Country Report: South Korea (January 2019)

The end of 2018 and the first weeks of 2019 saw the South Korean media obsessed with North Korea and its diplomacy with the United States and China. Prospects for a second US-DPRK summit were a repeated concern throughout this time frame. Donald Trump’s summit with Moon Jae-in at the G20 summit was viewed from this angle. Hopes for opening a railroad connection between North and South Korea, boosted by a ground-breaking ceremony, rested on the outcome of such a summit. The New Year’s address by Kim Jong-un was assessed not only for its significance for denuclearization but also for its promise for the summit. Kim’s travel to Beijing for a fourth summit with Xi Jinping was seen as a prelude to the second summit with Trump. Progressives and conservatives differed in their evaluations of what was transpiring, even as direct diplomacy between Washington and Pyongyang brought the summit closer. Conservatives were particularly concerned about troubled relations with Trump seen in burden-sharing talks and with Abe Shinzo, as ROK-Japan relations were in free fall. Perhaps, the biggest concern, however, was that Trump’s “America First” would lead him to reach a deal focused on removing the North’s ICBM threat to the United States with the possibility of withdrawing US forces from South Korea. While the impending summit raised hopes for many, it aroused anxiety that progressives vainly tried to dispel by appealing to Moon to play an active bridging role.

G20 Summit

President Moon Jae-in flew out on November 27 to attend the G20 summit meeting in Argentina; on his way to the meeting, he landed in the Czech Republic and met with Prime Minister Andrej Babis while President Milos Zeman was away in Israel. Moon’s visit while the head of state was away sparked controversy. But what aroused greater inflammatory responses in Seoul was Moon’s attempt to promote Korea’s nuclear reactor bid in the Czech Republic, given his long-term insistence on a nuclear phase-out policy at home. Moon’s November 30 meeting in Buenos Aires with President Donald Trump—after the AP initially reported based on the White House press secretary’s briefing, that it would be “downgraded” to a more informal “pull-aside” conversation—provoked the Blue House to explain and deny, causing a dispute over its level of formality. The two leaders met for 30 minutes without any other attendees but interpreters. According to the Blue House briefing, Trump reaffirmed his plan to hold the second US-DPRK summit early in 2019 and agreed that Kim Jong-un’s visit to Seoul would create additional momentum on top of the joint efforts between Seoul and Washington toward achieving peace on the Korean Peninsula. Moon’s last stop before returning to Seoul was New Zealand where he met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on December 4 and promised to strengthen ties between the two countries. 

Regarding Moon’s sixth meeting with Trump and Kim’s potential visit to Seoul, conservative editorials called for Pyongyang to make up its mind and take this last opportunity. Dongawrote on December 3, quoting Trump’s remarks that “three locations are under review for meeting with Kim in January or February of next year,” that the US president quashed lingering doubts about the feasibility of the second summit and firmly showed his intention to meet with Kim again. Additionally, it argued that the disorder we have experienced since the first US-DPRK summit in Singapore shows that Kim Jong-un must be directly involved, considering the nature of the North Korean regime, in order to move toward denuclearization. Moon told reporters on his presidential plane that Trump asked him to deliver the message, “[Trump] would make what Chairman Kim wants come true,” to the North Korean leader. Donga interpreted Trump’s message as Washington providing regime security, economic aid, and more to Pyongyang if complete denuclearization comes first and urged Kim to give up the vain hope of sanctions relief and carry out his denuclearization promise. Chosun struck a similar tone, writing on December 3 that Kim, desperate to meet with Trump, is seeking concessions—such as the suspension of the annual joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington—by signing an insubstantial agreement with a US president ignorant of the nuclear negotiation details. The editorial warned that the chance of repeating “the failure in Singapore” exists. Chosun also claimed that Kim’s visit to Seoul and the second US-DPRK summit could be perceived as meaningful only if they serve as an opportunity to rid Pyongyang of its nuclear warheads, highly-enriched uranium facilities, and more.

Progressive papers concurred on the opinion that Moon’s meeting with Trump was a breakthrough in fighting the impasse between Washington and Pyongyang. Both Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang emphasized, in particular, that the two leaders agreed on the importance of Kim’s visit to Seoul. Hankyoreh wrote on December 2 that Kim would likely prefer to visit Seoul following a second summit with the United States because, without lifting sanctions, which has to be negotiated with Washington, inter-Korean developments are restricted. Given that Trump and Moon agreed “sanctions should be sustained until North Korea completely denuclearizes,” Pyongyang may well think that visiting Seoul would be pointless unless it sorts out the issue of sanctions with Washington. However, the editorial called for the North Korean leader’s visit to Seoul to come first, so it can mark a turning point, overcoming the stalled process. It also insisted that North Korean leader’s first ever visit to Seoul would inevitably have a significant impact on denuclearization talks and, with the world watching, Kim could use the opportunity to shake up international opinion and offer a way forward for denuclearization negotiations.

Groundbreaking ceremony for inter-Korean railroad project

The two Koreas joined in a ceremony for connecting the North and South by railway on December 26 at Kaeseong’s Panmun station. The groundbreaking ceremony came after the decision at the second US-ROK working group meeting with US special representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun in Seoul on December 21 and the UN Security Council’s approval to exempt it from the sanctions against North Korea on December 25. The inter-Korean railroad project, which accords with the Panmunjom Declaration signed in April between Moon and Kim, has been one of Moon’s longtime goals and one he touted during his campaign. The unification ministry wrote in a press release on December 24, “Actual construction will be pursued in accordance with the progress in North Korea’s denuclearization and the state of sanctions against the North.” The main opposition Liberty Korea Party was quick to criticize the news and the fact that no details on the scale or duration of the construction were provided, including a budget estimate. The party also criticized the Moon administration for not fully disclosing the details of the inter-Korean cooperation fund of 1 trillion won, allocated for 2019. However, the country’s ruling party and other opposition groups welcomed the chance for the “dream of transcontinental railroad” to materialize.

Conservative editorials, in general, conceded that the event hinted at a promising future for inter-Korean economic cooperation and joint prosperity if Pyongyang takes steps toward denuclearization. But according to Donga on December 27, “Groundbreaking event for Inter-Korean railroad connection, thus far and no further obtainable without denuclearization,” the ceremony was not intended to mark the start of the actual construction but was merely a symbolic event, as Moon affirmed during a press conference on December 1 right after his meeting with Trump in Argentina, that this “doesn’t mean initiating a construction but undertaking a certain task.” The editorial reiterated that the construction could begin only after the UN sanctions are lifted. It also warned the Korean government that if major infrastructure support, such as railway and road connections, was offered to North Korea prior to the North’s denuclearization, South Korea would lose its leverage to induce Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear program. Munhwa took a harsher tone on December 27, saying the event ended up being a “fake groundbreaking ceremony,” irrelevant to the beginning of actual construction. Instead, the editorial stated, it was an occasion where North Korean officials preached at South Korean ones, as in deputy minister of North Korea’s state railway Kim Yoon-hyuk’s remarks, “Being fickle while reading other’s countenance,” implying that the South is being led along by the United States. It also condemned South Korea’s transport minister, Kim Hyun-mi, who attended the ceremony but failed to mention “nuclear” once at the event and the fact that taxpayers’ 720 million won was spent.

Progressive editorials hailed the ceremony and labeled it a milestone for a new era of peace. Hankyoreh wrote on December 26 that the promised event, which was scheduled to take place by the end of the year as agreed in both the Panmunjom and Pyongyang Declarations, was delivered on time and, therefore, carries substantial weight; and despite the sanctions, hosting the ceremony had, in fact, strengthened trust between the North and the South. The event had added significance, it said, because in addition to authorities from the two Koreas, officials from other governments, including China, Russia, and Mongolia, as well as international organization officials were there to recognize Korea’s great vision to establish a railroad connection across Northeast Asia. Additionally, Hankyoreh insisted that connecting the North and South railroads would contribute to reviving Korea’s slow-growing economy. Although the project has a long way to go, with a lot of hurdles to jump over, experts say it is estimated to bring in about 140 trillion won worth of economic benefits through running the Gyeongui line alone, thanks to lower logistics costs and natural resource imports from North Korea. While acknowledging that both countries first have to overcome the obstacle of denuclearization to proceed with the project, the editorial signaled hope of thawing relations between Washington and Pyongyang since Biegun’s last visit, citing Trump’s tweet released on Christmas eve, “Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!”

Kim Jong-un gives New Year’s address

On the first day of 2019, North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a video clip of its leader giving his annual New Year’s address. In the clip, Kim Jong-un eschewed his usual Mao suit for a Western business suit and tie, and sat in an armchair while clarifying that Pyongyang is willing to “completely denuclearize” and ready to meet with Trump anytime. But on the other hand, Kim warned the United States that if Washington pushes for pressuring the North with the sanctions regime, it would have no choice but to search for a “new path.” In regards to inter-Korean relations, Kim alluded to resuming the Kaeseong Industrial Complex operations and Mount Geumgang tours “without preconditions.” Kim also called for: 1) ending the US-ROK joint military exercises; 2) suspending US strategic assets entering the Korean Peninsula; and 3) promoting multilateral negotiations between the signatories to the armistice agreement, so as to shift from the current ceasefire regime to a peace regime. Responding to the address, Trump tweeted, “Kim Jong-un says North Korea will not make or test nuclear weapons, or give them to others” citing PBS News and added, “I also look forward to meeting with Chairman Kim.” The address came after Kim sent a letter to Moon on December 30, which expressed, according to the Blue House, Kim’s strong commitment to visit Seoul when the situation allows. Trump also received a letter from Kim, which he held up during a cabinet meeting on January 2. “He’d like to meet. I’d like to meet,” Trump said, reaching closer to the possibility of the second US-DPRK summit.

Conservative editorials diverged with regards to reading Kim’s denuclearization statement. Munhwa wrote on January 2 that taking Kim’s “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is my firm will” as a positive sign is to seriously misinterpret his address. The essence of Kim’s speech was that both Washington and Seoul should present reciprocal measures since Pyongyang had already preceded with its own denuclearization-related measures, or otherwise, it will follow a “new path” of nuclear enhancement. According to Munhwa, Kim’s statement that the North “would neither produce and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them” is a way of boasting that North Korea is a nuclear state and wishes to negotiate accordingly as a nuclear power. Chosun chimed in, referring to the KCNA report earlier on December 20, that Kim’s definition of denuclearization amounts to withdrawing US forces from the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding areas prior to the North’s denuclearization. The editorial argued, Kim declared that North Korea is a de facto nuclear state and there was, with respect to Pyongyang’s dismantlement of its nuclear program, no fundamental progress in his address.

Joongang, in a softer tone, wrote on January 2 that Kim’s 2019 New Year’s address was different from those in the past; Kim mentioned the word “nuclear” 22 times in his last New Year’s address, but only 2 times in this year’s address; and notably, he used the word “peace” 25 times this year compared to 10 times last year. The editorial also stressed that Kim spent most of his time talking about North Korea’s economic development, which had been weighed down by sanctions over the past two years. As 2019 marks Pyongyang’s fourth year in its five-year economic development plan, which must be successful for Kim to sustain his regime, the key to its success is the removal of sanctions, and lifting sanctions can only be pushed forward if the North moves forward with denuclearization. Segye appreciated Kim’s commitment to completely denuclearize and meet Trump. This could be interpreted, it wrote, as Kim’s announcement to break the impasse over denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington and emerge into the international community by normalizing North Korea’s relations with the United States. But Kim’s pledge to “no longer produce, test, use, and proliferate nuclear weapons”—a new claim that North Korea stopped producing nuclear weapons, said to be in order to allay Washington’s concerns over Pyongyang’s nuclear capability enhancement—is disappointing. Segye added, as the address said nothing about the nukes North Korea already has, it could be read as Kim’s clear will not to give up the existing ones. The editorial also accused North Korea of intentionally widening the cracks in the US-ROK alliance, particularly given his mention of “reopening the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount Geumgang without preconditions” and “suspending the US-ROK joint military exercises and US strategic assets.” The only path for survival is, Segye insisted, taking preemptive denuclearization measures. 

Meanwhile, progressive Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang both welcomed Kim’s address and called for the second US-DPRK summit.Kyunghyang on January 1 valued highly Kim’s “complete denuclearization” statement as it was first time the North Korean leader used this language while addressing his own people. The editorial insisted that Kim’s vow to “no longer produce, test, use, and proliferate nuclear weapons,” echoed inside and out of North Korea, was his government policy to focus on economic development through denuclearization. Regarding inter-Korean relations, Kim sought a peace regime in earnest by suggesting reopening Kaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount Geumgang with no preconditions and adopting a series of agreements in 2018 between Seoul and Washington as a virtual nonaggression declaration, a push for economic cooperation between the two Koreas. Kyunghyang released another editorial the next day, headlined “Kim Jong-un’s will to denuclearize reassured, time for US to step in,” which cited Trump’s immediate tweet—“Looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!”—and noted both sides’ expectations for a second summit. Kyunghyang proposed high-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang ahead of the summit but at the same time, acknowledged the difficulties involved as the two states have not had high-level talks since their postponement in November 2018. Hankyoreh also wrote on January 2 that both Kim and Trump’s positive responses may mean that the two leaders would take the “top-down” approach and therefore, proceed with a second summit. But considering the slow progress in previous months, it remains unclear at the moment. The editorial wrote that Washington only demanding “actions for complete denuclearization” without its corresponding measures will not help the two states escape the stalled phase. It proposed that the South Korean government get actively involved as a bridge—sending an envoy to North Korea with a letter responding to Kim—to pursue a mediated settlement.

Kim’s visit to China meeting Xi (January 7-10)

The North Korean leader’s first diplomatic trip in 2019 was to China. Kim Jong-un took the train on January 7 and arrived in Beijing the next day at the invitation of President Xi Jinping for a fourth summit. The unannounced three-day visit was made amid growing anticipation of the second US-DPRK summit; however, news broke right before Kim’s departure that North Korea’s acting ambassador to Italy Jo Song-gil has sought asylum in the United States, shifting the dialogue. The two leaders reportedly discussed international matters, particularly affairs on the Korean Peninsula, and the process of denuclearization negotiations. The summit was followed by a four-hour banquet, which honored Kim’s birthday and 70 years of diplomatic ties. The next morning, Kim toured a Chinese pharmaceutical company located inside Beijing’s Economic and Technological Development Area and had lunch with Xi and his wife before leaving. KCNA reported on January 10 that Xi readily agreed to visit North Korea in response to Kim’s invitation, which is, according to experts, a show of closeness and stronger relationship-building between Beijing and Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Moon at a New Year’s press conference on the same day said, “Kim Jong-un’s visit to China is, in one word, a sign that the second US-DPRK summit is close.” He added that Kim’s current visit to Beijing will have a positive impact on the success of that second summit. 

Conservative editorials insisted that Kim’s move to meet Xi for a fourth time was to show the United States North Korea’s solidarity with China. Donga wrote on January 9 that the fact Kim spent his birthday in Beijing and took the occasion to celebrate with the Chinese authorities proved his ambition to take the lead in Korean affairs in the new year. The editorial continued, as Kim’s last three visits to China also happened before the inter-Korean summit on April 27 and before and after the first US-DPRK summit on June 12, the purpose of this visit appears to be to discuss negotiation strategies against the United States with Xi, prior to Kim’s second summit with Trump. Especially, a visit while Washington and Beijing are in negotiations to resolve their trade issues gives prominence to China and catches Washington’s attention. Donga cited Kim’s “new path,” warning in his New Year’s address that North Korea may derail from the denuclearization track if corresponding measures from the United States are not granted, and claimed that the visit was intended to threaten the United States that the North could take a different route, backed by China. Munhwa worried over rifts found among the United States, the South, and Japan, while North Korea and China blatantly resort to their “nuclear artifice.” Munhwa claimed that: 1) Xi accepted North Korea’s “nuclear freeze at the current level”; and 2) trade expansion between Beijing and Pyongyang diminishes UN sanctions against the North. The editorial diagnosed that Kim is demanding sanctions relief without denuclearization and Xi is trying to weaken the US-ROK alliance by leveraging North Korea’s nuclear program. In order to cope with China and North Korea’s tricks, the editorial wrote, close cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan is necessary, but lately it has been challenged; with the recent US-ROK defense cost sharing negotiations falling through as Trump—asking Seoul to pay almost double the current amount—may pull out the “reducing US troops in South Korea” card. Trump might even abruptly accept withdrawal of US troops if Kim suggests an invalid denuclearization path, as the cornered US president is seeking a way out in Washington. As for Seoul-Tokyo relations, the editorial wrote that it is “close to a boiling point” citing: 1) the South Korean highest court’s decision over the forced wartime labor by a Japanese firm, Mitsubishi; and 2) the Korea-Japan radar dispute in the international waters of the East Sea (Sea of Japan). According to the editorial, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed between the two states to identify and contain North Korean threats, is now fruitless. Lastly, the article criticized the Moon administration for putting no effort into mending its alliances with the United States and Japan.

Progressive editorials appreciated Kim’s visit to China, hoping the move turns into a stepping stone for progress in US-DPRK talks. Hankyoreh adjudged on January 8 that the second US-DPRK summit is near, and Kim must have sought to leverage China when negotiating with the United States. As a way to defend its judgement, it referred to a part of Kim’s New Year address, “promote multilateral negotiations between the signatories to the armistice agreement, in order to convert the current ceasefire regime to peace regime” and argued that Kim acknowledged China as one of the responsible players in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula, which is strategically different from Pyongyang’s past, ambiguous attitude towards China’s participation. The editorial focused on the change in US-China relations after the US-China summit last month compared to much of the last year; Trump said that Xi had agreed to work with him 100% on North Korea. It also highlighted the importance of China, which has restored a working relationship with the United States and maintained close ties with North Korea, and expected Kim’s visit to lead to a significant breakthrough in resolving the denuclearization issue. Kyunghyang on the same day, concurred with Hankyoreh about the imminent US-DPRK summit and made a supplementary point that now the North Korean leader’s visit to a foreign country has become routine. Considering that Kim was accompanied by Park Tae-sung of North Korean Worker’s Party, in charge of Pyongyang’s key elements of economic strategy, science, and education, the editorial claimed that North Korea is getting ready for economic development through cooperation with China. It also underlined Kim’s visit to Russia being pushed forward and insisted that this too shows Kim’s strong will to normalize, reform, and open up his country.

North Korean envoy flies to Washington to meet Pompeo and Trump

On January 18, North Korea’s leading negotiator Kim Yong-chol met with his US counterpart, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Trump in Washington. Kim and Pompeo held high-level talks—the first time since the cancellation last November in New York—to coordinate details including schedules and agendas for the second US-DPRK summit. The two then headed to the White House, where Kim delivered a letter from his leader to Trump. As soon as the meeting ended, a White House spokesperson shared a press release that the second summit will take place in late February and told the reporters the meeting was “productive.” While the Trump administration kept Kim’s entire itinerary low key, The Wall Street Journal broke the news on January 22 that Kim also had an unannounced meeting with the CIA’s deputy director, Vaughn Bishop, during his stay in Washington. At the same time, a senior North Korean diplomat handling US affairs, Choi Sun-hee was in Stockholm to participate in three-day working-level negotiations with senior officials from Washington and Seoul which, the Swedish foreign ministry commented, was “constructive.”

Conservative papers raised concern over the upcoming summit deal between the United States and North Korea, which may not end with “nuke-free” but perhaps “ICBM-free” North Korea, at the expense of the US-ROK alliance. Chosunon January 19 worried about a revised US goal of “No ICBM”: 1) the US Department of State defined North’s ICBM capabilities as a “special threat” on the day Kim Yong-chol arrived in DC; 2) North Korea was named first among missile threatening nations in the Missile Defense Review 2019; 3) Trump on January 17 said in a speech at the Pentagon, “We will protect the American people from all types of missile attacks”; and 4) the incoming head of the US House Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific Brad Sherman said, “I do not believe North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will abandon all nuclear weapons” and added that America  would become safer if it could freeze the North’s missile-related programs and allow Pyongyang to keep a limited amount of nuclear weapons under close surveillance. The editorial additionally warned if the defense cost sharing negotiations between Washington and Seoul do not reach a settlement, changes in the current circumstances of US troops in South Korea could be abruptly thrown on the table at the summit. Chosun released another editorial on January 21, condemning Trump for announcing the time of the second summit—supposedly late February—despite the lack of pre-arrangements for the summit, and using the nuclear negotiations with North Korea to cover up his domestic political mess. The editorial cautioned the United States against repeating the failure of its first summit with Pyongyang and called for a North Korean commitment on nuclear dismantlement before the summit. But Joongang on January 21 rather appreciated the timing of the summit roughly set, as it can be a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations on denuclearization, while it shared the same concern as Chosun over Washington’s potential “No ICBM” goal.

Progressive editorials lauded the announced US-DPRK summit in late February, while they demanded that practical denuclearization measures be produced at the second summit and urged Seoul to hammer away at mediating between the two countries. Kyunghyang wrote on January 20 that both sides should agree to concede a point to each other and asked the United States to find a feasible way to induce North Korea to give up its nukes instead of pushing Pyongyang into a corner to do so. The editorial acknowledged that it is difficult to bring about complete denuclearization at once. Therefore, it argued that the journey to denuclearization should kick off with an exchange between the North’s initial measures to denuclearize covering the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities and ICBMs, and partial sanctions relief, such as resuming the Kaeseong Industrial Complex operations. Hankyoreh on January 20 also admitted that the process is a long way ahead and claimed that the success of the summit rests upon how the North’s “denuclearization measures” and the United States’ “corresponding measures” are exchanged in concord with each other. It released another editorial the next day highlighting Seoul’s participation in the three-party Stockholm negotiations and wrote that South Korea should make the most of this opportunity and help establish a middle ground, acceptable to the other two states. According to Hankyoreh, Washington would apparently—prior to complete denuclearization, as an “interim phase”—demand a freeze on the production of Pyongyang’s fissile materials and nuclear weapons, along with dismantlement of ICBMs, which pose a direct threat to the United States; in exchange, North Korea is asking for the easing of sanctions, and reopening the Kaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount Geumgang are also on Pyongyang’s list of requests. The editorial lastly claimed that if both sides fail to deliver a concrete outcome from the summit, the denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula would be again placed at risk and it called for Seoul to do its utmost to be a dependable mediator.