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Posts tagged ‘Korean Peninsula’

Friend of ousted S. Korean president gets 3 years in prison

June 23, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean court on Friday sentenced a longtime friend of ousted President Park Geun-hye to three years in prison for using her presidential ties to unlawfully get her daughter into a prestigious Seoul university.

The Seoul Central District Court said Choi Soon-sil “committed so many illegal activities” as she pressured Ewha Womans University to grant admission and then provide academic favors to her daughter despite Chung Yoo-ra’s questionable qualifications.

Choi, Park’s friend of 40 years, is being tried separately over more serious charges, including allegations that she colluded with Park to take tens of millions of dollars from the country’s largest companies in bribes and through extortion.

Following months of massive protests by millions and impeachment by lawmakers in December, Park was formally removed from office and arrested over the corruption scandal in March. She was indicted in April on bribery and other charges.

Choi Kyung-hee, Ewha’s former president, and Namkung Gon, the university’s former head of admissions, also received shorter prison terms on Friday for providing Chung favorable treatment. Chung was extradited from Denmark last month and is currently being investigated by prosecutors who see her as a key figure in the suspected bribery connections between former President Park and corporate giant Samsung.

According to prosecutors, Park colluded with Choi Soon-sil to take about $26 million in bribes from Samsung and was promised tens of millions of dollars more from Samsung and other large companies. Prosecutors say the bribery included $7 million Samsung provided to a sports consulting firm controlled by Choi that financed Chung’s equestrian training in Germany.

The allegations that Chung was sponsored by Samsung and received academic favors helped drive the popular anger that led to Park’s ouster. Many students were among the millions who protested against Park for weeks, angry that Chung got a free pass into an elite school because of her wealth and connections, while others navigate the country’s hyper-competitive school environment on their own.

S. Korea’s new president willing to visit rival North

May 10, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — New South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday he was open to visiting rival North Korea under the right conditions to talk about Pyongyang’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear-tipped missiles.

Moon’s softer stance on North Korea could create friction with Washington, which has swung from threats of military action to hints of dialogue as it seeks to formulate a policy under President Donald Trump.

Moon, speaking during his oath of office as the first liberal leader in a decade, also said he’ll “sincerely negotiate” with the United States, Seoul’s top ally, and China, South Korea’s top trading partner, over the contentious deployment of an advanced U.S. missile-defense system in southern South Korea. The system has angered Beijing, which says its powerful radars allow Washington to spy on its own military operations.

In a speech at the National Assembly hours after being declared the winner of Tuesday’s election, Moon pledged to work for peace on the Korean Peninsula amid growing worry over the North’s expanding nuclear weapons and missiles program.

“I will quickly move to solve the crisis in national security. I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean Peninsula — if needed, I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang,” Moon said.

Moon, whose victory capped one of the most turbulent political stretches in the nation’s recent history, assumed presidential duties early in the morning after the National Election Commission finished counting and declared him winner of the special election necessitated by the ousting of conservative Park Geun-hye.

He is also expected to nominate a prime minister, the country’s No. 2 job that requires approval from lawmakers, and name his presidential chief of staff later Wednesday. Moon thanked the millions of people who staged peaceful protests for months calling for the ouster of Park, who was impeached and arrested in March over a corruption scandal. He also offered a message of unity to his political rivals — Moon’s Democratic Party has only 120 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, so he may need broader support while pushing his key policies.

“Politics were turbulent (in the past several months), but our people showed greatness,” Moon said. “In face of the impeachment and arrest of an incumbent president, our people opened the path toward the future for the Republic of Korea,” said Moon, referring to South Korea’s formal name. To his rivals, Moon said, “We are partners who must lead a new Republic of Korea. We must put the days of fierce competition behind and hold hands marching forward.”

Taking up his role as the new commander in chief, Moon began his duties earlier in the day by receiving a call from Army Gen. Lee Sun-jin, chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, who briefed him on the military’s preparedness against North Korea.

He then left his private residence in an emotional send-off from hundreds of people and visited a national cemetery in Seoul. After bowing to the former presidents, independence fighters and war heroes, Moon wrote in a visitor book: “A country worth being proud of; a strong and reliable president!”

He also visited the offices of opposition parties, seeking support in governing the country split along ideological lines and regional loyalties. The leaders of China and Japan sent their congratulations. South Korea’s relations with Japan are strained by the Japanese military’s sexual exploitation of South Korean women during World War II, and relations with China have been irritated over the deployment of the THAAD missile-defense system. Moon made a campaign vow to reconsider THAAD.

The son of refugees who fled North Korea during the war, Moon will lead a nation shaken by the scandal that felled Park, whose criminal trial is scheduled to start later this month. Taking office without the usual two-month transition, Moon initially will have to depend on Park’s Cabinet ministers and aides, but he was expected to move quickly to replace them. He will serve the typical single five-year term.

Moon was chief of staff for the last liberal president, the late Roh Moo-hyun, who sought closer ties with North Korea by setting up large-scale aid shipments and working on now-stalled joint economic projects.

Winning 41 percent of the votes, he comfortably edged conservative Hong Joon-pyo and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, who had 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively. The conservative Hong had pitched himself as a “strongman,” described the election as a war between ideologies and questioned Moon’s patriotism.

Park’s trial on bribery, extortion and other corruption charges could send her to jail for life if she is convicted. Dozens of high-profile figures, including Park’s longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil, and Samsung’s de-facto leader, Lee Jae-yong, have been indicted along with Park.

Moon frequently appeared at anti-Park rallies and the corruption scandal boosted his push to re-establish liberal rule. He called for reforms to reduce social inequalities, excessive presidential power and corrupt ties between politicians and business leaders. Many of those legacies dated to the dictatorship of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, whose 18-year rule was marked by both rapid economic rise and severe civil rights abuse.

Many analysts say Moon likely won’t pursue drastic rapprochement policies because North Korea’s nuclear program has progressed significantly since he was in the Roh government a decade ago. A big challenge will be Trump, who has proven himself unconventional in his approach to North Korea, swinging between intense pressure and threats and offers to talk.

“South Koreans are more concerned that Trump, rather than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, will make a rash military move, because of his outrageous tweets, threats of force and unpredictability,” Duyeon Kim, a visiting fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs magazine.

Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.

Japan holds evacuation drill amid tension from N. Korea

June 04, 2017

TOKYO (AP) — A Japanese town conducted an evacuation drill Sunday amid rising fear that a North Korean ballistic missile could hit Japanese soil. More than 280 residents and schoolchildren from Abu, a small town with a population of just over 3,400 on Japan’s western coast, rushed to designated school buildings to seek shelter after sirens from loudspeakers warned them of a possible missile flight and debris falling on them.

The drill follows three consecutive weeks of North Korean missile tests. Last week, a missile splashed into the sea inside Japan’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone off the country’s western coast. It was the second such drill since March, when Tokyo instructed local governments to review their contingency plans and conduct evacuation exercises.

A similar drill was conducted Sunday in the neighboring prefecture of Fukuoka in southern Japan, and others are planned over the next few months.

This story has been corrected to show Abu town is on Japan’s western coast.

Pyongyang luxury hotel gets more modern, less Soviet, style

April 11, 2017

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea’s most famous luxury hotel has reopened after renovations that modernized its 1980s, vaguely Soviet, style. The Koryo is one of Pyongyang’s best-known and most visible landmarks, with its twin towers in the center of the capital. It was closed for several months while the first three floors were remodeled. The guest rooms weren’t changed.

People entering the hotel are now greeted by a brighter and more up-to-date look that — possibly to the disappointment of many exotica-seeking foreigners — is a sharp contrast with the opulent and vaguely Soviet style of its prior lobby.

The Koryo was built in 1985 under the instructions of North Korea’s “eternal president,” the late national founder Kim Il Sung, who wanted it to be a symbol of the country’s strength and modernity. It is a popular spot for socializing among local elites, foreign businessmen, diplomats and others who are able to afford its relatively high prices — a cappuccino in its lobby coffee shop goes for about $7. The cheapest rooms are $100 to $120 a night.

The hotel, located near Pyongyang’s main train station, also features an indoor pool and sauna, several places to eat, including a revolving restaurant atop one of its towers, a bookstore and other amenities one could only dream of in a provincial North Korean hotel.

In 2015 a major fire charred its upper floors, though the extent of damage and other information about the blaze has never been disclosed. At 43 stories, the Koryo has long been eclipsed in height by other hotels.

One of them is the 47-story Yanggakdo, and, tallest of all, the 105-story, pyramid-shaped Ryugyong. The Yanggakdo is more popular with budget or first-time visitors and is considered a notch or two lower than the Koryo, while the Ryugyong has been under construction for decades and has never been open for guests.

South Korean supporters of arrested ex-president to protest

April 01, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Thousands of supporters of arrested former President Park Geun-hye were expected to gather in South Korea’s capital on Saturday to call for her release. Seoul police planned to deploy more than 10,000 officers to monitor the rally near City Hall amid concerns of clashes. Opponents and supporters of Park have divided the streets of Seoul in recent months with passionate rallies.

Park was jailed Friday over allegations that she colluded with a confidante to extort money from businesses, take bribes and allow the friend to unlawfully interfere with state affairs. Dozens of her supporters rallied outside the detention center Friday, some of them crying and bowing toward the facility while vowing to “protect” her.

Three people died amid violent clashes between Park’s supporters and police on March 10 after the Constitutional Court decided to remove her from office. Park’s presidential powers were suspended after lawmakers impeached her in December, following weeks of massive demonstrations by millions of people calling for her ouster.

North Korea tests newly developed high-thrust rocket engine

March 19, 2017

TOKYO (AP) — North Korea has conducted a ground test of a new type of high-thrust rocket engine that leader Kim Jong Un is calling a revolutionary breakthrough for the country’s space program, the North’s state media said Sunday.

Kim attended Saturday’s test at the Sohae launch site, according to the Korean Central News Agency, which said the test was intended to confirm the “new type” of engine’s thrust power and gauge the reliability of its control system and structural safety.

Kim called the test “a great event of historic significance” for the country’s indigenous rocket industry, the KCNA report said. He also said the “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries” and claimed the test marks what will be known as the “March 18 revolution” in the development of the country’s rocket industry.

The report indicated that the engine is to be used for North Korea’s space and satellite-launching program. North Korea is banned by the United Nations from conducting long-range missile tests, but it claims its satellite program is for peaceful use, a claim many in the U.S. and elsewhere believe is questionable.

North Korean officials have said that under a five-year plan, they intend to launch more Earth observation satellites and what would be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite — which would be a major technological advance.

Getting that kind of satellite into place would likely require a more powerful engine than its previous ones. The North also claims it is trying to build a viable space program that would include a moon launch within the next 10 years.

The test was conducted as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in China on a swing through Asia that has been closely focused on concerns over how to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

It’s hard to know whether this test was deliberately timed to coincide with Tillerson’s visit, but Pyongyang has been highly critical of ongoing U.S.-South Korea wargames just south of the Demilitarized Zone and often conducts some sort of high-profile operation of its own in protest.

Earlier this month, it fired off four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, reportedly reaching within 200 kilometers (120 miles) of Japan’s shoreline. Japan, which was Tillerson’s first stop before traveling to South Korea and China, hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops.

While building ever better long-range missiles and smaller nuclear warheads to pair with them, North Korea has marked a number of successes in its space program. It launched its latest satellite — the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Brilliant Star 4 — into orbit on Feb. 7 last year, just one month after conducting what it claims was its first hydrogen-bomb test.

It put its first satellite in orbit in 2012, a feat few other countries have achieved. In 2013, rival South Korea launched a satellite into space from its own soil for the first time, though it needed Russian help to build the rocket’s first stage.

S. Korea mulls constitutional overhaul following Park ouster

March 12, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean politicians want to ensure that the country never again sees a leader like Park Geun-hye, who was booted from office over an explosive corruption scandal. But they are far apart on whether doing so would require rewriting the country’s 3-decade-old constitution, a treasured symbol of the bloody transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Several parties, including conservatives scrambling to distance themselves from Park, say South Koreans should vote in a new constitution in addition to a new president in early May. They say the shocking downfall of Park, who may face criminal charges over extortion and bribery, shows that the constitution places too much power that is easily abused and often goes unchecked into the hands of the president.

Their proposal for a new constitution is based on power-sharing, where the president is limited to handling foreign affairs and national security and leaves domestic affairs to a prime minister picked by parliament.

However, the party of liberal Moon Jae-in, who opinion polls show as the clear favorite to become South Korea’s next leader, opposes a quick constitutional revision and accuses rival parties of plotting a short-cut to power.

The discussions about rewriting the constitution are ironic in that they come after a historic effort to protect it. Lawmakers voted to impeach Park in December on grounds that she “gravely violated” the constitution written in 1987, after the government of military strongman Chun Doo-hwan caved in to months of massive protests and accepted demands for presidential elections.

The debate also raises a fundamental question for South Koreans as they mull a new political landscape following Park’s demise: Was it a flawed, imperious presidential system that allowed Park to abuse her powers, or a culture that long treated elected heads of states like kings?

The future of the constitution has instantly emerged as a major political topic after the Constitutional Court removed Park on Friday and triggered a two-month presidential race. Kweon Seong Dong, a lawmaker from the conservative Bareun party and chief prosecutor in Park’s impeachment trial, touted his party’s line immediately after the ruling.

“We need a constitutional revision based on power-sharing,” Kweon said. “Absolute power absolutely corrupts.” Critics refuse to see the court’s decision to uphold Park’s impeachment as proof that the constitution works as it is. They include none other than one of the court’s justices, Ahn Changho.

In a supplementary opinion written into Park’s ruling, Ahn found the constitution responsible for an “imperial presidency” that breeds “deplorable political customs,” such as abuse of power and corruptive ties with the country’s biggest companies, which have a tradition of bribing politicians for business favors.

Ahn said the president simply has too much power over the appointment of government officials, making of laws and policies, budget planning and other decisions, which lawmakers find difficult to check for most of the single five-year term.

“Our country has a winner-takes-it-all representative system where those who win an election, even by just one vote, obtain imperial political power and those who don’t get swept to the side and are neglected,” Ahn wrote.

A constitutional change would need the support of two-thirds of the 300-seat parliament and then pass a national referendum. Moon, who’s likely to be the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, the largest in parliament, says he is open to discussions about constitutional revision, but opposes any changes that take place before or simultaneously with the upcoming presidential election.

He says that two months is too short to properly rewrite the constitution, which not only lays out fundamental principles for power and governance, but also defines the basic rights of citizens. Besides proposing power-sharing between the president and prime minister, the parties backing a constitutional overhaul also call for the next president’s term to be reduced to three years so that a presidential vote can coincide with a parliamentary election in 2020. By then, the parties want a president to be able to serve two four-year terms or a six-year single term.

Some experts question whether South Korea’s Constitution is really at fault for power-drunk presidents. On paper, it seems that the South Korean president domestically has significantly less power than, say, the president of the United States. The South Korean president can’t issue executive orders without the consent of lawmakers. The president does appoint a large number of government officials, but needs lawmakers’ approval when seating the prime minister, Seoul’s No. 2 job.

It’s hard to say a system for checks and balances isn’t there when lawmakers and a court just combined to kick out a sitting president. This wasn’t the first time South Korean lawmakers tried to remove a president either, although the Constitutional Court reinstated late President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004.

Perhaps, Park’s saga is less of a reflection of the country’s constitution than of a rigidly hierarchical culture, where people find it extremely difficult to disobey instructions from above, even when they are inappropriate or unlawful.

The scandal has inspired Democratic Party lawmaker Ki Dong-min to propose a law he says is aimed at allowing government workers to refuse “unjust” orders from their bosses. But when a society needs a special law so that people could avoid breaking other laws, then probably laws aren’t what the problem is about.

“South Korea’s imperial president wasn’t created by laws, but by custom and culture,” Won-Ho Park, a Seoul National University politics professor, wrote in a newspaper column. “The secret to why our president can influence so many things, even the appointment of public university presidents or the personnel decisions of private companies, could perhaps be found in our culture that calls presidential authority as the ‘great power’ and presidential contenders ‘hidden dragons,'” he said.

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