Country Report: South Korea (January 2014)

Japan was on Korean minds in the final months of 2013, occasionally interrupted by new reasons to recall North Korea’s looming presence. The year ended with less reason for optimism in both relationships and lingering uncertainty about what that may mean for US and Chinese relations.

The Korea-Japan Relationship

Before Abe’s year-end visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, the mood was ripe for resuming bilateral talks at least at the working level. Awareness of this need was widely noted, as both the media and prominent scholars urged Park Geun-hye to show more flexibility in separating historical issues from bilateral security matters for the sake of the Northeast Asia peace process, one of the pillars of her trustpolitik. As Kim Jang Su, head of the Office of National Security, increasingly met security advisors and various private experts for advice, it was said that the government was also worried about the bilateral relationship and trying to find a way to break the stalemate.

An article entitled “Change in International Structure in Northeast Asia and the New Structure of the Korea-Japan Relationship” in The Korean Journal for Japanese Studies, explains why historical tensions recently have topped other issues in the bilateral relationship. Choi Hee-Sik argues that this is a result of developing multilateralism in the region. Two frameworks—the Korea-US-Japan and Korea-China-Japan triangles—have been institutionalized to deal with most of the two countries’ common issues. The former covers traditional security issues, including North Korea, and the latter nontraditional security issues, such as the economy, nuclear security, and climate change. Thus, it is natural to lose issue linkages, which used to be strong enough to enable the two governments to overcome tensions arising from historical issues and cooperate on others. As management of core issues has been ceded to the multilateral structures, historical issues prevail in the bilateral relationship. As imminent issues are manageable indirectly through multilateral cooperation, both sides do not necessarily go the extra mile to soothe the historical tensions.

Along with such structural change, the author finds that lack of Japanese leadership worsened the situation. Choi argues that the DPJ lost its will to manage historical issues by late 2010, when its support was dwindling. Before, the DPJ made an effort not to sacrifice the relationship over historical issues by exercising restraint. With Japanese society becoming more conservative after the earthquake in 2011, it was more difficult to do so. Since then, the author argues, the vicious cycle typical of the relationship has been repeated; Tokyo’s “indifference” to Seoul’s urge to resolve historical issues since its democratization triggers an “overreaction.” The resulting strained relationship reduces the influence of both in regional multilateralism. In traditional security US influence is growing and in nontraditional areas China is poised to gain more leverage. The author wants the bilateral relationship to function to keep US “unilateralism” and “isolationism” in check and to induce China to successfully soft-land as “a responsible great power.” Multilateralism raises the chances of bilateral cooperation as well as of conflict. Thus, a new paradigm is needed to conceptualize the relationship within the new multilateral structure.

Opposition to a summit meeting was still there before Abe’s visit to Yasukuni, supporting Park’s stance. It was due to continuing provocations by Japanese politicians amid constant suggestions for a summit. Public sentiment on historical issues is critical to reconciliation. Park has refused whenever a proposal was made, saying, “It would rather jeopardize the relationship further if the meeting fails to come up with a substantive and positive result, or if Dokdo, the comfort women or the Yasukuni shrine issue arises after the meeting.” An anonymous security advisor also said, “Given the history, Japan has a pattern of stabbing us in the back a few months after making gestures to improve the relationship. It is highly likely that Abe visits Yasukuni after a summit meeting, thus it is more like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire to have a summit now.”

After Abe actually visited the shrine, Park’s rigid principle gained further ground. One official said, “If Park had had a summit meeting with Abe before his visit, public resentment would have seriously damaged the government’s credibility.” The momentum to proceed to a summit has been reversed and even working level meetings planned for early 2014 are not likely to happen.

Abe’s visit is seen as a strategy to regain domestic support, which had declined after he forced passage of a State Secrets Protection Law. Many argue that he strategically timed his visit in advance of sensitive issues, such as TPP, the right of collective defense, etc. Abe chose domestic support over improving relations with Korea and China, which had deteriorated already. Others argue that the decision derived from Abe’s erroneous historical perceptions, rather than from efforts to win domestic support. Against Abe’s statement that he is not the only prime minister to have visited the shrine, a Hangyoreh journalist distinguishes him from the others. Reasoning that Hashimoto Ryutaro was a minister of welfare and president of the war bereaved community and Koizumi Junichiro served twice as minister of welfare, the author sees their visits as inevitable, not a serious attempt to revise history. Comparing the statements following the visit, the author finds that Abe did not speak of apologies or of inheriting the Murayama statement of 1995, but reiterated his policy of “active pacifism.” An unnamed high-ranking Korean official concluded that “the visit is more detrimental than the first official visit of a prime minister in 1985, as this visit has been done after Tokyo announced its pursuit of right-leaning policies.”

The South Korean government’s criticism was the harshest ever, as shown in the statement delivered by the Minister of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, Yoo Jinryong, which was the first time that a ministerial level spokesperson delivered a criticism on the issue. However, Seoul has set as a basic principle not to react emotionally and to continue essential cooperation on the DPRK and the economy, an official said. Experts are urging the government to strategically utilize the current situation to win international support for the Korean perspective on historical issues, as Abe’s visit proves that South Korea’s policy toward Japan is not based on imaginary fears.

Kim Youngho observes that the “South Korean government should suggest a new ‘picture’ of Asia going beyond just criticizing Abe’s visit.” He notes that an “increasing number of people in the United States believe that South Korea is trapped by outdated anti-Japanese sentiment.” If Seoul does not actively suggest an alternative, the Japanese perspective will gain more support as the United States needs to counter China. In striving for more international support, Kim said, there is no need to cancel working level meetings with Japanese officials.

Along with Kim, numerous experts have cited the need for resumed dialogue. A trilateral summit of Korea, China, and Japan, building from the working group level to ministerial level meetings, has been suggested. The importance of continuing private sector exchanges is also underlined. Now, the challenge is to find a concrete way to overcome deepening concern about a frozen bilateral relationship, while strategically pressing Japan to change its historical perceptions. The Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) argues that the bilateral relationship in 2014, the last chance to find a common vision before the 50th anniversary of normalization in 2015, will determine the success of Park’s policy towards Japan.

North Korea’s Possible Provocation

Reacting to Jang Song-thaek’s public execution, opinion is divided on whether this is a sign of instability in Kim Jong-un’s regime. It is an acknowledgement that a large rebellious faction exists in the party, cabinet, and military and that the economy is losing vitality. Soe Sang-gi, an Intelligence Committee chairman in the National Assembly, said the “sudden execution would have been done as an attempt to stop internal instability from spreading further.” Jang was known to have respect from the public for his political experience and economic expertise. Jung Se hyun, a former Unification Minister, said that the execution had to be quick as the longer it was delayed, the more public empathy for him would have grown. Kim Yeon su also said that Jang seems to have been punished for ruining the Juche economy in the process of opening the economy. Jang had become too powerful by leading economic cooperation with China. Another possibility is that the current regime is controlled by the military. Along with Kim Yong-ho, others argue that the military has come to dominate in the power vacuum that was created by the suddenness of the succession, and it succeeded in getting rid of Jang, a prominent anti-military figure.

Chung Byungho, a co-author of the book, “North Korea: Beyond Charismatic Politics”, suggests that the execution was Kim Jong-un’s message to elite groups that he is not replaceable. Chung argues that Kim Jong-un lacked legitimacy, as he is not the first child and did not have any experience in political struggle. Compared to his father, who was the first child and whose mother Kim Jong sook was “recreated” as a mother of revolution, Kim Jong-un was not able to get legitimacy from his mother because she is Korean-Japanese. Given the succession, the DPRK cannot help but to fabricate symbols and create a kind of transitional drama.

Those who see unstable prospects warn of more chaos and do not rule out sudden collapse of the regime. Some argue that 20,000-30,000 officials, “Jang’s people,” are expected to be executed soon, but they are unlikely to do nothing. One person opined that Kim Jong-un’s power is too fragile compared to his father, who built his political support and gained experience over 20 years, and that this kind of shakeup would happen again in three years. Jang Yong Suk argues that since experienced economic experts are being purged, the economy will suffer from this internal stability, and any short-term outcome will not be sustainable without substantial improvement.

Others argue that such analysis is another example of false hope from outside the DPRK, which is repeated every time authority changes. They argue that Kim’s authority is solid enough and the execution is a turning point to strengthen it. Cheong Hyun Jun says, “The fact that he executed his uncle shows that he has control over the regime. The power of the dynasty politics of Kim Il Sung, highly sophisticated while transcending three generations, should not be overlooked.” As the DPRK’s economic policies are running on schedule after the execution, such arguments are gaining ground. Kim Yun Chul, points out that Jang was not currently leading economic policies, but Park Bong Joo was. On foreign policy, Choi-Ryong Hae was the leading force who visited Beijing last May as an envoy. Thus, Kim argues that Jang’s execution will not lead to sudden political change. He asserts that the current system is working well under Kim Jung-un’s authority and the party’s control over the military is strong enough to persist. But he agrees that Kim’s excessive use of the politics of fear could undermine the current stability.

Some argue that the execution will jeopardize Sino-DPRK relations and lead to the demise of the regime. Choi Jin-woo argues that this undermines China’s rationale for opposing US-Japan economic and military cooperation against the DPRK, which eventually leads to containment against itself. Jung Se hyun, former Unification Minister, said that Kim will choose hardline policies to get rid of Jang’s remaining people and is highly likely to show an aggressive attitude on inter-Korean relations and nuclear issues. Highlighting that Jang was executed partly because he was “dumping” resources, he said that no country would now like to engage the DPRK.

Chosun Ilbo introduced an unnamed source in Beijing saying that “China seems to separate DPRK domestic issues from the bilateral relationship.” It would not jeopardize Kim Jong-un’s regime, but it cannot help considering plan B as a result of continuing provocations from the third nuclear test to the execution. Another Chosun Ilbo columnist argues that bilateral relations, troubled over the two years since Kim Jong-un took power, will be further hurt by the demotion of pro-Chinese figures. Citing a line from the verdict saying that Jang repeatedly dared to defy Kim Jong-un’s orders, the author assumes that he tried to deter the third nuclear test, of which Beijing had disapproved strongly. It follows that the DPRK will have its fourth test soon. Cho Youngki says that, it is becoming more difficult for China to acknowledge Kim Jong-un’s regime due to its nuclearization and politics of fear, and that the possibility is lower of Kim visiting Beijing.

Others expect a politically neutral reaction, following China’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. China might have felt uneasy with the execution, but it does not have another choice besides embracing the DPRK. Kim is irreplaceable, and the DPRK’s strategic value is too great for China to change course. Kim’s pursuit of economic revival, expressed several times in his speeches, is another reason. Go Yoo-hawn argues that as Kim has been prioritizing improvement in the standard of living, he will keep a cooperative attitude to China and other countries. Yoo Hoyeol found that most of Jang’s people survived, contrary to predictions after the execution, which shows how much Kim wants to revitalize the economy.

Regarding inter-Korean relations, negative forecasts prevail. As Kim is too unpredictable for a rational dialogue, US “strategic patience” will persist and trustpolitik will not likely progress. Jang Yongsuk said that Jang was the one who was aware of the significance of inter-Korean ties.

While acknowledging the growing unpredictability of the DPRK and need for tightened security, experts suggest that economic needs will top other needs in the DPRK. Hangoryeh says that Kim Jong-un’s regime has to revive the economy successfully as he blamed Jang for its failure. Further market opening is inevitable, but an expanding market economy would make more people doubt the necessity or legitimacy of dictatorship, as happened already in China and South Korea.

Experts urge continued engagement with the North for a possible regime change. Kim Gun Sik, agrees that Kim’s personal authority has stabilized almost immediately after the execution, but he argues that stability has been damaged as Kim alone will be responsible for all the decisions now and, unlike the two prior dictators, does not have his own people to protect him. This is a reason to improve bilateral relations through consistent economic cooperation and dialogue.

After the announcement of the execution, some waited for Kim’s New Year’s address for more evidence. At first, it was assessed that Kim Jong-un favored reconciliation, seeking improved ties with the South and no more slandering. The Democratic Party saw a meaningful change after Pyongyang had sent a message saying that “War starts without any advertisement,” at the end of the year after a conservative group’s provocation in Seoul. But the government and the ruling Saenuri Party were more cautious, urging behavioral change. In a public statement a few days later, the Ministry of Unification strongly cast doubt on the speech. Some experts objected that such a reaction would stop any meaningful suggestions from the North. Mostly it was agreed that the speech was not substantial. Kim Geunsik said, “A New Year speech does not seem to deliver a direction for policies or substantial contents in Kim Jung-un’s regime.”