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Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Tripartite Summitulacra

This trilateral meeting never happened:

All smiles: POTROK Park Geun-hye, POTUS Barack Obama, PMOJ Shinzo Abe

POTROK Park Geun-hye, POTUS Barack Obama, and PMOJ Shinzo Abe did shake hands, seat at the same table, and trade speeches at NSS 2014*, but that was only one notch higher on the below zero thermometer of KOR-JAP relations compared to the previous informal exchanges between Park and Abe.

This picture captures more clearly the tension and forced smiles (even the candle holder, in the background, fearfully expects sparks to fly):

The few words in Korean Shinzo prepared for Geun-hye fell flat (see twitter timeline below)
Of course, we'd love to believe in the first picture, that vintage, Oslo-1993-spirit, with Bill Obama, Yasser Park, and Yitzhak Abe working together to end the mess. But we're more in the Camp David 2000 body language, with Ehud refusing to enter when Yasser opens the door for him.

Park Geun-hye had the most to lose in a photo op that definitely allows Barack Obama the Peacemaker and Shinzo Abe the Pariah to score very useful points. North Korea and the Nuclear Security Summit 2014 provided the ideal alibi, but in order for something to happen, Shinzo Abe had to play to the gallery.

Japan's controversial Prime Minister did pledge not to touch to the Kono and Murayama Statements, but he already did that in the past, and there's no change whatsoever in his government's revisionist stance: the very day following this Tripartite Summitulacra, Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura confirmed his own rejection of the said statements**, and we know for sure these guys share the same views - Abe has always been an outspoken advocate of textbook revisionism.

For good measure, Abe visited before the meeting Anne Frank's house, where he said "I share responsibility"... but in yet another one of his trademark, nose-thumbing references to history (see twitter timeline below). That visit happened a few weeks after hundreds of copies of Anne Frank's Diary were vandalized in bookstores and libraries across Tokyo Prefecture - a form of textbook revisionism as shocking as but more mediatized than the institutional one.

If the Tripartite Summitulacra resonates like a diplomatic victory for Abe, it must have come at a price. The one he's paid since his latest Yasukuni visit has already been already quite heavy for a nation where face-saving is paramount: first the US expressed their "disappointment", then Ambassador Caroline Kennedy canceled her NHK interview (following outrageous remarks from its governor), and then a Seoul stop was added to Obama's trip to Asia, conveniently shrinking the first three-day State Visit of a POTUS to Japan since Clinton into a less significant stay.

If historic issues were neatly put aside for the Summitulacra, they are at the center of the discussions held between Korea and Japan ahead of that trip - obviously a prerequisite for Korea to accept the Hague meeting. Korea focuses on "Comfort Women", Japan tries to throw in territorial disputes for confusion. Of course, the former issue is the priority because of its universal reach. Furthermore, it's not about Japan v. Korea, and not even about Japan v. all the nations victims to that institutionalized sexual slavery system, but it's about post-war, democratic and peaceful Japan v. Imperial Japan.

I cannot imagine one second Obama avoiding historic issues altogether, and I'd be more than "disappointed" if he didn't devote a highly meaningful moment to this particular issue.

I wish this trip could also solve the North Korea conundrum, but I wouldn't bet a Won on it. TPP, OPCON transfer, Okinawa moves? Technical details. If this man has a chance to deliver one speech for the ages in the region in 2014, that's it.

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* see "Remarks by President Obama, President Park of the Republic of Korea, and Prime Minister Abe of Japan" (US Embassy Seoul - 20140325)
** see "Japan’s rhetoric gets surly again" (Korea JoongAng Ilbo 20140328)

The twitter timeline around the Tripartite Summitulacra (excerpt):

Where we left things last time (see "KORUS chorus" - 20140318)
Now it's up to Park Geun-hye to accept summit with Obama and Shinzo Abe. Will she accept to put history issues aside? #ABEIGNomics (20140320)

Japan and Korea discussing talks about Imperial Japan #sexslavery (NB: a condition for KOR-JAP-USA summit?) - 20140321

First #ParkGeunhye-#ShinzoAbe meeting confirmed for The Hague next week. #Obama will hold the candle (20140321)

#ShinzoAbe: "I share responsibility" (to prevent war in XXIst century, not to set #ImperialJapan record straight) - 20140324

Even harder for #Obama to have #ParkGeunhye and #ShinzoAbe meet than to have #Israel and #Palestine meet. + the rockets are fired from #DPRK! (20140324)
Historic handshake between war criminal grandson and dictator daughter (Nobel Prize winner observing) - 20140326

#ParkGeunhye turned a deaf ear to #ShinzoAbe's "만나서 반갑습니다" ("nice to meet you") - 20140327

Ahead of Obama's visit to Tokyo and Seoul, Japan and Korea to hold high level meetings in Washington next month

Saturday, March 22, 2014

What part of "Operator" don't you understand?

In case you didn't follow Korea's latest hacking scandals, the personal data of 9.81 million KT customers have recently been leaked. For the operator, that's a significant improvement since the previous failure (only 8.7 million victims in 2012).

Imagine receiving this charming letter: oops, we did it again. We just found out that we let a few pieces of information reach the wrong hands. No biggie: just your name, your resident number, your phone number, the number and validity date of the credit card with which you pay your bills, your address, your customer number, your subscription information, your subscribed plan, you know, that kind of boring details. Any call from telemarketers lately?

We do apologize. Really.
KT risks a KRW 100 M fine, which may sound impressive if you're not familiar with local currencies, but amounts to a slaponthewristic USD 92,600 nowadays. Furthermore, as a government official quoted by Yonhap deplores*, "unlike credit card-related rules, the country's telecom law does not acknowledge that data leakage is a financial mishap that causes damage to customers' personal assets (...) - a business suspension is not an option unless KT has collected personal data without users' consent." Needless to say customer associations have gone nuclear, tens of groups considering class actions**.

SK Telecom, the undisputed market leader (including in terms of hacking with 35 million victims in August 2011), frugally celebrated its main rival's predicament by crashing its own network for only 5.6 million customers on Thursday***.

I may sound like I'm making fun of Korea's #1 and #2 operators (well maybe I am), but that's to exorcise my fears. Deep down I'm in a cold sweat. As a customer, but also - in a former life - as a former executive for a leading operator: that's the kind of business where security is paramount, and an obligation if you want to get or to keep a license. And in big data times, you want even less the gimchi to hit the fan..

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* see "Gov't mulls fines on KT for data leak, consumers say punishment too weak" (Yonhap News 20140317)
** among which CCEJ, see "KT sued over data leaking" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20140319)
*** "SK mobile network crashes, 5.6 million affected" (Korea JoongAng Daily 20140322)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Republic of Apartments

Even as the "apateu" model is coming to an end (see "Inhuman, all too human Seoul"), Korea remains "The Republic of Apartments" as much as "The Republic of Samsung". But beyond hardware or software, humans always take center stage in Seoul Museum of History's exhibitions, and the original title of this one ("아파트 인생") could be translated as "Apartment life", or maybe even an attenboroughesque "Life in apartments".

"The Republic of Apartments", another great (and moving) @SeoulMuseum show. Gyonam-dong a special guest


As is often the case in my favorite Seoul museum, you can enjoy two exhibitions for the price of one (anyway, bonus: the entrance is always free!). And as an appetizer to the main dish, I started with the art gallery curated around a theme that, logically, permeates Korean culture.

Note this installation recounting decades of standardization (what I dubbed "the industrial revolution of housing") by timelapsing apartment maps, sizes and prices:

I browsed so many hundreds of "apateu" brochures and ads that I feel like I recognize them all!

More classic, AHN Sekwon's "Lights of Weolgok-dong" triptych, shot between 2005 and 2007, tells the sad and classic story of a charming Seoul neighborhood replaced by a dull new town scenery (as it happens, probably the Wolgok Samsung Raemian or the Wolgok Doosan We've):

Weolgok-dong series by AHN Sekwon (2005-2007)

Come to think of it, Hawolgok-dong is very close to Jongam-dong, also in Seongbuk-gu, where the first apartment blocks were erected in 1958 (Jongam Apartment)*.


Which leads us to the main show, a retrospective on the apartment phenomenon focusing on socio-cultural dimensions. Like often here (e.g. Jongno, Gwanghwamun, "Made in Changsin-dong" expos), it features a real interior that was still inhabited a few months earlier. The pensioner who lived in this one had to move because of the redevelopment:

At least, this time, the victim sacrificed on the altar of this urban nonsense was an "apateu" block, not an architectural wonder.

As expected, a lot of tributes were paid to one of the latest victims of Seoul's caricature of urbanism: Gyonam-dong lies (lied) just hectometers away, on the other side of Gyeonghuigung and the fortress walls. There's even a picture of our "Samdong Samgeori"! (by the way, I was very pleased to learn the other day from Robert J. Fouser that this amazing curved-roofed hanok has been, after all, protected and saved for good). 

Scenes of devastation and gutted hanok are nothing new, as this 1966 bird's eye view of demolished shacks in Inhyeon-dong reminds us.

And a whole section is devoted to the people displaced by evictions, including naturally the familiar images of Kim Dong-won's cult documentary "Sanggye-dong Olympic".

But as always, you're not in for a pure tearjerker. First, there's a lot of hope, love, and happiness - it's about humanity and humanness, life spaces rich in personal histories, with fair testimonies from ordinary citizens and middle class Seoulites. Second, the aim is to share with the visitors the experiences of insiders, help them understand the context and accept all sides of the past, reconciling citizens with their city and history.



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* special mention to Haengchon Apartment (1969)!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

KORUS chorus

The official launch of "Korea matters for America / America matters for Korea", a East West Center - ASAN Institute co-production, was the perfect occasion to celebrate 60+ years of friendship between Korea and the US.

Actually, an earlier launch event titled "Korea and the United States: 60 Years of Partnership Going Forward" took place on the other side of the big pond on December 11th last year, at the Capitol Visitor Center.

Along with the Ambassador of the ROK to the US AHN Ho-young, five Congresspeople attended the Washington, DC launch: Colleen HANABUSA (R-HI), Mike HONDA (D-CA - we already mentioned this great man in "Silver lining, darker clouds"), Mike KELLY (R-PA), David REICHERT (R-WA), Peter ROSKAM (R-IL). East Coast, West Coast, Midwest, Hawaii... you name it!

This morning at the ASAN Institute Seoul HQ, Dr. HAHM Chaibong* welcomed among other dignitaries the US Ambassador to Korea Sung KIM, and two influent members of the National Assembly: HWANG Jin-ha (Vice-Chairman of the Korea-US Inter-Parliamentary Council), and KIM Jong-hoon (Mr KORUS FTA in the eyes of many Koreans - whatever love/hatred they put in the label).

No need to convince Seoul-born US Ambassador to Korea Sung KIM that Korea matters for America and vice versa

General KIM Jae-chang (Ret. ROKA, Chairman of the Council on ROK-US Security Studies), Ambassador KIM in the foreground. Among the other speakers, AMCHAM President Amy Jackson.

KIM Jong-hoon (here at the roundtable with Dr. CHOI Kang, Ambassador CHUN Yung-woo, and Dr. Satu LIMAYE) lamented over free trade's loss of momentum globally, and more locally for the Korea-Japan-China FTA (particularly thanks to Shinzo ABE**)

Congratulatory speeches set aside, what's "Korea matters for America / America matters for Korea"? A brochure and a platform, part of the "Asia matters for America" initiative created by Dr. Satu LIMAYE, the Director of the East-West Center in Washington. Note that EWC's HQ are truly between continental US and Asia, in the very Korean friendly State of Hawaii.

The bilingual, 34-page brochure co-produced by the two think tanks is a perfect tool to convince any reader of the trueness of its title. Yes, Korea matters for America and America matters for Korea, and at all levels - particularly the four that matter to Ambassador KIM: security, politics and diplomacy, personal and cultural relations, economy.

As a bonus to a brochure mixing perfectly graphics, maps, and statistics, we received a map of the US exports to Korea at the US congressional district level, which is much more precise than the State level. For instance, you can spot Mike HONDA's District, CA-17, the biggest exporter to Korea with $892M in 2012, and a key part of the Sillicon Valley (any famous company from Cupertino in mind, starting with App and ending in le(gal)?).

Beyond the brochure, the platform (where, of course, you can download the brochure). is the US-Korea part of the Asia matters for America portal that also covers bilateral relations with China, Japan, India & Co:

In this trove of knowledge, any representative, constituent, businessman or decision maker can measure the value of Asian countries in each congressional district. 

Take for instance Texas 32, another key exporter to Korea - that's NE Dallas around Highland Park, Mesquite, University Park, Garland... and of course Richardson's telecom corridor, home to Samsung Telecommunications America, Inc. You learn that semiconductors and components represent half of the exports to Asia, but also that Asian Americans make up 6% of the population (with more Vietnamese than Koreans), that visitors from Asia bring $120 M to the travel and tourism industry, that Dallas has sister city relationships with Tianjin....

Today, we heard a lot about security, politics, and economy, but of course, it's always about the people. At the top leadership as well as the citizens level, what matters most is the people, and it's no wonder these two think tanks collaborated on this project.

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* whom we last saw chatting on stage with a POTUS (see "W. at The Shilla for Chosun")

** BTW Leif-Eric, I might eat my hat after all: a PARK Geun-hye - ABE Shinzo does seem more likely than I thought in the short term!

Monday, March 17, 2014

What happens in Vegas stays in Incheon?

After years of intense lobbying, LOCZ is rumored to be about to get an official agreement for its casino project in Yeongjong-do*. That's the little name of the Ceasars Entertainment Corporation - Lippo Group JV mentioned in my focus last October on Incheon's Las Vegas ambitions (see "Paradise City v. Sin City").

Awarding the first foreign license to a US-Indonesia duo would certainly balance casino geopolitics in the region. Too bad for Japan (pachinko kings Universal Entertainment), or Macau (Melco International Development, headed by Stanley Ho's son Lawrence), but they may get another chance later.

For the moment, Caesars only operates in the US, Uruguay, the UK, and Egypt, and an entry point in Asia could be a game changer. They did operate a golf in Macau, but had to pull out a couple of years ago from a market very much locked by local players. It's very difficult for outsiders to make it that SAR, even if you're from Hong-Kong - look how Lau and Lo struggle with the law these days**!

Again, casino-wise, Incheon would be the ideal counterweight to Macau, less than two hours away from key East Asian markets, starting with Beijing and even Shanghai: PVG is 500 miles away from ICN, vs 800 for MFM.

Now whoever wins the keys to this future Sin City, let's hope they hire designers with a better taste than what we've seen so far in Incheon:

ICN's cult sculpture "flying to the future", the single-balled erection that has the whole world guffaw as soon as they land in Korea

Last time EightCity*** disclosed their masterplan (2012), I wondered how they would name this strange neighborhood: Dong-dong?

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* see "Seoul to OK casino project on Yeongjong" (Korea Times - 20140316)
** that's Joseph Lau Luen-hung and Steven Lo Kit-sing, who face prison there, see "Legal loophole may let Hong Kong tycoons escape jail in Macau"
*** codename for the developers of the new town: Kempinski, Korean Air, Daewoo Engineering & Construction, CandS Corporation

Thursday, March 13, 2014

"On Korea’s Intense Resentment of Japan"

In his "Three Hypotheses on Korea’s Intense Resentment of Japan" (The Diplomat - 20140313), Robert E. Kelly suggests three reasons why "Koreans go over-the-top" against Japan these days. Beyond the obvious, that is: of course, Kelly insists on the context, from the Imperial Japan abuses to the (re)current provocations, most notably from a certain Shinzo Abe.

As you well know, I also find regrettable this sick ping-pong game between pseudo-nationalists across East Asia, and I deplore how extreme reactions as well as the inability to face its own past undermine Korea's cause.

So yes, Koreans do go over-the-top. But all the more so that hardliners in Japan go as far over-the-top as they want, untamed by a public opinion that seems more shocked by spectacular displays of outrage overseas than by the outrageous declarations that triggered them in the first place. Mutual hatred has been deliberately orchestrated and fueled by a minority growing every day bolder, with the benediction of political leaders pretty much "over-the-top" themselves (see for instance "Can't top that? Shinzo Abe posing as Shiro Ishii, the Josef Mengele of Imperial Japan"). 

Kelly is right to point out that "it is long overdue for Abe to make a high-level statement against this stuff", but a tad optimistic to consider such an unlikely event: clearly, this "over-the-top" thing is a chicken-and-egg situation where the international community almost unanimously blames a certain chicken that loves to drop as many explosive eggs as he fancies.

Now among the 3 examples used to illustrate Korea's over-the-topness, only "Liancourt" (Dokdo/Takeshima) fully deserves the label, the islets popping-up in all kinds of variety at the most unexpected moments in the nation's desperate drive to defend its territory. The other two cases have been accepted as legitimate far beyond Korea: more nations are recognizing the relevance of a challenge to the "Sea of Japan" branding operated under Imperial Japan, and of parallels between Imperial Japan atrocities and the Holocaust.

That said, "Korea's intense resentment of Japan" remains a sad reality. Before adding my two cents, I'll quote the 3 explanations listed in the article, Kelly "tilting toward the third":
"1. Koreans have always been sharply anti-Japanese since the war; we just did not see that until democratization twenty-five years ago made expression of public opinion easier and less manipulated by the government. 
2. The late 1980s/early 1990s rise of intense anti-Japanese feeling coincides with the passing of the first generation of South Korea’s political and business elites.
3. When South Korea democratized, it needed some kind of legitimating story (unnecessary under authoritarianism)."
Of course, they all make sense. For instance, we all know that PARK Chung-hee was not exactly the poster-child of anti-Japan Korea (he was even listed as a collaborator), or that many chaebol did enjoy comfortable head starts thanks to Japanese assets. Likewise, sharing an enemy with North Korea and China is always convenient when you lack common ground or diplomatic leverage. 

Is the legitimating story unnecessary under authoritarianism? Devilization also comes in handy to justify authoritarianism, or to make in comparison other evils acceptable. Among the fiercest 'over-the-toppers' stand ultra-conservative Koreans who refuse to consider the nation's own dark periods as periods of "dictatorship". Typically, the storytelling in Seodaemun Prison proves to be very selective: very graphical when it comes to describing torture under Japanese rule, totally amnesic when it comes to mention the way facilities were used in the troubled decades that followed.

Beyond "the passing of the first generation of South Korea’s political and business elites", the late 80s / early 90s also marked a shift in the respective trajectories of Japan and Korea, and revisionism and xenophobia revived in the archipelago as Japan's star started fading, just like the Northeast Project in China gained momentum precisely when Korea became a cultural force and a magnet in the region (2002 World Cup frenzy, K-drama boom).

Also, let's not forget the benchmark role of Japan in Korea, typical of the fascinating and complex love-hate relations between two countries I like (I even toyed with the Oedipus cliché, as I recalled in that column I wrote in The Korea Herald: "Is Korea really the younger, smarter brother of China?"*).

If I agree that the US can't solve the conundrum, I do believe they have a responsibility. Not as "hegemon", but as a player who's got his own dark moments to fix, and who happens to have supported bad guys on both sides** of the East Sea-Sea of Japan.

Of course, Koreans and Japanese share the same enemies: the ones from within, that undermine each democracy from the inside. And again, Shinzo Abe is not an enemy of Korea but an enemy of Japan, a nation that, thanks to him, is about to chose unwillingly and unconsciously between its peaceful post-war present and its hateful Imperial past (see "Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree").  

How to expect other people to love your country when your leader is metonymyzing it with its darkest era? As Gabriele said in "A Special Day", "it is not the tenant of the 6th floor that's antifascist. It's fascism that's anti-tenant of the sixth floor".

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* Here it is, in case you missed it:

Is Korea really the younger, smarter brother of China? (The Korea Herald 20111127)

Korea the younger, smarter brother of China? The cliché cumulates too many “no-nos” to be sustainable. First, nations are not anthropomorphic entities you can compare on moral grounds. Second, Northeast Asian relations can be as touchy as minefields, and the epicenter of Confucianism is not the ideal playground for audacious familial metaphors. Ask a Chinese nationalist, and he’d rather consider South Korea and its actual sibling, North Korea, as mere provinces bound to get back to their Motherland. And why not throw in Japan, Russia, or the U.S. for a fuller familial picture?

I must confess that, when I first came to Korea in 1991, I toyed with another familial cliché: Korea as a strange Oedipus, condemned to kill his economic father Japan, and to marry his mother China. Not your usual mom: a Woody Allen-style, Jewish-mother stereotype, always lassoing her offspring with anything that could pass for an umbilical cord, making sure she remains the only woman who counts in her boy’s life (“When you grow up, you’ll understand: that American girl is no good for you.”).

This image came up because of the conflicting feelings of Korean businessmen toward Japan: Korea owed its successes to its own amazing dynamics, but even as the Lost Decade unfolded, benchmarking Japan remained an obsession, and foreign businesses had to prove their credentials there before finding a Korean partner.

“Mother China” is as wrong and caricatural a metaphor as “Japan the economic father,” but a timeless classic. In 1991, following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the 800-pound gorilla was starting to stretch its muscles after eons of hibernation. Not fit yet, but clearly gaining momentum, and certainly tempted to grow ambitions soon.

South Korea had already surpassed North Korea as China’s main commercial partner on the peninsula following the 1988 Olympics, but for most Korean businessmen, the Middle Empire remained well below the radar ― and for most Koreans, definitely more a political foe than a potential commercial friend.

This changed in 1992 when Korea established diplomatic relations with China, a normalization that facilitated the first boom in bilateral trade ($1 billion in 1989, $5 billion in 1992, $20 billion in 1996). The second boom happened in 2001 (from $44 to 200 billion between 2002 and 2010): that year, China’s accessed the WTO, and Incheon Airport was inaugurated. Even now, when I see ICN destination boards covered with Chinese cities, I remember my first trip from Gimpo to Shanghai in 1992: since direct flights to “red” China were not allowed, I opted for a stopover in Hong Kong.

China is now Korea’s biggest trade partner and Korea China’s fourth biggest trade partner. In 20 years, while China’s share in Korean foreign trade jumped from less than 3 percent to more than 20 percent, the U.S. dived from 29 percent to 10 percent. Korea smartly balances the political influence of both hyperpowers, significantly hosting their first G2+ in Asia (a.k.a. the G20 Summit).

With its 50 million souls and record low birthrate, Korea enjoys trade surpluses with a neighbor boasting a 300 million-strong middle-class expected to double by the end of the decade. Korea is now the economic and cultural model to follow, the subject of benchmark for Chinese players, the trendsetter and a key entry point for Western majors in the region.

So could Korea really be the smarter and younger brother of China? As Zhou Enlai said about the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”

China is reassuming a position its familiar with, Korea venturing into unknown territories. The dynamics can’t be more different, the future more uncertain. Can Korea transform its Golden Moment into an original and sustainable model? Can China propose a new deal to its own people as the old one (growth versus liberties) expires? How will the North Korean adventure end?

Younger brother or not, in this transitional period, Korea needs to play extra smart. If it can’t push, like its giant neighbor, its own standards in key industries (IT, telecoms, nuclear or solar energy, bullet trains), it has to consider more sustainable standards than surgically enhanced K-pop stars. Hopefully, Korea Inc. has eventually understood the importance of reaching beyond hardware, of getting “softer” without losing the legendary drive and determination to succeed of Korean citizens.

Against such a formidable “coopetitor” as China, Koreans can leverage unique strengths (swiftness in decision making, capacity to democratize innovations, to embrace change), and convenient weaknesses (a small but compact and reactive market, a relative neutrality versus hyperpowers). But Korea can’t succeed without major reforms, starting with the empowerment of SMEs (also a must for China), and reforming an education system that destroys creativity and diversity.

In the brotherhood of nations, Korea and China will experience more moments of tension and friendship. They’ll move closer to each other in order to build more bridges (regional collaboration, FTAs, a common currency?), but also to square off when necessary.

Both China and Korea have to change now, and both have to redefine their own models as true leaders, without positioning themselves versus one particular nation. Let’s hope both can combine the best genes of each country: Sun Tzu’s strategic vision and Sejong’s wisdom.

By Stephane Mot

Stephane Mot is a French author, and an expert in strategy and innovation with a business start-up background. His friendship with Seoul started 20 years ago when he joined the French Embassy, and the city plays a recurrent role in his fiction as well as his blog ( ― Ed.

** see for instance "The Unbearable Lightness of Being John Kerry"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

South Korea's Super PAC

In the US, politics are a matter of PACs, the Political Action Commitees that make or destroy candidates. But in Korea, the PAC that matters these days is the PARK Won-soon / AHN Cheol-soo / CHUNG Mong-joon trio.

Never mind PARK Geun-hye: Korean presidents tend to turn into lame ducks as soon as they're elected*, because of the one term limit designed to prevent the return of dictatorship.

Before getting back to that Korean PAC, let me finish my point on this safeguard of democracy that (as I last mentioned here in a stateofthedisunionish focus ahead of the 2012 presidential race, when the constitution turned 25 - see "25 years later") contributes to South Korea's very unique imbalance of power.
Again, in this country, the executive branch is almost powerless, the legislative branch utterly divided, the judiciary branch and the media not really independent, and democracy has no control whatsoever over the two forces that actually make and unmake kings: chaebol and netizens.

Some Saenuri lawmakers have been lobbying in favor of a constitutional change allowing a second mandate, but potential successors from all sides are probably not very happy with the timing, particularly since the first beneficiary would ironically be the daughter of PARK Chung-hee, the man who got rid of the two term limit to roll out his own Yushin Constitution.

Personally, I think that South Korea should return to a 2-term system, but also that, ideally and to prevent any misunderstanding, this major constitutional reform should be voted for the following administration, and not benefit any acting president. Furthermore, the impacts on the rest of the political system should be carefully taken into account.
For instance, in France, Jacques Chirac reduced the presidential term from 7 to 5 years, and I supported the move. But he didn't change the term of office for the members of the parliament (for example to 4 years), which I considered a must in order to avoid a major disruption in the dynamics of what passes for my country's democracy: our MPs are also elected for 5 years, and our President has the power to dissolve the parliament... As expected, this new political calendar is crippling France's Fifth Republic. But hopefully, the case for asynchronous elections may soon be raised, now that my fellow citizens have realized that they have to do with President Hollande for 5 years without any chance to make him change
No such problem in Korea, where Presidents are elected for 5 years, and MPs for 4 years. 
Back to South Korea's Super PAC now. In this local election year, the big prize remains Seoul City Hall, the ideal springboard to Cheong Wa Dae, with PARK Won-soon still leading in the most recent polls:

"Poll data shows incumbents leading ahead of local elections" (The Hankyoreh 20140310)
According to The Hankyoreh (progressive), the incumbent would win with a comfortable margin against any of the 3 declared Saenuri candidates: LEE Hye-hoon (56.1 v. 24.7%), KIM Hwang-sik (51.1 v. 31.8%), and CHUNG Mong-joon (47.5 v. 39.2%).

The closest to PGH among the 3, LEE champions the fight against chaebol domination, and caused a splash when she criticized the Lotte World Tower in Jamsil. But for the moment, this positioning as a counterweight within the conservative party doesn't make her very audible against the charismatic liberal incumbent. Serving as Prime Minister under the very divisive LEE Myung-bak doesn't help KIM's cause, even if a former Supreme Court justice from Jeollanam-do sounds like the perfect profile to reach across the aisle.

If CHUNG Mong-joon has got the most to lose in joining the race, he would all but secure a presidential win in 2017 by defeating PARK on June 4th. His main rival would then be AHN Cheol-soo, who would have only 3 years to completely reform Korean politics.

Right now, Saenuri is much more the well oiled machine of a party than a Democratic Party completely split between different currents, and unable to build a common platform beyond opposition and demonstrations. UPP scandals were the perfect opportunity to clarify ideological lines, but the organization keeps piling up electoral losses and postponing long overdue reforms.

If the rapprochement between the DP and AHN Cheol-soo's new party was inevitable (be it only as a non-aggression pact ahead of the upcoming elections), the discussions promise to be as complex as the ones that failed during the autumn 2012 and paved the way for PARK Geun-hye's victory over MOON Jae-in. 

With or without KIM Han-gil's help, AHN has yet to prove he can reform the system from the inside. So far, he managed to recruit more than a few key lawmakers for his "New Politics" party, but disappointed by drafting a veteran politico who worked for CHUN Doo-hwan, PARK Geun-hye and MOON Jae-in (YOON Yeo-jun), and by forgetting to nominate at least one woman in his executive team. 

In any case, this thankless task won't be as glamorous as a tenure as Seoul mayor and come 2017, AHN could find himself in a 2012-like situation, should she man he helped get the job in 2011 get reelected next June.

June 4th really looks like a make-or-break moment for both PARK and CHUNG, to the point the latter may decide to pull out of the race. After all, he already did that during his presidential bid, and in favor of ROH Moo-hyun against LEE Hoi-chang (just a reminder how lines can move here). Besides, CHUNG can do without the prestige of City Hall (cf Hyundai Heavy Industries, ASAN Institute, FIFA, 7 terms as a lawmaker...).

But if "Paris is worth a mass", Seoul is worth a race, and whoever wins, I'm curious to see which vision for the future of Korea emerges.

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* a curse that does have its charms, see for instance "Sejong City and the beauty of lameduckhood"

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Saving Japan - Let's fall the Indecision Tree

If I don't post about Shinzo Abe as often as I should on this site, that's because you already know my position about the worst enemy of Japan (see links below), and certainly not because he calmed down.

As we saw earlier, in spite of his still strong approval ratings and comfortable majority, Japan's controversial PM cannot push his anti-democratic agenda as fast and far as he fancies. We've even seen hardliners in his own alliance criticizing him because he's too bold and wants to precipitate things, which might harm the cause. So Shinzo Abe tries to find less direct ways of undermining the pilars of Japan peaceful post-war democracy. If he can't modify the constitution right now, he starts by modifying its interpretation, and if he can't reject the 1993 Kono Statement right now, he starts by questioning its basis:

"Would Germany ask holocaust survivors to testify again, cancel apologies? Japan doing that to sex slavery survivors, and never apologized! (
Abe also feels in a hurry because he doesn't have the capacity to revive artificially the national economy for much longer: "ABEIGNomics" cannot prevail if "Abenomics" happens to fail, and any series of unfortunate events at the international level could derail his great plan.

Regardless of Shinzo Abe's personal future, the Japanese political system remains corrupted by Imperial Japan loyalists who make sure no government undertakes Japan's long overdue duty of memory regarding the nation's darkest era. Typically, the political debate or lack of focuses on nuclear issues instead of the very survival of democracy in Japan because few politicians dare to risk their own political careers.

So again, don't expect Japan's peaceful democracy to be saved from the top. And the changes we're witnessing at the citizens level clearly demonstrate where political inaction and the trivialization of extremism lead: revisionist ideas and extreme right-wing theories keep gaining ground among younger generations and women, reaching far beyond the usual extremist circles*.

More than ever, the future of Japan as a peaceful democracy lies in the hands of the Japanese people, and indecision is a choice against democracy.

I simply put on a basic decision tree the 7 boxes that sum up the situation:

  • What's happening now (the 2 dominant trends):
    • At the national level: your Prime Minister, the grandson of an untried war criminal, openly and deliberately denies war crimes, honors war criminals, promotes revisionism, pledges to end Japan's peaceful post-war constitution... 
    • At the international level: the international community supports advocates of peaceful Japan, strongly denounces this government's behavior, exposes its impostures, demands long overdue apologies for Imperial Japan atrocities, multiplies memorials for the victims...
  • What you do now (the only 3 possible choices):
    • You refuse to see Japan re-establish its darkest past, You express your disagreement, You make the voice of peaceful Japan heard internationally, You vote pro-democracy.
    • You love what Imperial Japan did to your country and overseas, you want even more disgrace. You support this government. You vote in favor of fascism, and against peaceful Japan.
    • You see nothing. You hear nothing. You say nothing. You do nothing. You don't vote. You don't care about politics. You don't care about Japan's past, present, and future.
  • What happens tomorrow (the only 2 possible end results):
    • Japan's democracy lives
    • Japan's democracy dies

I'd like as many Japanese citizens as possible to say where they stand. I know, that's not a nice choice, but that's the one their government is proposing them right now: do you prefer post-war peaceful Japan, or do you prefer fascism and Imperial Japan? It's all about what country you want to live in, what image you want other nations to have of Japan, and Korea or China have nothing to do with it**.

Just ask yourself where you stand, and demand each of your politicians to be as clear as possible regarding where they stand themselves.

Dear Japan, it's up to you.


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* e.g. this recent article "Drift rightward has been building for years" (Japan Times 20140214)
** and again, they have their own mess to face (see "With neighbors like these...")

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seoul Story(telling)

You love to read about Seoul's past? Check the city's website devoted to the long and rich "Seoul Story":

Seoul Story

Free e-books are available on ISSUU, the platform that makes online reading much more enjoyable:

Familiar landmarks in the book on "Hanyang" around Namsan and Sungnyemun ("이야기를 따라 한양 도성을 걷다 남산,숭례문 구간").

The full menu of these walks across Hanyang, the Seoul of yore:

A focus on the Han River:

Seoul Story online:

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