she even had to ask that question is an indication of how serious a problem this can become.

In a society that is becoming increasingly socially isolated and technology-savvy, online dating will only increase.  The question is how to do so in a way that protects the people involved.  One way is to use social dating sites that seek to get real information on users into the system, decreasing the chances that site members will be the victims of fraud.

A bar in the Sinchon district of Seoul (a favorite place for university students to play) has added a new twist by fusing aspects of the social media and “meet a guy in a bar” dating scenes.  Patrons of the bar are given tablet PCs (one per table) that are connected to each other on a local network.  If they like what they read on the profiles and chats, they can then decide to meet in person then and there.

A 22-year-old college student, a regular at the bar, voiced her approval of the system:

At ordinary bars, I’m reluctant to meet someone, because I can only judge them based on their looks, but this bar is great because we can talk before we meet.

This way of meeting people eases the social embarrassment of having to turn someone down.

However, the fusion of inter-person and online mores may taking some getting used to; another patron said that the “kind of bad manners you encounter on the Internet have found a good home here.”

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Koreans celebrate Liberation Day amid presidential call for ‘responsibility of capital’ Tue, 16 Aug 2011 00:40:45 +0000

On August 15, 1945, the emperor of Japan declared his nation’s surrender to allied forces (a surrender made official a few weeks later).  As part of that surrender, Korea regained its independence after over three decades of colonial rule by Japan.

South Koreans across the county marked the 66th anniversary of their liberation with rallies and speeches.

South Korea was awash in national flags for Liberation Day (AP photo)

President Lee Myung-bak used his Liberation Day to strike somewhat contradictory (or is that nuanced?) stances on the South Korean economy. He started by stating that capital must move from “freedom” to “responsibility:”

The existing market economy must evolve. What is now being demanded is a new model of the market economy that evolves from greedy management to ethical management, from the freedom of capital to the responsibility of capital, and from the vicious circle of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer to mutual prosperity.

Does that sound like a call for European-style socialism? Perhaps to the untrained ear, but Lee was quick to put those kinds of thoughts to rest:

In some countries, competitive welfare populism by lawmakers brought about national bankruptcy. We have to avoid repeating the same mistakes. If the state budget is depleted, it would be impossible to continue implementing welfare policies.

Instead, Lee advocates a third way.  While supporting the capitalist system that has evolved over the past several decades, he wants private industry to grow in a way that provides social welfare through jobs, saying, “Instead of jobless growth, it has to help create more job opportunities.”

The speech is evocative of the Park Chung-hee era, when Park strong-armed the leaders of Chaebol (family conglomerates) into supporting his development plans. The question is whether Lee actually has the will to try to force Korea’s major corporations to provide sufficient busy work to increase employment and raise family income among Korea’s poorer citizens.

Korea’s industrial leaders are at least playing lip service to supporting Lee’s goal of increasing employment.  The Federation of Korean Industries said that they will do their part by “expanding investment and creating jobs.”  The Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry also supported Lee’s concept, but called on government to do its part by creating a more business-friendly environment.

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Seoul mayor to forgo presidential run Fri, 12 Aug 2011 12:53:06 +0000

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has declared that he will not be a candidate for the South Korean Presidency in 2012 and instead will fulfill the remainder of his second term, which runs to 2014.

Oh had never indicated that he want to run for president, but there had been much speculation that he would run. The Seoul Mayor’s office is considered to be a strong springboard from which to launch a presidential run; current South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, had previously served as mayor of the capital city.

Korean voters will not have Oh Se-hoon to kick around in next year's presidential election. (Photo by Jeff Ooi)

Oh said in a news conference that he decided to make the announcement to help clarify in the mind of the public his motivation for supporting a referendum on stopping the expansion of free school lunches to all primary and secondary school students:

Debates over my political future have hampered the meaning of the referendum on free lunch itself and distorted my sincerity on the vote. I decided to put forth my position on the presidential bid to clear up further misunderstandings.

I will not run in the 2012 presidential election.

Progressives gained a majority on the Seoul city council last year and passed an ordinance making school lunches free for all students under the theory that making the children of more wealthy students pay stigmatizes the children of poor families. Conservatives counter that means testing the free lunch program reduces expenses, freeing school resources for things such as books.

Oh, a member of the conservative Grand National Party, has campaigned against what he calls “excessive welfare,” citing the budgetary problems that several countries and is calling on Seoul voters to put a stop to “welfare populism:”

Somebody should put a brake on welfare populism that weighs on the state budget. Only a smart choice by voters can stop these kinds of practices among politicians, who are swayed by votes.

Progressive groups are calling for a boycott of the August 24 vote.  At least a third of eligible voters (or about 800,000) must participate for it to be valid.

There may also be a tactical consideration for Oh.  Polls show that former GNP chairwoman, Park Geun-hye, has a huge lead over all potential opponents for the party’s presidential nomination.  The referendum could be providing Oh with an excuse to skip a race he cannot win.  He would almost certainly be one of the front-runners for the GNP nomination in 2017.

(The titles of both linked articles, which state that Oh “drops” his presidential bid are minomers since he was never officially a candidate.)

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China’s first aircraft carrier starts sea trials Wed, 10 Aug 2011 04:50:30 +0000

China’s first aircraft carrier left the port of Dalian for sea trials early Wednesday, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The vessel is the uncompleted Soviet ship Varyag that China purchased from Ukraine in 1998.  The ship, which has not been renamed which Jane’s Fighting Ships says has been renamed the Shi Lang (see more on this below), is undergoing refurbishing.  The ship will continue to be refurbished once it returns to port.

The work on the ship will provide China valuable information as they develop their carrier fleet over the next several years.

The former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag has begun sea trials.

China has maritime border issues with several states, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.  Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has voiced apprehension over the development:

The development of China’s military strength is not only a matter of concern for Japan but for the international community.

Chinese officials have dismissed those concerns.

China is expected to develop several aircraft carriers over the next decade.

UPDATE: A Taiwan angle?

An oddly worded note on the end of a Global Security profile of the ship (it does not fit the tone of the rest of the article) indicates that the apparent name of the new Chinese ship is provocative:

In 1683, Shi Lang, the navy military governor of Fujian, led more than 20,000-men to wipe out the bandits in Taiwan by employing the strategy for the use of force of “first taking Penghu and then Taiwan” and “residing invitation to surrender in annihilation”. The Manchus took possession of the island and made it a district of Fukien Province, which it remained until ceded to the Japanese in 1895. Shi Lang’s military and social influence carried on growing in the decade after his conquest of Taiwan. Shi Lang in his Memorial to the Emperor on Taiwan Issue analyzed the geographical situation of Taiwan, emphasized its strategic importance to the security of the southeast coast and the whole country and expressed his determination to safeguard it and keep it within the territory of China.

Despite that, Taiwan will not likely feel too much presure from the development.  Taiwan’s former Deputy Defense Minister Lin Chong-pin gives a simple reason for that:

I don’t think Beijing intends to use Varyag to attack Taiwan because it does not need to do so.

Chinese can launch attacks from Taiwan from land-based missiles and aircraft.  Also, China is currently focused on using diplomatic means to isolate Taiwan and force it to acquiesce to Beijing’s rule.

Instead, Lin believes that China’s carrier program is designed to project power to protect overseas interests, improve China’s diplomatic position, and satisfy the emotional and nationalistic needs of Chinese citizens.

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SKorea: Moon Jae-in overtakes Sohn Hak-kyu in presidential poll Mon, 08 Aug 2011 13:15:26 +0000

I noted last week that rising progressive star Moon Jae-in was gaining on Democratic Party chair, Sohn Hak-kyu, in polling for next year’s presidential election in Korea and was in striking distance of overtaking him.

Scratch that.

Moon has now overtaken Sohn and is leading among all progressives.

Moon Jae-in, head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, now leads all other progressive in the Realmeter presidential poll. (Naver photo)

The latest poll from Realmeter has Moon’s support at 9.8 percent, up 1.6 percentage points from last week.  Sohn also rose, by 0.7 percentage points, to 9.4 percent. Rhyu Si-min, the other leading progressive candidate, also gain ground and stands at 7.7 percent.

While there is a lot of volitility from week-to-week in the poll numbers, Moon’s rising trend over the past few months is clear.

As always, Park Geun-hye, former chairwoman of the conservative Grand National Party, leads all candidates with 32.2 percent.

The combined totals of all major GNP figures (Park, Oh Se-hoon, Kim Moon-soo and Jung Mong-joon) is 43.7 percent while that of Democatic Party leaders (Sohn, Han Myeong-suk and Chung Dong-young) and People’ Participation Party chair Rhyu is 34.3 percent.

(I believe that a unification of the DP and PPP are likely since there is little ideological difference between the two. After several electoral failures over the past two years, Rhyu must know by know that he has no hope of winning the presidency without the organization of the Democrats behind him. That will eventually force him to accede to the Democrat’s attempts to bring his party under their wing.)

Moon continues to deny his interest in the presidency, saying that there is “zero possibility” that he will seek elective office.  Instead, he continues his work on unifying the various progressive parties ahead of legislative elections next spring. That work keeps him in the spotlight without having to make a commitment to run.  Moon is unlikely to officially declare himself a candidate for the presidency until after those elections.

In other news from the Realmeter poll, President Lee Myung-bak continues to sit in the low 30’s in public support and the Grand National Party maintains a small lead over the Democrats in total support.

*   *   *   *   *

Realmeter contacted 3,750 people by random digit dialing (3,000 on land lines and 750 on cell phones).  They called 750 people per day between August 1 and August 5. The poll has a margin of error of 1.6 percent and a confidence of 95 percent; in other words, we can be 95 percent sure that Moon Jae-in’s real support in among the general public is between 8.2 percent and 11.4 percent.

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Moon Jae-in still rising in Korea Fri, 05 Aug 2011 13:43:03 +0000

This column has been following former Roh Moo-hyun administration official, Moon Jae-in, since early June, when he began rising in poll ratings among potential progressive presidential candidates. That rise was primarily fueled by his work on unity among progressive parties in last April’s by-elections. Moon kept the surge going with the release of his book “Moon Jae-in’s Destiny” a short time later.

Since then, I have devoted several posts to Moon. At least part of the reason for that is that Moon is a fulfillment of prophecy.

The release of the book "Moon Jae-in's Destiny" helped fuel his surge in support

For much of the past year, the race for the presidency on the progressive side has been a contest between Democratic Party chair, Sohn Hak-kyu, and People’s Participation Party head, Rhyu Si-min. The problem with Sohn is that, as a former member of the conservative Grand National Party, he is considered to be too moderate for many in the Democratic Party rank-and-file. He won the chairmanship on just a third of the party’s votes when other candidates on his left split the progressive-wing vote. Rhyu is more acceptable to progressives, but has shown himself to be deficient as a politician.

That leaves an opening for a progressive politician who has the standing and political skills to unite the left. At least for the moment, Moon is the one filling that gap.

The latest Realmeter poll shows Moon increasing his lead over Rhyu and gaining on Sohn.  Sohn has 8.7 percent support, a 2.9 percentage point drop from a week ago. That sudden reversal erased several weeks of gains and dropped him back to where he was before the by-elections – bouncing around in the high single digits. Moon gained 1.1 percentage points to come in next at 8.2 percentage. This places Moon for the first time within striking distance of overtaking Sohn. Rhyu’s support level is basically unchanged from a week ago.

As usual, presumed GNP nominee, Park Geun-hye, leads all candidates with 33.6 percent support, although those numbers will tighten considerably once the major progressives gets down to one candidate. The combined total for all GNP contenders is 45.2 percent while that of the DP/PPP candidates is 31.5 percent.

Moon continues to deny that he plans to run for president, say that he would be “exhausted right away” if he entered politics. He is also untested in electoral politics and could prove to be as poor a campaigner as Rhyu. However, his work on unifying progressive parties for next April’s General Assembly elections will position him well for a presidential run in December of next year.

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Alleged NKorean spies arrested Thu, 04 Aug 2011 13:17:13 +0000

Things have been busy of late on the Korean espionage front.

South Korean prosecutors have arrested five people on charges of spying for North Korea by creating an anti-state organization.  The charges come under South Korea’s National Security Law, which makes it a crime to provide unauthorized assistance to North Korea, or to take actions that promote Pyongyang as the legitimate government of all of Korea or undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.  The investigation is ongoing and more arrests are expected.

Prosecutors say that the suspects were members of Wangjaesan, a secret political organization named after a mountain in North Korea.  Among those arrested is the alleged leader of the organization, the 48-year-old head of an IT company identified by his surname Kim.  Prosecutors say the group worked with Office 225, the part of Pyongyang’s espionage apparatus in charge of spies and sleeper agents in South Korea.

While the group has some tenuous links to the main opposition party, the hammer will most likely come down more heavily on the Democratic Labor Party and some labor groups.  The DLP is the home of the most radical members of the “national liberation” faction of the South Korea left.  The faction believes that true liberation of Korea is not possible until American forces leave the peninsula and Seoul takes an independent course.  For that reason, many members of the faction believe that Pyongyang is the legitimate government of Korea.

This is not the first time people connected with the DLP and other progressive groups have gotten into trouble for allegedly working for Pyongyang.  A group of progressives were convicted on charges of spying for North Korea during the Roh Moo-hyun administration.

Kim Jong-il's crews in South Korea have been busy. (Korean Central News Agency photo)

Naturally, the DLP has released a statement screaming bloody murder:

The Lee Myung-bak administration is suppressing progressive forces with public security issues. This is the government’s last struggle to avoid public judgment in parliamentary and presidential elections next year by making a dent in the Democratic Labor Party.

(Just one guy’s opinion:  I think there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of South Koreans who are in secret contact with, or are actively spying for, North Korea.  Some of those have gained impotant positions in South Korea over the years and are doing what they can to help Pyongyang from those positions.  They will do whatever they can to keep the the Kim Jong-il regime propped up and avoid Korean unification, if for no other reason than to prevent their files in Office 225 from being made public.)

Showing North Korea the money

Sometimes the motivation for working with the North Koreans is political but sometimes money is the main motivation; South Korean police have also arrested five people on Thursday for allegedly working with North Korean hackers to steal millions of dollars from online gaming sites in South Korea.

The alleged criminal conspiracy involved a South Korean gang working with the Korea Computer Centre, North Korea’s IT brain trust.  The North Koreans operated out of China.  South Korean officials have accused North Korea of launching cyber attacks on South Korean and American websites, charges Pyongyang has denied.

The National Intelligence Service was heavily involved in the investigation.

While this might seem like an odd enterprise for North Korea’s elite IT group, Pyongyang is not above using any means available to make some cash, as evidenced by the occasional arrest of North Korean diplomats for smuggling or the selling of North Korean drugs in China and other places.

UPDATE:  The left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper is countering the North Korea spying stories with a story on South Koreans selling military trade secrets to an American company.

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China in aircraft carrier arms race with India Sat, 30 Jul 2011 22:48:39 +0000

General Luo Yuan, a senior researcher with China’s Academy of Military Sciences, claims that his country needs to develop three or more aircraft carriers to assert China’s influence and defend its interests.

In an interview with Beijing News, Luo specifically cited India and Japan as potential rivals who could challenge Chinese interests:

If we consider our neighbors, India will have three aircraft carriers by 2014 and Japan will have three carriers by 2014. So I think the number (for China) should not be less than three so we can defend our rights and our maritime interests effectively.

(Japan currently only uses helicopter carriers, but could purchase vertical take-off and landing aircraft)

The former Soveit aircraft carrier Varyag will soon enter service for China.

China has purchased an old soviet aircraft carrier from Ukraine and is in the process of refitting it for research, experiments and training.  It will use knowledge gained from that research to develop future aircraft carriers.  It is already building an indigenous carrier and destroyers with anti-aircraft capabilities to use as part of carrier battle groups.

In addition to power projection, the aircraft carriers would boost China’s ability to serve its interests through coordinating sea and air power in multinational deployments in areas like the coast of Somalia.

India has operated aircraft carriers since the 1950s.  It is in the process of refitting an old Soviet carrier (the INS Vikramaditya) and is building an indigenous aircraft Carrier, which is due to come into service in 2014.

China’s old Soviet Carrier is about 300 meters long, slightly larger than India’s old Soviet Carrier, and will likely have a larger complement of aircraft.

Xinhuanet has a useful graphic that gives brief descriptions of all the aircraft carriers currently in use around the world.  As it shows, China will be the third Asia country, after India and Thailand (!) with a proper aircraft carrier.

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Moon Jae-in: Muy macho progressive prince Sat, 30 Jul 2011 18:57:49 +0000

Moon Jae-in, the head of the Roh Moo-hyun foundation, has has been a rising star in progressive circles over the past several months and is emerging as a serious contender for the presidential nomination on a fusion ticket of progressive parties.

Moon first appeared on the radar of political observers as a result of his work on unifying progressive parties for the by-elections last April.  As noted in this column, on June 6, Moon will likely concentrate his efforts over the next several months on negotiating the unification of the various progressive parties, especially the main opposition Democratic Party and the upstart People’s Participation Party (the personal vehicle of presidential aspirant Rhyu Si-min), ahead of the General Assembly elections next spring.  Such work will position Moon well as a unity candidate in the presidential election to be held later in 2012.

Moon Jae-in served as paratrooper in the Korean military after serving a prison term for protesting against the Park Chung-hee dictatorship.

So, it is worthwhile to learn more about Moon.  The Korean has a post in the Marmot’s Hole on Moon that helps explain his profile further:

Moon’s life is definitely interesting — he was born in Busan, and majored in law at Kyunghee University. He was in street protests against Park Chung-Hee administration, was imprisoned, then was drafted into Special Forces right after his prison term. He served as a UDT, and his commanding officer was none other than Chun Doo-Hwan. He was on the Board of Directors when Hankyeoreh was founded in 1988, and worked as a human rights attorney all the way until Roh Moo-Hyun’s presidential campaign.

In other words, Moon looks like the dream candidate for the Progressives. His Progressive pedigree is absolutely impeccable, AND he is from Busan (such that he could eat into GNP’s lead in Gyeongsang-do, as Roh did) AND he has the best military record among everyone in the field.

The Busan connection is important.  While North Gyeongsang Province and Daegu has been loyal GNP territory, the southeastern corner of the country (including South Gyeongsang Province, Busan and Ulsan) has been less loyal at times, having split its support between the GNP and progressive parties at times.  The presence of Moon on the presidential ballot could help bring a significant number of votes away from the GNP in that region.

One of the challenges for Moon would be to win votes in the industrial city of Ulsan, which is a tradition base for the far-left Democratic Labor Party.  The DLP cooperated with a united progressive ticket last April after Democratic Party chair, Sohn Hak-kyu, gave them a seat in Suncheon, a district in the South Jeolla province that Progressives always win.  However, the DLP have never stepped aside in a presidential election.  While DLP candidates have always gained only single-digit support in the presidential elections, that could be significant in a close election.

Perhaps some of the toughness that Moon has gained from his special forces training will come in handy.

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Korean Left has a new front-runner Wed, 27 Jul 2011 13:07:46 +0000

Rhyu Si-min has been locked in a tight competition with Sohn Hak-kyu for several months as they try to position themselves for next year’s presidential election.

Rhyu had the upper hand earlier this year.  The People’s Participation Party chair was seen by progressives as the ideological heir of former president Roh Moo-hyun, which gave Rhyu the upper hand over Sohn in most public opinion polls.

But Sohn was not without his advantages, including being the chair of the much larger Democratic Party.  Even more importantly, Sohn has much greater political acumen, as demonstrated by their actions in by-elections last April.  During negotiations on a unified progressive ticket against the majority conservative Grand National Party, Rhyu played hardball for a seat for his party that Sohn was already prepared to sacrifice in order to clear the way for his run for a seat in the National Assembly.  Sohn won his race while Rhyu’s man lost his race, a result that caused Sohn to catapult past Rhyu in the polls.

The result also has a longer-term consequence for Rhyu:

The double loss (and Sohn’s victory is nothing but a loss for Rhyu) has wounded Rhyu politically and progressives are looking around for a new champion to challenge the moderate Sohn for right to run against the GNP’s Park Geun-hye in next year’s presidential election.

It took three months, but it appears that progressives are starting to rally around that new champion.  Moon Jae-in has surpassed Rhyu for the first time and is now only second to Sohn among potential progressive presidential candidates.  The latest Realmeter poll has Sohn at 11.6 percent, Moon at 7.1 percent and Rhyu at 6.7 percent.  Former GNP chair Park Geun-hye leads all potential candidates at 32.3 percent but the race will undoubtedly tighten once the various parties on the left settle on a single leading candidate.

Moon Jae-in, head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation, overtook Rhyu Si-min in the latest Realmeter poll. (Naver photo)

As I noted in a profile of Moon in June, he is the perfect foil for Rhyu, having also come from the Roh Moo-hyun administration.  His position as the head of the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation and his work unifying Korea’s various left and center-left parties on gives him a stronger claim as the standard bearer of Roh’s legacy.  He has also positioned himself well to make a strong run for the presidency as a unity candidate:

If Moon wants to run for president, he will likely decide to forgo the risk of running for a National Assembly seat (unless it is in a safe seat or high on the proportional representation list)  in the spring of 2012 and instead concentrate on negotiating the unification of the various progressive parties. That role would put him in contact with the major political players, potentially giving him a foothold in both Sohn Hak-kyu’s Democratic Party and Rhyu Si-min’s People’s Participation Party, positioning himself well as a compromise candidate between supporters of those two parties.

This week’s poll may just be a blip with Rhyu reasserting himself as Sohn’s main rival by next week, but I believe that Moon will completely supplant Rhyu by April of 2012.

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Japan and Korea begin Dokdo/Takeshima spat anew Tue, 26 Jul 2011 13:10:14 +0000

While the dispute between Korea and Japan over some small islets both claim does not have the impact of similar disputes between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands or the Spratly Island dust up between China and half of Southeast Asia, it has a persistence and emotional impact that rivals either of them.  That is especially true for Koreans, who see the dispute as a legacy of the 1910-1945 colonial era.

The islets in question are Dokdo (Takeshima to the Japanese), two piles of rocks in the Sea of Japan (East Sea to Koreans, they can’t seem to agree on anything).  As far as anyone can tell, the economic impact of the islets is much less than that of other disputed islands around Asia; we talking in terms of fish rather than oil or major trade routes.

There are claims and counter-claims between Korea and Japan going back at least a century (and likely several centuries).  President Syngman Rhee ordered South Korean troops to seize the islets in 1952 and they have been under Korean control ever since.

That has not stopped Tokyo from claiming the islets, nor has it stopped Japanese politicians from doing silly things in the hopes of buttressing Tokyo’s claim.

Dokdo Islets as seen from Korean Air A380 flight on June 16, 2011.

The latest round of silliness began last month when Korea Airlines flew one of its shiny new Airbus A380s over the islets.  In response, Tokyo ordered all Japanese government officials to avoid using the carrier for one month.

To pile on, several Japanese lawmakers say that they plan to visit the nearby Korean island of Uleungdo to assert Japan’s sovereignty over Dokdo.  That is the closest they can get to the islets since they are controlled by the South Korean Maritime Police.

Naturally, such a visit would arouse an angry reaction from Uleungdo residents and ignite protests against the Japanese there and is Seoul.  That is probably just what the Japanese lawmakers want: to show that there is indeed a conflict over the islets.

Well, the South Korean government is going to have none of that.  An official in South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said that, one way or another, the Japanese lawmakers will not make that trip:

At this stage, we focus on making diplomatic efforts to let the Japanese lawmakers voluntarily withdraw their visit.  In case that the Japanese lawmakers visit despite our efforts, however, we are considering banning them from entering the nation by applying an immigration law.

The law in question allows immigration officials to block people whom the government believes will “undermine the interests of the nation or the safety of the public.”

Considering the emotion behind the dispute over those piles of rocks, that law may apply on both counts.

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