April 18, 2014

Korean Bell Garden in Northern Virginia

Whereas Cherry Blossoms Festival in Washington, D.C. and Japanese gardens in U.S. parks such as the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco remind Americans of the link between Japan and the U.S., artifacts relating to Koreans on public display in the U.S. are very few. Only a handful of U.S. museums have a room devoted to Korean cultural artifacts.  An exception to this can be found in Northern Virginia,  where Korea Bell Garden was constructed within the Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, in commemoration of the Korea-U.S. relations. The garden consists of pagodas, walls, a peace bell, pond, totem poles, and plants native to Korea.

April 16, 2014

Military Spendings on the Rise in East Asia

According to the latest report ("Trends in World Military Expenditure") from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the global military spending has gone down 1.9% from the previous year, yet it is still a staggering figure of $1.74 trillion.

The spending by the U.S. has decreased due to its internal cuts in military spending, but the U.S. remains as the top spender with $640 billion. This amounts to whopping 37% of the total global military spending, equaling the combined spending of the next 14 nations after the U.S.  Despite worries expressed over the rising military power of China (second in military spending, 11% of global spending) and Russia (third in spending, 5% of global spending), the U.S. remains as the undisputed sole global military superpower, pouring huge sums of money in military spending despite domestic economic problems and the growing federal budget deficit.  Despite its proclaimed self-defense military, Japan is 8th in global military spending.

With the exception of North America, Western Europe and Oceania, all regions of the world have seen dramatic increase in military spending, reflecting ongoing military tensions and political volatility. Southeast Asia saw 5% increase and Northeast Asia got 4.7% jump in military spending.

South Korea's spending increased to $33.9 billion, jumping from 12th place to 10th place in the global scale. This amounts to 2.8% of South Korea's GDP and 15% of government's budget. Despite portrayal of North Korea's military threat, Pyongyang's military spending amounts to $6 billion (25% of state budget), a mere 18% of South Korea's military spending. The continued tensions in the Korean Peninsula diverts much needed funds away from South Korea's domestic social program spending and North Korea's economic development.

Globally, there is a need to drastically cut down on military spending, freeing funds that can go towards programs aimed to curtail poverty, economic disparities, and environmental degradation.

February 10, 2014

"The Attorney": The South Korean Film Portrays South Korean Politics

For those unfamiliar with South Korean history and politics, this movie, now playing at theaters in major North American cities with English subtitles (opened Feb.7), may seem like an average-lawyer-turned-activist-fighting-for-justice film. But the lawyer portrayed in this film is no ordinary person -- he is former President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea.

The life/career-changing turn of events depicted in the film shows Roh's transformation from an ordinarily lawyer to a lawyer-activist devoted to defending cases related to human rights, social justice and fairness, which led him to the front of the pro-democracy civil movement in South Korea that ultimately brought down the military dictatorship, and all the way to the Blue House, the presidential office.

The film also highlights the pervasive and underlying obsession in the South Korean society with "national security." Due to harsh and polarized memories of the Korean War and the division of Korea, successive dictatorships and authorities in power in South Korea deemed convenient and easy to falsely label and prosecute all kinds of legitimate opposition and dissent as violations of South Korea's draconian National Security Law, in which, most times, legitimate protests and expressions are labelled as pro-North Korea and aiding North Korea and thereby requiring harsh and no-questions-asked prosecutions and punishments. In most of these cases, torture was used to extract false confessions that legitimized fabricated or exaggerated charges. These cases "surfaced" from time to time in order to quell down domestic dissent or to overshadow government's crisis or ineptitude.  Despite attempts to amend the National Security Law, it still stands and is applied even during democratic governments.

This surprising blockbuster, the first film directed by Yang Woo-suk, is currently on the sixth place on all-time attendance numbers in South Korea, which seems to resonate with the South Korean populace -- the older generations who have experienced this tumultuous period, as well as the younger generation born after this period. This movie starts out with comic moments, but turns into a serious court drama that depicts the dark era of political repression and human rights abuse in South Korea, as well as optimism for change and progress. This film is highly recommended to non-Koreans as it not only depicts the subtleties of South Korean politics but also tells of universal yearnings for justice and fairness.

January 23, 2014

"South Korea's New Hybrid Media: Wall Posters Gone Viral"

(From Huffington Post)

For around a decade, South Korea has been a byword for advanced internet connectivity. With the world's earliest mass adoption of broadband - and at the fastest speeds - this nation of 50 million is regularly cited as the "world's most wired". The introduction last year of LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) mobile communications means that Koreans now enjoy the world's fastest wireless network as well.

And despite South Korea's image as a follower (albeit a fast one), this country has been ahead of the pack on a surprising number of internet innovations. A firm named Saerom developed Dialpad, a VoIP service, three years before Skype came along. And when Facebook and even Myspace were mere minnows, millions of Koreans were already using a social network named Cyworld. Lee Jun-seok, a South Korean entrepreneur and political activist, fondly remembers e-mailing his Harvard classmate Mark Zuckerberg, "We already have Cyworld, a far better and more sophisticated website. Your start-up will fail soon."      


December 12, 2013

"Korea’s Domestic Cold War"

By John Feffer
From Foreign Policy in Focus article: http://fpif.org/koreas-domestic-cold-war/

They're the last three hunger strikers standing. Actually, they're sitting -- just outside the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea. The weather is turning cold, and they're bundled up against the wind.

The three men are legislators. Two of their number have already collapsed and ended up in hospital. In November, the government attempted to ban their political party -- the United Progressive Party, the third largest in the country -- for essentially being a proxy for North Korea. The party leader, meanwhile, is on trial for treason under South Korea's National Security Law.
This is not the only political spectacle in town. At the same time, the government's National Intelligence Service (NIS) stands accused of intervening in last year's presidential election on the side of the ruling party's candidate, Park Geun Hye, the daughter of one-time South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee. She won the election with a little over 51 percent of the vote, giving the conservatives another five years of presidential power. Initially, President Park dismissed reports of the NIS sending out a couple dozen insinuating tweets about her rival candidate by suggesting that such a minor infraction could not possibly have influenced the election one way of another. But late last month it was revealed that this initial tweet estimate was a major underestimate.  The NIS apparently sent out 1.2 million tweets, and the Cyber Command responsible for dealing with North Korea added another 23 million.

South Korea is a democracy, a thriving one if measured by the sheer size and energy of its civil society and the stability of its political institutions. It's not on a return trip to its dictatorial past or on a path of convergence with its dictatorial neighbor up north. The hunger strikers in front of the parliament are, alas, not themselves exemplars of democracy. Their party is not united, and the UPP is frankly an embarrassment to many if not most progressives in the country. It's also quite small. Being the third-largest political party in a country dominated by the ruling Saenuri Party and the opposition Democratic Party translates, after a post-election fission, into a mere six representatives.
But what is happening in South Korea today is deeply disturbing nonetheless. Last year, Amnesty International published a report on how the government is using the longstanding but dangerously obscure National Security Law to restrict freedom of speech, prosecute critics of the government, and limit the right to organize associations. "The number of new NSL cases increased by 95.6 percent -- from 46 in 2008 to 90 in 2011 -- between 2008 and 2011," the report notes. "The number of those charged under the vaguely worded clauses of the NSL rose by 96.8 percent -- from 32 in 2008 to 63 in 2011 -- in the same four year period."

These cases range from disturbing to downright ludicrous. In the latter category is the case of Park Jeong-geun, who sent around tweets and photos satirizing North Korea. He should have known that intelligence agencies are notoriously deaf to irony. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison for "praising" the object of his derision. The South Korean government has gone after the Capitalism Research Society (an academic organization that looks at alternative economic models), People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (a huge civil society organization that publicly questioned the government's official report on the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan vessel), and the Socialist Workers League (an organization that, ironically, is highly critical of North Korean-style socialism).
It gets worse. As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Geoffrey Fatig writes in South Korea's Free Speech Problem, "In 2011, the country's press freedom ranking was downgraded by the human rights organization Freedom House from 'Free' to 'Partly Free' as a result of 'increasing official censorship, particularly of online content, as well as the government's attempt to influence media outlets' news and information content.'"

The effort to silence the United Progressive Party is the latest in this series of crackdowns. On a recent visit to South Korea, I visited the National Assembly to interview the three hunger strikers. They complained about the McCarthyite atmosphere in South Korea (a legitimate concern). They argued that Park Geun Hye was engaged in political retaliation against UPP leader Lee Jung-hee for calling her the daughter of pro-Japanese dictator (which is true, but not especially relevant, especially for a president who has refused to meet her Japanese counterpart as per recent custom). They also believe that the new president wants to establish a long-term dictatorship just like her father's (it makes for a catchy slogan, but it's off-base, Park Geun Hye's authoritarian tendencies notwithstanding).

The key question, however, remains North Korea. "The accusation of being pro-North is typical of the old way of Korean political history," Kim Sun Dong, one of the UPP hunger strikers, told me. "The party is not following North Korea. We just want a peaceful way: to cooperate with North Korea and solve the problem of the Korean peninsula division peacefully."
On the face of it, this statement is true. The party has been careful to distance itself publicly from North Korea -- and its own past. The UPP was an attempt to join together two different political factions that long disagreed about North Korea. What remains in the party after a vote-rigging scandal that emerged after last year's election--which prompted the progressive newspaper Hankyoreh to lament that there is no future for progressive politics "under the current UPP system"--is the faction that once embraced North Korea's juche philosophy. A South Korean friend of mine, a leftist involved in North-South dialogue for the last two decades, confirmed that the UPP's protestations of independence ring hollow.

It's hard to imagine that anybody in South Korea these days would have much sympathy for the North Korean system. Pyongyang has directed several attacks on the South, repeatedly threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire," and presided over a dynastic dictatorship that engages in human rights violations of considerable magnitude (for a glimpse of the violations involving the disabled, see FPIF contributor Janet Lord's Nothing to Celebrate). What is most disturbing about the political activities of UPP members -- chronicled in this South Korean analysis -- is the negative light they cast on the sincere efforts of so many other groups to support a principled engagement with North Korea that very carefully rejects endorsement of the system.

So, the UPP is not exactly a group of Andrei Sakharovs. But the Park government has made a serious mistake in trying to ban the party. Practically speaking, this is a small party with very little political influence. It split in two shortly after the last elections. If ignored, it would probably split again and become completely irrelevant.

Philosophically, the ban is based on a belief that the party's formal declarations belie its secret beliefs. This kind of political intervention indeed amounts to a witch-hunt, for how can any party or politician prove beyond a doubt that their secret intentions are pure? Perhaps the UPP has truly distanced itself from its past. Democracy is about the benefit of the doubt. Moreover, even though it has proven to be an unusually fractious party -- Kim Sun Dong once threw a canister of tear gas inside the parliament during a debate on trade -- the UPP has taken the political route. Unless it can be proven otherwise on the basis of specific acts, the UPP should be treated like Sinn Fein.

The real danger is when the government, with the help of the NSL, widens the scope of crackdown beyond groupuscules like the UPP. Suddenly anyone who has advocated engagement with North Korea -- economic, diplomatic, humanitarian -- becomes suspect. That's why it's necessary to hold one's nose about the UPP's past and defend its existence.

For a time, during the engagement policies of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, it seemed as though the National Security Law would gradually wither away. The suspicion of being pro-North became less and less politically effective in an environment in which Seoul was concluding deals with Pyongyang. But two successive conservative governments in South Korea have steered policy in a different direction.

Park Geun-Hye has pledged a new trustpolitik approach to the North. She should take a similar stance toward her domestic critics. She has the conservative credentials to abolish or at least substantially modify the National Security Law without being accused of being a closet leftist. It's time for her to make her mark on history and truly distance herself from her father's legacy. Negotiating with North Korea would help end the Cold War on the Korean peninsula. Dismantling the NSL would help end the Cold War at home.

December 6, 2013

Concerns Mount on Regression of Democracy in South Korea

We Denounce Election Fraud and
Regression of Democracy in South Korea!
We, concerned Koreans and Korean Americans in the Washington DC area, are outraged at recent political developments in our homeland, South Korea. Ever since the election of Park Geun-hye as the president, we have seen a regression of hard-earned democracy in South Korea.

The manner in which Park was elected is controversial as it was revealed that governmental agencies, such as the National Intelligence Service and the military’s cyber force, which should have remained neutral during elections, interfered illegally in the election process by distributing massive social media messages aimed at bolstering the conservative candidate Park and demonizing the opposition candidate Moon Jae-in.
Rather than addressing this critical issue and taking responsibility, the Park government has pressured the prosecutors’ office to sidestep further investigations, in a way colluding to election fraud of the last presidential election. Moreover, suppression of legitimate opposition political parties and citizen groups have begun – reminiscent of McCarthyism and dictatorship era of Park Chung-hee, the father of Park Geun-hye.   
In solidarity with conscientious Koreans in Korea and overseas, we have gathered here in front of the Lincoln Memorial – a symbol of democracy and fairness – to demand the restoration of democracy and political fairness in South Korea.
November 16, 2013
Participants of Candlelight Demonstration for Democracy in South Korea, Washington, DC

September 24, 2013

Ups and Downs of Inter-Korean Relations

The Kaesong industrial park, which houses factories operated by South Korean companies with North Korean workers, has opened again after it was shut down for more than five months. But the promised reunion of separated families on Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) failed to materialize, indicative of the still fragile nature of inter-Korean relations.