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The Peninsula

Challenges and Successes on the Korean Peninsula in 2020

Published December 29, 2020

South Korea in 2020 faced difficult challenges both off and on the Korean Peninsula. As in other states, the coronavirus pandemic took center stage by irreversibly changing every aspect of society. And inter-Korean relations remain stalled, as Pyongyang continues to stonewall every entreaty from Seoul. But this year also saw Korea make significant advances in its soft power, with the Korean Wave sweeping the other side of the Pacific. As a new year begins, South Korea should look to rework its policies in areas of difficulty, and build on successes in 2020.

South Korea was one of the first countries to detect the novel coronavirus, but eventually mounted one of the most successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to clear lines of communication from the relevant government agencies, South Korea effectively implemented a system of testing and quarantining individuals infected or exposed to the coronavirus. South Korea was then able to expend resources assisting other states cope with the pandemic. Seoul would eventually end up sending face masks to veterans of the Korean War, “Covid-19 survival boxes” to former Peace Corps members, and testing kits to the state of Maryland in the U.S.

In addition to this success, South Korea also received international praise for successfully holding its National Assembly elections this spring. Citing data from the National Election Commission, Yonhap reported in April that the ruling coalition led by the Democratic Party gained 180 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. The news agency added that it was the largest legislative majority since South Korea democratized in 1987. The following week, the Korean pollster Realmeter found that President Moon had a 64.3% approval rating. In recent months, President Moon’s approval rating have deteriorated significantly to a record low amid a spike in coronavirus infections, and other issues. But the South Korean government has undeniably responded to the crisis in a better way than many other developed states.

On the other side of the Demilitarized Zone, North Korea has also worked to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Owing to its closeness with China, both physically and economically, the Pyongyang government was the first to close its borders. Although the North Korean government ordered a lock down of Kaesong after a man re-defected from the South in July, it continues to insist that it has not detected the coronavirus within its territory. That claim has proven difficult to verify, but international media has found that trade data from China and Russia have sharply plummeted this year.

While the Korea wave has long lapped at the shores of America, 2020 was the year it truly crashed ashore. In February, the film Parasite made history by being the first non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film by Bong Joon-ho also won several other categories, including “Best Director” and “Best International Feature Film”. In accepting the Academy Award for best original screenplay, the famed Korean auteur admitted that filmmakers do not make films specifically to represent their countries. But Director Bong acknowledged that “ this is [the] very first Oscar to South Korea.

Since their debut in 2010, the K-Pop boy band BTS have received scores of awards in the Indo-Pacific region, and made inroads in the American market. But in August, the seven-member group became the first Korean music group to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the release of their single Dynamite.  Then in December, the group also snagged Time magazine’s “Entertainer of the Year” award. In announcing their decision, the magazine highlighted not just BTS’ commercial success, but also the way they have changed the music industry through cultivating its relationship with their fans, nicknamed “ARMY.” In an interview with Raisa Bruner of Time, J-Hope said: “Us and our fans are a great influence on each other. We learn through the process of making music and receiving feedback.” The group is likely to have another whirlwind year in 2021, receiving a nomination for best pop duo/group performance at next year’s Grammy awards.

Besides BTS, the K-Pop group BlackPink also received significant attention in America. In November, the quartet was named the biggest band in the world based on the Pop Star Power Rankings developed by Bloomberg. The criteria for the rankings included the usual markers of commercial success, like music and ticket sales, but also included interactions on social media like Instagram and YouTube. Lucas Shaw, the Bloomberg reporter who developed the ranking, said that it was intended to reflect not just changes in the music industry, but also how consumption of music has changed globally. “We are relying on six metrics that reflect a musician’s popularity,” he told the South China Morning Post. “Sometimes this data will surprise people, especially when touring picks back up again.”

Policies towards North Korea included dramatic events, even if they did not advance allied goals in bettering relations with the reclusive state. In June, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office in the Kaesong border region. No South Korean personnel were in the area, because the coronavirus pandemic had closed the office. But the Ministry of National Defense later released video footage capturing the massive explosion. Originally established in 2018, the building had functioned as a communication link between the South and North, and was a symbol of the Moon administration’s determination to further inter-Korean relations. Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho called the decision to blow up the office an “unprecedentedly senseless act,” according to the Associated Press report.

Late in the year, the South Korean legislature passed a law prohibiting the launching of balloons carrying leaflets and other information from defectors living in the South. The decision to criminalize the launches have ignited a debate over the freedom of speech and the broader Moon administration’s policies towards North Korea. While the South Korean officials have said there are reasonable limits governments can put on free speech, critics have warned that it is dangerous appeasement. Defectors in the South remain defiant, and have pledged to defy the law in order to continue sending information into North Korea. This means tensions over the law and their effect on inter-Korean relations will continue on in the new year.

The National Assembly elections were also notable this year for wins by two North Korean defectors. As Ambassador King recounted on this blog back in April, Thae Yong-ho and Ji Seong-ho were elected under the umbrella of the main opposition United Future Party group. While both lawmakers are not part of the ruling coalition, their positions in the National Assembly will hopefully bring better attention to the plight of North Koreans and useful criticism to refine the Moon administration’s policies towards the North.

An exhaustive list of major developments on the Korean Peninsula is beyond the scope of this blog post, and would include issues like the continuing drama in the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office, South Korea’s discomfort with the Quad, and the North Korean murder of a South Korean fisheries ministry official, to name just a few. But amid the difficulties posed by the coronavirus and other issues, South Korea has also made significant advancements, particularly in its soft power projections. While it will be difficult, Seoul should look to build on these successes as it begins the new year in 2021.

Terrence Matsuo is the program assistant for the Policy and Diplomacy practice at McColm & Company. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of McCO.

Photo from RICO Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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