Country Report: South Korea (March 2019)

Second US-DPRK Summit (Feb. 27-28)

US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again on February 27-28 in Vietnam, following their first historic summit in Singapore last year. Given that the first meeting fell short of expectations, ending with an ambiguous joint statement that did not specify the definition of denuclearization or how to achieve it, the stakes were higher this time and so were the prospects for the summit. This atmosphere was highlighted in remarks given at Stanford University by Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, who said, “Trump is ready to end this [Korean] war” and in an exclusive report by Vox, on the outline of a tentative agreement, released just a day before the summit – the US would agree to lift some sanctions on North Korea and the two countries would improve ties in exchange for North Korea shutting down a key nuclear facility, Yongbyon, and maybe more. Against this backdrop, there were worries of Trump giving away too much as well as anticipation for concrete steps toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Despite the positive mood detected on the first day, however, Trump “walked away” from the negotiating table on the second day, held a press conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and flew back to Washington earlier than scheduled, cancelling a working lunch and joint agreement signing ceremony with Kim. To justify his departure, Trump said during the press conference that Pyongyang wanted the sanctions lifted “in their entirety,” but North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho later that day rebutted that claim, saying that his delegation had only asked for partial removal of the sanctions. The discrepancies uncovered between the two sides made a few headlines but the overwhelming view, especially in Washington, was “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Meanwhile, according to the Blue House, Trump called South Korean President Moon Jae-in, briefed him on what happened, and requested Seoul’s active role in mediating between the two sides.  

Conservative editorials, in unison, blasted Kim for his deceiving commitment to denuclearize in order to get rid of the sanctions when he actually had no intention to do so. Chosun wrote on March 1 that Kim’s sincerity about “denuclearization” was debunked, and that verification may be a gain from this summit, if there were any. Kim demanded not easing but completely removing the sanctions imposed on North Korea, in exchange for closing down Yongbyon’s plutonium facility, nothing short of an old mass of scrap metal. Kim’s comment prior to the meeting—“I believe by intuition that good results will be produced”—stemmed from his expectation that Trump, mired in domestic troubles, would have no choice but to accept the offer. The editorial also pointed out that North Korea was caught off guard when asked to shut down a uranium enrichment facility, apart from Yongbyon, by the US; Chosun claimed that there are at least two or more hidden uranium enrichment facilities in North Korea where the actual nuclear production takes place. It argued, therefore, that unless all the uranium facilities and tens of nuclear bombs are irreversibly dismantled, anything else labeled as “denuclearization” is a fraud. Trump and even Moon must have known that Kim wouldn’t give up his nuclear program as no leader in the world who has successfully completed a nuclear test has ever done so, Chosun wrote. Lastly, it reiterated that: 1) preserving the sanctions regime with patience will induce Kim to reconsider whether it is nukes that protect him or the opposite; and 2) negotiating with Kim needs to start with a clear understanding that he, at least for now, has no intention of abandoning his nuclear program.

Donga chimed in the next day and blamed Pyongyang for the diplomatic failure in Hanoi. What North Korea asked for – removing not all but certain sanctions imposed from 2016 to 2017 that hamper the civilian economy and the livelihoods of the North Korean people – was practically speaking, getting rid of all the sanctions since they place the greatest restraints on the country’s activities. The editorial warned that if we loosen the sanctions regime, the international community would be deprived of the leverage to lead North Korea to denuclearization and accordingly, an influx of cash to Pyongyang could be spent for nuclear development. The editorial also condemned the North’s limited offer, which was to dismantle one nuclear facility but leave the existing nuclear warheads and fissile materials outstanding, and its refusal to shut down an additional hidden nuclear facility besides Yongbyon; this is not a nuke-free deal but a nuke-freeze deal, keeping Kim under a cloud of suspicion regarding his commitment to denuclearization and justifying Trump’s argument that he could not strike a “bad deal.” Another editorial released by Donga on March 4 focused on the discussion around the hidden facility which Trump demanded that Kim dismantle – likely the one in Kangsun inside the Cheonrima district located south of Pyongyang – and wrote that any negotiations pursued while putting such large-scale, integral nuclear facilities like Kangsun aside, albeit taking a step-by-step approach, have an apparent limitation. The editorial claimed that these hidden facilities have been known among academics and researchers but were first brought up by the US president and secretary of state at the Hanoi summit; this shows that the issue will not be condoned but publicized. Donga finally urged Kim to bring the second and third nuclear facilities to the negotiating table as Yongbyon alone will not get him what he wants.

Meanwhile, conservative Joongang paid more attention to South Korea’s takeaway from what happened in Hanoi. It was realized once again that the most important and fundamental solution to the collapsed summit was the North’s complete denuclearization, the paper wrote on March 1. It was reaffirmed that even Trump could not push for a deal by going against American and international principles of “complete and irreversible denuclearization.” Therefore, the editorial argued, Moon should adhere to hard-headed realism, putting Pyongyang’s denuclearization before peace and better inter-Korean relations. Joongang insisted the failure in Hanoi created less room to maneuver for Trump and Kim but more so for Moon; Trump’s appraisal of Moon’s role during the press conference and his first phone call on the flight back to Washington to the South Korean president serve as circumstantial evidence to support the statement. Lastly, the editorial advised Moon to meet with Trump as soon as possible, share the meeting results and come up with a virtuous cycle for the denuclearization talks together. Another editorial by Joongang took a harsher tone titled, “Can’t jump denuclearization hurdle with peace and economic ties,” criticizing Moon’s reaction to the Hanoi summit results through his speech marking the 100th March 1 Independence Movement Day. Owing to the breakdown of talks in Hanoi, the two Koreas would now unavoidably have to control the pace of improving their relations but regardless, Moon manifested his steadfast will to push ahead with “a new Korean Peninsula regime” in his address. He promised to negotiate with the US on resuming Mount Geumgang tours and operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex; he also pledged to connect railroads and establish a joint economic committee between the two Koreas. The editorial found Moon’s response “impatient,” given that his address came only a day after the “no deal” summit. Joongang admitted that Moon is situated again to perform as a “facilitator,” narrowing the gap between Washington and Pyongyang. But knowing that Kim’s stubborn demand – asking for the lifting of five crucial sanctions while rejecting “complete and irreversible denuclearization” – was the cause of the two leaders leaving Hanoi empty-handed, the editorial argued that Moon should have clearly announced that the North’s denuclearization is the only answer. Instead, he mentioned “denuclearization” only twice as opposed to “peace” 27 times, far from aggressively urging Kim to give up his nuclear program. Lastly, Joongang advised Seoul to revive the feeble US-ROK alliance, mend fences with Tokyo, and eventually create circumstances in which Pyongyang cannot help but give in to denuclearization.

Progressive editorials put a relatively positive spin on what happened in Hanoi and expected Moon to actively play the middleman. Hankyoreh on March 1 highlighted that both Washington and Pyongyang showed their commitment to continue the dialogue although they could not come to an agreement in Hanoi; Trump said that his friendship with Kim remains strong, and North Korea’s state-run newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, wrote that the two leaders agreed to continue productive dialogues. The editorial argued that the summit cannot just be viewed as a complete failure; the two countries validated each other’s general understanding regarding easing sanctions and denuclearization issues, and this is rather a gain. Hankyoreh referred to what Trump said over the phone to Moon and claimed that the South Korean president should actively take part in mediating between the two leaders. It proposed that Moon achieve this by boosting inter-Korean relations as the talks between the US and North Korea would undeniably slow down for the moment. The editorial also suggested that Kim visit Seoul as a way to keep the momentum going.

Kyunghyang chimed in with a focus on Moon’s pledge delivered through the 100th March 1 Independence Movement Day address. The editorial highly appreciated both Washington and Pyongyang’s response after the summit, clearly trying to keep the momentum going; the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang reported that the summit was an important opportunity to deepen mutual respect and trust and to step the relations between the two nations up to a new level; during the press conference in Hanoi, Trump said that he did not get up and just walk out but shook hands and shared some warmth when leaving, which Kyunghyang wrote, was evidently amicable. Kyunghyang estimated, putting the press conferences from the two sides side-by-side, that the cause of the diplomatic collapse came from a different value judgment between the two sides over the Yongbyon nuclear facility; North Korea asked for an equal exchange between sanctions removal and the Yongbyon shutdown as it is, to them, a key facility, whereas the US thought the exchange would be unequal as Washington considers Yongbyon a fraction of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. Moon said, “Now our role has become even more important,” and we “will closely communicate and cooperate with the US and North Korea so as to help their talks reach a complete settlement by any means.” Should he send an envoy to North Korea or meet with Kim himself in Panmunjom, the paper inquired. It also claimed that a US-ROK summit should follow in order to put his words into action.

US-ROK Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises called off

The US and South Korea have decided to conclude their annual spring military exercises, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, and replace them with smaller drills. Since the “No deal” in Hanoi, it was questionable whether both exercises would continue or end. Trump’s response to a reporter, “I gave that [US-ROK military exercises] up quite a while ago because it costs us $100 million every time,” calling them “very, very, expensive” during the press conference and his tweet on March 3, “The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the US for which we are not reimbursed,” along with a comment, “Also reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!” proved to be a prelude to the end of the exercises. The South Korean defense ministry explained that the decision was made in order to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and support Seoul and Washington’s diplomatic efforts for a complete and verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula. But many in Seoul, especially conservatives, worried that the conclusion of the 11-year-old Key Resolve and the 44-year-old Foal Eagle would be attributable to the fact that the former businessman, who now leads the US, cares more about money than the alliance between the two countries. Some also questioned, as the newly signed US-ROK defense cost-sharing deal in February is to last only for a year, whether Trump will eventually demand that South Korea pay more, although Seoul has agreed to pay 8.2% more of the cost, which would total about 1.39 trillion won, than last year. Meanwhile, on March 4, a new, downsized military exercise modified from Key Resolve, called Dong Meng (“alliance” in English), was conducted instead.

Conservative editorials bluntly opposed the decision and claimed that it should be reconsidered. On March 4, Joongang blasted the two countries’ defense ministers for deciding to quit the exercises over a phone call and argued that joint defense readiness is facing a critical juncture, owing to the decision. According to the editorial, with the suspension of the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise last year, the overall US-ROK joint military exercises have been either largely scaled down or partially revoked. Joint military exercises are, together with the US-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) and the US Forces in Korea, three main pillars of the US-ROK alliance, Joongang wrote. The reduced number and size of the exercises would naturally lead to a reduction in the number of US troops in Korea and of the CFC’s combat power, and eventually, their existence would remain in name only. Given that security conditions are unpredictable, and crises can recur depending on how the denuclearization talks go, the editorial insisted that security must be able to prevent a worst-case scenario and, therefore, Seoul should prioritize strongly maintaining the joint defense readiness, an important pillar of our defense system, over an eager hope for denuclearization to come. Chosun wrote in a tougher tone that defense authorities from Seoul and Washington saying the idea that joint military readiness shall be firmly maintained without the three major exercises is fooling the Korean people. The editorial blamed Trump, who said the joint exercises cost $100 million (110 billion won) every time, and corrected the actual amount spent, 20 billion won each for Key Resolve and Foal Eagle. Trump seems to want to tout “no nuclear and missile testing by Kim” as an accomplishment until his next presidential campaign, and the decision to end the exercises followed so as to achieve that. However, the reason why Pyongyang stopped its tests was not because the US-ROK military exercises were suspended but because it had completed developing its nuclear and missile program, Chosun wrote.

On the contrary, progressive editorials welcomed the decision. On March 3, Kyunghyang appreciated the timely decision, made four days after the Hanoi summit breakdown, as a way to keep the momentum going. Ending the Key Resolve exercise means that the number of American sorties on the Korean Peninsula would significantly drop; no more B-1B Lancer bombers, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines, F-22 Stealth Fighters and other US military assets that stretch Pyongyang’s nerves would create an atmosphere for Kim to come to the negotiating table, it wrote. Kyunghyang also argued that the decision is not a unilateral concession. As Trump said, “I gave that [US-ROK military exercises] up quite a while ago” and “Kim promised me last night, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear;” the decision eventually enabled a freeze-for-freeze situation: Seoul and Washington end large-scale joint military drills and Pyongyang ends nuclear and missile testing. While acknowledging that training is important for armies to sustain their combat power, the editorial argued that training can be suspended under some circumstances; in 1994, during the first North Korean nuclear crises, the US and South Korea were able to sign the Agreed Framework by suspending their Team Spirit military exercise. Lastly, Kyunghyang urged Kim to respond to the decision with corresponding measures and insisted that the end of Key Resolve and Foal Eagle should quickly lead to resuming US-DPRK talks and eventually, a denuclearization deal.

North Korea holds a press conference in Pyongyang

On March 15, North Korean vice foreign minister Choe Son Hui held a press conference and said that Kim will soon decide whether to continue denuclearization talks with the US. Choe, addressing a group of foreign correspondents and diplomats based in Pyongyang, added that the US tossed away a golden opportunity in Hanoi and unless Washington takes corresponding measures – as a response to North Korea’s moratorium on nuclear and missile testing and more – or reconsiders its political calculations, “we have no intention of conceding to the US demands or continuing negotiations with them in any shape or form.” She also said that South Korean president Moon is not a mediator but a “player” as he is “Washington’s ally,” according to the Associated Press. Timing-wise, the conference was held after both American and South Korean media had gone wild about accusing North Korea of restoring its missile launching facility in Tongchang-ri after the failed Hanoi summit; it was only three days after a United Nations panel of experts had released a report on North Korea, which found that the North has continued to elude UN-imposed sanctions. Meanwhile, in Seoul, the Blue House hosted a briefing on March 17, as an attempt to find a way out of the impasse between Washington and Pyongyang, and said that the US should rethink its “all or nothing” strategy and make efforts to turn a small deal into a “good enough deal.”

Conservative editorials cast worries over Choe’s remarks and wrote that Kim’s “reconsideration” of the talks with the US is a “threat.” Chosun wrote an editorial on March 16 titled, “North Korea, with no intention of abandoning nukes in the first place, threatens again” and insisted Choe’s remarks demonstrate that Pyongyang will not cough up anything more than the 50-year-old Yongbyon nuclear facility, which is no longer North Korea’s main nuclear production facility but just a negotiating card to make a deal with a foreign state. The editorial argued that if Kim was truly determined to give up the nukes, he would have resumed talks with the US about his country’s hidden uranium enrichment facilities, nuclear warheads, and more, but instead he chose to go back to intimidation. North Korea’s old trick, repeated throughout the past 25 years, is to shout threats at its counterpart that it will leave the negotiating table when deceit does not work, but Kim will not actually fire a missile and cross the red line now because he has so much to lose, Chosun wrote.

Joongang concurred with Chosun, but in a softer tone, writing that the press conference was Kim’s way of raising the stakes through Choe’s tough messages to see how Washington responds; the detailed action plan which, according to Choe, Kim will announce soon, would likely depend on Washington’s reaction. Given that even anti-Trump American Democrats welcomed the lack of a deal in Hanoi and special representative Stephen Biegun has become a pro-package deal hawk, the chances of Washington reversing its packaged “big deal” principle seem thin, Joongang wrote. Citing the recent UN report, the international community is also taking a hardline stance on Pyongyang and, therefore, if Kim ends talks with the US and resumes nuclear tests and missile launches, it would be a disaster. Although China and Russia offer undercover assistance, with Pyongyang’s main sources of income from coal exports and laborers who work abroad blocked, the North Korean system would not be able to recover from the damages and could even put Kim’s regime at risk. Lastly, the editorial warned South Korea that it should stop “taking sides with Pyongyang”; Moon called for reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Geumgang tours while the North’s nuclear development was proven to be ongoing, even during the period of dialogue in 2018. Moon also nominated Kim Yeon-chul, who has long claimed “sanctions don’t work,” to be the next unification minister, which means, according to Moon’s special adviser, Moon Chung-in, that the South Korean president will move ahead with Korean affairs irrespective of the US. Moon going against the international inclination of pressuring Pyongyang might only cause Kim Jong-un to make judgement mistakes, while deepening the rift between Washington and Seoul.

Progressive editorials took the Pyongyang press conference as an expression of complaint against the US rather than a threat. Kyunghyang wrote on March 15 that Choe’s remarks called for Washington to alter its stance since the Hanoi collapse by mentioning breaking off negotiations and the possibility of resuming nuclear and missile tests. Showing its deep concern over the relationship between the US and North Korea returning to the standoff in the past, the editorial ascribed Choe’s thorny remarks to Biegun, who on March 11 said, “We [the US] want a total solution,” demanding a non-incremental and packaged big deal. Kyunghyang argued that since the words were delivered through the form of a press conference for foreign journalists, not an official statement by the North Korean government, and Choe said, “Personal relations between the two leaders are still good and the chemistry is mysteriously wonderful,” what Pyongyang seems to want is to exact better conditions for a serious deal. Kyunghyang also urged Trump to read North Korea’s message from various angles and respond carefully. 

Trump rejects more sanctions on North Korea

On March 22, Trump tweeted that he “ordered the withdrawal of additional sanctions” on North Korea. Exactly what he meant by “additional large-scale sanctions” created some confusion, but according to Bloomberg, they were penalties against two Chinese shipping companies accused of doing trade with Pyongyang, announced by the US Treasury Department a day before Trump’s tweet. Soon, however, it was clarified that Trump was referring to sanctions yet to be announced and the sanctions against the Chinese companies remain in place as of March 29. The move clearly undermined both the Treasury Department and Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who welcomed the department’s decision that the maritime industry “must do more to stop North Korea’s illicit shipping practices” via Twitter and was known to be a hawk on sanctions. In the meantime, March 22 was also the day when North Korea arbitrarily decided to withdraw its personnel from the inter-Korean liaison office, catching Seoul off guard. They returned four days later, almost immediately after the summarized Mueller report purported to reveal “no connection between Trump and Russia” and shook the entire Washington establishment. Pyongyang’s capricious moves seem related to the political situation inside the US and produced multiple interpretations, especially in Seoul.

Conservative Segye wrote on March 24 that Trump’s “no additional sanctions” tweet was released several hours after Seoul announced that the North unexpectedly withdrew from the liaison office between the two Koreas; the tweet was to avoid tension rising between Washington and Pyongyang and revive the momentum in denuclearization negotiations. Citing White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders’ remark, “President Trump likes Chairman Kim,” the editorial insisted that Trump seems to favor keeping the “top-down dialogue,” which is a relief that comes with a possibility of resuming the talks. But Segye added concerns that a recent visit to Russia by the North Korean leader’s chief of staff, Kim Chang-son, may hint at an imminent visit to Moscow by Kim Jong-un to deliver a message that he may, as he said in his New Year’s address, seek a “new path.” Chosun, on March 25, gave a slightly different interpretation of what motivated Trump to tweet no more sanctions and found his motivation in the latest American domestic political situation. Trump may face a great risk in Washington owing to the Mueller report sent to the US Justice Department, depending upon the scope of the content of the report and how much of it is revealed, Chosun wrote. If things go wrong, his chances for re-election in 2020 could be put in danger and, therefore, as he has taken advantage of Kim since the Singapore summit for domestic politics and received applause from his supporters, Trump may try to curry favor with Kim to avoid the pressing political risk. The editorial also put Moon on the spot and claimed that the South Korean president enjoyed increasing approval ratings and a more united base of supporters every time a “Kim Jong-un event” was on. North Korean propaganda media calling Seoul “Washington’s puppet with obsequious behavior” is to urge South Korea to shield the North because if the talks get spoiled, it will not be Pyongyang alone that suffers from the political damage.

Progressive Hankyoreh wrote on March 24 that Trump’s tweet put on the brakes on Washington’s attempts to pressure Pyongyang through economic sanctions since the failed talks in Hanoi, which is a measure to bring North Korea back to the table. The editorial especially appreciated the timing of Trump’s order as it was made in the midst of the escalating conflict between the US and North Korea. The constant push for a “big deal” from Pompeo and Bolton, along with the US Treasury Department’s additional sanctions announced on March 21, the first ones this year, prompted Choe’s Pyongyang press conference, possibly ending the talks with the “gangster-like” US and leading to North Korea’s abrupt departure from the inter-Korean liaison office. The editorial insisted that now the North should keep the wheels on the cart and respond to Trump’s soft message delivered in this challenging situation. Kyunghyang agreed with Hankyoreh’s point that Trump avoiding a tit-for-tat approach as a response to North Korea leaving the inter-Korean liaison office was to stop the North from deserting the negotiation phase and the move was “well done.” What deserves attention according to the editorial is the remaining time, of which both Trump and Kim lack. If the tangled talks fail to find a way to be untied before the first half of the year ends, given the political calendar in Washington, the driving force behind the talks would inevitably lose power; Pyongyang would also have to bear the influence of growing sanctions on its economy. Lastly, Kyunghyang claimed that the compromise plan suggested by the Moon administration – the two sides agree on a comprehensive denuclearization roadmap first and then carry out necessary actions step-by-step – is the most realistic solution at this stage and urged Trump and Kim to seriously contemplate the plan.