Country Report: South Korea (January 2018)

From November 2017 to January 2018, South Korean news editorials discussed North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwaseong-15, and covered bilateral dynamics: South Korea-China relations following the Moon-Xi summit; US-North Korea relations following Tillerson’s proposal for unconditional talks; US-South Korea relations following the release of Trump’s national security strategy and the suspension of the two countries’ joint military exercises; South Korea-Japan relations following Moon’s review of their 2015 agreement on comfort women; and inter-Korean relations following the revival of their communication channel and subsequent high-level talks regarding the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Hwaseong-15 Launch

On November 28, 2017, North Korea launched its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), named Hwaseong-15. The land-based ICBM fell into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), demonstrating the longest range so far by a North Korean ballistic missile. Following the launch, Pyongyang claimed that it has “completed” its nuclear weapons and missile programs, and that its missile is able to strike anywhere in the United States. In response to the latest provocation, South Korea conducted military drills involving precision missile strikes. In addition, Moon agreed with Trump and Abe to take strong measures, including strengthening the existing sanctions on North Korea.

Progressive coverage saw the latest provocation as an opening for initiating dialogue with North Korea. A Kyunghyang article on November 29, 2017 concedes that during the 75-day interval in which Pyongyang refrained from any provocation, the international community failed to encourage dialogue. Due in part to this, North Korea now expects greater concessions as it is no longer “developing” nuclear weapons, but in fact possesses them. Yet, the article argues that Pyongyang’s “completion” of its nuclear weapons development may be an opportunity in disguise: As North Korea professes to own a fully-functional nuclear arsenal, there may be no need for it to conduct further tests, and this may help foster a political climate conducive to dialogue. Emphasizing that this may be the last chance to open dialogue, Kyunghyang encourages the United States and South Korea to actively seek contact.

A Hankyoreh article on November 29, 2017 is more critical of Pyongyang’s provocation, but maintains that it was largely predictable. The article points to Trump’s redesignation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism as one of the possible reasons for its latest launch. In addition, Hankyoreh foresees ever-heightening tensions between North Korea and the United States. Trump declared that he has no intention of changing his “maximum pressure” approach; he will likely push for an oil embargo on North Korea despite uncertain cooperation from China and may even increase the frequency and intensity of US military drills at the expense of South Korean political and economic costs. So far, the US response to Pyongyang’s provocations has been largely consistent, whether under Obama’s “strategic patience” or Trump’s “maximum pressure”: condemnation followed by sanctions. Hankyoreh concludes that a sanctions-oriented approach, in the absence of increased engagement, has proved ineffective time and again; dialogue is the only solution to the North Korean nuclear problem.

Conservative coverage assessed the viability of the sanctions regime and the possibility of a US-North Korean compromise. A Chosun article on November 30, 2017 recalls that Moon previously set his “redline” as the North’s completion of ICBM technology, indicating that he is willing to intervene militarily in such an instance. Yet, unwilling to trigger a military confrontation, Moon described the latest provocation as involving a “long-range ballistic missile” rather than an ICBM. This, in fact, signals that Moon is more concerned with preventing US military action than stopping the nuclear advancement of the North. If diplomacy has failed and war is not an option, then two scenarios remain: 1) continued sanctions, the success of which depends on an undependable China; and 2) a grand compromise between Pyongyang and Washington, in which the former freezes its nuclear weapons and missile programs in return for the latter’s removal of sanctions—or even the withdrawal of its troops from South Korea. In either case, the situation is precarious for South Korea; seeking a reaffirmation of the US-South Korean alliance and reconsidering the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons or nuclear sharing are first steps to prepare against such contingencies.

South Korea-China Relations

Moon visited China on December 12-16, 2017, during which he met with Xi and other Chinese leaders, including Premier Li Keqiang and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang.
Prior to Moon’s departure, both progressive and conservative media discussed the two countries’ decision not to release a joint statement following their leaders’ summit. Progressive outlets argued that the decision was aimed at eliminating any risks of deepening THAAD-related tensions and likely driven by Chinese wishes to compel Seoul to change its stance on THAAD. While more empathetic toward Chinese reasons for retaliating against Seoul, a Kyunghyang article on December 12, 2017 still characterizes Beijing’s actions as both unfair and disproportionate, particularly given the persistent threats emanating from Pyongyang. The article recalls the spirit of the two countries’ October 31 statement to amend bilateral ties and encourages Moon and Xi to find compromise during their summit. 

Conservative outlets were more vocal in their criticism of China and the Moon administration for enabling China’s assertive behavior. A Chosun article on December 12, 2017 blames Beijing for attempting to intervene in South Korea’s defense policy, and claims that China’s refusal to agree to a joint statement—a convention since 1998—as well as Beijing’s continued reference to the “three no’s” signal its unwillingness to negotiate on THAAD. The article also expects that Xi will demand that Moon make concrete commitments to the “three nos” policy during their summit; Moon’s response will have significant implications for how the two countries cooperate on North Korea, and more importantly, how they treat each other. A Segye article on December 12, 2017 broadly echoes this view, while adding that Xi may also push for a “freeze-for-freeze” approach to the North Korean problem, namely a simultaneous moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile tests and US-South Korean military exercises. Segye argues that such a proposal would distract from ongoing efforts to constrain North Korea and urges Moon to seek, instead, Chinese cooperation on a comprehensive oil embargo. 

During the Moon-Xi summit on December 14, 2017 the two leaders agreed to four basic principles on North Korea. These principles include: 1) unacceptability of war on the Korean peninsula, 2) commitment to its denuclearization, 3) commitment to the peaceful resolution of the North Korean problem, and 4) recognition that improved inter-Korean relations are key to achieving peace. Besides agreeing to these principles, Moon and Xi considered a range of measures to repair the strained ties, including establishing a hotline between the two leaders. Contrary to expectations that Xi would push Moon aggressively—particularly prevalent among conservative outlets prior to the summit—, Xi refrained from touching on sensitive topics, including the “three nos” and “freeze-for-freeze.” Arguably in return, Moon refrained from demanding that Xi place an oil embargo on North Korea. 

Progressive coverage saw the summit as a positive first step toward improving South Korea-China relations. A Hankyoreh article on December 14, 2017 stresses in particular how Xi avoided directly mentioning “THAAD” or any such keywords that could incite controversy, which the article characterizes as “considerate.” While admitting that their differences remain as yet unresolved, the article finds it encouraging that Moon and Xi were focused on areas of mutual interest. On the other hand, conservative coverage expressed disappointment and anger with the poor reception Moon received in China. A Joongang article on December 15, 2017 mentions, for instance, that a low-ranking official was sent to the airport to welcome Moon and that Moon was not invited to dine with Chinese leaders for his first meal in China—an important part of guest reception in Chinese culture. Further, Chinese security guards assaulted a Korean journalist accompanying Moon, raising suspicions about whether it had been accidental. Each gesture, the article argues, symbolizes Chinese belittlement of South Korea.

Following the summit, the Blue House released an internal assessment of Moon’s China trip, painting it as successful on two main grounds: 1) reaffirming Beijing’s commitment to the peaceful resolution of the North Korean issue; and 2) building a foundation for bilateral economic cooperation (in spite of the THAAD standoff). Conservative outlets, including Chosunon December 18, 2017 argued that the Moon administration’s self-evaluation was overly optimistic. Chosun points out that of the four principles to which Xi agreed during the summit, three have been Beijing’s preferences since 1993—no war, denuclearization, and resolution by peaceful means. In other words, Beijing’s current stance is not a product of Seoul’s diplomatic efforts, but rather, long-held strategic judgment. A more centrist outlet Kookmin, on December 17, 2017 further notes that while emotional approaches to assessing Moon’s trip can be found from both sides, it is undeniable that few concrete measures have been agreed to toward fulfilling the aforesaid principles.

Progressive coverage criticized the main opposition party for their emotional analyses of Moon’s China trip. A Kyunghyang article on December 15, 2017 cites the leader of the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) Hong Joon-pyo, who described Moon’s recent trip as “tributary diplomacy”; the article views such remarks as inflammatory yet empty in substance. Given that the LKP is in many ways responsible for the current state of South Korea-China relations—by blindly supporting alliance ties with the United States and allowing the deployment of THAAD in particular—Kyunghyang finds the LKP’s attitude inappropriate. Hankyoreh on December 15, 2015, shares this view. Even while conceding that Beijing’s treatment of Moon was subpar, the article argues that expectations of a grand welcome were unrealistic to begin with. More important, the article sees the opposition party’s derisive remarks as a political attempt to simply derail Moon’s commitment to repair ties with Beijing.

US-North Korea Relations

On December 12, 2017, Tillerson stated at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC that the United States is “ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk.” Tillerson’s overture came two weeks after North Korea’s ICBM launch and amid Trump’s continued threats of military retaliation via Twitter. Against this backdrop, Tillerson’s proposal drew widespread skepticism among Korea watchers as to whether his proposal for a “first meeting without preconditions” truly reflects the Trump administration’s policy on North Korea. South Korean media discussed the prospects of US-North Korea relations in light of this recent development.

Interestingly, progressive and conservative coverage was united in urging North Korea to accept Tillerson’s suggestion for unconditional talks, but for different reasons and emphasizing different consequences. Progressive coverage saw Tillerson’s proposal as an encouraging step toward opening US-North Korea dialogue. While admitting that the latest overture probably reflects Tillerson’s personal view rather than the Trump administration’s official policy, progressive outlets, including Kyunghyangon December 13, 2017, argued that it still creates an opportunity to initiate talks, which is a positive development. Kyunghyang also notes that Tillerson’s move is well-timed, pointing to the North’s recent approval of the visit by UN political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman, signaling its willingness to defuse tensions through cooperation with international agencies. A Hankyoreh article on December 13, 2017 adds that the proposal was long overdue, asserting that even “talking for the sake of talking”—which Trump repeatedly renounced—is better than allowing the situation to deteriorate.

Conservative coverage agreed that North Korea should accept Tillerson’s offer to talk, but focused on potentially disastrous ramifications should Pyongyang forego the opportunity. A Donga article on December 14, 2017 warns that Tillerson’s suggestion comes amid reports of the “March deadline,” which the Trump administration allegedly set in regards to North Korea. The article also references comments by key officials that underpin the urgency of a diplomatic breakthrough: Tillerson remarked that if diplomatic efforts fail, it would be the Defense Secretary James Mattis’ “turn” (implying military options); National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster commented that now is the “last, best chance to avoid conflict”; Press Secretary Sarah Sanders reminded people that “the President’s views on North Korea have not changed.” Based on these comments, Donga asserts that Tillerson’s proposal represents a final offer that Pyongyang would be foolish to reject. At the same time, it serves as a reminder for South Korea to actively seek a part in case of dialogue between the United States and North Korea.  

US-South Korea Relations

On December 18, 2017, the Trump administration delivered its national security strategy. It depicted a world in turmoil as the United States competes against “revisionist powers” like Russia and China, as well as “rogue regimes” like North Korea and Iran. Putting “America First,” the strategy introduced four pillars: 1) protection of the American people, homeland, and the American way of life; 2) promotion of American prosperity; 3) preservation of peace through strength; and 4) advancement of American influence. These pillars linked American domestic strength to its performance overseas, subtly redefining “America First” by rejecting implications of isolationism and embracing, instead, a version of internationalism. Within this broader picture, the document also reaffirms Trump’s position on North Korea, namely that the United States is ready to use “overwhelming” force against Pyongyang.

Progressive and conservative coverage shared the assessment that the competitive world order that Trump portrays in his national security strategy places South Korea in danger, but suggested different ways to deal with the threats. Progressive outlets such as Kyunghyangon December 19, 2017 argued that Trump’s antagonism of North Korea and fears of emboldened China were evident in the latest document, and saw the Korean Peninsula as the likely battleground for great power competition. Similarly, a Hankyoreh article on December 19, 2017 warns of the “new Cold War,” suggesting that the resolution of the North Korea problem will be frustrated by the growing mistrust between the United States and China. Referring to THAAD, the article worries that South Korea will become the greatest victim as it confronts the two competitors. Both Kyunghyang and Hankyoreh urge the Moon administration to prepare against potential crises and advocate for a balanced approach to maximize Korean interests in the midst of US-China rivalry.

While acknowledging that great power competition threatens South Korean interests, conservative coverage maintained that Seoul must prioritize its alliance ties with the United States. A Donga article on December 20, 2017 demonstrates that Trump’s national security approach clearly contradicts Moon’s—Trump’s plans for strengthening missile defense systems challenges Moon’s “three nos,” while Trump’s readiness to use force against North Korea contravenes Moon’s “no war” principle—and posits that Moon will ultimately need to confront these contradictions. Further, as US-China competition deepens, South Korea will have to choose sides, and the article concludes that the right answer is, unequivocally, the United States. Munhwa on December 19, 2017, echoes this view, adding that speculations about US strategy are over; it is time for South Korea to declare its position.  

Just a day after the release of Trump’s national security strategy, on December 19, 2017, Seoul proposed to delay the US-South Korea military exercises until after the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, triggering a heated debate in South Korea about the future of US-South Korea relations. Although the Blue House explained that the proposal was solely intended to promote a peaceful completion of the Olympics, and not aimed at resolving the North Korean problem, South Korean media found parallels between Moon’s latest overture and China’s “freeze-for-freeze” approach, with far-reaching implications for US-South Korea relations.

Progressive coverage welcomed Moon’s proposal, asserting that postponing military drills reinforces the peace-promoting spirit of the Olympics games. A Hankyoreh article on December 20, 2017 states that Pyeongchang—where the games will be held—is only 100km away from the 38th parallel; conducting military exercises during the Olympics would not only alarm the participating states, but defeat the meaning of the Olympics altogether. Further, the article argues that Moon’s gesture could encourage North Korea to participate in the games, which would contribute to the success of the event as well as help improve bilateral relations. Hankyoreh urges the United States to respond affirmatively and allow this occasion to serve as an opportunity to ease tensions.

In contrast, conservative coverage criticized heavily Moon’s suggestion to delay the military drills, warning that such moves could further destabilize US-South Korea relations, which have been continually called into question as of late. Indeed, a Segye article on December 20, 2017 finds Moon’s approach imprudent, condemning how Moon announced his proposal in an interview with NBC News without having confirmed the US stance and citing Tillerson’s remarks that he was unaware of any plans to “alter longstanding and scheduled and regular military exercises.” In addition, a Kookmin article on December 20, 2017 questions whether the proposal was really necessary, pointing out that the military exercises scheduled in March—Key Resolve on March 8-23 and Foal Eagle from March 1 until the end of April—do not coincide with the Olympics games, planned for February 9-25 (but overlap a bit with the Paralympics, scheduled for March 9-18). Given that the UN General Assembly already adopted the so-called “Olympics Truce” resolution, which guarantees the athletes a safe passage throughout the Olympic games, Kookmin sees the delay in the military exercises as over-compensating North Korea.       

South Korea-Japan Relations

On December 27, 2017, Moon’s Special Task Force, assigned to review the 2015 South Korea-Japan agreement on “comfort women,” announced that the deal was concluded in a “seriously flawed” manner, and could not resolve the two countries’ dispute over the historical issue. The agreement entailed a one-time payment of approximately $8.3 million by Tokyo to meet the needs of the “comfort women” survivors in South Korea, and branded the deal a “final and irreversible” resolution to the decades-old issue. In response to the findings of the Special Task Force, Japanese Foreign Minister Kono Taro responded that any revision or renegotiation of the 2015 agreement would render bilateral relations in an “unmanageable” state, leading to speculations about Moon’s next steps.

Progressive coverage expressed extreme disappointment regarding the undisclosed aspects of the 2015 agreement, in which then-president Park agreed to: 1) persuade organizations working on behalf of the “comfort women” to accept the payment; 2) strive to remove the “comfort woman” statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul; 3) stop funding additional “comfort woman” statues in third countries; and 4) stop using the term “sexual slaves” to refer to the “comfort women.” Lamenting how Park discarded the demands of the surviving “comfort women” in conceding to Japanese terms, a Hankyoreh article on December 27, 2017 paints the 2015 deal as a “historic crime.” Further, the article condemns Abe for failing to apologize for Japan’s wartime atrocities and urges him to take legal responsibility. Given that one of Moon’s campaign promises was to renegotiate the 2015 agreement, Hankyoreh finds Moon in an intractable, and perhaps contradictory, position to reopen the dispute while simultaneously seeking to mend ties with Japan.

Conservative coverage found fault with both the 2015 agreement and its review, concerned about its implications for South Korea-Japan relations. A Joongang article on December 28, 2017 acknowledges that the deal was concluded in a rushed manner, and that its characterization of the resolution as “final and irreversible” was inappropriate. Yet, the article also recognizes that the Task Force released sensitive documents—merely two years after the conclusion of the deal—potentially harming the legitimacy and reputation of the South Korean government; Joongang asks rhetorically, “which country would be willing to conclude a politically sensitive, secret deal with Seoul?” A more centrist Kookmin, on December 27, 2017 shares the sentiment: Even though the flaws of the agreement are manifest—and Japan’s attitude of entitlement should be corrected—, repudiating the deal would be costly and could possibly damage South Korea-Japan relations beyond repair. Kookmin suggests that Moon work to compensate the victims internally and cooperate with Tokyo to restore the broken trust rather than unilaterally rescinding the agreement.  

Amid intense debate in Seoul about the prospects of the 2015 deal, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyunghwa announced during a press conference on January 9, 2018, that the Moon administration will not seek renegotiations. Nonetheless, Seoul requested of Tokyo a “voluntary and sincere apology” to the victims. In response, Abe stated that he cannot accept Seoul’s unilateral demands that Tokyo take measures beyond the initial terms of the 2015 agreement, and claimed that Tokyo will not move “even a millimeter on the deal.” Further, Kono stressed that future bilateral agreements will be difficult if the Moon administration simply rejects the commitments of its predecessors. In revealing his decision to attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics, Abe also declared that he intends to convey his firm stance on the 2015 deal and demand that Moon abide by its terms, pushing in particular for the removal of the “comfort woman” statue.

Progressive coverage assessed Moon’s decision not to withdraw from the 2015 deal as inevitable, but appreciated his effort toward implementing a two-track approach, in which the “comfort women” issue would be tackled separately from the remaining topics of South Korea-Japan relations. A Kyunghyang article on January 9, 2018 praises in particular Moon’s redefinition of the “comfort women” issue as a broader human rights issue rather than a topic of bilateral diplomacy, as well as his victim-centered approach to resolving it. At the same time, however, the article expressed disappointment with Japan’s continued intransigence and failure to reciprocate Moon’s conciliatory move, even as he suffered considerable political cost to accommodate the Japanese.

In addition, progressive outlets criticized Abe for using the Olympics as a venue of protest. A Hankyoreh article on January 24, 2018 argues that Abe’s plan to pressure Moon regarding the 2015 deal during the Olympics is both untimely and disrespectful. Asserting that this subject constitutes a human rights issue that cannot be settled on such short notice, the article urges the two countries to treat it as a long-term diplomatic objective.

Conservative coverage recognized that Moon’s decision was in many ways unavoidable and emphasized that agreements between states must be respected. Taking a harsh tone, a Joongang article on January 10, 2017 condemns the Moon administration for its “amateurish” handling of the “comfort women” crisis, and warns that Moon must first grasp the implications of his “signals” before acting impulsively. Similarly, Kookminon January 9, 2018 underlines that Moon’s priority going forward should be to restore Seoul’s trustworthiness among its international partners.

Meanwhile, conservative outlets welcomed Abe’s decision to attend the Olympics opening ceremony and urged Moon to find a compromise. A Joongang article on January 25, 2018 states that Abe’s attendance is particularly important as Trump, Xi, and Putin have all declined their invitations. The article also stresses that bilateral tensions would continue to be exacerbated if their disagreement remains unresolved and Moon continues to act unilaterally (for instance, his recent decision to terminate the “comfort women” trust that was established under the agreement with Japanese funds). Joongang reiterates that restoring South Korea-Japan relations is indispensable, particularly as the threats from the North become increasingly formidable.

Inter-Korean Relations

Inter-Korean relations faced a number of significant developments with the start of a new year, following: 1) Kim’s Jong-un’s New Year’s address; 2) revival of the inter-Korean communications channel; and 3) high-level talks regarding the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics games. On January 1, Kim Jong-un delivered his address. While admitting the “unprecedented” damage his country suffered from international sanctions, Kim boasted that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs have been successfully completed. He added that he had a “nuclear button” in his office, implying that his nuclear arsenal is fully operational and ready to be launched against any enemy state that seeks to dismantle his regime. Beyond such threats, Kim also suggested conditional talks with Seoul, offering to send a delegation to the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea.

Conservative coverage saw Kim’s address as an attempt to sabotage the US-South Korea alliance. According to Chosunon January 2, 2018, Kim’s offer for talks is intended to buy him time as he completes his nuclear program—Pyongyang is yet to prove that it has perfected the missile reentry technology—as well as cause friction between Washington and Seoul. Given that Pyongyang will not fulfil any preconditions, Washington is unlikely to support the talks; Seoul’s decision to enter into talks, therefore, may deepen the two allies’ growing fragmentation. Echoing this assessment, a Donga article on January 2, 2018 warns that Pyongyang will make aggressive demands if talks were to take place. Indeed, Kim has been explicit about his desire for Seoul to walk away from its alliance commitments, calling on the Moon administration to remove the “blind followers” of the United States in his office and cease all joint military activities. Donga urges Moon to strategize carefully in responding to the North’s overtures, highlighting the significance of the US-South Korea alliance and the efforts of the international community to constrain Pyongyang thus far.

Progressive coverage positively evaluated Kim’s address, focusing on his willingness to improve inter-Korean relations. While recognizing that suspicions exist surrounding the North’s intentions to initiate talks, a Kyunghyang article on January 1, 2018 asserts that their offer should be assessed from the perspective of Seoul’s interests, not North Korean objectives, whatever they may be. If, through this opportunity, the Moon administration is able to create an environment that is more conducive to dialogue—not simply between the two Koreas but potentially with the United States—then Seoul would enjoy greater room for diplomatic maneuver. Hankyoreh on January 1, 2018 shares this view, encouraging Moon to stay focused on how to incentivize Pyongyang toward peace, rather than wasting time trying to decipher its true intentions. The article also urges Washington to consider the North’s offer optimistically, and to respect Seoul’s decision to pursue dialogue as its ally and key benefactor of peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Following Kim’s address, North Korea reopened its line of communication with the South in Panmunjom, which had been shut for nearly 2 years since the closure of Kaesong Industrial Complex in 2016. Pyongyang’s head of inter-Korean affairs Ri Son-gwon spoke on behalf of Kim, confirming that the North is seriously considering sending a delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics. Welcoming the North’s overture, Seoul proposed holding high-level talks on January 9, 2018, which Pyongyang accepted. Trump told Moon in a phone call that he supports the talks and agreed to postpone their military exercises, but also reaffirmed his commitment to the campaign of maximum pressure against Pyongyang. Further, Trump took credit for the dialogue in a tweet, “Does anybody really believe that talks and dialogue would be going on between North and South Korea right now if I wasn’t firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North,” and added that he, too, is open to talks with the North during a press conference in Camp David.

Progressive coverage saw the latest developments as encouraging. A Hankyoreh article on January 7, 2018 reports that both Koreas (as well as the United States) were eager for the talks scheduled on January 9, noting that the delegations will be fairly high-level on both sides, which indicates their serious commitment. The article argues that due to the existing sanctions placed against Pyongyang, outcomes of the talks will remain largely limited. However, they present an opportunity for the two parties to build trust, and smaller, symbolic gestures could prove helpful in that regard, such as the North’s participation at the upcoming Olympics. At the same time, Hankyoreh criticizes conservative outlets such as Chosun for discouraging the talks on the basis of the damage they will purportedly impose on US-South Korea relations. Citing a Chosun article that denied reports of Trump’s support for the talks— soon proved false when he publicly endorsed them—Hankyoreh wonders who is truly responsible for the fragmentation in US-South Korea relations.

Conservative coverage was pessimistic about the prospects of the impending high-level talks. A Joongang article on January 8, 2018 claims that Trump’s support for the talks could be a double-edged sword, particularly because he suffered domestic opposition in agreeing to delay the military exercises for the successful completion of the two Koreas’ upcoming exchanges. If the talks do not amount to meaningful outcomes and merely results in the North’s participation at the Olympics, Seoul could be blamed for buying Pyongyang the time it needs to advance its nuclear weapons program. Even more disquieting, it may give Trump a reason to resort to military options. Likewise, a Chosun article on January 8, 2018 cautions that Washington and Beijing have varying, self-interested reasons for supporting the talks, and that Seoul must treat the talks equally strategically. Chosun adds, Pyeongchang Olympics’ success is not worth the hard-fought framework that the international community has constructed to curb Pyongyang’s destructive behavior; removal of sanctions or the termination of US-South Korea military exercises cannot be traded for the North’s short-term, possibly disingenuous offers.

On January 9, 2018, Seoul and Pyongyang engaged in high-level talks, during which the latter agreed to send its delegation to the Pyeonchang Olympics and the former reciprocated by temporarily lifting some sanctions and travel bans to allow the North to attend the Olympics. The two parties also agreed to revive their military hotline and considered the possibility of resuming the reunions between family members who have been separated by the Korean War. Meanwhile, South Korea also reported that the North strongly complained about the proposed talks on denuclearization, arguing that its nuclear arsenal is not directed at its “brethren” South Korea, but the United States, and therefore not a topic of discussion during the inter-Korean talks.

Progressive coverage celebrated the results of the talks, and saw the latest dialogue as a stepping-stone to improved inter-Korean relations. A Hankyoreh article on January 9, 2018 recalls the 2007 Changchun Asian Winter Games in which the North and South Korean athletes last marched together under one flag, and urges the two parties to recommence this tradition to help moderate the tension. Similarly, Kyunghyangon January 9, 2018 stresses the symbolic significance of the North’s Olympics participation, and underscores the opportunity it presents Seoul to advance further dialogue on more sensitive topics, including—eventually—denuclearization.

Conservative coverage insisted that the North’s incentives for attending the Pyeongchang Olympics is to drive a wedge between US-South Korea relations, and forewarned that the talks would prove meaningless absent any agreement on denuclearization. A Chosun article on January 10, 2018 postulates that Pyongyang is using Moon’s desire for dialogue to distance it from Washington, which demands the North’s unilateral denuclearization. In addition, the article cites the CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who commented that the North’s recent turn toward dialogue, according to “past history,” is a “feint” that “is not likely to lead to any true change in his strategic outlook.” Chosun concludes that there will be “a time of reckoning” (in reference to a Wall Street Journal article) once the Olympic games have ended, as to whether the talks have produced any substantial result.

On January 17, 2018, the two Koreas engaged in a vice ministerial-level meeting and agreed that their athletes would jointly march at the opening ceremony and form a joint cheering team during the Pyeongchang Olympics. Further, they agreed to organize a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang on February 4, 2018 to celebrate the Olympics before the games commence on February 9. Despite such promising signs of a thaw in inter-Korean relations, however, North Korea unilaterally notified the South on January 29, 2018, that it would cancel the pre-Olympics event at Mount Kumgang, blaming the South Korean media for insulting the North’s sincere efforts toward participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. Pyongyang’s abrupt decision came amid heavy criticisms against the Moon administration for its handling of the joint-Korean participation at the Olympics—including a rushed decision to form a joint women’s ice hockey team without consulting South Korean athletes in advance—causing Moon’s favorability rating to plunge by 6 points in one week.

Progressive coverage, while regretting the North’s decision to cancel the Kumgang event, urged the conservative media to stop provoking Pyongyang. A Hankyoreh article on January 30, 2018 discusses potential reasons for why the North may have retracted; for instance, the article speculates that Pyongyang may have been offended by the ongoing controversy surrounding its request for Seoul to supply diesel oil to facilitate the event, which raised suspicion and criticism from the South Korean conservative media. While urging the Moon administration to be sympathetic towards the North’s needs and sensitivity, Hankyoreh calls upon the conservative outlets to stop disrupting the momentum being built around inter-Korean relations.       

Conservative coverage condemned the North for failing to uphold its obligations and reiterated its untrustworthiness. A Segye article on January 30, 2018 states that simply expressing regret—as the Moon administration did when it was notified of Pyongyang’s decision to withdraw from the Kumgang event—was not enough; Seoul must instead admonish Pyongyang against such unilateral moves and extract an apology. Segye also notes that Pyongyang may threaten to revoke other terms of the deal and use this uncertainty as a leverage against Seoul. The article calls upon the Moon administration to act firmly against the North’s capriciousness.