Country Report: South Korea (October 2016)

In the aftermath of North Korea’s 5th nuclear test, the ideological divide in South Korea has become more intense. On the conservative wing, the need for tougher sanctions and military preparation, even self-nuclearization from those at the extreme, was discussed. On the progressive wing, skepticism about the limits of international sanctions and calls for dialogue were voiced. The late summer was marked by sharp divisions amid deepening urgency.

On September 10, a Chosun Ilbo article argues that additional sanctions would not stop Kim Jong-un but would have a negative impact on society. It argued that the Park administration’s diplomacy of pressuring the North through China had failed and the KAMD and kill chain cannot prevent the North’s attack as long as the location of its missiles is unknown. To destroy the Kim Jong-un group, the author argues that tougher sanctions should be imposed consistently. A September 28 DongA Ilbo article also argued that tougher economic sanctions along with a military response targeting Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities would advance the demise of Kim’s regime. The sanctions should be toughened to the same level as those imposed on Iran, and US secondary boycotts against Chinese corporations dealing with the North should be implemented.

Invigorating South Korea—the US alliance and closer cooperation with Japan were suggested too. In the September 13 DongA Ilbo, Choi Kang opined that Seoul needs to expedite cooperation with the United States and Japan to equip itself with the necessary information, offensive and defensive measures, and protection mechanisms to defeat the nuclear threat. It is too late to achieve all four of these goals by South Korea alone. The level of the North’s threat has changed qualitatively with the 5th nuclear test. Seoul needs to efficiently borrow US and Japanese capabilities to boost its military capabilities. Choi argues that the South Korean argument for self-nuclearization would disappear if the United States were to assure it of US willingness for deterrence on the peninsula through actions, rather than words, such as establishing the Nuclear Planning Group or redeploying strategic nuclear weapons on the peninsula. Readers are told that GSOMIA and ACSA with Japan should not be postponed any further.

The next day, DongA Ilbo argued that trilateral security cooperation needs to be reinforced. Appreciating geographical proximity to Japan and its capabilities of collecting information and aerial and marine reconnaissance, the author cites the urgent need for signing GSOMIA and ACSA and adds that concerns over Japan’s remilitarization are past-oriented, hardly pertinent under circumstances when China, a military power, is pursuing hegemony in Asia. China opposes North Korea’s nuclear development on the surface, but actually leaves the issue ambiguous. Admitting that conflicts over the “comfort women” statue could stop the ROK and Japan from cooperating more closely, the author argued that moving it to a different place could be an option.

From the progressive media outlets, the need for dialogue was advocated instead. A September 13 Kyunghyang Shinmun writer said that the problem of North Korean sanctions is that they are morally and politically right, but ineffective. Even under the highest level of sanctions, Pyongyang has developed its nuclear capability, and its moves are unpredictable. After the 5th nuclear test, the author argues that the diplomatic goal should change to prevention of any attack from the North, not abandonment of its nuclear weapons. But no country has an incentive to lead in this change as it is much more convenient and safe to punish the evil regime than to take the risk of negotiating a compromise with it. South Korea, the biggest victim of the nuclear threat and the biggest beneficiary of a resolved situation, should make efforts to start a dialogue to set and achieve realistic goals before denuclearization.

On September 21, a Hangyoreh writer argued that the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” has failed. If it was effective, Pyongyang would have surrendered or its regime would have been dismantled. But it did not and will not. The author argues that dialogue delayed the North’s nuclear development over the last two decades. With no other effective measures, Seoul and Washington need to consider starting a dialogue with Pyongyang again. Efforts should be concentrated on a verified freeze of its nuclear weapons program in the early stage and develop it later into a comprehensive agreement on denuclearization or a peace treaty. The author argues that South Korea and the United States, not China, need to take full responsibility to resolve the issue through dialogue.


On August 15, the former Foreign Affairs Minister Yoon Young-kwan opined in Chosun Ilbo that the THAAD deployment has made clear that “balancing diplomacy” between the United States and China is too passive an approach. A new approach based on an accurate understanding of the peninsula’s geopolitics is needed. The South Korean government needs to set standards and follow them between the two countries to keep consistency. Reiterating that the ROK-US alliance is the key to national security, Yoon argues that diplomacy should be focused on letting US officials know South Korea’s geopolitical dilemma and earning their sympathy.

A September 28 Joongang Ilbo article also insisted that “US for security and China for economy” is not effective in an emergency. Security and economy cannot be separated under the North’s nuclear threat; an approach cannot be seen as nothing other than opportunistic behavior by these powerful countries. The author argues that the conflict over THAAD has become an opportunity to look into the relationship with China under Xi. The “Chinese Dream” means restoring China’s power before the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, including a monopoly of power on the Korean Peninsula and a weakening US influence. North Korea has increased Seoul’s dependency on Beijing. Every time Pyongyang tests its nuclear power, Seoul asks Beijing to exercise its influence to pressure Pyongyang. Chinese government officials and specialists respond each time with general support for denuclearization of the peninsula, but they add qualifications that leave their seriousness in doubt. The author argues that excessive dependency and frequent appeals for favors weaken South Korea’s diplomatic options. At the same time, the author warns that dialogue with the North without defensive measures in place is humiliation That leaves various options from THAAD to self-nuclearization, which the author proposes be part of a new discussion aimed at building a national consensus.

On August 20, Choi Kang argued in DongA Ilbo that the THAAD issue burst the bubble in the bilateral relationship with Beijing. Choi expected relations to be improved soon; however, he expressed concern over the relationship with the United States. The two countries are facing several challenges, such as the relative burden of defense costs, and the current relationship cannot be guaranteed in the next administration. With increasing distance from Beijing, Seoul would be committing diplomatic malpractice by weakening the alliance. To prevent it, Choi highlights the importance of public diplomacy to respond to US questions. Washington wants to know Seoul’s stance on East Asian security issues including China; expects more proactive contributions; and calls for strengthening and systematizing the trilateral security cooperation with Tokyo through GSOMNIA and ACSA. As long as Seoul avoids discussing regional security issues and hesitates to cooperate with other US-allied nations, US suspicions are likely to grow, resulting in diminished importance for the bilateral alliance.

Park Hwi-rak looked into the THAAD issue in Kunsa nondan, vol. 85, through the lens of a “rumor bomb.” Park analyzes why THAAD, a relatively small defensive measure, has become such a big issue in South Korea, affecting both domestic politics and the Northeast Asian security landscape. Park finds the reason to be uncontrollable rumors, which were created by anti-government or pro-North Korean groups in the first place. They were manipulated and spread very quickly through ideologically extreme websites and media outlets. The problem is that they were not dismissed by the public—their influence intensified. Park argues that security instability caused by the division of the peninsula and nuclear threat, a still quite closed society, mistrust of the government, and short experience with democracy enabled rumors to affect the national security agenda. The government’s belated and ambiguous responses were also cited as a reason for the power of rumors to keep growing.

The THAAD deployment issue stems from controversy over the need for a ballistic missile defense mechanism. In 1991, the South Korean government was proactive in introducing it, but its attitude turned negative under the Kim Dae-jung administration due to the possibility of provoking the North and neighboring countries. After Kim did not join Theater Missile Defense in 1999, the discussion was very limited. The opinion of a few groups became dominant that the US missile defense system is a measure to pursue US hegemony in the world, and that the system is not only expensive and ineffective, but it would prohibit improvement of inter-Korean relations and cause unnecessary regional tensions. Even after the South Korean Defense Department initiated the Korea Air and Missile Defense in 2003 and the Lee Myung-bak administration proactively tried to build a missile defense system, the government focused on explaining that it is not joining the US system rather than on explaining why the system is necessary.

Then, other rumors were spread, such as that THAAD deployed in South Korea can shoot down Chinese ICBMs targeting the United States. As this rumor was spreading, negative perspectives by Chinese specialists were disseminated and the Chinese government started to make requests to the South Korean government not to deploy THAAD. As Chinese involvement increased, the THAAD issue became a major theme in bilateral meetings with Beijing. Though the Chinese concerns over THAAD were exaggerated, it was increasingly perceived that the THAAD deployment would exact a high cost in the bilateral relationship. As Chinese pressure increased and several US government officials mentioned the possibility of negotiations on THAAD deployment, the Park administration repeatedly denied conducting such negotiations. These denials only fueled more rumors, which were seen as more persuasive. Only after the North’s 4th nuclear test did the administration officially announce the beginning of negotiations on THAAD deployment. However, China’s strong opposition gave new weight to the old rumors, and new rumors such as the presence of electromagnetic waves spread out of control.

The rumors were detrimental to security as they made it harder to have a productive discussion in response to the North’s nuclear test, enabled China to interfere in domestic affairs, and led US observers to question the solidity of the alliance. The author drew the lesson that the government needs to deal with rumors promptly, as it is more difficult to counter them the longer they spread. Park suggests that the government directly address the need for a comprehensive missile defense system under the threat of a North Korean nuclear threat. THAAD needs to be explained as part of a blueprint to counter the threat. Stressing that Seoul needs to build a defensive mechanism in the short term efficiently, the author urges the government to invest its time and budget where it is still left uncovered by the alliance. To close the gap, it should seek proactive cooperation with Japan. Reiterating that THAAD does not impose any harm on Beijing, Park urges the government to take a decisive stance against China overstepping in ROK domestic affairs.

Implementation of the December 28 Agreement

On July 28, the foundation of Reconciliation and Healing was launched, in accord with the December 28 agreement with Japan. But negative assessments prevailed over how the agreement was being implemented. As the opposition to demolishing the “comfort women” statue appeared to be strengthening, the subject was discussed at a bilateral summit between Park and Abe in Laos in early September.

On August 1, a DongA Ilbo writer said that he was definitely not happy with the agreement but supported it as a realistic alternative to the past stalemate. The author argued that the agreement would be the third turning point for improving the bilateral relationship with Tokyo following normalization of the relationship in 1965 and the opening to Japanese mass media culture in 1998. These previous agreements faced tremendous opposition at the time, but currently they are assessed differently. The author believes the December agreement will be the beginning of a new bilateral relationship, i.e., 3.0. To succeed, the December agreement should not be the end of the discussion, but it should lead to a process of implementation to make up for its faults. The author finds the launch of the foundation the beginning of such implementation.

After the foundation’s compensation plan was disclosed, Kyunghyang Shinmun carried articles saying that it is confusing who the victims are. On August 31, a commentator expressed concern that the foundation would function as a mere window to deliver the money instead of the Japanese government, making it look less like compensation. After the foundation paid KRW 100 million to 40 surviving victims and KRW 20 million to the bereaved of identified victims, most of the fund would be exhausted and the foundation would need to close its doors. Though the Japanese attitude on the issue has not changed at all after the agreement, the South Korean government can neither raise the issue nor criticize its provocations in the international community. Furthermore, the Japanese government is going to repeatedly ask to move the statue.

On August 24, another writer chose the example of the German foundation called “Memory, Responsibility, and Future” to show how poorly the agreement is being implemented. The foundation is funded by the German government and corporations, and the amount of the fund reaches to around KRW 6 trillion. The foundation paid compensation to the victims and is now educating future generations not to repeat the same mistakes. But the foundation of “Reconciliation and Healing” is run by the South Korean government to restore the victims’ dignity and honor. The civil society and the victims have already made various efforts in pursuit of reconciliation and healing, establishing symbols of peace and conducting education on human rights and peace, the author argues, and it is now time for the Japanese government and civil society to take action. Efforts toward reconciliation should be made by the Japanese government, not the government of the victim country, the article concludes.

After Abe requested moving the statue, during his summit with Park, voices of criticism increased. On September 11, a Hankook Ilbo writer argued that Japanese officials calling for requiring moving the statue in return for the transfer of funds would worsen the conflict. In the first place, the South Korean government has no authority to demolish it. The Japanese government seeks to try to resolve it diplomatically, but that has become more difficult. The Seoul municipal assembly passed an ordinance to require municipal approval for the move, and over 40 similar statues of girls are under construction nationally, and the number is expanding internationally. The author argues that events are heading in the opposite direction to Japan intentions, since Japan had been obsessed with a superficial solution. Without a direct statement by Abe on the agreement, the author argues that conflicts over the statue and the “comfort women” would persist.

The next day, Nam Ki-jung, in Hangyoreh, suggested a temporary stop to implementation. With the current level of opposition, Nam argued that forced implementation would only serve as a historic mistake and become a seed for another conflict. Nam is against reversing the agreement but argues that controversial points need to be clarified. Nam made three points: Abe himself needs to announce the agreement representing his country, the source of the funds needs to be specified to make the nature of the compensation clearer, and Japanese government officials should not mention moving the statue any more. Nam says that these three points can be achieved without damaging the agreement. Nam also urges the South Korean government to make efforts to earn the trust of the victims and relevant civil society groups by holding public meetings to explain the foundation until they support its implementation. Either forced implementation or reversal of the agreement is going to be burdensome to South Korean society; the government needs to find a solution between the two, the article concludes.