Country Report: South Korea (January 2020)

In December 2019, tensions increased on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea’s self-imposed year-end deadline approached. North Korea conducted two rocket engine tests at Tongchang-ri to pressure the US while Kim signaled through his horseback ride at Mount Paektu that he may unveil his “new path.” In response, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss North Korea’s provocation. China and Russia used the opportunity to propose the easing of sanctions in order to keep the momentum going for US-North Korea talks. Two days before Christmas, Moon Jae-in held a summit with Xi Jinping ahead of the China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit and the two leaders sent a unified signal for North Korea to return to the negotiating table with the US. Christmas day passed with no signs of a “gift,” and Trump continued to downplay the threat, suggesting that it could be “a beautiful vase.”

In January 2020, both Kim and Moon delivered speeches that unveiled their policies for the new year. Policy recommendations on North Korea varied between South Korean conservatives and progressives, especially on the level of sanctions enforcement and cooperation with the US. Meanwhile, the South Korean media closely watched the US-Iran conflict unfold since it could affect the stability of national security and the domestic economy while testing the resilience of the US-ROK alliance. Conservatives and progressives strongly diverged in their approach towards the troop deployment to the Strait of Hormuz, showing the increasing challenges facing the US-ROK alliance.

Kim’s visit to Mount Paektu and North Korea’s “Christmas present”  

On December 3, North Korean vice foreign minister Ri Thae-song stated in KCNA that “it is entirely up to the US what Christmas gift it will select to get.” Ri further warned that Trump should not drag out dialogue “in favor of the political situation and election in the US.”1 On December 4, Trump responded by emphasizing his good relationship with Chairman Kim, but noted that Kim “definitely likes sending rockets up” and called him a “Rocket Man,” which is a term that was used in 2017 during “fire and fury.” Trump then stated that although he hopes that Kim “lives up to” the Singapore agreement, the US could use force “if we have to.”2 In response to Trump’s statement, Pak Jong-chon, chief of the General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army, stated that “anyone can guess with what action the DPRK will answer if the U.S. undertakes military actions.”3 This was the first time a North Korean commander directly addressed the US, which further raised tensions as the year-end deadline approached.

On December 4, Kim rode on a white horse in Mount Paektu with his wife Ri Sol-ju and senior military officials. Kim’s previous visits to Mount Paektu were followed by major policy announcements, such as the visit in 2017 where he announced the country as a nuclear power. During the trip, Kim also visited Samjiyon County to celebrate the completion of the second stage of the construction project at the planned tourist center not far from the Chinese border. This was his third visit to Samjiyon County, which was the most frequently visited location among Kim’s 22 economic visits in 2019, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.4 The Samjiyon project, which is scheduled for completion this year, is symbolic because it is Kim Il-sung’s birthplace. Kim Jong-un’s visit signaled that he may use the economic project to promote tourism and seek economic independence from Washington.

Conservative editorials voiced concern as the year-end deadline approached and urged Moon to strengthen the US-ROK alliance. Joongang wrote on December 7 that as tensions increased, there was a possibility that Trump could return to the “fire and fury” of 2017.5 The editorial warned that North Korea could resume its missile and nuclear programs since satellite imagery has captured movements of cars and equipment at the Tongchang-ri missile site and the Yongbyon nuclear facility complex. The editorial pointed out that Kim has shown his determination to resist the US through his visit to Mount Paektu, which is where Kim Il-sung had led Korean guerrillas against Japanese forces. Joongang predicted that Kim might make an important announcement at the year-end Central Committee meeting. As tensions increase on the peninsula, the editorial noted the diminishing role of the Moon administration due to the strain in the US-ROK alliance after Moon threatened to withdraw from GSOMIA. The editorial suggested that Moon should use this opportunity to strengthen the US-ROK alliance and take a strong stance towards North Korea by demanding denuclearization. In addition, Moon should prevent Trump from signing a bad, small deal with North Korea, which could threaten South Korea’s national security.

Progressive editorials also raised concerns as the year-end deadline approached and urged the US to present an acceptable deal to North Korea. On December 4, Hankyoreh urged the US and North Korea to refrain from raising tensions as the deadline neared.6 The editorial warned that if there were no breakthroughs in US-North Korea relations by the end of 2019, North Korea could announce its “new path” which would further raise tensions on the peninsula. The editorial urged the South Korean government to actively engage the US and North Korea since there is still room to resume bilateral talks. Kyunghyang chimed in and agreed that US-North Korea talks should resume.7 The editorial suggested that if North Korea criticizes US-ROK joint military exercises, the US should consider reducing the size of joint exercises until mid-2020 in order to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Since Kim and Trump have not completely lost trust in each other, the two sides should approach talks with flexibility. During the negotiations, the editorial stated that the US should present an acceptable deal, and North Korea should refrain from conducting intermediate-range missile and nuclear weapons tests in return.

The Tongchang-ri test and the UNSC meeting

North Korea increased pressure as the deadline approached. On December 7, KCNA reported that North Korea conducted a “very important test” at its Sohae Satellite Launching Ground, also known as the Tongchang-ri station. South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed that this was a ground-based rocket engine test and urged North Korea to stop heightening military tensions in the region. Highly charged rhetoric ensued following the engine test, further raising tensions on the peninsula. On December 8, Trump tweeted, “Kim Jong Un is too smart and has far too much to lose, everything actually, if he acts in a hostile way. He signed a strong Denuclearization Agreement with me in Singapore. He does not want to void his special relationship with the President of the United States or interfere with the US Presidential Election in November.”8 In response, North Korean senior official Kim Yong-chol stated that North Korea had “nothing more to lose” and hinted at a possible military provocation.9

Conservative editorials expressed concern that Trump and Moon would use the North Korea issue for upcoming elections. On December 10, Chosun expressed disappointment at Trump’s tweet warning Kim not to interfere with the election because it explicitly showed that Trump is using the North Korea issue for his presidential campaign.10 The editorial wrote that Trump has been engaging Kim and cancelling the US-ROK joint military exercises for political optics without considering the national security of South Korea, which is directly affected by North Korea’s nuclear threats. In addition, Chosun noted that Moon used the North Korea issue in 2018 to raise his approval rating to 80 percent and help the ruling Democratic Party of Korea win the local elections. The editorial pointed out that Kim does not face re-election and understands the significance of democratic elections for Trump and Moon. Therefore, it warned, Kim may significantly increase tensions to entice Trump to accept a bad deal and remove sanctions.

Joongang wrote on December 11 that the rocket engine test at Tongchang-ri was significant because the site mainly tests engines for ICBMs.11 For example, North Korea tested a high-thrust engine at Tongchang-ri in March 2017, four days before it launched a missile in Wonsan. The editorial predicted that the North could be preparing to launch a missile, which is why the US is launching surveillance planes above the peninsula. It urged the Moon administration to explain the security situation and present a concrete plan to its citizens. Munwha chimed in and suggested that Moon should abandon his idealistic vision for peace on the peninsula and increase cooperation with the US to prevent Trump from accepting a bad deal.12 The editorial further urged Moon to cooperate with the international community to promote the denuclearization of North Korea.

Progressive editorials also expressed concern regarding the rocket engine test. On December 8, Hankyoreh wrote that the test was an indication that the North was increasing pressure as the year-end deadline approached. The editorial took a strong stance and warned North Korea to refrain from escalating military tensions through dangerous provocations.13 It further noted that the North’s test is a clear violation of the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September 2018, where the North agreed to “permanently dismantle the Tongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform.”14 Hankyoreh urged North Korea to abide by the inter-Korean agreement. In addition, it called for Moon to use creative methods to facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the US and North Korea before it was too late. Kyunghyang noted that there was a limit to Moon’s role as a mediator since North Korea expressed distrust in Seoul and suspended inter-Korean dialogue after the Hanoi Summit in February 2019.15 However, the editorial suggested, the Moon administration should still try to mediate between the US and North Korea.

On December 11, the UN Security Council held a session on North Korean nonproliferation in response to the Tongchang-ri test. US ambassador Kelly Craft warned that North Korea’s missile tests were “deeply counterproductive” for peace negotiations and said the council “must be prepared to act accordingly” if North Korea continues to engage in threats.16 However, she left room for dialogue and stated that the US was “prepared to be flexible” for concrete, parallel steps with North Korea. In contrast, China and Russia called for the adjustment of sanctions to create favorable conditions for US-North Korean dialogue.17 On December 16, China and Russia circulated a draft resolution, which recommended to the Security Council to lift the prohibition on overseas North Korean workers, to lift certain sanctions on exports such as seafood and textiles, and to allow the development of the inter-Korean projects.

Both conservative and progressive editorials cautiously expressed hope as the US indicated its willingness to be flexible in talks with North Korea. On December 12, progressive outlet Hankyoreh noted that the US sent a positive signal, indicating that it was ready to take a flexible approach towards North Korea.18 However, the editorial warned that this conciliatory gesture might not be enough to bring the North back to the negotiating table. Hankyoreh pointed out that previous US-North Korea talks broke down because of disagreements over sanctions. During the UNSC meeting, China and Russia called for a roadmap to ease sanctions. Since they have closer relations with the North, the editorial suggested that sanctions remain the top priority of the North’s agenda. Therefore, Hankyoreh cautioned that tensions will not be resolved unless the US is willing to place the topic of sanctions at the top of its agenda. The editorial warned that Special Representative Stephen Biegun’s visit to Seoul in mid-December would not be successful unless he comes prepared to present a new deal at the negotiating table with the North. In particular, the editorial suggested that a meeting between the US and North Korea would be likely if Biegun delivers a personal letter from Trump that presents an acceptable deal for the North. On December 12, Kyunghyang also expressed hope since the US showed flexibility in its willingness to talk with North Korea.19 However, itpointed out that the US and North Korea still have different approaches towards the negotiating process. While the US plans on adding flexibility in the course of denuclearization negotiations, North Korea still favors a phased and incremental approach. Because of this difference, the editorial predicted that the North would not respond favorably towards the US despite its willingness to show flexibility in future talks. Hence, it urged both sides to show maximum flexibility and prevent a breakdown in dialogue. 

Conservative editorials noted the US willingness to show flexibility while criticizing China and Russia for calling for premature sanctions relief. On December 12, a conservative editorial in Segye said that Kraft’s message hinted that the US may be willing to approach negotiations with flexibility and accept compromises on some of North Korea’s demands.20 It asserted that North Korea should show room for flexibility in return. In contrast, Segye criticized China and Russia for pushing the international community to lift some sanctions on the North rather than advocating a unified stance on its belligerent behavior. On December 18, Segye responded to China and Russia’s draft resolution to the UNSC, warning that this could create a major loophole in the US-led maximum pressure campaign.21 Doing so, the editorial warned, could grant North Korea immunity to develop nuclear weapons while allowing Kim to increase demands for sanctions relief and regime security in future talks. It urged the Moon administration to firmly oppose the draft resolution, including sanctions exemptions for the inter-Korean railway. In addition, the editorial stated that Moon should actively cooperate with the US and Japan to promote national security.

The Moon-Xi summit ahead of the year-end deadline

On December 23, Moon and Xi held a bilateral summit in Beijing ahead of the eighth China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit. This meeting took place one day after the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Military Meeting and two days before a possible “Christmas gift” on December 25. During the meeting, Moon and Xi stated that they hoped the US and North Korea would maintain momentum for dialogue. According to the Blue House spokesperson, Xi stated that “China and South Korea should join forces in making North Korea and the United States maintain dialogue momentum.”22 In addition, Moon stated that he “appreciated China’s important role for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a peace settlement” and he hoped that the two countries “can work together even more closely.”23 The two sides also discussed the new UNSC draft resolution that was proposed by China and Russia.

Both progressive and conservative editorials focused on Xi and Moon’s message towards North Korea. Progressive editorials expressed hope that Xi would actively mediate between the US and North Korea in the future. On December 23, Kyunghyang pointed out that Moon asked Xi to mediate between them since the suspension of dialogue would not benefit either country. Based on the positive outcome of the meeting, the editorial expressed hope that China would soon mediate as requested. It further predicted that North Korea may return to pursuing military-first politics if the deadlock in US-North Korea talks extends into 2020. If so, the editorial stated that Beijing’s role would be crucial in dealing with the North, and South Korea will have to “normalize” relations with China.

Conservative editorials stated that North Korea should take China’s warning seriously and refrain from hostile provocations. On December 23, Segye wrote that Moon and Xi’s joint statement to pursue dialogue over confrontation was a message intended for North Korea.24 The editorial pointed out that Xi likely asked North Korea to refrain from provocations and return to the negotiating table. Given that Xi has considerable leverage over it, Segye hoped that China’s message would contribute to resolving tensions on the peninsula. However, it pointed out that China has been sending mixed signals towards the North by delaying the repatriation of North Korean overseas workers who were supposed to return by December 22.  The editorial urged China to send a consistent and strong signal to refrain from destabilizing the security situation on the peninsula. In addition, Joongang warned the South Korean government that Xi’s possible visit to Seoul in 2020 was not a strong enough deterrent to prevent North Korea from military provocations.25 Therefore, the editorial suggested that the Moon administration maintain close coordination with the US and Japan. By doing so, the US and South Korea could send a strong message to the North that provocations would lead to stricter sanctions enforcement by the international community.

Kim’s plenary speech and Moon’s New Year’s address

Christmas passed with no signs of a “gift” for Trump. On December 28-31, Kim convened a four-day meeting of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee after the US did not respond to the North’s year-end deadline to resume denuclearization negotiations. During the meeting, Kim announced that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK in the near future.” He further renounced the North’s self-imposed nuclear and ICBM test moratorium, leading some experts to warn that it could resume low-level provocations in the coming months. Kim warned of a “shocking actual action” but left room for negotiations by stating that a “powerful nuclear deterrent” will depend on the United States’ “future attitude to the DPRK.”26 Kim did not address South Korea in his remarks, reflecting strained inter-Korean relations compared to 2018, when Kim devoted a portion of his New Year’s speech to addressing cross-border relations.27 In response, Trump stated on December 31 that “We have to do what we have to do…But he [Kim Jong-un] did sign an agreement talking about denuclearization.” Trump further stated that he has “a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un” and that he believes Kim is “a man of his word.”28 Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force continued to fly surveillance aircraft to monitor the Korean Peninsula.29

Conservative editorials expressed concern over the outcome of the four-day meeting. Segye released a series of editorials in response to the meeting. The one on December 29 asserted that the US Department of Defense has reportedly formulated a strategy to respond to the North’s potential provocation on February 16, 2020, the birthday of former leader Kim Jong-il.30 The DOD has been sending surveillance flights over the peninsula, and the Air Force has already released a video clip that demonstrates how it can intercept an ICBM with a missile. The editorial called on North Korea to take this warning seriously because the US is demonstrating that provocations will come at a price. It suggested that Moon refrain from discussing the relaxation of sanctions in this situation and focus on developing a hardline policy towards North Korea. On January 1, Segye pointed out that Kim stated that North Koreans need to “break through [sanctions] head-on” 23 times in his speech.31 Therefore, the editorial predicted, Kim’s “new path” was referring to the byungjin line of simultaneously developing the economy and nuclear weapons. It added that North Korea has reversed its self-imposed nuclear test moratorium of April 2018, which demonstrates that Moon’s engagement policies with the North did not produce positive results. The editorial expressed concern and urged North Korea to return to the negotiation table because its byungjin policy will only lead to regime instability.

Joongang wrote on January 2 that North Korea’s “new path” might be its resolve to end denuclearization talks with the US rather than resuming the byungjin policy.32 North Korea may have refrained from launching a missile test in December because: 1) it could provoke Trump and lead to war with the US; and 2) a missile provocation could force Kim to return to byungjin, which he officially ended in 2018. Therefore, the editorial stated, the US and South Korea should maintain the current level of sanctions while bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. In addition, it suggested that Moon recognize the strength of the US-ROK alliance in deterring North Korea’s military provocations and continue to improve joint defense capabilities. Chosun argued that negotiations will only help manage the situation and suggested that the Moon administration also prepare practical military and diplomatic countermeasures to protect its citizens from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.33

Progressive editorials were concerned that the North might raise tensions with a missile launch but cautiously expressed hope in the North’s willingness to resume talks. On January 1, Kyunghyang noted that Kim indicated that he could return to a hardline position by stressing the need to break through sanctions barriers 23 times. In addition, the reshuffling of WPK department members indicated that the North was preparing to become more self-reliant by developing its national economy. The editorial raised concerns that the North might launch an ICBM or SLBM ahead of the US presidential election, which would close the door to future US-North Korea talks. In contrast, Kyunghyang pointed out that Kim’s speech had positive signs since he left room for diplomacy. The editorial pointed out that Kim did not address South Korea in his speech because he wanted to concentrate on developing relations with the US. By doing so, Kim was sending a signal for the US to return to the negotiating table. In addition, Kim did not deliver a New Year’s address because he was allowing flexibility in his level of response to the US. Therefore, the editorial urged the US and North Korea to resume talks with flexibility. It also suggested that Moon should play a more active role as a mediator between the two countries.

On January 2, Moon stated at a New Year’s gathering that “North Korean and US leaders continue to maintain their commitment to dialogue,”34 adding that he would expand “room to maneuver” in inter-Korean relations. On January 7, Moon delivered his 2020 New Year’s address and addressed inter-Korean relations,35 expressing regret over the lack of “progress in inter-Korean cooperation,” which could further “suffer a setback amid the stalemate” between Washington and Pyongyang. However, he stated that “expectations and hope for peace have risen as never before” and invited Kim to visit the South. He then suggested that both sides “identify realistic ways to implement projects” including inter-Korean railroads, Mount Kumgang tourism, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Moon ultimately expressed high hopes for a “peace-driven economy,” which would bring peace and prosperity to the two Koreas.

Progressive Kyunghyang voiced concern regarding Moon’s speech on January 2 regarding inter-Korean relations. On January 2, it said Moon’s hopes for peace seemed unrealistic when compared to Kim Jong-un’s speech at the plenum.36 The editorial pointed out that Kim did not refer to South Korea in his 2019 speech compared to his New Year’s speech in 2018, where he mentioned inter-Korean relations 10 times. Some South Korean analysts stated that Kim intentionally left out South Korea in his speech to leave room for flexibility in inter-Korean relations. However, the editorial disagreed and stated that it was clear that North Korea did not regard inter-Korean relations as an important factor in policy decisions and that Kim is frustrated at Moon for working within the limited framework of the US-ROK alliance. Comparing the speeches between Moon and Kim, it declared that Moon’s goal for peace on the peninsula seemed unrealistic since Kim did not display any intention to develop inter-Korean relations. Since North Korea indicated that it may return to the byungjin policy, Moon should prioritize lowering tensions on the peninsula rather than focusing on inter-Korean relations. In particular, Moon should actively prevent Trump and his advisors from adopting a hardline policy towards the North and adjust the upcoming US-ROK joint military drills between late February and March.

Hankyoreh took a softer stance towards Moon’s New Year’s speech on January 7 and expressed hope in his policy agendas.37 In his speech, Moon stated that he intends to develop inter-Korean cooperation to facilitate dialogue between the US and North Korea. The editorial expressed hope in this and stated that he will have to effectively persuade North Korea for his policy to succeed. At the same time, Hankyoreh suggested that Moon persuade the US or find ways to circumvent sanctions on North Korea in order to develop inter-Korean projects.

Conservative editorials expressed concerns over Moon’s idealistic approach towards North Korea. On January 8, Chosun pointed out that Moon emphasized peace and inter-Korean cooperation without mentioning “denuclearization” once in his New Year’s speech.38 The editorial further noted Moon’s statement that he would use inter-Korean cooperation to expedite US-North Korea dialogue. By doing so, Chosun stated, Moon signaled his intention to depart from the previous policy, which developed inter-Korean projects in parallel with the progress of US-North Korea denuclearization talks. The editorial further raised concern that Moon showed signs of departing from the US-led maximum pressure campaign and siding with China and Russia to ease sanctions on the North. In particular, it stated that Moon likely told Xi that he supports China and Russia’s UNSC draft resolution during the bilateral summit on December 23, while Moon had threatened to withdraw from GSOMIA, which weakened US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation on North Korea. Chosun said it is understandable that Moon wants to accelerate relations with the North for the upcoming elections but warned that he should not independently develop inter-Korean relations. On January 8, Munwha predicted that the Moon administration would attempt to confirm Kim’s visit to the South before the 2020 legislative elections in April.39 The editorial raised security concerns that members of the ruling party have shown willingness to put the US-ROK alliance at risk by spurring anti-US sentiment and may pursue pro-North Korea policies in the coming months.

The U.S.-ROK alliance amid the US-Iran conflict

On January 3, Trump ordered the assassination of Iranian major general Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated on January 8 by launching missile strikes at two Iraqi military bases that housed US troops.40 On January 7, Ambassador Harry Harris stated that he hoped South Korea would send troops to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz since it gets most of its “energy from the Middle East.”41 On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it had not made a decision on troop deployment, while “carrying out an interagency review in consideration of the need to protect South Korean ships and nationals that pass through the strait.”42 South Korea had previously strengthened the US-ROK alliance when it agreed to dispatch 3,000 troops to Iraq in 2004, making it the third largest military force in the occupation of Iraq.

Conservative editorials expressed concern over the situation but stressed the importance of the US-ROK alliance. Munwha wrote on January 9 that South Korea should prepare for the worst-case scenario.43 If tensions remain high, the editorial predicted that South Korea could face an oil crisis since 70 percent of its crude oil imports pass through the Strait of Hormuz. In this situation, it suggested that South Korea closely cooperate with the US and use this opportunity to repair US-ROK relations. Munwha noted that South Korea had been reluctant to join the US-led maritime force in the Strait of Hormuz due to fear of a backlash from Iran. In the worst-case scenario, the editorial stated, South Korea would have to consider deploying troops and could justify its decision as protecting the safety of the Strait of Hormuz. Donga stated that South Korea should show its commitment to the alliance by reviewing troop deployments including the force size, timing, and method of deployment. The editorial stated that there should be no reason for Moon to hesitate since troop deployment would increase his mediation role in US-North Korea talks and decrease Trump’s complaints about Korea’s contributions to the alliance in the ongoing burden-sharing negotiations.

Progressive editorials also expressed concern over the safety of the Strait of Hormuz but stressed that Moon should not agree to deploy troops. On January 9, Kyunghyang wrote that it was difficult to predict whether the US and Iran will escalate tensions into a full-blown war.44 It urged the international community and the United Nations to intervene and prevent tensions from escalating. If tensions increase, the editorial noted that South Korea will have to step in to protect the safety of the Strait of Hormuz for oil imports. However, it stressed that Korea does not have to join the US-led coalition to do so. Kyunghyang stated that South Korea should firmly reiterate that it would not deploy troops because the government lacked a justification for deployment. This is because: 1) the US first broke the nuclear agreement with Iran, and its preemptive strike on Iran was unjustifiable; and 2) sending troops would affect Korea’s diplomatic relations with Iran.