The Blue House Chronicles: Politics News from the Korean Peninsula, June 19

It was only six days ago that the ruling Democratic Party was celebrating its crushing victory in South Korea’s local elections.

But this week, the government is on the defensive over the country’s latest employment figures, released on Friday. Only 72,000 jobs were added in the month of May—the smallest number since January 2010. The unemployment rates for youth and people in their thirties and forties are on the rise. And fear is mounting that the looming trade war between the U.S. and China will hurt South Korean exports.

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1. It’s the economy, babo

Conservative and business dailies have led the criticism of Moon Jae-in’s handling of the economy. The flagship right-wing paper Chosun Ilbo opined: “The difficult situation our economy faces has much to do with the government’s self-induced policy failures.”

The economy is quickly becoming Moon’s biggest political vulnerability. To be sure, Moon did not instigate these problems. Employment numbers began to sag under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, and Donald Trump initiated the global trade war. But it has been under Moon’s watch that two big companies shuttered major industrial facilities in the western city of Gunsan — Hyundai Heavy Industries and GM Korea. His minimum wage increase has plenty of critics. And the decision to cap weekly work hours at 52—which comes into effect next month—has come under scrutiny for potentially causing salary reductions and lowering living standards.


2. Divide and conquer: police and prosecutors

The Blue House remains intent on using its sky-high approval ratings (79 percent according to a June 14 poll) and political capital to fulfill one of Moon’s campaign promises: reforming the prosecutors’ office, which many criticize as too powerful. Moon and his supporters intend to strip prosecutors of much of their authority to investigate crime, transferring that role almost exclusively to the police.

As a starting point, on June 15, the Blue House announced its nominee for the post of national police chief. The move is designed to strengthen the police’s independence in criminal investigations.

Why it matters: The prosecutor’s office has been at the center of some major scandals throughout South Korea’s history. It is vested with the authority to both investigate crimes and charge suspects, making it a powerful tool for the presidency to attack opponents and hide misconduct. The perennial criticism against the body—which answers to the Justice Minister and therefore belongs to the executive branch of the government—is that its members are blindly loyal to whoever is president at a given moment.

KÉ publisher Se-Woong Koo says: “Over the years, the prosecutors’ office has starred in some very sordid scandals of its own involving bribery and prostitution. But reforms have not come easy, in part because doing so would amount to giving away some of the president’s power and most presidents wouldn’t want that. Bear in mind, Moon isn’t exactly giving up any of his power, but he is dividing the authority between police and prosecutors—who don’t like each other much.


3. August war games cancelled

South Korea and the US announced early Tuesday morning (Korean time) that they were calling off the Ulchi Freedom Guardian joint military exercise, planned for August. The drills involve tens of thousands of troops from both nations, as well as computer simulations of the allies fighting off North Korean invasions. It’s the first sign that Trump’s surprise Singapore pledge to cancel war games has real meaning.

But it’s not the first time the drills have been linked to efforts to de-escalate tensions. In 2017, the drill included 17,5000 US troops, down from 25,000 the year before. This was just weeks after North Korea had threatened to fire nukes into the waters surrounding Guam. At the time, Korean media speculated that the US might have secretly negotiated the troop decrease with North Korea to send a signal that the drills did not represent an escalation. (Regular exercises were also suspended during the Olympics, reportedly at Seoul’s request.)

In other news: South Korea on Monday began a two-day series of war games to defend Dokdo—exercises that Japan called “unacceptable.” (Via Yonhap)


4. From the horse’s mouth: Harry Harris, nominee for US ambassador to South Korea

In 2017, Harris was a vocal supporter of continuing joint military drills. But at his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, he was on the same page as his boss:

“…we were in a different place in 2017. You know, North Korea was exploding nuclear weapons. They were launching ballistic missiles. And if war wasn’t imminent, it was likely. I think following the summit with Kim Jong Un in Singapore, I think we are in a dramatically different place. I think the landscape has shifted, and I believe that we should give exercises, major exercises, a pause to see if Kim Jong-un is in fact serious about his part of the negotiations. I’ve spoken in the past about the need to bring Kim Jong-un to his senses and not to his knees.


5. Moment of levity: Insert [phrase] here

After badly losing in the local elections last Wednesday, lawmakers from the Liberty Korea Party knelt en masse at the National Assembly on Thursday to say they deserved the defeat. With a banner that read “We have done wrong” behind them, the lawmakers vowed to better serve the people from now on. But photos from that event only prompted derision of the conservatives for ostensibly putting on a show, and one internet user even made a webpage where one could easily inscribe any phrase of one’s choosing on the banner and download the creation (see example below).

A generous paraphrasing of the original Korean.


Cover image: South Korean army soldiers participating in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, regularly held by the U.S. and South Korea, on Aug. 23, 2017. (Source: AP)