Question: What do the liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) and Kim Jong-un have in common?
Answer: They both were absent from their respective assemblies this week.
In terms of causality, these two no-shows have absolutely nothing to do with each other, yet both raise significant cause for concern. In South Korea, the problem surrounds the National Assembly’s continuing ability to get anything done. In North Korea, the concern is that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un may have fallen ill – we think.
First, South Korea.
On Thursday (September 25) the South Korean National Assembly held a plenary session. The primary objective goal of the session was to break the political stalemate over a special law to investigate the sinking of the Sewol ferry, the April 2014 tragedy that remains front and center in the national consciousness. Division over the content of the bill has led to parliamentary paralysis.
The stalemate seems likely to persist. Thursday’s session was postponed after just 10 minutes. The reason? Only one party showed up. According to Yonhap, “only 153 lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party attend the session amid a boycott by the No. 1 opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD).” The NPAD (as previously written about here) has been ineffective in getting its own ranks mobilized, but it remains potent insofar as its ability for obstructionism.
Aside from postponing 91 other bills, the plenary failure is causing notable consternation within both parties.
Saenuri Floor Leader, Lee Wan-gu, has offered to resign over the party’s failure to lead. Meanwhile, in the NPAD camp, Moon Jae-in has gone on a full-blown offensive. In a speech at a symposium to honor former president Roh Moo-hyun, Moon lashed out at the opposition party, saying “Our party is a central party for candidates, a sterile party without a popular base, a party of collusion for ‘political small businesspeople.’”
As of late, Moon has been freely speaking his mind about his party’s failure to connect with voters. As the most influential member of the so-called “Pro-Roh” faction (that is, former liberal supporters of late president Roh Moo-hyun), Moon has called for the creation of a “network party,” the goal of which is to expand the party’s electoral base and bring in the voices of ordinary people via social networking services (SNS). Whether this strategy will work is uncertain; the only constant as of late has been internal party strife.
Next, the North.
The conspicuous absence of Kim Jong-un from public view has caught the attention of DPKR watchers the world over.
In North Korea, as usual, it is all about intrigue and naval gazing. Adam Cathcart, an avid DPRK watcher, puts it best: “When the North Korean state media stops reporting on the activities of its head of state, or says he’s experiencing “discomfort” during a long absence, tongues will wag and Anglophone keyboards will rattle.”
Indeed, no one knows for sure what is going on. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jeyup Kwaak reports, “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a no-show at the country’s rubber-stamp parliament meeting on Thursday and hasn’t been seen in public for more than three weeks.”
Kwaak, relaying reports from elsewhere, says that Kim may be suffering from “chronic gout.” He also cites an official saying that the South Korean government “believes Mr. Kim is suffering from myriad medical conditions, including gout, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.”
Is Kim Jong-un an overweight dictator? Yes. Is he bed-ridden, hospitalized, or otherwise incapacitated? Possibly, but we can’t say for sure. Other than the nugget of information passed down from North Korea’s official state media, we haven’t anything more to go on, really.
Unlike in South Korea, an open society with a (relatively) free press, North Korea is still mainly shrouded in secrecy, especially when it comes to news and information about its elites. As Cathcart says, “Kim Jong-un may be flat on his back, or on a vacation in Thailand, or he might be getting ready to cap off North Korea’s biggest ‘diplomatic offensive’ in years ….” We simply don’t know, yet.
Unlike South Korea, legislative processes in the North will continue to churn forward, without any of the apparent dissention or debate for which the democratic South is known. South Koreans seem primed to continue to express frustration at their parliamentary gridlock and the sometimes factional quality of domestic politics. To be sure, South Koreans are not beholden to the whims of a young dictator who may or may not be fit to govern at present, but if Kim Jong-un is a permanent no-show, they may have problems that dwarf the complexity of the Sewol affair.