Monday, December 18, 2017

Moon Jae-in the Groveler

President Moon Jae-in, with his hat in hand, went to Beijing to mend bilateral ties - ties that had been frayed when China decided to impose sanctions on SOUTH Korean businesses for South Korea’s audacity to attempt to DEFEND itself from North Korean missiles by agreeing to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries.

This is politics. So, as expected, the Moon administration is attempting to paint the summit in the most positive way possible. Senior Blue House officials have even gone so far as to say that both Moon and Xi managed to “completely overcome the awkwardness” that was brought about by THAAD.

However, that is a bald-faced lie. After all, China’s position remains unchanged and it was put most succinctly by a Chinese professor:
“The South Korean side should take more action to solve the Thaad issue. It should write down [commitments taken to reassure China] rather than just talk. China still strongly opposes the Thaad’s deployment and that has not changed.”

Xi Jinping may not have spoken about THAAD as much as he did in the past, but the goal remains the same. Xi Jinping will be satisfied with nothing less than South Korea abandoning its own sovereignty to please Beijing.

One has to suffer from a debilitating case of denial to believe in Cheong Wa Dae’s talking point.

The Four Principles

Aside from the Moon administration’s pitiful attempt at media spin, the Moon-Xi summit did result in something rather ominous - the Four Principles. The details are as follows:

  1. No war on the Korean peninsula. 
  2. Hold firmly to the policy of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. 
  3. Resolve all issues peacefully through negotiations. 
  4. Improve relations between the two Koreas. 

At best, the Four Principles is proof of China’s unwillingness to be serious about ending North Korea’s nuclear program. At worst, it betrays China’s intentions to decouple the Seoul-Washington alliance and to impose its will on South Korea.

China is Not Serious

China is not serious about North Korea’s nuclear program. China’s calls for a negotiated settlement is no different from what Chinese leaders have been saying for years. North Korea has been saying all along that they will never enter into any negotiations where its “sacred” nuclear weapons are up for compromise. In order to convince the North Koreans that abandoning that policy is the only way to ensure their survival, serious sanctions with teeth are needed.

Despite China’s public expressions of imposing sanctions on North Korea, all evidence points to the contrary. Even if Xi Jinping had declared China’s intention to impose more sanctions or to enforce existing ones, it would have taken a leap of faith to believe his words. But he didn’t even bother to do that.

Moon got nothing from Xi.

No War = No Sovereignty

The fact of the matter is that no one wants to see a war break out on the Korean peninsula. Millions of lives would be lost, property and land will be destroyed and scorched, billions (if not trillions) of dollars worth of trade would be seriously disrupted, and the radiation resulting from the war will affect untold millions indefinitely.

However, the fact remains that whether or not a nation state goes to war is a decision that rests in no other government’s hands other than its own. China has no business whatsoever declaring one way or another about war on the Korean peninsula.

As much as the civilized nations of the world may find war deplorable, all diplomatic options, including war, must be utilized when dealing with North Korea. The threat of overwhelming military action led by Seoul and Washington against the North Korean regime has always been a powerful leverage that the allies have been able to use.

A North Korea that fears for its survival is willing to come to the negotiation table. A North Korea that does not have such fears will continue to do what it wants.

By publicly siding with China and openly declaring that there will be no war on the Korean peninsula, Moon Jae-in simultaneously weakened South Korea’s negotiating position vis-à-vis North Korea AND undermined South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

No Nukes = Maintaining the Status Quo

Denuclearizing the Korean peninsula is now nothing more than a fever dream. How many more nuclear tests are needed before people accept that the nuclear genie is out of the lamp and that there is no way to stuff it back in?

North Korea has called its nuclear program sacred. It has repeatedly said that it would never abandon its nuclear weapons. It has repeatedly rejected diplomacy (though the fact that North Korea has rejected diplomacy has never stopped peaceniks from droning on and on about how WE should just talk to the North Koreans).

Unless North Korea suddenly collapses and an international coalition of South Korean, American, and possibly Chinese troops scour the northern half of the Korean peninsula to secure its WMDs, nuclear weapons are here to stay.

North Korea has said repeatedly that they have no intention of abandoning its nuclear weapons. China has no plans of abandoning its nuclear weapons either. That means that at present, there is a nuclear monopoly in East Asia and it is currently being wielded by two communist dictatorships.

Some day, when the Moon administration is relegated to the history books, future South Korean leaders are going to have to seriously discuss arming ourselves with nuclear weapons. If the United States does not intend to re-introduce its tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean peninsula, it may become necessary for South Korea to develop its own independent nuclear force. Even former US Defense Secretary William Perry floated such an idea.

Accuracy and perfection notwithstanding, North Korea now possesses the weapons technology it needs to target the American mainland. As Pyongyang improves this ability, America’s commitment and its credibility to defend South Korea becomes less reassuring by the day. After all, why would the United States willingly sacrifice Seattle or Los Angeles or Guam to defend Seoul?

Mutually Assured Destruction worked during the Cold War. It is exactly why it ended without a single nuclear weapon being used. North Korea has fallen behind South Korea in every possible metric imaginable. Health, longevity, economic well-being, political standing, political maturity, weapons, diplomatic relations, entertainment, respectability, etc. However, all of that becomes meaningless when it can all be incinerated in a nuclear blast. South Korea’s survival depends on one thing - its ability to assure North Korea that a war will result in catastrophe and death to all.

Moon Jae-in irresponsibly declared that he has no intentions of deploying nuclear weapons in South Korea. He said that such a move could “lead to a nuclear arms race in northeast Asia.” Never mind that there already is a nuclear race in East Asia and that it was initiated by North Korea. By siding with Xi Jinping’s Four Principles, Moon Jae-in further undermined South Korea’s sovereignty and ability to defend itself.

China Does Not Take South Korea Seriously

China also clearly does not take South Korea itself seriously. Not only did China refuse to issue a joint press statement with Moon Jae-in - had Moon Jae-in any self-respect, he would have shelved his decision to visit China on that basis alone - Moon Jae-in did not even get to have a meal with Xi Jinping. In fact, the President of the Republic of Korea - the person who at least according to the South Korean Constitution represents the entire Korean peninsula - had to dine in a restaurant like some commoner.

Ceremony is important in politics. It is even more important in diplomacy and it is definitely important in East Asian diplomacy where saving face is a vital part of politics. The insufficient level of protocol shown by the Chinese was deliberate and their intentions to humiliate Moon Jae-in were as clear as day.

Furthermore, no Chinese official has offered any apology when Chinese security officials assaulted South Korean journalists. Those journalists who were assaulted were members of the official press corps that was accompanying Moon Jae-in. Thus far, all that the Chinese have done is to start an investigation.

If that doesn’t show how China views South Korea, then I don’t know what does.

What Was Gained?

In a not-so veiled threat, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that improved relations between Seoul and Beijing would result in improved profit margins for Korean businesses. What remained unsaid is that Korean businesses would then suffer if relations don’t improve.

However, the overall impact on economic growth of expanding trade and tourism with other countries is limited to 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points. Moon Jae-in tossed South Korea’s sovereignty in exchange for 0.2 percentage points in economic improvement.

There are other ways to improve the economy. Diversifying trade and seeking out more trade partners in Southeast Asia is one way. Investing in emerging African economies is another way. Yet another way is to improve relations with Japan.

What About Japan?

In his attempt to improve relations with Beijing - which has all but completely failed - Moon Jae-in decided that the best course of action to take was to take aim at Japan for crimes it committed more than 70 years ago.

Some of the things that Moon said in his speech are as follows (translation provided by Noon in Korea):
“SK & China are fellow travelers that overcame colonialism & imperialism on our way to modernization; our mutual trust cannot easily be shaken. Together we can work toward peace in East Asia”

“Listening to Xi's speech at the 19th Congress, I was impressed that his vision for China isn't just economic growth but a constitutional republic that prizes rule of law, social justice, concern for all human beings as well as nature & ecology.”

“Xi wants to improve the quality of life of not just Chinese people but all of mankind. He also wants to solve 2 vexing problems facing mankind: the problem of securing lasting peace among all nations & achieving co-prosperity w global citizens. They are attainable goals.”

Never mind that Xi Jinping was the one who orchestrated sanctions against South Korea - his supposed fellow travelers - for attempting to defend ourselves. Never mind that Xi’s consolidation of power turns Moon’s comment about China being a constitutional republic a sick joke. Never mind that China’s oppression of human rights advocates is the ideological opposite of what Moon Jae-in and South Korea’s progressives supposedly fought for. Never mind that to date, China has forcefully repatriated thousands of North Korean refugees back to their hellhole of a country to face torture, rape, and death at the hands of North Korean border guards and in concentration camps. Never mind that thousands of North Korean women who cross into China are almost immediately bought and sold as sex slaves.

Never mind that all of this is happening now. Moon Jae-in wanted to improve ties with Xi Jinping so badly that instead of focusing on the evils that are going on in China today that affects the lives of all Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, he preferred to focus on the evils that Japan committed more than 70 years ago.

At a time when South Korea ought to be strengthening relations with Japan (though this is certainly not to say that bowing to Shinzo Abe is the right way of going about it), Moon has once again cut off South Korea's legs from underneath it.

Moon the Groveler

Moon achieved less than nothing in this trip. His trip wasn’t treated anything close to an official state visit. Moon did not even get to share a meal with Xi. China didn’t promise to do anything; and in fact, it offered veiled threats. South Korean journalists were assaulted and no apologies were given. Moon got nothing but humiliation.

After Moon’s trip to China, North Korea’s official newspaper, the Rodong Shinmun referred to Moon’s visit as “a worthless trip of a beggar.”

The North Koreans aren’t entirely wrong.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Trump's Silence Over China's Bullying Could Resurrect South Korea's Anti-Americanism

Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has brought nine years of conservative governance in Korea to a screeching halt. Now that there isn’t a single conservative candidate who has not been tainted by the Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil scandal to one degree or another, it is all but guaranteed that the next president is going to come from the progressive Minjoo Party. And as I mentioned over the weekend, Moon Jae-in is now the man to beat.

Seeing how he was President Roh Moo-hyun’s former chief of staff, Moon is taking great pains to tell voters (and foreign observers) that he’s not anti-American. However, no matter how much Moon may wish to distance himself from his past, the Korean Left will have a much harder time of doing that. It wasn’t that long ago when Korean protesters were stomping on or burning American flags. Businesses blatantly refused to serve American customers and a good number of American citizens who lived in Korea at the time were assaulted and harassed on a daily basis. Many of them were forced to pretend to be Canadians to avoid harassment.

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While the conservatives have been in charge, overt anti-Americanism practically disappeared. That is not to say that the conservatives were the only reason that anti-Americanism retreated. To be sure, there were other reasons as well. Today’s young Koreans’ nationalism is based on their identity as South Koreans, which is different from ten to fifteen years ago when minjok was the popular refrain. The KORUS FTA, which has also helped to deepen trade ties between the two countries, also helped to force back anti-Americanism. Ironically, the KORUS FTA was first initiated by President Roh Moo-hyun who
 once rhetorically asked “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

However, it would be a mistake to think that Korea’s progressives have completely given up on viewing the United States as the enemy. When the first pieces of THAAD’s system arrived at Osan Air Base, the Minjoo Party’s chairperson, Choo Mi-ae falsely claimed that it was done in secret; that it was agreed upon by illegitimate political leaders who hoodwinked the Korean people. She went so far as to say that bringing in those components was a violation of Korea’s sovereignty.

On the other hand, the only thing that Choo Mi-ae has said about China’s bullying and (unofficial) sanctions against South Korea’s economy vis-a-vis the latter’s THAAD deployment was that it was “excessive.”

Choo Mi-ae, who doesn't even know how binoculars work, thinks her opinion on THAAD matters.
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Especially with the boorish Donald Trump in the White House, the stage is set for anti-Americanism to return with a vengeance. Considering what we already know about Trump and the Korean Left, things could get ugly. When the Korean Left takes over the reins of power, they will have a responsibility to behave like adults. However, they are not in power yet. The ones who are in power and who are in the position to do anything to try to mitigate this are American Republicans. 
God help us all!

Deploying THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea has been contentious to say the least. There is a significant portion of the population that believes that it does more harm than good. After all, THAAD will not protect the 20 million or so people who live in Seoul (Seoul will be targeted by short-range rockets and artillery barrages and THAAD was never designed to counter those threats anyway). THAAD’s defensive capabilities are designed to better protect American military personnel and assets as well as the American mainland from long-range North Korean missiles.

The alliance between the United States and Korea is a mutual one. That means that Korea has to come to America’s aid as much as America has to come to Korea’s aid in the event of a military conflict that affects either nation. Especially at a time when “America First” rhetoric (never mind its historical roots) has permeated the American political landscape, it would be ill-advised for the Korean government to confirm what many American voters and government officials already falsely believe - that allies take and take and take but never give anything back.

However, THAAD has put Korea in China’s crosshairs. China’s unofficial sanctions have hurt Korean businesses. From Kpop stars to duty free shops to Lotte to practically any business that relies on the Chinese market, Korean businesses are hurting. A more thorough study would have to be conducted to deduce just how much China’s sanctions are costing Korea
’s economy. But in politics, perception is oftentimes more than enough.

When the average Korean citizen feels he is worse off because of THAAD, which really doesn’t do much to protect Koreans, it would only be natural for more and more Koreans to question its benefits over time. The United States can nip this in the bud. President Trump ought to make a statement that the United States stands firmly with South Korea; that the United States would not sit idly by while China pushes around one of its most important allies. He should say publicly that his administration will look into ways to deepen trade ties between Seoul and Washington in order to alleviate the economic burden that THAAD has thrown onto Koreans’ collective shoulders.

However, the only American official of any real importance to have said anything about China’s bullying of South Korea over THAAD is Senator John McCain. No one in the Trump administration is saying a word to support Korea! This is irresponsible and yet another indication of the Trump administration’s sheer incompetence. In less than sixty days, South Korea is going to have a new government that will be populated by people who have a long history of anti-Americanism. All they need is the right excuse to resurrect it. They’ll be able to say that they stood up to American bullies and helped to improve economic relations with China and they will likely get rewarded by voters.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ought to be doing everything they can to try their best to avoid that more-than-plausible eventuality. And yet there is nothing but silence from Washington. Never mind that Trump can’t seem to keep quiet about anything else!

If the worst does come to pass and if future American historians ask who lost South Korea, they can look back at this moment now and know without a doubt that President Trump’s silence was where it all started!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Random Thoughts about Park Geun-hye, Her Impeachment, and What Comes Next

I don’t know which honorific to use to refer to Park Geun-hye anymore. All former presidents, no matter how disgraced they later became, are still referred to as Former President So-and-So. But none of them was successfully impeached. So do we call her Former Saenuri Chairperson Park Geun-hye or do we just call her Park Geun-hye-씨? MBN seems to think that “Former President Park Geun-hye” is still the appropriate honorific, but I am not convinced.

And it turns out that Ms. Park (that sounds about right) has still not left the Blue House. Seeing how she has been stripped from her constitutionally-guaranteed immunity from prosecution, it may yet be possible to see her eventually led out of the Blue House with handcuffs around her wrists.

Ms. Park’s silence since the verdict is a slap in the face to every conservative in the country. Three people - people who protested against her impeachment - have died while protesting the Constitutional Court’s decision. Her supporters also attacked journalists for simply doing their job. She should have issued a statement renouncing violence. She should have urged calm. And she should have publicly announced that she, and everyone else, would accept the Court’s ruling - just like she said President Roh Moo-hyun should accept the Court’s ruling when he was impeached - regardless of the decision. Her silence is a betrayal of her supporters and the rule of law. It is indecent and a perfect example of how a leader ought not to behave. It was her final insult to anyone who had ever voted for her.

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That being said, unlike many people, I don’t take any joy in her impeachment. All I see is tragedy. Her political career lasted for 18 years and the Queen of Elections had every reason in the world to become a great leader - to exonerate her father’s legacy, to squash once and for all the accusations that she and her cronies are corrupt power-lusters, to prove that conservative values could help to lead Korea into the 21st century. She failed completely. Her impeachment was a victory for justice and Korea’s young democracy. But I take no joy in seeing her downfall.

As expected, Moon Jae-in is the man to beat in the upcoming presidential election. Anyone who has ever read anything that I had to say about him would know that I utterly despise the man. Donald Trump is already in the White House (another man whom I have nothing but contempt for) and Moon Jae-in will most likely be the next occupant of the Blue House. A toxic shit storm is brewing; and Kim Jong Un, the Fat Boy King of the North, laughs.

Seeing how he started out by opposing THAAD’s deployment to becoming ambivalent, to seemingly oppose it again, China is likely laughing, too.

This picture was taken on March 8th 2017. It says "Withdraw THAAD immediately."
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If Moon becomes president and pledges to withdraw the THAAD anti-missile batteries, China will always remember that all it needs to do to convince the South Korean government to do anything is exert just a little economic pressure and it will cave every single time. South Korea’s sovereignty will effectively belong to China. But Moon Jae-in and Choo Mi-ae will be able to say that they stood up to the United States. Never mind that amid Chinese bullying and North Korean aggression and Japanese rising militarism, South Korea’s only friend is the United States!

In short, South Korea’s dark days are not behind it. Things are going to get much darker yet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

South Korea is Marginalized and that is South Korea's Fault

In my latest column for NK News, I talked about how the ROK-US alliance could be severely strained due to the toxic mix of the Trump administration and any progressive-led future government in Seoul.

President Trump’s cabinet, while not yet fully formed, is being filled by hawks - particularly embodied by Mattis and Tillerson - and considering how sanctions were the go-to weapon of choice for the hawkish doves in the Obama administration, the hawkish hawks in the Trump administration may prefer to seek stronger means of persuading North Korea to change course.

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Meanwhile, across the Pacific, when the progressives take over the Blue House after the next presidential election in South Korea (whenever that takes place!), and the next president WILL be a progressive, they will most likely have drastically different ideas about how to deal with North Korea.

Being the kind of man who is obsessed with appearing strong and respected, perhaps even feared, Trump is exactly the kind of person whom Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius would have called “a buckaroo.” We are already seeing this with the kind of rhetoric that the Trump administration has employed toward China - that it would prevent China from taking over territory in the contested South China Sea as well as deny it access to the islands it has built there.

It remains to be seen if the heated political rhetoric between Washington and Beijing (for its part, Beijing has said that the United States would need to “declare war” to block China access to its islands) will develop into something more serious. Both are militarily powerful nations and the two largest economies of the world. But if that is the kind of rhetoric that the new government in Washington has chosen to use against China, then it would be safe to conclude that Kim Jong Un should not be sleeping well.

This will compel South Korea to rethink its threat perception. Should President Trump’s rhetoric and policies lead to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean people would pay the ultimate price. How South Korea chooses to act now that the powers-that-be in Washington has changed is anyone’s guess.

The first approach is to better accommodate Washington. For example, Moon Jae-in, perhaps being able to tell how the wind’s direction has changed, has reversed his stance toward THAAD deployment and has said that it would “go ahead under his administration.”

That being said, one of Moon Jae-in’s criticisms against Ban Ki-moon, his most serious challenger to South Korea’s presidency, is that he’s too pro-U.S.

Opposing the decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea could have devastating consequences for the alliance. Trump has said repeatedly that South Korea has been a free rider in its national defense. It is a false claim, but every passing day is showing that facts do not matter nearly as much as what Trump feels. As it is, South Korea should be walking on eggshells.

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Reversing the decision to deploy THAAD would only exacerbate things. Another theme that Trump has harped on is that the United States 
practically gets nothing” by helping to defend South Korea.

It is yet another factually bereft statement but the fact remains that the ROK-US alliance is, indeed, a mutual defense treaty. Whether or not THAAD anti-missile batteries can actually help to defend South Korea, at this point, is a secondary matter. As far as Washington is concerned, it is convinced that THAAD anti-missile batteries can and will defend the United States from North Korean long-range missiles. If Seoul is unwilling to aid Washington defend itself from North Korea, then Trump would have been proven right - that the United States really does get nothing from defending South Korea.

It is unclear how the Trump administration would react if the next South Korean government decided to pursue détente with North Korea. Whether or not it is a horrible idea (it most certainly is), Seoul will need to better gauge the new government to better understand how Trump would react. But unilaterally deciding to cancel the joint plan to deploy THAAD in Korea would guarantee to elicit a less than cordial response from Washington.

As of this writing, Moon Jae-in is the only progressive presidential contender who has reversed his previous opposition to THAAD.

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There is a second, and possibly tempting, alternative. Instead of better accommodating the United States, South Korea could choose to return to hedging its alliance with the United States and its economic partnership with China. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner. And China’s bullying and economic sanctions (in all but name) against South Korea for its decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries has been bruising South Korea’s businesses.

By hurting everyone from K-pop stars to duty free shops to bidet manufacturers and air purifier manufacturers, Beijing is hoping that South Korean voters and businesses will apply pressure on their government and force them to change their position on THAAD. It is a solid plan. Hitting people in their wallets where it hurts most is one of the best ways to convince anyone to change.

However, canceling the decision to deploy THAAD, as mentioned earlier, has serious costs associated with it. At the very least, it would create a severe frost in the ROK-US alliance. At most, South Korea would allow itself to be bullied by China to have its sovereignty chipped away by North Korea.

It is important to point out, however, that that is not the same thing as saying that the alliance itself would be ended. The alliance is almost 70 years old. There are far too many entrenched interests in the civilian and military sectors that depend on the alliance for their livelihoods. Something incredibly dramatic needs to take place for an alliance to be terminated. And it is not clear if deciding to reverse course on THAAD is dramatic enough for the alliance to be terminated.

In order to compensate South Korea for its rift with the United States, China would need to offer South Korea certain guarantees. At the very least, China would need to guarantee a resumption of unimpeded trade and improved diplomatic relations. However, South Korea should not get its hopes up and imagine that Beijing would also offer to lean more heavily on North Korea, much less pave the way for reunification. China is satisfied with the status quo vis-à-vis the division of the Korean Peninsula. It will do nothing of the sort to destabilize the North Korean regime.

If South Korea manages to restore diplomatic and trade relations with China and manages to remain a US ally - albeit a marginalized one - the South Korean government, in its most optimistic moments, might be able to imagine itself as the go-to diplomatic broker between the United States and China as both countries appear to be headed toward some level of conflict.

However, this middle-of-the-road approach is probably the worst thing that South Korea could do. South Korea is already paying for it now. To one degree or another, South Korea has taken this approach whenever it could. It resisted being roped into the US missile defense shield program since George W. Bush was the US president. It refused to condemn North Korea for its human rights abuses during its two progressive administrations. It still continues to malign Japan whenever it can and refuses to participate in military exercises that involves Japan.

That is why South Korea is not high on President Trump’s list of priorities in Asia. While ambassadors to Japan and China have been appointed, America
’s embassy in South Korea remains without an ambassador, which is made all the more pointed considering how much Koreans respected Ambassador Mark Lippert. If Korea attempts to be a coy or difficult ally whenever it fits its interests, then there is no reason to believe that other countries will not treat Korea in the same way.

The same goes for China. Much noise was made when President Park Geun-hye was seated so close to Premier Xi Jinping during China’s military parade in 2015 to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Everyone in both Beijing and Seoul sang each others’ praises and it was assumed that both countries were about to grow closer. Chinese netizens loved the fact that Park Geun-hye could speak Mandarin!

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But at the end of the day, no one in Beijing forgot that South Korea is a US ally. When the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon only a few months after the parade, Xi Jinping refused to answer the phone when Park Geun-hye decided to call in that favor to put North Korea in its place. When South Korea decided to finally agree to Washington’s calls to install THAAD anti-missile batteries when it became clear that Chinese help was not coming, China showed its true colors and revealed that it sees South Korea as nothing more than another small country that should simply do as it commands.

There is an old saying about how a hunter who chases two rabbits will eventually catch neither. South Korea will need to either fully commit itself to the alliance with the United States or it will need to borrow a page from Rodrigo Duterte and spurn Washington and fully embrace China as its diplomatic, military, and trade partner. It cannot do both. Neither Washington nor Beijing will ever allow South Korea to have its cake and eat it, too.

There are costs and benefits associated with each. But it will need to choose. Failure to choose will guarantee that South Korea forever remains marginalized and will only be able to nostalgically recall its eight years under the sun during the Obama administration as “the good ol

Friday, December 9, 2016

President Park Geun-hye has been Impeached!

200 votes were needed to impeach President Park Geun-hye. 234 members of the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye.

For the second time in South Korea’s short history, the National Assembly has moved to impeach a sitting president. Until the Constitutional Court gives its voice on whether or not to approve the motion, the Prime Minister will serve as acting president.

If the Constitutional Court approves the motion, it would be the beginning of a new day in South Korea’s democracy. It would be the first time that a sitting president has been lawfully and democratically removed from office - the first peaceful and legal revocation of power. Considering the mounting evidence that are being stacked against President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, and corporate leaders, there is a very good chance that the Constitutional Court will agree that impeachment is warranted.

However, this was never just about Park Geun-hye or Choi Soon-sil. This scandal, this impeachment - everything that we have seen for the past month and a half has been far more than just the removal of a president and shadow president. It has been about government power and the corruption that surrounds it. It has been a popular movement to bring about accountability. This is a new day for South Korea
’s democracy.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that rhetoric about justice is where this story will end. Politics will rear its ugly head before too long. In fact, I’ll give it less than a day before it does.

The people’s mood has soured against anyone who has ever been associated with the Saenuri Party. It wouldn’t matter if there was anyone competent or intelligent or who possessed integrity from that party. For now, no one from that party is going to fare well with the people. As a result, the party will be dissolved and be replaced with something else. For now, it’s the Minjoo Party’s time to shine.

When they take over the reins of government, the Park administration’s decision to deploy THAAD missile batteries might be overturned. Relations with Japan may worsen by revisiting the comfort women agreement and canceling the military intelligence-sharing deal. Decisions may be made to once again pour aid toward North Korea. No effort must be spared to fight the next government’s foolish decisions.

But politics can resume tomorrow. For now, we can all catch a breath and celebrate democracy.

대한민국 만세!

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Movie Review: La La Land

WARNING: The following review contains spoilers. If you have not yet seen La La Land and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

In fact, dont read any other review either. Go to the theater and watch it now. I cannot possibly emphasize more how much I would like people to go watch this movie. Don’t stream it from a shady website. Don’t torrent it. Don’t wait for it to come out on Netflix. Go to the theater and watch it now. You won’t regret it.

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Some of the earliest movies I remember having watched as a child were musicals and from a young age, I knew that musicals were different from other types of movies. They were different because every topic they dealt with - love, longing, hope, family - were made bigger and purer through their dancing and singing. Sure, Harry had no problems telling Sally that he wanted the rest of his life to start with hers as soon as possible, but Gene Kelly had You Were Meant For Me. Gene Kelly wins hands down.

Musicals ensured that I grew up a romantic. Reality beat it out of me. Love fades, the burden of responsibility grows heavier, wrinkles deepen, hairlines recede, waists expand, recessions bring despair, and youthful idealism is beaten and calloused until all that remains is wary cynicism. However, musicals, especially those made famous by Broadway and Disney can and do still serve as a refuge from harsh realities. Unfortunately, musicals have been few and far between. Good ones even more so.

So I went to watch La La Land with the minimal of expectations. All I knew about the movie was the title, the two lead actors, and the fact that it was a musical. Nothing else. By the time the movie ended about two hours later, I could only think of one word to describe what I had seen, heard, and felt. Magical.

For one thing, it won’t be hard for many people to find the lead characters relatable. Mia (Emma Stone) dropped out of college to move to Los Angeles where she works as a barista and she goes to one audition after another only to have the door slammed on her face by rude and uncaring agents, directors, and producers. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz musician who wants to open his own jazz bar so that he can play music as it was meant to be played but in reality is a starving artist who plays Christmas jingles for measly tip money at a family restaurant. That restaurant’s owner, by the way, is portrayed by J.K. Simmons who seems to be paying a gentle homage to a much more aggressive character he portrayed in Whiplash (both La La Land and Whiplash were directed by Damien Chazelle).

The two meet repeatedly through sheer chance that is so ridiculous that it can only be found in movies. They fall in love, move in with each other, they both push each other to find the successes they dream of, they argue when they think the other isn’t living up to their potential, and in the meantime, there are plenty of singing and dancing.

As for the music, what’s odd about the movie is that there isn’t a single song that I would consider an instant classic. There was no single Defying Gravity moment where a single song’s climactic high notes can can leave the audience breathless. I am sure that at least a couple of the movie’s songs - City of Stars, a jazzy tune with a haunting refrain, and Audition (The Fools Who Dream), the movie’s ultimate anthem - will be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. But it doesn’t seem likely that the songs will have as much longevity or recognition as musical classics go. Also, the two lead actors aren’t the best singers in the world. Had any singer auditioned in front of Simon Cowell singing like that...

Despite that, however, the movie works. The songs might not become instant classics, but instead of relying just on the songs (the lyrics) to move the plot forward, the movie also focused on dance choreography and the music itself. There is a scene where the two actors literally dance among the stars and not a word is said between them. What words can one use to adequately describe a feeling like that? And toward the end of the movie, the two opening notes of City of Stars better convey the characters’ emotions than most songs ever could.

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The movie could have had a mawkish happy ending. But it veered away from that. Depending on one’s fortitude, the ending can be described as being anything from bittersweet to downright heartbreaking. The movie takes its own advice and instead of going for the likable, it goes for the truth and by doing so, the movie goes from being good to great.

And what is the truth? The truth is that everyone has a dream, but most dreams end up broken and scattered on the ground, which is all the more reason so many people do whatever they can to not end up on that boulevard of broken dreams. But there are costs to pursuing one’s dreams and oftentimes one of those things that people have to give up is “the fairy tale ending.”

As the final credits roll, one realizes that the movie was not so much a story about two star-crossed lovers, but rather an ode to everyone with “a dream as foolish as they may seem.”

2016 was a disappointing year for movies. La La Land pushed hard against that and buckled the trend. It was beautiful, well-crafted, romantic, bittersweet, heartbreaking, and honest. It is the best movie that I have seen all year. Perhaps even the best movie that I have seen in a good long while. Here
’s to hoping for more movies like this!

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Populism and Nostalgia: Now it's the Progressives' Turn

Considering President Park Geun-hye’s dismal approval ratings, her electoral win for the presidency back in 2012 seems like more than a distant memory. However, in order to understand how her successor is going to become the next president, it is important to understand how she won in the first place.

We cannot discount the facts. There were many things that favored her victory in 2012. The two biggest factors that favored her were that South Korea is a conservative country and also an aging one. The latter is easy to explain. Older voters tend to prefer conservative leaders. The former can be gleaned from the fact that since 1987, four out of the six presidents were conservatives.

However, those factors alone may not have been enough to have guaranteed Park’s victory. In fact, Park, who for all intents and purposes led a less than remarkable life during her years in “exile” since her father’s assassination, may never have even been able to return to politics in 1998 had she not ridden a wave of nostalgia from older voters. Her repeated invocations of “the second Miracle of the Han River” and “the new Saemaul Movement” during the campaign were deliberate attempts to stoke this sense of nostalgia for a time when rapid economic growth and dizzying changes were the norm - never mind the dictatorship!

As for the claims that she would be a dictator (laughable as they are now seeing how she turned out to be grossly incompetent rather than anything so respectable as a dictator) she was able to brush it off with two simple words - economic democratization. Her presidency was supposed to be the start of a new type of conservatism - one that continued to focus on economic growth as set forth by President Lee Myung-bak while at the same time hijacking the progressives’ most important rallying call of social and economic justice. Compassionate conservatism, if you will. Whether or not her campaign promises were at all realistic is another matter entirely.

In short, populism and nostalgia for a whitewashed past are what helped to propel Park Geun-hye into the Blue House.

“Dictatorship? What dictatorship? Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative!
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With Park’s recent statements about her willingness to resign if the National Assembly “minimizes the confusion and vacuum in state affairs and ensure a stable transfer of power,” it seems all but certain that one way or another, she will not be able to complete her single five-year term as originally scheduled. Due to the unprecedented levels of disapproval that she is currently facing from the general public, despite the fact that South Korea is a conservative and aging society, it seems that there is a very good chance that the progressives can retake the Blue House in the next presidential election.

However, the progressives cannot take anything for granted. Should Ban Ki-moon return from the United Nations next year and run for president (possibly after establishing a new party seeing how tainted the Saenuri brand is), they may fail to capture the Blue House yet again. For that very reason, just like Park Geun-hye won the election four years ago by riding on a dual wave of populism and nostalgia, the progressives are going to try to do the same but with their own twist.

But just as nostalgia that propelled Park Geun-hye into the Blue House was based on whitewashed history, the nostalgia that the progressives will ride will be based on whitewashed history, too, as it will carefully steer away from remembering the incompetence of Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency. However, there is no better time to cherry-pick memories of President Roh. That is because as ineffective as Roh Moo-hyun was as president, he was an entirely different beast as a campaigner and much of the rhetoric that he employed back then would be more than welcomed by many voters today.

For instance, not long after getting elected president, Roh Moo-hyun said:

“My fellow citizens, it is said that if everyone shares the same dream, that dream becomes a reality. A society that is run on common sense and where everyone plays by the same rules. A society where each person’s station in life will be determined by the sweat of his own brow. That is the new Republic of Korea that we all dream of. Let us work together to make that dream a reality.”

Whereas Roh gave the people a sense of hope for a society where everyone plays by the same rules, Chung Yoo-ra, Choi Soon-sil’s daughter, became modern-day Korea’s Marie Antoinette when she said something quite different. She said to her peers:

“If you are dissatisfied with your station in life, try blaming your parents instead of demanding that those with rich parents give you whatever you want. Having money is a skill, too. If you don’t like where you are in life, change it. But seeing how you’re so busy trying to tear down others, how do you expect to succeed in anything you do?”

Never mind Ms. Chung was able to live a life of luxury thanks to her mother’s money. There is nothing wrong with inheriting anything. However, the fact remains that the money that allowed her to live the way she pleased was not earned honestly, but was looted by her mother who used her political connections to become a racketeer of near-legendary proportions. In an age of unbridled and unapologetic cronyism and nepotism, nothing sounds so sweet as Roh Moo-hyun’s call for justice and equality.

The man who could do no wrong...
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A skilled orator who never shied away from addressing the public directly, Roh was the very opposite of an aloof and authoritarian leader - what Park Geun-hye is often (and justifiably) accused of being. So much so that during the height of his unpopularity, he proposed to hold a national referendum - a vote of no confidence - on himself to see just how much the public trusted him! What political leader holds votes of no confidence against himself?

Not to mention that he was an outright populist who imposed a “tax bomb” on homeowners. Although his tax policies, which were later declared to have been unconstitutional, did no favors whatsoever to help to grow the economy, in today’s political climate where many Koreans speak of noblesse oblige like as though it were some kind of religious dogma, any contemporary politician who promises to go after “the rich” will likely be cheered as a hero.

At a time when many are openly calling Saenuri lawmakers accomplices in the Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil scandal and are demanding they resign en masse along with President Park, Roh Moo-hyun
’s rhetoric would once again be welcomed with open arms. During his time in office, he refused to compromise with the Saenuri Party (or the Grand National Party as it was called back then). He was also a gifted orator who never hesitated to abandon protocol to speak directly to the people and a firebrand who promised to work toward building a more just society.

However, it has to be remembered that he was an ineffective leader and many have called his presidency a failure.

At a time when the public’s anti-American sentiments were threatening to tear up the US-ROK alliance, instead of trying to calm things down, Roh once famously asked a rhetorical question - “What’s wrong with being anti-American?”

Furthermore, he went on to say that the United States, South Korea’s most important ally, was the biggest threat to peace in Northeast Asia.

When he wasn’t abusing this most vital of alliances like an unwanted child, he was making a fool of himself by proposing to the Japanese government that the Sea of Japan be renamed the Sea of Peace. Or he was telling Kim Jong Il that he would be willing to redraw South Korea’s western maritime border aka the Northern Limit Line according to North Korea’s wishes in order to “draw a peace and economics map to replace the security and military one,” which would have been capitulation in all but name.

Finally, the greatest flaw of his presidency was the fact that this supposedly moral and upright man eventually felt compelled to kill himself when his family was investigated by state prosecutors on corruption charges.

...turned out to have done a lot of wrong.
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However, none of these facts are important. At least not for those who seek to exploit his memory for their own political purposes. Yes, Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency was a failure in so many ways, but it is easy to paper over his flaws. For one thing, the amount of money that Roh was investigated for, about US$5 million, is a paltry sum of money compared to the amounts of money that were pilfered by other former presidents/shadow president. Yes, he deliberately jeopardized the alliance with the United States at every opportunity he got but he was the one who initiated talks with Washington to create the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, which turned out to be America’s second largest FTA deal. And the Hankyoreh has already been pathetically defending Roh’s attempt to surrender the NLL for years.

But it might not even be necessary to defend Roh’s record seeing how extremely unpopular Park Geun-hye has become. All that the progressives may need to do is to echo his words and rhetorical flair, his style, sing that old song about a just society, and most importantly, repeat ad nauseum that they are not Park Geun-hye. Never mind that Roh was unable to deliver on many of his promises and much of it was due to his own incompetence.

The next South Korean president is going to be a progressive. Even if Ban Ki-moon runs for president and wins, he is not exactly known for being a conservative. And especially considering how the conservatives were willing to take a left turn on economic policy back in 2012 (not to mention Trump’s populism that helped him to win the US presidential election), it’s clear that conservative economic principles as they were set forth by Reagan and Thatcher are no longer sacrosanct for conservative politicians. So there is more than a plausible chance that there will be a marked increase in populist rhetoric and campaign pledges regardless of the political party that the candidates will hail from.

As for nostalgia, the conservatives do not have any left to exploit. Park Geun-hye squandered what little good will that people had for her father, Lee Myung-bak remains a polarizing figure, Kim Young-sam left office with higher approval ratings than Park Geun-hye currently enjoys but that’s not saying much, and the rest were thieving autocrats. But the progressives can and they will.

Moon Jae-in is already doing whatever he can to get ahead of the pack. So is Ahn Cheol-soo. Others will soon follow suit. As the race gets more heated, one should not be surprised to see the ghost of Roh Moo-hyun hovering around wherever they go.