When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.

 

The last Lib Dem manifesto mentioned Israel more than the entire Asia-Pacific, and that’s a problem

The good folks at Liberal Democrat Voice have very kindly run an article I wrote on the Liberal Democrat policy towards the Asia-Pacific, or rather the lack of it. They sensibly ask contributors to keep their submissions fairly short. Given that I was writing about a rather broad topic that meant I had to leave a fair amount out. So for those of you who are interested, here is the unabridged version of the article.

Did you see Gary Johnson – the Libertarian Party candidate for the American presidency – forgetting ‘what’ Aleppo is? If not I’d recommend it:

I challenge you to watch the look of bafflement on his face and not laugh. But when you have finished chuckling, may I ask you a question? What do you think about Shenzhen?

My guess is most of you are now drawing a blank. Until I had to catch a train from Shenzhen station, I did not know either. Which is rather embarrassing as by one definition it is the 8th largest city in the world. It is adjacent to but several times the size of Hong Kong. Startlingly, China has grown so large that Hong Kong is no longer among its twenty largest cities.

Most Britons now know that China is enormous. What is less widely understood is that so is the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed more people live there than in the rest of the world combined:

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Credit: Redditor valeriepieris

Despite this the last Liberal Democrat manifesto includes more references to Israel – which has 0.001% of the world’s population – than to all the countries in the Asia-Pacific combined. And the only context they are mentioned in is advocating the benefits of EU membership. There are (or have been) groups declaring themselves to be “the Liberal Democrat Friends…” of Israel, Palestine, Kashmir, India and Turkey but not of China, Indonesia or Vietnam.* Basically it appears that if a Lib Dem says they are interested in foreign policy that means they are interested in Europe or parts of the Islamic world somewhat adjacent to it.

I can foresee two possible reasons to think it is more import for British politicians to know about these regions than about the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, they are nearer the UK. This has some merit but misses our close connection to the Asia-Pacific. Much of it used to be British colonies and as a result many Britons can trace their ancestry there. More than 100,000 students from the region study in the UK. China is our second largest import partner. Many of the financial flows to and from the Asia-Pacific go via the City of London. Lest we forget, HSBC stands for ‘the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’. And thousands of British citizens, myself included, live in the region.

The other response might be to suggest that there have simply been more events worthy of our attention taking place in Europe and the Middle East. If you have been thinking this then this demonstrates my point about how little attention is paid to the Asia-Pacific. It is true that the region has not seen anything as grim as the Syrian Civil War of late. Though the situations of the Rohingya minority in Burma and of the citizens of North Korea do bear comparison.

However, plenty else has happened. Ponder the following developments:

When a crisis eventually pushes one of these issues into the spotlight of British politics – and that will happen sooner rather than later – will we have something more to offer than a Gary Johnson style blank stare? We certainly could. We have done it before. Paddy Ashdown’s advocacy of giving passports to the residents of Hong Kong ahead of its return to China was one of the issues the Party used to prove its relevancy and distinctiveness after the disaster of merger. But my impression is that our credibility on that issue was essentially down to Ashdown personally – he had lived in Hong Kong and spoke Chinese – and is not something that we institutionalised at all. I may be being unfair but I struggle to think of anyone other than Ashdown at a senior level in the Party who has much insight into the Asia-Pacific. We have to rectify that. The Asia-Pacific is set to be the fulcrum of the twentieth-first century. If we have nothing to say about it, in a real sense we have nothing to say about the world we live in.

 

*There are the Chinese Liberal Democrats but they exist “to promote closer links between the Party and the Chinese and South East Asian community in the UK.”

 

If you are interested in this topic then check out a post I wrote last year on why British politicians need to stop ignoring China

You will not believe quite how big the world’s largest church is

As part of our look at Pentecostalism, we examine how South Korean Pentecostals took the Yoido Full Gospel Church from a shed to the centre of life in their country. And along the way built up a congregation of almost a million.

Yesterday on Matter of Facts, we looked at the extraordinary rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Today we look at one of the most striking features of their rise: the tendency to create individual churches that are absolutely massive.

As the Economist reported back in 2007:

MENTION a “megachurch” and most people think of a gleaming building in the American suburbs. In fact, many of the biggest churches are outside the United States. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built what may be the largest building in Central America: Mega Frater (Big Brother) packs a 12,000-seater church, a vast baptism pool and a heliport. One church in Lagos can supposedly bring 2m people out onto the streets. But five of the world’s ten biggest megachurches are in just one country: South Korea.

The largest of them all, Yoido Full Gospel Church, sits opposite the national assembly in Seoul, an astute piece of political positioning. It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

Not that you will lack entertainment whilst you wait. The massed choir (one of 12) is already belting out hymns, backed by a large orchestra (one of three). The audience sings along, with huge television screens supplying the words, karaoke style. Pictures of the service are beamed to hundreds of satellite churches around the world and to Prayer Mountain, a gruelling religious camp close to the border with the North. Translation is offered in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay and Arabic.

By the standards of American preachers, Mr Cho is a relatively unflashy figure. With his glasses, tie and tidy red cassock, he looks like one of the more bureaucratic kinds of Asian politician. His tone is logical and unrelenting. His theme today is “Deliver us from the Evil One”.

Sin and Satan are omnipresent, he argues, but if you ignore their enticements, “your grave is already empty.” As he cites scripture, the passages appear on the big television screens. Mr Cho urges the liberation of North Korea and quotes Edward Gibbon. He then invites people to touch the part of their body that most needs healing. There are shouts of success. After he sits down, a young opera singer performs while the money is collected—by the sackful in gold and scarlet bags—and piled up in front of the pulpit.

The megachurches of Korea are not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon. Nonetheless, Prof. Kim Sung-Gun of Seowon University points out that nine out of fifteen of the largest mega-churches in the country – including Yoido Full Gospel Church – are charismatic or Pentecostal. Prof. Kim suggests that Pentecostalism is a creed well suited to South Korea. Its emphasis on the reality of spirits in the world taps into a tradition of shamanism that persists in Korean society. And teaching the prosperity gospel makes it well suited to a country that experienced some of the fastest economic modernisation the world has ever seen.

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of so much power and wealth in a single church has not been without problems. Mr Chohas been hit by corruption scandals and thrown his weight around politically:

Yoido Church’s founder is rarely out of the news in South Korea. In March he sparked a storm of criticism by claiming the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was “God’s warning” to a country that follows “idol worship, atheism, and materialism”.

He is also too political for some. When President Lee’s government drew up plans to legislate for Islamic sukuk bonds in South Korea, Mr Cho argued that this would aid “terrorists”, and that the president was forgetting the vital role the Protestant lobby had in electing him. Following concerted efforts by Mr Cho and other South Korean church leaders, the government blinked first, and the plan was dropped.

The Yoido church highlights the paradox of contemporary Pentecostalism. It is a movement that arose among the disposed and whose rise was powered by tiny congregations meeting in houses or shop front churches. Now across much of the world it has become a force to be reckoned with. How the religion of the spirit copes with such material success will shape not only its own future but also that of Christianity as a whole.

 

P.S. You can read the Church’s English language website here