Country Report: South Korea (January 2021)

Attention drifted in November 2020 to January 2021 from the election of Joe Biden in the US to the visit of Chinese foreign Minister Wang Yi to action against the spreading of leaflets into North Korea to the handling of court decisions central to the dispute with Japan over the legacy of its occupation of Korea. Thus, fleeting concern with each of the four relationships at the core of South Korean foreign policy was manifest in this transitional period in the global environment. The results of President Moon Jae-in’s adjustments remained unclear as Biden awaited his inauguration, Kim Jong-un did not show his hand, and Xi Jinping was also waiting.

The forthcoming Biden presidency   

Both conservative and progressive media outlets foresaw that America would return to mainstream “liberal internationalism.” They expressed hope that America under the Biden administration would strengthen its global leadership and the ROK-US alliance. However, they hold different views on the issues of US pressure on South Korea to stand against China. Both conservative and progressive editorials noted that Biden visited a Korean War veterans’ memorial in Philadelphia on November 11 as his first official event since his election victory, showing how much he values alliances, unlike President Trump who views alliances as transactional relationships. America will be less inclined to push South Korea to substantially increase its share of the cost of maintaining US troops in the country, they agreed.

With regard to the US-China strategic competition, both types of outlets forecast that South Korea will continue to face pressure from the US to join its “anti-China” initiatives. Editorials recalled Biden’s remarks when he met President Park Geun-hye in December 2013 that “it has never been a good bet to bet against America. . .And America is going to continue to place its bet on South Korea.”1 They also raised the possibility that the Biden administration may put pressure on both Seoul and Tokyo, its two important allies, to resolve their soured bilateral ties, out of its strong commitment to trilateral cooperation in keeping China in check. Editorials generally concur that Seoul should prepare a sophisticated and careful diplomatic strategy in the era of a new cold war, and stressed the need for diversifying the country’s export markets beyond China, which accounted for a quarter of the total exports last year.

The country’s strategic ambiguity under the current Moon Jae-in administration was backed by progressive media. Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang argued that South Korea must pursue “balanced” diplomacy between Washington and Beijing rather than picking sides, considering the importance of China for both the country’s economy and tackling North Korean nuclear issue. They voiced concern about joining a series of US-led initiatives to contain China, pointing out the possibility of another deterioration of ROK-China relations after the THAAD dispute, which was barely settled through the “three nos.” They editorialized on the need for the Moon administration to fully explain the unique geopolitical situation of South Korea. Editorials also urged Biden to respect South Korea’s position with regard to the US-China competition, and not to put pressure on Seoul to participate in the US-led anti-China coalition.2

However, a majority of the South Korean public sees the US-China competition as a hegemonic competition that will not get better anytime soon, and, when presented with a choice, favors the US (73.2%) over China (15.7%) as the country’s future partner.3 Conservative media outlets Chosun, Joongang, and Donga underlined the importance of the ROK-US alliance as the bedrock of the country’s foreign policy, and argued that this should be the basis for strengthening cooperation with China. They pointed out that America’s return to liberal internationalism does not automatically lead to the strengthening of the alliance. In a series of editorials, they stressed that South Korea’s long-standing strategic ambiguity may no longer be sustainable, and urged the Moon administration to scrap its pro-China foreign policy and come up with a value-based foreign policy that best serves the country’s national interests. In particular, conservative editorials underlined the significance of repairing South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperation. In this regard, they noted Biden’s efforts, as vice president, to try to mediate between Seoul and Tokyo to mend their bilateral dispute over the “comfort women” issue, while America under Trump was reluctant to get involved in their dispute that not only resulted in a trade war but also led to the brink of termination of a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

Considering that Washington has played a significant role in the history of South Korea-Japan relations, from their normalization in 1965 to the “comfort women” agreement in 2015, conservative editorials raised the possibility that the Biden administration would put pressure on Seoul to improve ties with Tokyo.4 Conservative Joongang went further, raising the worst-case scenario that the administration might wash its hands of Korean Peninsula issues during the remainder of Moon’s term unless Seoul changes its policy on Tokyo. The editorial added that South Korea, not North Korea, could become the object of America’s “strategic patience.”5

Wang Yi’s visit to Seoul

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an official visit to South Korea on November 25-27. In a meeting with Moon, he delivered a message from President Xi Jinping, saying that he appreciates the invitation for a state visit to South Korea and would visit as soon as the COVID-19 situation stabilizes. Moon expressed thanks for China’s constructive role in the course of the Korean Peninsula Peace Process, adding that the government would not stop its efforts with the international community, including China, to bring about a formal end to the Korean War and establish complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the peninsula. Wang also met with Park Byeong-seug, the speaker of the National Assembly, and several key government officials and officials of the ruling Democratic Party, including Lee Hae-chan, former leader of the party. However, no progress was made on the key bilateral issue of China’s restrictions on Korean entertainment following the THAAD dispute.6

Conservative Chosun criticized Wang for arriving more than 20 minutes late at the meeting with his counterpart Kang Kyung-wha, citing that he was also 40 minutes late at a luncheon with 100 key Korean officials during his last visit in December 2019 and did not apologize. The editorial expressed concern that Wang, who holds a low rank in the Chinese Communist Party, met with key officials, including the president and the speaker of the National Assembly. Chosun editorialized in support of Seoul acting in a confident manner with China, which has no history of diplomacy other than tribute diplomacy with its neighbors.7

Conservative Donga expressed its regret that the two sides have not made any progress on the key issue of China’s retaliation against South Korea over the THAAD issue. The editorial noted that, with regards to China’s restrictions on the “Korean Wave” contents, Wang merely said that he hopes for continued consultations between the two countries, while emphasizing that the THAAD issue “must be properly addressed.” Donga also noted China’s efforts to preclude South Korea and Japan from taking the American side, saying that, during the visit, Wang called for Seoul to take part in China’s “Global Initiative on Data Security” and emphasized the economic integration among South Korea, Japan, and China.8

Special law on the May 18 Democratic movement

A significant domestic issue arose in the midst of the series of foreign policy challenges. On December 9, the National Assembly passed the special law on the May 18 Gwangju democratic movement, threatening those who release false or distorted information on the movement with a maximum of five years in prison or a fine of up to KRW 50 million.9 Progressive Hankyoreh, in its editorial on May 2019, expressed support, hoping that it could stop the distortion of the incident.10 The country’s conservative media outlets, however, expressed deep concern. Joongang argued that the country does not need the special law, saying that those who spread false information can be punished under current criminal law, such as for libel and slander.11 Donga argued that the special law is unconstitutional, allowing the government to monopolize the interpretation of history. It also pointed out that the fact that the special law was passed unilaterally by the ruling party is not in line with the spirit of the May 18 democratic movement which signifies freedom and democracy.12 Chosun also argued that the country is no longer a democratic society if those in power decide what to say and punish those who do not follow.13


On December 14, the National Assembly passed a controversial bill banning sending propaganda leaflets and other material across the inter-Korean border. It also prohibits loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts across the Military Demarcation Line. The bill was passed in a 187-0 vote, while the conservative main opposition People’s Power Party (PPP) boycotted the vote. Violators of the law would face a maximum of three years in prison or a fine of up to KRW 30 million.14 Conservative media expressed grave concern, claiming that this violates freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. While the government explained that the law is intended to ensure the security of people living near the border, conservative editorials pointed out that it is unnecessary to completely ban sending leaflets into the North by making a law to punish the violators. They cited the court ruling in 2015 that although sending the leaflets could be restricted when the security of people is endangered, it cannot be prohibited in principle. They also cited that no one was hurt over the past 15 years in the course of the launching of the anti-Pyongyang leaflets.

Conservative editorials also pointed out that the bill was introduced after Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, in June 2020 urged that Seoul should at least enact a law to prohibit anti-Pyongyang leaflets. On December 23, Jeong Se-hyun, executive vice-chairperson of the National Unification Advisory Council, also said that since the South settled the leaflets issue by passing the law, it is time for the North to respond positively. Donga pointed to Jeong’s remarks as further evidence that the law is intended to meet the demands of Pyongyang.15

Conservative media outlets also cited growing concern over the law in the international community, including the United States where laws that abridge freedom of expression are prohibited. In particular, editorials took note of the remarks of US Representative Chris Smith, a co-chair of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, that the law damages “democratic principles and human rights” and that he will call upon the State Department to “critically re-evaluate the Republic of Korea’s commitment to democratic values in its annual human rights report, as well as in its report on international religious freedom.” Smith also expressed his intention to convene a hearing on the “South Korean government’s failure to uphold civil and political rights.”16

The South Korean government and the ruling party, however, called the criticisms from the international community interference in the country’s internal affairs. In this regard, Donga pointed out that it is not a matter of internal affairs, but a matter of universal values of mankind and a matter of protecting the Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression. It further argued that the claim the government and the ruling party made is not different from that of North Korea and China as well as former military regimes of South Korea.17

Chosun criticized the Moon administration’s overall policy on North Korean human rights by pointing out that it has: closed the office of the North Korean Human Rights Foundation for “financial reasons”; not appointed an ambassador-at-large on North Korean Human Rights; and not participated in United Nations resolutions condemning the North Korean regime’s human rights violations for two consecutive years.18 Overall, conservative editorials forecast that the law would distort and negatively affect inter-Korean relations, and strongly argued that the act of delivering external information and truth to the people in the North must be continued.

Progressive outlets such as Hankyoreh and Kyunghyang also noted the criticisms in the international community over the law, and expressed concern that this issue could negatively affect relations with the United States. They attributed the criticism from US political circles and human rights organizations to their lack of understanding of the issue, arguing that the law does not abridge freedom of expression in general, but applies only to the specific area near the inter-Korean border. They claimed that sending the leaflets does not improve the human rights situation in North Korea, but only has negative aspects, citing its danger to the security of people living in the region and the potential risk of escalating into a total war. They urged Seoul to actively explain the necessity for the law to the international community.

Editorials further claimed that freedom of expression, while it should be respected, is not above people’s lives.19 Foreign Minister Kang, in an interview with CNN, also said, “Freedom of expression, I think, is absolutely vital to human rights, but it’s not absolute. It can be limited." "According to the ICCPR, we have to (do it) by law, (and) it has to be limited in scope. And it is limited in scope. It is only when these acts pose harm or pose danger to the life and the security of our people," she said.20 Moreover, Hankyoreh criticized the country’s conservatives, claiming that they have been using the North Korean human rights problem as a political tool to denounce the government’s efforts at mitigating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and called for a social consensus in South Korea that could actually improve the human rights situation in the North.21

Court ruling on “comfort women”

On January 8, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that the Japanese government must pay KRW 100 million to each of the 12 plaintiffs who were victims of wartime sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial period. This is the first court ruling in South Korea that recognizes the Japanese government’s responsibility for the victimization of the “comfort women.” The Japanese side did not appear in court while asserting that the lawsuit should be dismissed as a violation of the principle of sovereign immunity under international law, in which a court cannot bring a foreign country to a trial. However, the court said that the immunity claim does not apply to such “inhuman acts” that were carried out systematically.22 “The theory of ‘state immunity’ was not established for states that violate international peremptory norms and cause grave harm to individuals in another country to be provided with an opportunity to hide behind a theory and avoid providing compensation and indemnification,” the court told in a verdict.23 The next day, Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu had a telephone exchange for about 20 minutes to discuss the court ruling, during which Motegi lodged a strong protest against denying the principle of state immunity, and said that his government cannot accept the ruling. Kang requested Tokyo to “refrain from excessively responding” to the court ruling.24

Hankyoreh, in its editorial, said that the South Korean government has no choice but to respect the judiciary’s ruling, and urged the Japanese government to show an attitude of acknowledging its historical and legal responsibility for the inhuman criminal acts of the past, in order to achieve a future-oriented bilateral relationship. Regarding the controversial issue over state immunity, the editorial cited the verdict of the court as a “very sensible interpretation of the law based on current international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The editorial also cited a similar case between Italy and Germany in which the Italian Supreme Court had ordered the German government to compensate those Italian citizens who were forced to provide labor by the German military during World War II, but the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICJ) later ruled in favor of Germany. The editorial said that this exemplifies the reality that international law takes the great powers’ side. At the same time, it claimed that it is inappropriate to compare Germany, which has acknowledged responsibility for its war crimes and has made efforts to compensate the victims, and Japan, which, in contrast, has not made any apology and official compensation.25 

Donga also called for the Japanese government to show willingness to solve the historical issues in general. The editorial criticized Prime Minister Suga for his previous remarks that Tokyo will strongly urge Seoul to respond appropriately to the forced labor issue. It claimed that such irresponsibility by the Japanese government is not at all helpful in improving the bilateral relationship. At the same time, Donga criticized the Moon administration for not proposing an alternative to the bilateral agreement on “comfort women” victims in 2015 while not acknowledging the agreement. It editorialized about the importance of the bilateral relationship, especially in the coming years given the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral cooperation. The editorial emphasized that it is time for both Seoul and Tokyo to focus on building a future-oriented relationship beyond historical dispute.26

8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of North Korea

The 8th Congress was held in Pyongyang from January 5 to January 12. In an opening address, Kim Jong-un made an unprecedented acknowledgement of the failure of the country’s five-year economic strategy. "The five-year economic development strategy period wrapped up last year, but the results in most areas fell extremely short of our goals," Kim said. He also referred to “external and internal threats” that hinder the country’s efforts.27 The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim pledged to “comprehensively expand” external relations. However, he did not specifically explain what that means or what Kim meant when he said that he has reviewed inter-Korean relations.28 Kim also unveiled a list of weapons that the country is developing, including nuclear-powered submarines, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with a range of 15,000 km, and tactical nuclear weapons.29 During the Congress, Kim Jong-un’s title was changed from chairman to general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party. While both titles signify the head of the Party, his appointment as general secretary may imply that he has entered the ranks of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Contrary to expectations, Kim Yo-jong, his sister, was demoted from the political bureau. However, analyses pointed out that her blood ties cannot be surpassed, and she could be appointed to a key position at any time. Analyses also paid special attention to the promotion of Jo Yong-won – one of the officials closest to Kim Jong-un – to the presidium of the political bureau.30

Chosun pointed out that while the Moon administration and the ruling party have emphasized Kim Jong-un’s willingness to denuclearize, he did not mention that word at all during the Congress, but said “nuclear” at least 36 times. It claimed that it has become clear once again that the denuclearization talks over the past three years were, unsurprisingly, only a show by North Korea. The editorial strongly criticized the South Korean government’s statement following Kim’s remarks that it has a firm commitment to implementing inter-Korean agreements, calling this “abnormal.” Chosun also claimed that it is now common sense to say that North Korea cannot and will not denuclearize.31 Joongang editorialized that the Congress clearly shows the ultimate objective of nuclear-armed North Korea: unifying the Korean Peninsula under its control. It strongly urged the Moon administration to change its policy direction from focusing on improving inter-Korean relations to denuclearizing North Korea in cooperation with the international community.32 Hankyoreh editorialized its grave concern over the Kim’s provocative speech; however, it called for the new US administration to quickly send a message that it wants to have talks with Pyongyang. It also suggested that Seoul and Washington be flexible in conducting their combined exercises scheduled for March.33 Kyunghyang, in its editorial, also said that while North Korea expressed strong intentions towards nuclear development and military augmentation, this implies that it wants to have an earnest conversation with South Korea and the United States based on mutual respect. The editorial called for Seoul and Washington to respond wisely.34