Country Report: South Korea (July 2016)

Three international thunderbolts of late June and early July drew intense responses in the South Korean media. The decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea was recognized as destabilizing relations with China and Russia, affecting the diplomatic balance that Seoul had been striving to cultivate since the end of the Cold War. The international court ruling on the South China Sea was perceived as exacerbating regional polarization in East Asia, the Sino-US divide and putting more pressure on Seoul to clearly declare its support for the US. Finally, the Brexit decision posed uncertain economic consequences in Northeast Asia as elsewhere. All of these developments played out against the backdrop of a rapidly changing landscape on the peninsula, much to the concern of Korean commentators.


On July 15, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer argued that the THAAD deployment would dismantle the Park administration’s diplomatic identity. While the effectiveness of THAAD is unclear, its costs are clear and huge. Park’s diplomacy is based on the “Korean Peninsula Trust Process,” “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative,” and “Eurasia Initiative.” All three require stronger relations with China and Russia. But the Park administration’s decision to deploy THAAD caused irreversible wounds in its relations with these two countries. The author argues that South Korea’s “Northern diplomacy” (북방외교) is on the brink of demise, pursued since the late 1980s in preparation for and as part of the post-Cold War era on the peninsula. Without cooperation with Beijing and Moscow, Seoul’s role in the North Korean nuclear issue is destined to recede, leaving no other option than to depend on the United States.

A July 11 Hankook Ilbo article decried the fact that the Park administration abandoned balanced diplomacy as it moves between two extremes: attending China’s military parade last year and deploying THAAD. The author argues that South Korea’s diplomatic strategy should be mitigating conflict, but the Park administration is dragging her country into the Sino-American battle over Northeast Asia. Park’s diplomacy could increase North Korea’s strategic value for China, who may retaliate in subtle and different ways.  

A July 16 Chosun Ilbo columnist agreed that Park’s diplomacy has made the issue unnecessarily complicated. But as for China’s possible retaliation, the author argued that its prospect and impact are both exaggerated. According to the author, Xi Jinping will be in power over the next six years, and the United States and Japan will continue to counter China’s rise regardless of the new US administration’s political ideology. The US-China conflict could last over 30 years, and South Korea is destined to find a way to survive under the structure. The author says that it is not likely that China will resort to economic retaliation against the diplomatic decision, and, if it does, the shame is on China. Admitting that Beijing might take a symbolic move to save face, the author argues that its economic impact should be borne for national security. The author also asserts that one should not underestimate Seoul’s economic power and resilience.

What most concerns the author is  the declining credibility of South Korean diplomacy. Park visited Tiananmen last year and now deploys THAAD, which has caused unnecessary misunderstanding. The South Korean government repeatedly said that “there’s nothing requested, negotiated, and decided” on THAAD, despite conducting unofficial negotiations with the United States. Seoul should have explained that the deployment would be decided based on North Korean nuclear development. Park’s Chinese policy has also proven unwise. Her administration believed that her presence at the military parade would lead to China’s proactive implementation of the North Korean sanctions, which proved untrue.

Two days later, another Chosun Ilbo columnist opined that Korean progressives and opposition parties overlooked changes from the US out of fear that China would change its policies toward the peninsula. The United States recently included ASEAN and India as security partners along with South Korea, Japan and Australia. Washington is trying to include Seoul in the new, broader security network, and THAAD is the first step. From the US perspective, THAAD is necessary to maintain its Pyongtaek military base, to be the largest one in Asia. Whether it is able to detect Chinese missiles is secondary. Though China’s concern over the deployment is understandable, what matters for Seoul is that the United States, unarguably the world’s superpower, has been the fundamental pillar of South Korea’s security. It still leads the world economy with its advanced technologies despite increasing uncertainties in Europe and holds the military upper hand to all countries. The recent court ruling on the South China Sea also proves its power in shaping international norms. Trump’s election promises demonstrate what distancing South Korea from the United States would mean. Conflicts with the United States would cause an unparalleled crisis. Though the South Korean government has pursued “strategic ambiguity” and tried to maintain neutrality between China and the United States, THAAD deployment cannot be evaded or reversed. With North Korea developing its nuclear power, military preparations against it should not be further delayed.

South China Sea

Before the court ruling, Byun Chang-goo published an article in Hankook Dongbuka Nonchong Vol. 79 analyzing the South China Sea issue in the context of the Sino-American e competition over hegemony. Byun finds that both are trying to protect vital national interests. Washington wants to keep its dominant influence and freedom of navigation. To prevent Beijing from expanding its maritime power, it aims to ultimately contain China along its coast, while connecting its bases and partnerships in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Pakistan. In contrast, Beijing wants to defend its core interests and sovereignty. China has been developing its maritime strategy from defending its coasts and home waters to an “ocean navy strategy” (대양해군전략) by building submarines, aircraft carriers, and aircraft-carrier strikes.

The competition is underway in both direct ways (military protests or military operations) and indirect ways (cooperation with Southeast Asian countries). The regional political landscape is divided based on countries’ closer relations with the United States or China. Washington spreads the “China threat theory” and takes advantage of insecurity to maintain its dominance. It has expanded its military cooperation and exchanges with Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing has given economic aid to Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, which do not have territorial disputes with it, and Indonesia, which takes a neutral stance. It also tries to settle the disputes bilaterally, and conclude a “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)” with a “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).” Military cooperation and economic assistance, e.g., development of maritime and financial infrastructure in Vietnam, are offered to prevent states from pivoting toward the United States. For Southeast Asian countries, the competition creates opportunities to maximize their diplomatic options. 

Byun finds that the competition is extremely confrontational as each country attempts to deter the other from reaching its strategic goals. From a realist viewpoint, as “vital interests” are at stake, any kind of concession or compromise would be difficult. However, both know that deepening conflict would increase their economic and political costs. Given the huge costs involved, Byun foresees that the two countries will manage their dispute to avoid military collisions in the short term. As Chinese maritime power is inferior to the United States, Beijing would prefer the status quo unless vital national interests are critically damaged. However, in the long term, Byun argues that some kind of clash is inevitable. China’s strategy is headed toward eventually breaking the status quo, which the United States will try to maintain.

Regarding its impact on South Korean diplomacy, Byun argues that Seoul’s strategy should be to soften the conflicts to guarantee peace and stability. As for disputes, Seoul needs to urge stakeholders to resolve the conflicts through international law. It also needs to support and cooperate with them to conclude a code of conduct in the near future. Seoul needs to take a stance respecting freedom of navigation while dissuading Beijing and Washington from military clashes.

On July 14, a Hankook Ilbo article said that the court ruling put China at a crossroads to abide by the international norms as a responsible major country or to unilaterally protect its national interests using military power. Arguing that the verdict would be applied to disputes with six other countries, it found that regional tensions are increasing after the ruling. Regarding South Korea’s official response, the author argues that Seoul needs to be clearer that international norms should be respected and national security tops other national interests. The author warns that the ruling could possibly reignite the China-Japan conflict in the East China Sea. South Korea also has disputes with Beijing over Ieodo (Socotra Rock), located in the overlapping EEZ zones of China and South Korea, where the actual maritime boundary remains to be delineated. The author urges the government to closely look into ongoing developments and be prepared for complicated diplomatic circumstances.

Impact of Brexit Referendum

On June 17, a Chosun Ilbo article opined that the British referendum vote itself would diffuse isolationism in Europe. Signs of new isolationism are already emerging in the United States. Either Clinton or Trump would pursue protectionism in trade. Particularly, Trump’s unexpected rise means that the US perspective on the world has fundamentally changed and is headed toward limited intervention. The trend, emerging around the Atlantic Ocean, is likely to give momentum to strengthen protectionism and isolationism all over the world. South Korea’s development has been based on the US-led commercial and security system. The author argues that it is time to review the current strategies to adapt to the new environment.

On July 4, a Hangyoreh observer argued that Brexit has changed the global security landscape. The US security strategy has two pillars: alliances in the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. With Britain leaving the EU, a big hole is created in the Atlantic alliance system. Washington’s priority will, thus, return to Europe, away from its recent  “pivot to Asia.” In addition to the new circumstances, Trump’s rise shows that the US perspective on the US-ROK alliance is changing, where North Korea constantly poses a nuclear threat. The author concludes, linking Brexit and Trump, that serious security challenges now await South Korea.

On July 11, Kang Sun-joo argued in Joongang Ilbo that an alternative to the current neoliberalism or free market economy cannot be protectionism or isolationism. But a new international system should be discussed at the September G20 summit. Kang recalls that the 1945 free market economy arose more through “intervention” than spontaneous “floating,” as each government agreed to reduce the side effects through its national social welfare system. But “floating” has increased from the early 1980s, causing the 2008 financial crisis and, finally, the 2016 Brexit. Highlighting that a free market economy has created wealth for numerous countries and people, Kang insists that a system based on “intervention” should be an alternative to the current system but redesigned to apply in the 21st century. The current US-led system is failing in these new circumstances, which has multiple economic centers. As an international consensus matters for a new system, Kang concludes that the G20 summit should be the platform to discuss it.

A July 11 Hangyoreh carried an article by Jung Sehyun, the former reunification minister, who also argued that the US “pivot to Asia” will be weakened as Washington strives to restore its influence in Europe. Meanwhile, Russia and China will cooperate to increase their power in Europe and Asia. No matter who is elected, to dedicate greater focus on Europe, Jung expects that Washington will ask Seoul to increase its burden-sharing. There is a possibility too that Washington will significantly enhance Tokyo’s role in the trilateral alliance in the new circumstance. In this case, Jung concludes, Brexit would pose new difficulties for Seoul due to its national sentiment.

Changing Landscape on the Korean Peninsula

On July 12, Hangyoreh shed light on Russia’s Far East policy and its cooperation with China. The author argues that the two countries are cooperating to challenge US hegemony. Russia is heading to the east in response to NATO’s eastern move and China is heading to the west in response to the US “pivot to Asia.” The Russia-China bilateral relationship had been troubled by border disputes and competition for regional hegemony, but a new era has begun and advancing under Xi and Putin. Though charging that the United States and Europe regard the improved relationship as a temporary political maneuver, the author sees it as a fundamental change. Citing Kim Jae-kwan, the article concludes that it is highly likely the Russia-China bilateral cooperation will be durable, given the fact that it was forged against the US-Japan alliance. The “Asia Paradox” labeled by Park Geun-hye, was created by the legacy of the San Francisco system and reinforced by the “pivot to Asia” and the US-South Korea-Japan alliance. This structure is unacceptable to China and Russia, and they are forming a united front in protest.

The author finds that Xi and Putin have built confidence in each other through summit meetings, and this trust is crucial in improving bilateral relations. Xi’s first visit as president was to Russia in 2013, and the two leaders have met about 20 times since, including the latest summit in June. The two countries agreed on their common goal of “building a new Asian security regime” at the 2014 CICA summit.  Their summits in 2014 and 2015 were focused on economic cooperation such as energy, railways, and aircraft construction. The East Siberia gas pipeline was approved at their April 2014 summit meeting. When Russia was suffering from the US and European sanctions, China agreed to offer loans to Russia’s mega projects at their May 2015 meeting. The 2016 summit was more about political achievements. The two countries announced their opposition to THAAD deployment in South Korea, and criticized the United States and Japan for denying or changing history of WWII. They also reiterated their intention to merge the Eurasia Economic Union (EEU) and Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and suggested the SCO as a platform to harmonize the two initiatives.

With the two countries enhancing their cooperation, the author argues that the post-Cold War regime is reviving a  Cold War era conflict on the peninsula: the United States, South Korea, and Japan are on one side, and China, North Korea, and Russia on the other. The author called inter-Korean conflict a small division within what is now a large division.

A July 11 Chosun Ilbo article looked into what Abe’s victory in the Upper House elections means. Readers are told that this does not mean immediate Peace Constitution revision, as public opinion is still strongly against it. However, the author insists that the result proves that Japan is transforming completely. Since the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and nuclear disaster, Tokyo is clearly leaning to the right. Given that Abe has been leading this transition and people have supported him in every election, the author argues that the Japanese people might agree to revise the constitution one day and that Japan would be a completely different country by then.

On June 1, a Chosun Ilbo columnist, watching reactions to Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, pointed out that history blinds South Koreans to reality. The author finds it ironic that South Korea was against the visit but urged Obama, not Abe, to visit memorials of Korean victims, given that they were victimized as a result of Japanese war crimes. The White House repeatedly confirmed that the visit did not constitute an apology or regret over the bombing. It was also not aimed at giving any kind of pass to Japan for evading its war crime responsibilities. Neither the Japanese government nor the mainstream media found the visit at odds with this. Obama reiterated a “nuclear free world” in Hiroshima. Prior to his visit, he also lifted the US arms ban against Vietnam. Conceivably, the visit is an extension of the US strategic measure. Vietnam and Japan are both in disputes with China in the South China and East China Sea, respectively. Obama underscored the bilateral alliance with Japan as much as a nuclear free world in Hiroshima.

Having discerned the political meaning and context of the visit, China reacted “never forget the Nanjing Massacre” and invited all of sudden Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the North Korean Workers’ Party’s Central Committee. In contrast, Seoul could only see fragments of the overarching, complex geopolitics, due to a preoccupation with its history. The author insists that South Korea’s diplomatic situation requires broader and deeper analysis of the geopolitical environment in which it operates. However, when it comes to Japan, Seoul reads the reality through the lens of the past. The author warns that nobody sympathizes with this approach. The US president shakes hands with Japan’s leader, thinking about the present, not the past. The author concludes that Washington will keep asking Seoul to follow its example. 

A June 6 DongA Ilbo column shed light on internal hurdles to South Korean diplomacy. Quoting Kim Jun-hyung, the author said that Seoul faces a triple external paradox requiring simultaneous competition and cooperation: the US-China paradox, the Asia Paradox, and the Korean Peninsula paradox. The author adds a further internal paradox called the South-South paradox (남남 파라독스). Ideological, regional, generational, and income polarization inside the country has resulted in this internal paradox, which poses greater difficulties than the others for three reasons. The paradox leads South Korea to see itself as the center of the world, underestimating its partner countries. It also sets diplomatic goals too high, as polarization demands clarity of goals that leads to simplification. Finally, no achievement can be appreciated as a result of ideological polarization.

So far, South Korean governments have regarded diplomacy as a means for a breakthrough in the existing internal economic and political congestion. This applies to the Park administration as well. This approach worked before when it was clear who are the enemies or friends, and there was a single international leader to follow in the Cold War era. But the situation is different now. It is not as easy as in the past to distinguish friends from foes as each country is pursuing its own diplomatic agenda. Despite the changed circumstances, the majority of people and politicians still regard the situation as reminiscent of the Cold War era; and they overestimate South Korea’s ability to reach ambitious diplomatic goals. Though the paradox cannot be blamed for every diplomatic failure, the author argues that South Korean society needs to resolve the internal paradox first to give it more diplomatic leverage, which is already limited due to the external paradoxes. 

On June 6, a DongA Ilbo article reminded readers of the “July Crisis Theory” circulating among those attentive to South Korean diplomacy. When Xi Jinping met with Ri Su-yong on June 1, the US designated Pyongyang a primary money laundering concern. On the next day, Washington launched an investigation of Huawei’s alleged trades with North Korea and mentioned possible deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula. With Sino-US conflict intensifying, both countries may deprioritize the North Korean nuclear issue, which makes South Korea’s efforts in vain. Seoul has always appealed for the priority of the North Korean issue at ARF, scheduled at the end of July; however, it could be overshadowed by the South China Sea disputes. In addition, tensions may facilitate cooperation between Beijing and Pyongyang to enter an agreement on freezing nuclear weapons, not denuclearization. If Japan’s right wing is strengthened as a result of the Upper House elections in July, its bilateral relations with South Korea, arduously recovering, could be damaged again. It would further delay the trilateral summit with China to be held in the second half of this year.