Country Report: South Korea (January 2016)

The APEC and EAS Summits in November

On November 24, Kyunghyang Shinmun carried an article by Shin Ju-baek, regretting that the successes in multilateral diplomacy were hardly noticed in light of the intense coverage of the terror attack in Paris and the US-China-Japan competition in the South China Sea. The author points out two achievements, to which Korean media had paid the least attention: the East Asian Vision Group II Final Report submitted as an action plan; and ASEAN countries signing the “2015 Kuala Lumpur Declaration.” Welcoming the efforts to create a community of ASEAN + 3 (cooperating with South Korea, China, and Japan), the author optimistically looks beyond its economic benefits.


In 2015, readers are told, the process of creating a multilateral system in East Asia is facing obstacles due to deepening conflicts and perpetual divisions, including the division of the Korean Peninsula. Thus, reunification is treated as a natural consequence of the process of establishing multilateral norms and values in the region. However, the reality at present is that competition between the United States and China is frustrating these hopes. The reunification, therefore, should not be expected in the foreseeable future. Taiwan’s status is also linked to the obstacles in the path of multilateralism.


The fierce competition makes the future of the region more uncertain, writes Shin. With the US-led Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) reinforced, a trans-Pacific region is reemerging. As the United States, Russia, and Australia are participating in the broader East Asia Summit (EAS), their people, who do not consider themselves East Asian, also have a claim to be part of the region. China created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in pursuit of regionalism inclusive of Central Asia. These alternate ways of conceptualizing regionalism appear in Shin’s account as rather diversionary from the central goal of East Asian multilateralism. In addition, he warns that historical and territorial conflicts in East Asia are deepening dependency on Washington and Beijing, respectively, rather than boosting regionalism. The article concludes by questioning if Seoul wants to be a part of a new multilateral system making efforts to denuclearize the North or to join a fierce competition that continues to deepen the current conflicts.


Sino-North Korean Relations

The direction of Sino-North Korean relations was again in doubt after Kim Jong-un claimed to have a hydrogen bomb and suddenly cancelled the concert in Beijing of the Moranbong band. On December 14, a Chosun Ilbo article argued that this proves how fragile the bilateral tie is and how unpredictable Pyongyang is. Kim Jong-un had been expected not to provoke Beijing, at least until the party convention to be held in May for the first time in 36 years; however, Kim made the opposite decision. The author reminds the Chinese government of the risk inherent in having a dialogue with Pyongyang.


On the same day, a Joongang Ilbo article suggested that these bilateral ties inevitably will be worsened for a while. China has suspected that North Korea is incapable of having a dialogue, listening to Beijing, and behaving predictably (). Its unpredictability has been revealed again, causing China to weigh North Korea’s strategic risk over its strategic value. Xi Jinping’s diplomatic leadership is also damaged, readers are told. Xi appointed Song Tao as the head of China’s International Liaison Department to adjust bilateral ties to normal state relations from the past, special bond forged in blood. The invitation to the band was to be the beginning of this new relationship. Its cancellation will have a negative impact on the bilateral relationship.


Before these events, on December 7, however, another Joongang Ilbo observer called attention to China’s unchanged policy toward the peninsula. It has always been guided by the three principles of peace, denuclearization, and dialogue. Readers are told that China maximizes its interests with the status quo between the two Koreas; thus, there are only minor adjustments but no major changes to its policy. Park Hyong-joon voiced a similar point, analyzing what decides China’s North Korean policy in the Journal of Peace Studies 16, no. 4, and argues that the bilateral tie has turned into a normal state relationship, decided by national interests rather than ideological or personal bonds, which undergirded the old unilateral assistance. Park finds proof that China changed its policies as the two nuclear crises and three nuclear tests by Pyongyang were occurring. After the first nuclear crisis, Beijing exercised evasive and passive policy to join the international sanctions. China had seen little possibility of Washington taking military action against Pyongyang. Jiang Zemin had perceived the North Korean nuclear development as a defensive measure in pursuit of diplomatic gains. The Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs (CLGFA), headed by the president, had managed ongoing competition between what are called strategists (전략파) and conservatives (정통파). The former, touting international cooperation, prevailed over the latter, whose preference was to resolve the problem directly between Beijing and Pyongyang.


However, the international and domestic circumstances changed around the time of the second nuclear crisis. After 9/11, the Bush administration labeled Pyongyang part of the “axis of evil” with the intention of pursuing hostile policies, even raising the possibility of striking Pyongyang preemptively. China’s relationship with the United States was still cooperative, but its passive handling of the DPRK was about to change under Hu Jintao. Hu and the fourth generation of leadership started to consider the bilateral relationship in the context of national interests and reciprocity. Pyongyang was considered a burden as China tried to pursue proactive diplomacy of “peaceful development” in a “harmonious world.” Hu perceived a nuclear North Korea as a threat to China’s national interests—the biggest concern being possible involvement of Beijing in a war between the United States and North Korea. In the CLGFA, conservatives took the upper hand, leading the efforts to denuclearize North Korea though the Six-Party Talks and influencing China directly to discourage possible US military action against North Korea. After the first test, however, China changed its approach from pressuring North Korea to embracing it through more dialogue and economic cooperation. This was done to prevent possible abandonment as a result of improved relations between Washington and Pyongyang, which had held a secret meeting prior to the 2/13 agreement and achieved agreements afterwards in the midst of a worsening relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang.


The policy of embracing North Korea gained new momentum after the second nuclear test. After the financial crisis of 2008, US-China relations grew more conflictual in East Asia. The Obama administration tries to keep Beijing in check through its “pivot to Asia,” readers are told. New geopolitical instability has increased North Korea’s strategic value. In addition, North Korean leadership change was expected as Kim Jong-il was reported to have health problems. The article reports that given China’s need for a stable regional order to pursue its economic development, it prioritizes stability of the North Korean regime. Accordingly, it reset the relationship as strategic, cooperative ties, bolstering aspects of an alliance. Perceiving nuclear weapons development as a tool to unite the regime at a time of succession, China’s leaders decided to separate the nuclear question from the issue of regime stability.


After the third nuclear test, a change was observed. The region had become unstable due to territorial and historical conflicts, Xi Jinping sought to make Sino-US ties into a “new type of major-country relationship.” Now he perceived North Korea’s nuclear weapons as threatening China’s core interests by legitimizing the US pivot to Asia. China has joined international sanctions to pressure North Korea and prioritizes denuclearization, the article concludes, while adding that this is not a ground-breaking change. As Beijing shares the common interest of securing the regime with North Korea, it has joined the international sanctions to meet its responsibility as a major power but only to the extent that this does not destabilize North Korea or threaten its existence. Readers are told that the only situation when China would act more assertively toward Pyongyang is if North Korea is found to use uranium not plutonium, as this would damage Chinese core interests.


ROK-Japanese Relations

History is still interfering with this relationship, Korean media report, as Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s historical revisionism have come under further scrutiny. The LDP was reported to have set up a committee to review the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. On November 14, a Joongang Ilbo article warned that such behavior poses a challenge to the postwar system based on the San Francisco Treaty acknowledging Japan’s responsibility in the war. On the same day, a DongA Ilbo observer pointed out that the review is intended to deny Japan’s responsibility for invasions and to serve as the stepping stone to revise the constitution. Agreeing with the Joongang Ilbo article in supporting ambitions to reform even the US-led postwar system, the author questions what the United States would do if Tokyo sought to be a “power state” beyond just a “normal state.” The observer urges the United States to strongly warn and stop Japan from overturning the postwar system. On November 17, Chosun Ilbo carried Park Cheol-hee’s article analyzing why Japanese conservatives are obsessed with the idea of exiting from the US-led postwar system. The Tokyo Tribunal and the Peace Constitution are identified as punishment and revenge for the defeated Japan. Both pressured and bound Tokyo in the postwar era. Review of the tribunal would free Japan from the limits, readers are told. Revising the Constitution, would eradicate Japan’s self-critical historical perception (자학적 사관), leading to denial of the postwar system and even leading to confronting the United States.


In the November Yeoksa bipyeong, Miyajima Hiroshi criticizes the Abe administration’s perception of history revealed in the Abe statement and the advisory committee’s report. Miyajima finds a fundamental problem in the perception that “Japan’s fault is only limited to after the First World War in the 1930s.” Against the argument treating the invasion of Korea in 1910 as just the result of Japan joining the global trend and not Japan’s fault, the author reasons why Japan still has responsibility for the invasion. For many Japanese, this invasion was inevitable, defending Japan by stopping other major countries from ruling Chosun, which could be a direct threat to Tokyo. Thus, the responsibility supposedly lies with the unstable and closed Chosun. The invasion was done in accord with the logic of maximizing Japan’s security by assuring its “interests-line (이익선),” operating outside the “sovereignty-line (주권선).” However, the result was the opposite, the article adds. It turned neighbors more hostile toward Japan, minimizing its actual security, showing how flawed the statement is for defending Japan for joining the global trend and extending the logic of the “interests-line” to Manchuria and to Beijing. This continuity proves that Japanese imperialism started from the invasion of Chosun, not from WWI. The author claims that Japanese should express the deepest remorse on this point; however, such a perception is lacking not only in the Abe 2015 statement, but in previous statements too.


Another problem identified in the article is Japan’s perception of South Korean views of postwar history. In the Japanese committee’s report to Abe, South Korea is said to have a dilemma between rational and emotional ways of thinking. The former has facilitated bilateral cooperation, but the latter has damaged such efforts. At the core of this claim, it is implicated that Japan has made rational choices unlike South Korea. The report is seen as extremely political, making comparisons with how Chinese “return grace in response to resentment over Japan (덕보원(以德報怨)”, and stating “Japanese war crimes lie only in its military not its people (군민이원론(軍民二元論).” Expressing concern that there is no response to the claim in Seoul, the author says that Seoul needs to counter Japan’s international criticisms of South Korea’s supposedly excessive criticisms of it.


However, when Park revised state authority over Korean history textbooks, harsh criticism followed from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Mostly, it was argued that the measure deprives South Korea of legitimacy in criticisms of Japan’s screening of history textbooks and the Abe administration’s history revisionism.


There was some coverage aside from history. On December 16, Park Cheolhee opined in Joongang Ilbo that Japan is a valuable neighboring country with which to cooperate. He argues that Tokyo is an asset to assure “passive peace” in case of a North Korean military provocation. The seven United Nation Commands stationed in Japan should be utilized to prevent the worst-case scenario, and the backup of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is also essential to prevent misjudgment by North Korea’s leader. Japan is also an asset to secure “proactive peace” in the region to denuclearize the North. Based on the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration in 2002, it is highly possible that Tokyo invests about USD 10 billion over a decade under the name of an economic cooperation fund if significant policy changes occur in Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are the only two countries able and willing to give practical help to the North, economically. Seoul and Tokyo need to raise their voice together to denuclearize Pyongyang. When the two cooperate and act together to resume the Six-Party Talks, the priority of a peaceful Korean Peninsula will rise in the international community.


On December 7, a DongA Ilbo correspondent in Tokyo reminded readers that there are no longer politicians with close ties in the two countries. Before, South Korea’s major politicians, the three Kims—Kim Youngsam, Kim Daejong and Kim Jongpil—, were all fluent in Japanese, and each had a close relationship with, at least, a couple of Japanese politicians. They had arguments with Japanese from time to time, but the personal bond enabled the relationships to endure. Despite considering it a loss that there are no longer such personal bonds to manage bilateral relations the author finds a positive side to it. Now, it is impossible to have closed-door politics; however, the fact that bilateral relations have retreated from the peak reached in the Kim-Obuchi declaration of 1998 proves that the two countries have failed to build a new system to communicate. The article suggests that gathering collective intelligence through dialogue to resolve issues can serve as a new system suitable in this era without bonds between major politicians.


The history issue again rose to center stage when the two countries reached a deal on the “comfort women” issue in late December. The agreement caused a severe backlash in the public due to inclusion of the words “final and irreversible,” Japan’s interpretation that “removal of the comfort woman statue is a condition,” and Japanese politicians’ comments saying, “Japan lost only 10 billion yen,” and “the statute is to be removed.”


On December 30, a Hangyoreh article warned that the deal means moving forward in bilateral military cooperation, as part of the triangular alliance with the United States, which would end South Korea’s balancing diplomacy. It criticizes the government for hastily signing the deal despite numerous flaws in the agreement. On the next day, another observer agreed that the deal was made in a hasty way, skipping the process of communicating and trust-building with the victims. The author insists that the deal creates a “new normal” between the two states, in which the issue is neither resolved nor unresolved. Moreover, only removing the statue will activate the agreement. Practically, Japan will not pay 10 billion yen before that is done, considering its public opinion, readers are told. Korean civil society, however, will not agree to move the statue for a long period.


Shin Joobaek opined on December 30 Kyunghyang Shinmun that the deal freed the Abe administration from international criticism without changing its perceptions of history. Shin saw it ready to tout its “proactive pacifism,” bolstering ties with Washington and increasing pressure against Beijing. However, Shin suggests that it remains unclear what future the South Korean government is seeking. It is essential to build a framework of multilateral diplomacy in the region to overcome the history of colonialization and to address the general topic of human rights. Shin, however, argued that the recent deal ended any chance to design a future that would discuss the present. As the foundation to be established by the deal is to be run by the Korean government, conflicts over the issue are likely to turn from bilateral to internal clashes. Thus, international cooperation is going to be more difficult, the author concludes.


On December 31, a Chosun Ilbo observer acknowledged that the deal was reached in consideration of the relationship with the United States and with Japan in the long term. While expressing understanding that Japanese officials need to assuage public opposition, the author strongly condemned comments seen as crossing the line. South Korea’s government agreed that this is the “final and irreversible” deal on the condition that Japan sincerely implements the agreement. Warning of extreme sensitivity whereby even a very tiny part of the deal could cause it to be broken, the author reminds readers of the importance of managing public opinion in the two countries after the deal making at the administrative level. The article urges the Park administration to make efforts to build consensus internally and take a hard stance against Japanese officials’ ridiculous comments, warning of a possible breakdown of the deal.


On December 29, Daily Hankook carried an article by Nam Kijung, which appreciates the deal quite highly given that the partner was the Abe administration. Nam argues that the deal was only possible because victims, civic organizations, and researchers had stood by their principles for decades to resolve the issue. Also, it is not the legacy of the Park administration alone, but the accumulation of previous administrations’ efforts to resolve the issue, starting from the Kim Young-sam administration. Nam attributes the decades-long conflict to the different stances on Japan’s “legal responsibility.” Acknowledging that the word “responsibility” will trigger some conflicts in the two societies, Nam sees the deal as eventually improving the relationship, as long as each country does not act against its spirit. Though there remain unresolved issues, such as history textbooks and Dokdo, it is encouraging that the most complicated issue has been resolved, leading to improved expectations for a future-oriented relationship. Nam draws a rosy picture—increasing cultural, personal, and economic exchanges would facilitate bilateral cooperation and trust on a variety of issues from aging societies to non-traditional and, eventually, traditional security. If the two countries succeed in nurturing a multi-layered and multi-faceted relationship, the fiftieth anniversary of normalization will be remembered as a new starting point building a peaceful and stable community in East Asia, the author concludes.


North Korean Fourth Nuclear Test

Over the week after North Korean fourth nuclear test on January 6, South Korea’s foreign policy options were discussed under the deepening conflict between the United States and China. As revealed again, the current multilateral cooperation to denuclearize the North is not working. Not only did Park’s foreign policy to regard the reunification as a jackpot and build trust in the peninsula come under scrutiny, but so did Obama and Xi’s North Korean policy.


As China shows a somewhat lukewarm reaction against the North, a Chosun Ilbo article on January 12 criticizes that Xi’s rigidity of sticking with its three principles incurs confrontation between South Korea-United States-Japan on one side and China-North Korea on the other. China has not yet answered Park and defense minister Han Minkoo’s call asking for cooperation by the eleventh. A government official was quoted saying, “China has been extremely sensitive to the trilateral cooperation regarding the Pivot to Asia as containment of itself. However, currently, Beijing brings the structure on itself.”


While disappointment and criticism over China was more dominant, the blame game between Washington and Beijing spread skepticism over the international cooperation system and the two countries’ willingness to resolve the issue. On January 11, a Joongang Ilbo columnist raised voices that the two countries have not changed their policy despite repeated failure. As the decision is based on their national interests, the author argues another test would not change the situation much.


For China, it controls the pipeline through which 90 percent of North Korean oil passes. There were technical problems every time Pyongyang tested its nuclear arms and then came to the negotiation table. While the author was not 100 percent sure about another technical problem, but he assures that it will be temporary as always. This is because China’s top priority is to secure its political system, and North Korea is useful as a bulwark against bordering US ally.


For the United States, it is not worth investing time and effort on this issue for politicians. The vote is barely affected by the issue. There are only two foreseeable instances to make Washington proactively engage with Pyongyang. One is if the North Korean nuclear missile is capable of reaching the US mainland. The other is if Pyongyang hands over nuclear materials to terrorists such as ISIL or Al-Qaeda. To change China’s policy, international awareness or criticism over the North Korean nuclear test is suggested. Beijing normalized its ties with Seoul to break through international economic sanctions imposed after the Tianmen Square massacre of 1989. Given its deteriorating economy and increasing international denunciation, Beijing may reluctantly shut the pipeline permanently. Otherwise, the author reassures that not much change is expected from the two.


On the same day, a Chosun Ilbo columnist opined the same point. Even after the fourth test, the two countries repeated the same old policies. Condemning Beijing for rigidity and imposing sanctions as a mere formality, the author also criticizes the United States for evading its responsibility under the name of strategic patience. Readers are told that diplomatic efforts through the international cooperation have now reached dead ends. Arguing that South Korea’s independent policy measures are needed in the midst of the multilateral diplomatic efforts, the author urges the government be better equipped militarily.


On January 10, a DongA Ilbo article alarms Park that it is a fantasy to believe that Beijing can be on Seoul’s side. Given Xi’s tepid response, the observer even casts doubt on the effectiveness of international sanctions. Blaming China for any diplomatic troubles possibly to come, the author urges the Park administration to consider signing an information sharing agreement with Japan, fostering trilateral cooperation with the United States.


As disappointment against China widely spreads, a Hangyoreh observer alarms that China is the country to be managed. Reminding that its initial response was stronger than ever, the author finds international demand for China to increase pressure against the North is instead causing the opposite effect. Such circumstances would offset the effectiveness of the UN Security Council’s sanction and efforts to find a new approach to the issue. Due to the limits of the sanction-only approach, the author insists that dialogues are necessary to resolve the issue. It is crucial to utilize both countries’ influence to have successful talks. Without the United States proactively involved and China exercising its influence on Pyongyang, the problem will not be resolved, the author concludes.


On January 13, Joongang Ilbo carried an article by Wi Seongrak, the former special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs. Wi expresses concerns that the current blame game creates unproductive circumstances for Seoul. Wi argues that South Korea’s immediate and foremost challenge is to impose international sanctions against the North. For this goal, cooperation is vital with China and Russia, both of which have a competing and confrontational relationship with the United States, respectively. Because both nations pursue the goal of restoring pride as an empire, they are extremely sensitive to criticisms in open places. Accordingly, South Korea needs be cautious if its bilateral actions reach such levels that would provoke the two countries to reject international cooperation.


Beijing and Moscow both have incentives to cooperate, the author argues, as a major power and a founder of the non-proliferation treaty, respectively. In addition, they are tired of the North Korean nuclear issue. Thus, South Korea’s immediate task should be stopping the blame game and acting as a mediator to induce China and Russia to reluctantly join forces to address this issue. Reminding that the purpose of the sanction is to denuclearize the North, Wi concludes that the South needs to create the opportunity to bring China and Russia onto our side or bolster five-party cooperation, the latter of which helped finalize the Iranian nuclear deal.