Country Report: South Korea (January 2017)

The leadership vacuum created in December has raised questions about the legitimacy of both the domestic and foreign policies of the South Korean government. With opposing party candidates leading the poll for the 2017 presidential election likely to be advanced, they are calling for reversing controversial Park administration foreign policies like THAAD deployment, the 2015 “comfort women” agreement with Japan, and the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Especially, repealing the agreement with Japan is gaining ground based on increasing anti-Japan sentiment caused by Japanese politicians’ insensitive comments on the agreement. The ideological divide seems more profound than ever, but voices were raised calling for rational and bipartisan approaches to prevent the current political chaos from worsening.

Impact of the Leadership Vacuum on Diplomacy

A December 13 Hankook Ilbo article argued that the cancellation of the China-Japan-Korea summit is the first proof of the negative impact of the diplomatic leadership vacuum in foreign policy. Despite South Korea having put tremendous effort into reviving the meeting last year, national politics stopped it again, ruining this diplomatic achievement. The problem was that this kind of loss will keep being repeated until the next president is picked. The author was concerned with the absence of leadership to deal with the uncertainties to be created by the Trump administration—the changing nature of the bilateral relationship and Northeast Asian geopolitics.

A day later, Choi Kang opined in DongA Ilbo that the lack of leadership has seriously damaged South Korea’s credibility and persuasive power. With the Trump administration taking office, Seoul was trying to communicate with the newly incoming administration through different channels. Given that the new administration may possibly adopt an extreme policy regarding the Korean Peninsula, a preemptive approach was necessary before plans are finalized. But lack of political will and leadership gave little credibility to those trying to speak to Trump’s team. THAAD deployment complicated the current situation. Washington is concerned about the possibility of Seoul reversing the decision, and Beijing is going to increase the pressure to reverse it in the next administration. Furthermore, the two powerful countries are likely to clash over trade, and the tension will hamper bilateral cooperation on denuclearizing the North. If Pyongyang shows signs of reconciliatory behavior, it will deepen Seoul’s internal political conflicts, making a strong and immediate action difficult at a time of crisis. It would enable Pyongyang to gain the initiative in Korean bilateral relations and leave Seoul facing more insecurity. Choi concluded that a bipartisan approach on national security is needed to survive the time of political uncertainties.

In the December 19 Chosun Ilbo, Yoon Young-kwan, the former foreign affairs minister, expressed concern that the political crisis has stopped South Korea’s main and only working channel—executive-level communications with the United States. The problem was that the incoming Trump administration valued voters’ voices and, accordingly, the US Congress, which listens to them. Yoon said it would be strategic to build relations with Congress and grassroots forces to influence the Trump administration, not focusing only on the executive branch as before. But South Korean communities in the United States are not unified enough to function in this role, and the government is not focused on building such networks. As a result, South Korea has no channel to prevent possible hard-line moves on the Korean Peninsula led by a few former military officials around Trump. The Trump camp was known to have few Asian experts, and State Department officials’ opinions are likely to be ignored. The author concluded that South Korea is failing to keep up with the pace of the world’s changes.

A December 29 Joongang Ilbo columnist, however, argued that the vacuum can be an opportunity to change the Park administration’s top-down decision-making process. There will be no interference from Park and no pressure of summit diplomacy until the next administration is formed. The author argued that, as is known, there was no real discussion in the executive-level meetings under the Park administration. No official opposition was made at the executive level during Park’s presidency. This caused many to regard policies as just Park’s responsibility, not theirs. Otherwise, the complete silence from the foreign affairs officials is inexplicable, readers were told. The author argued that it was time to have collective wisdom through real discussions to figure out South Korea’s diplomatic strategies.

South Korea’s Diplomatic Strategies

The internal ideological divide, the probable increase in tension between the United States and China, and the pressure from Beijing and Tokyo have fueled intensifying discussion over what foreign policies South Korea should pursue. It is agreed that South Korea’s diplomatic strategy should maximize its options but how to achieve this arouses an ideological divide: bolster the South Korea-US alliance from the right, and improve relations with the North from the left. In response to the presumed presidential candidates’ foreign policy pledges, specific plans and alternatives are being requested.

On December 29, a Chosun Ilbo columnist questioned if the ongoing candlelight demonstrations would be peaceful without the bilateral alliance with the United States. If there were immediate security concerns, the author said they would not be. But leading presidential candidates are calling for reviewing THAAD deployment or reviving the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which the author denounced as examples of foreign policies damaging to the alliance. The US alliance has not been affected by South Korea’s political changes. It remains solid because it is value- based. However, the Trump administration can be different. It is too early to tell if its policies will create an opportunity or a crisis, but, one thing is certain, the alliance cannot be taken for granted, as it has been. The author concluded that if the candidates are not ready for the new circumstances, they need to restrain themselves from making provocative pledges.

Kim Tae-hyo criticized the opposition party candidates’ theory of a Northeast Asian balancer in the January 16 Chosun Ilbo. Kim argued that they believe that South Korea can be a balancer in Northeast Asia by improving relations with China at the expense of worsening bilateral relations with the United States. But what Seoul learned from the Park administration’s first three years of actively engaging China was that China cannot be trusted, and cooperation with Japan is strongly needed on security. China is now not only enjoying the South Korea-Japan conflict but also asking South Korea to weaken its security alliance. South Korean public sentiment is excessively afraid of China and critical of Japan. It is the exact opposite of South Korea’s ideal diplomatic strategy. Kim reiterates that if South Korea, the United States, and Japan speak with one voice on security issues, Pyongyang and Beijing will not behave as they do now. Finally, he warned of populism in foreign policy, requesting strategic thinking from each of the candidates.

On December 8, Chun Yung-woo explained in DongA Ilbo why security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is necessary. Chun said the two countries mutually benefit from preventing North Korea’s nuclear development and China’s attempt to alter the status quo. To achieve these goals, the two countries have to keep US Asia policies on their side and stop Trump from taking an isolationist approach. It is much more effective to appeal to Washington together than doing so separately. Reiterating that security challenges will be coming from China not Japan in the future, Chun said that there is no way for Japan to exceed China’s military capabilities in the foreseeable future or even to close the gap. As long as Tokyo has to depend on the alliance with Washington, Chun argued, it is extremely unviable for Japan to be a threat to South Korea. But China’s current stance on THAAD deployment showed that it ignores South Korea’s sovereignty. This is just the beginning of Chinese hegemony in the region, readers were told. South Korea’s diplomatic strategy should be to maintain a balance of power in the region. Only that can stop the hegemon from abusing its power and leave open options for South Korea. In this context, Chun concluded that the United States should be the final balancer in the region, thus, bilateral security cooperation with Japan is more urgent than ever.

However, a January 17 Kyunghyang Shinmun columnist argued that there is an inevitable gap between the diplomatic goals of Seoul and Washington. For the United States, North Korea is a mere adversary and China is a strategic competitor. Washington is trying to build a trilateral alliance in East Asia to pressure China. For South Korea, however, North Koreans are brothers at the same time. China is not necessarily a competitor. Though the US diplomacy does not always correspond to South Korea’s best interests, Seoul’s diplomacy has derived from the US Asia policy resulting in THAAD deployment and the 2015 “comfort women” and GSOMIA agreements with Japan. The problem is that ignoring this gap has led to a vicious cycle of mutual hostility with neighboring countries and cost South Korea its voice. It is both understandable that South Koreans resent Japan’s history perceptions and Japanese resent South Korea’s attempt to repeal the agreements. South Koreans are repulsed by the Chinese economic retaliation against THAAD deployment decision, which disappointed China. The problem is that the South Korean government remained relative silence in response to Japan’s unilateral halt of the bilateral currency swap negotiations and offensive comments, and to Chinese violations of the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone. The author concluded that South Korea should regain its voice by taking a path to a peaceful Korean Peninsula, which presidential candidates need to identify.

On December 14, a Hankook Ilbo observer insisted that there are many reasons to review Park’s diplomatic policies thoroughly. There were many last-minute changes due to Park skipping discussions with relevant departments. But this does not mean that every decision needs to be reversed. The national interest should be considered here. The author argued that the Trump administration was likely to overturn Obama’s Asia policies. As the “One China policy” becomes a negotiating tool, the author argued, the alliance with Seoul also could be another negotiation tool. Then the alliance could not be called value-based any longer. Under these circumstances, the author questioned if it would be reasonable to continue with the old frame when Trump administration changes the rule of the game fundamentally. It is uncertain whether Trump will be okay with the deployment costs for THAAD. The author urges setting a future-oriented diplomatic strategy rather than repeating the current diplomacy, heavily dependent on the value-based alliance with Washington.

On January 20, another observer in the same newspaper argued that diplomacy was needed to minimize China’s blatant retaliation against the THAAD deployment. When South Korea decided to move the USFK base to Pyeongtaek in 2006, there was controversy inside the country but no official opposition from China. This was due to the success of diplomacy. The national security advisor at the time visited Beijing unofficially almost every week and achieved China’s strategic tolerance. The article concluded by expressing concern that Seoul seems to pick a side rather than exercising diplomacy to maneuver between the two countries, though, it warned, the environment will be completely changed after the Trump inauguration.

Lee Jin-myung analyzed Northeast Asia’s stability through balance of power theory in Kukje Jeongchi Nonchong 56, no. 4. Lee argued that the theory is proving to be applicable at the regional level as opposed to the international level. Three special features of the region lead to this result: 1) South Korea’s geopolitical position between China and Japan; 2) a tendency toward anarchy and conflicts between alliances; and 3) a competitive situation caused by multiple adversarial relationships. Lee showed that the number of regional disputes decreased toward the end of the Cold War era but rapidly increased after 1990 to reach a peak Cold War level in the 2000s. Lee proved that a shrinking gap in national capabilities explained the decreasing number of disputes in the region as did the success of the US dual containment policy. However, the US rebalancing policy led to increased disputes in the region after 1990. The US rebuilt and modernized the Chinese economy and military as part of containing the Soviet Union, but its sudden collapse left China and North Korea’s regime inclined to pursue arms competition. The old balancing strategy unexpectedly turned Beijing into a threat. Accordingly, the United States continued its expansive policy to maintain its superiority over China. Given China’s rapid increase in military expenditures and Japanese rearmament attempts since the 2000s, Lee argued, the theory offers a better explanation of the region than the theory of hierarchy. From 1990 to 2001, China’s preemptive attacks outnumbered those of others, and the number by others is not negligible—China (21), South Korea and the United States (14), Japan (12), and Taiwan (10). Lee pointed to Beijing’s expansionist nature and to other countries’ perceptions of it as a threat.

Lee concluded that Washington seemed to exercise its rebalancing strategy as a result of its misjudgment of the regional structure in the post Cold War era—assuming that it is based on bandwagoning. The author rang the alarm that the rebalancing policy can be a source of increasing military disputes under the balancing-based regional order. When a country is pressed to bandwagon under a balancing order, it causes steep resistance from that country. Repeated insistence that South Korea needs to choose between the United States and China was given as an example.

The Korea-Japan Relationship

The unclear negotiation process between Seoul and Tokyo became an issue again as a Japanese official asked for demolition of the statue in front of the embassy as if that had been agreed in exchange for the one billion yen fund already paid by Japan. Anti-Japan sentiment grew, and voices for repealing the agreement became mainstream. Abe and Japanese officials’ insensitive comments came under criticism, but there were also voices calling for restraint and a rational approach putting anti-Japanism to the side.

On January 3, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer acknowledged the installation of the “peace” statue in front of Japanese consulate was not desirable but insisted that the humiliating and “unilateral” agreement was the fundamental reason and argued that additional negotiations are needed. The author insisted that legal responsibility must be redefined in detail. Acknowledging that it is difficult to articulate Japan’s legal responsibility in an agreement, the article asserted that the agreement, at least, should stop Japan from denying it officially. The problem of the current agreement is not that South Korea cannot say the money is compensation, but that Japan is repeatedly and officially stating that it is not. In addition to this, a Japanese prime minister’s letter of apology should meet the minimum threshold to persuade South Koreans to accept the deal. If Japan refuses additional negotiations, the author argued that the government needed to say, “we are not going to be bound by an agreement, which cannot be accepted by the people.” Acknowledging that the move can cause diplomatic costs, the author argued that it is a necessary setback for a better bilateral relationship to accept the fact that the Japan diplomacy of the Park administration failed.

On January 19 in DongA Ilbo, Nam Sang-ku opined that the 2015 agreement cannot limit a civil organization’s activities. Even though a local government had jurisdiction over the statue, the Japanese ambassador was ordered to return home, which, Nam argued, is a violation of the agreement. Acknowledging that the South Korean government agreed to make efforts to resolve the problem through negotiations with relevant organizations, Nam insisted that such efforts will not be successful without Japanese help. The meaning of the statute is not anti-Japanism but to remember the history and not to repeat the same mistake. If the Japanese government included its records of “comfort women” in the UNESCO Memory of the World Program and in Japanese textbooks, it would be much more effective in getting the statue moved than arguing that Korea has violated an international accord.

On January 6, another columnist in the same paper insisted that the agreement did not bind civil organizations. However, he admitted that the installation could be a breach of the international accord. The author also criticized the South Korean media’s selective coverage on the issue, pointing out that it neglected that 34 victims already have accepted the agreement. In response to the criticism that the Park administration sold off the statue, the author retorted that what it wanted was to receive even one yen from the Japanese budget as a token of apology, and the outcome happened to be one billion yen. It should be the Japanese government that is criticized for linking demolition of the statue and the money, distorting the agreement, not the South Korean government. Questions were also raised about how the presidential candidates are going to achieve a better deal after repudiating the existing one.

On January 17, Park In-hwi argued in Munhwa Ilbo that South Korea needs to look at two practical achievements: the money came from the Japanese government and Japan acknowledged its government level involvement. The author acknowledged that it was a strategic failure of Park’s government to leave room for linking the agreement to the statue removal and making the vital deal in a closed manner. It is a Japanese mistake that its leader mentioned the money in this context and made the case that ignored the divide between “country and civil society” instead of taking a two-track approach. Park also criticized Japan for not recognizing its responsibility for the victims as seen in their official denial of the compensatory nature of the money. Nevertheless, Park argued that it is repeating the same old mistake to call off the agreement based on anti-Japanism.

A January 16 Chosun Ilbo columnist acknowledged that if the national sentiment is too strongly against the deal, renegotiations or repeal was inevitable. However, the author explained why renegotiations were not going to be easy. The Abe administration already said that this is the final resolution, and, even if were to agree to new negotiations, Seoul no longer has the upper hand as it proved that it keeps moving the goal posts. The only leverage to move Japan is the United States. Abe, the most conservative prime minister in Japanese history, agreed to sign the agreement due to US pressure. The US Democratic government over the last eight years has had a tradition of valuing human rights issues and Secretary of State Clinton was favorable to South Korea on the issue, highlighting the criminal nature of “comfort women” by calling them forced sex slaves. But the Trump administration is going to be different. Human rights are not a priority. Abe is going to have a summit with Trump before South Korea and convey his logic: “the deal was signed and Japan paid all the promised money.” If business-minded Trump is favorable to Japan, renegotiations will be a diplomatic disaster. Should renegotiations be impossible, Seoul could leave the issue unresolved until a more progressive prime minister takes office in Japan. But the victims are already on average 90 years old; it is questionable how many will see a new deal.

Park Cheolhee in the January 11 Chosun Ilbo agreed that Abe was not going to sit at the negotiating table again. He criticized Japanese officials’ insensitive comments, saying that the money was a means to convey a Japanese apology and regret, not the price for demolition of the statue. Financial payment does not replace the apology. Though there are reasons for public discontent with the current agreement, repealing the argument is impractical. The agreement was signed to enhance the trilateral alliance and guarantee South Korea’s security. Any conflict caused by the repeal in the bilateral relationship would weaken trilateral cooperation against North Korea. Even if it was repealed, South Korea’s credibility will drop and international criticism is likely to be directed at Seoul. Tokyo needs to restrain itself, and Seoul also needs to settle the issue in a manner that does not provoke Japanese public sentiment, the article concluded.