Country Report: South Korea (July 2017)

President Moon made his international debut at the summit with President Trump in Washington and at meetings with the G20 leaders in Germany. His debut was generally considered successful. On the surface, the first meeting between Moon and Trump appeared to be a meaningful one, reaffirming the solidarity of the alliance between South Korea and the United States. However, it also demonstrated the cold reality that economic and security issues cannot be separated from each other, and that in order to strengthen their security alliance, South Korea should shoulder greater economic cost by, for instance, allowing the renegotiation of the KORUS FTA under Trump’s terms. The meeting between Moon and President Xi also drew substantial attention during the G20 summit. However, to South Korea’s disappointment, China emphasized its “close relationship” with North Korea, making clear that it has no intention to impose additional sanctions against the North. In addition, China demanded that South Korea understand China’s legitimate concerns over THAAD and withdraw its deployment in order to restore South Korea-China relations.

The First Moon-Trump Meeting in Washington

A DongA Ilbo editorial on June 27 argued that the Moon Jae-in administration should not repeat the mistakes of the former progressive administrations by taking sides between China and the United States. The article reflected that relations under Republican administrations in Washington and progressive administrations in Seoul—namely under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations—were the worst ever. People have been gathering at the US Embassy in Seoul as a sign of protest against THAAD. Written just before the Moon-Trump meeting, the article urged Moon to take this opportunity to stress his personal gratitude toward the United States—being the son of war refugees during the Korean War—and to reassure Trump that a majority of Koreans still support the US leadership. In doing so, the article hopes that Moon could safeguard national interests in the midst of increasing volatility.

On June 29, a Chosun Ilbo observer opined that Moon needs to resolve the THAAD controversy during his visit to Washington. China cannot offer him anything that can replace the value of US alliance in defending South Korea against the belligerent North. One way to defuse the tension might be to inform US officials exactly when the environmental review of THAAD will end and when the batteries can be fully deployed. The Trump administration labeled the North Korean nuclear and missile programs the greatest threat to Pacific regions of the United States as well as Northeast Asia. This could provide an ideal opportunity to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, since it has finally gained Washington’s full attention. Seoul and Washington must move completely in synch, the article insists. While refusing to cave into any pressure from Pyongyang, they must agree to terms that can lead to a resumption of dialogue with the isolated state. The Blue House has said it is willing to resume dialogue with North Korea if it only stops further provocations. This clearly differs from Washington’s approach, which wants Pyongyang to start dismantling its nuclear arsenal  before resuming talks. As long as such differences exist, the matter is very likely to remain in limbo.

According to a DongA Ilbo editorial on July 1, after hosting Moon and the first lady at a White House luncheon, Trump tweeted, “Just finished a very good meeting with the President of South Korea. Many subjects discussed including North Korea and new trade deal.” South Korean trade and commerce officials expedited their review on multiple case scenarios regarding KORUS FTA, saying that new talks were expected to take place. In particular, they are reviewing trade balances for each item with an eye to increasing trade and investment destined to the United States. Meanwhile, the White House announced that it is preparing to talk about the automotive and steel industries. Park Tae-ho, former trade minister, said that South Korea needs to focus on the results of renegotiation under way on NAFTA, while trying to resolve issues on the US side and delivering its own demands.

In Sejong Commentary issued on July 4, Yang Un-Chul pointed out that prior to the Trump-Xi meeting on June 30, there had been concern that the conservative Trump and the progressive Moon would conflict in their opinions on North Korea policy, but the two appeared to share a complete policy consensus during the meeting. Since it was their first meeting and its main purpose was to promote mutual understanding between the two countries, sensitive policy differences might have been obscured. Trump acknowledged Seoul’s leading role in creating an environment for peaceful reunification on the Korean Peninsula, but also emphasized its role in joining the international community’s efforts to pressure North Korea to move toward denuclearization. The Moon government appeared to prefer strengthening exchanges and cooperation with North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue, while also participating in international sanctions against it. In order to engage in talks between with Pyongyang while maintaining sanctions, Seoul must prepare a sophisticated strategy to persuade North Korea and the international community at the same time, Yang argued.

In Issues and Analysis issued by the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University on July 13, Koo Kab-Woo evaluated the contents of the Trump-Moon summit’s Joint Statement, finding that the US-ROK relationship remains uncertain in several respects. First, on the nuclear issue, a freeze was not mentioned in the statement, nor was the Moon administration’s ultimate goal of establishing a peace system. Second, while South Korea has been granted autonomy in its handling of inter-Korean relations, this is limited to humanitarian issues. Third, the summit demonstrated that the Moon administration was unable to separate security and economic issues in US-ROK relations. While a broad consensus was reached with respect to security, there remain individual issues that are yet to be resolved. In terms of economy-security trade-off, there are still questions over whether economic concessions can truly ensure US protection, and what the costs of such concessions would be. Indeed, Trump’s “America First” approach leaves unclear the conditions for trade-offs between the two sides. Given Chinese sanctions imposed on Seoul in response to the deployment of THAAD, the question of how to reconcile general security and economic issues in the US-ROK relationship must be urgently answered.

In IFANS FOCUS issued on July 10, Kim Hyun-uk said that the first US-ROK summit was successful and achieved more than expected. Moon visited the “Jangjinho Battle Monument,” where he reminisced about the Hungnam Evacuation and expressed his gratitude to the US veterans who helped the evacuation. Beyond such symbolic gestures to reaffirm the solidarity of the US-ROK alliance, Kim pointed out three major achievements of the summit. First, the two countries have agreed that South Korea will play a leading role regarding the Korean Peninsula issue. Second, they agreed on the regularization of major meetings between Seoul and Washington, including the 2+2 meetings between ministers of foreign affairs and defense and the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG). Third, they agreed to faithfully implement existing sanctions, while at the same time, stressing that they will keep the door to dialogue with North Korea open.

Despite the achievements, Kim also noted a series of important tasks that awaits the Moon administration. First, Seoul must come up with a concrete roadmap regarding its North Korea policy. Second, it should solve issues with China arising from the deployment of THAAD. At the summit, Moon explained that South Korea needs to go through domestic procedures to ensure the justification of THAAD, while reasserting that he does not intend to reverse the THAAD decision. In addition, he mentioned that since it is a "sovereignty issue," China should not interfere in the matter. It is likely that it will be a thorny issue between Seoul and Beijing for a while. Third, in order to prepare for the transfer of wartime operational control, Seoul should establish plans to effectively carry out a South Korea-led unified defense regime. Lastly, Kim also warned that the United States will pressure South Korea to increase its contribution to the defense budget and demand renegotiation of the KORUS FTA. Seoul must, therefore, carefully deal with the existing trade imbalances, which currently enjoys a surplus in goods, but a deficit in services. 

The Moon-Xi Meeting in Germany

On July 6, a Hankyoreh editorial commented that the first Moon-Xi summit attracted particular attention because it took place amid serious friction over the deployment of THAAD and concerns over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. It is promising that, despite existing differences and beyond diplomatic formalities, the two were able to agree to cooperate on denuclearizing North Korea and on furthering a strategic partnership. Both Moon and Xi condemned the North’s test launch of an ICBM as "unforgivable" and promised to work together on resolving the North’s nuclear problem. The editorial argued that China should not just support South Korea’s leadership in tackling the problems of the Korean Peninsula but also pressure North Korea to refrain from further nuclear tests.

A Kyunghyang Sinmun editorial on July 6 discussed Moon and Xi’s exchange of views on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, the THAAD deployment, and China’s trade retaliation. China said that it would support Moon’s efforts to restore peace on the Korean Peninsula through inter-Korean dialogue. However, it also pointed out that its “legitimate” interests over THAAD should be addressed in order to eliminate barriers to improving bilateral relations. As seen in recent ICBM tests, the pace of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development has accelerated. It is highly likely that North Korea will soon conduct a sixth nuclear test and additional ICBM launches to become a fully nuclear-capable country. The editorial noted that there should be practical measures to prevent additional provocations and celebrated that the two countries agreed to manage their conflict over THAAD to prevent  any further deterioration. South Korea and China must overcome the THAAD conflict, based on the development of relations for the last 25 years.

In contrast, a JoongAng Ilbo editorial on July 10 characterized the Moon-Xi meeting as fruitless. Having been anticipated as the most important event on Moon’s G20 schedule, the paper surmised from the announcements by both sides that Moon’s plan for candid talks does not appear to have worked on Xi. The Chinese leader did not promise to pressure North Korea further, arguing that China is already making its best efforts and criticizing the idea that China must play a more active role to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. A South Korean official said Xi actually mentioned the close relationship between China and North Korea. China’s reluctance to pressure North Korea was also revealed during Xi’s meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, where he said China opposes unilateral, independent sanctions on Pyongyang. The discussion between Moon and Xi about THAAD was disappointing as well. Many small companies and workers in the retail and tourism industries are losing their jobs, affected by China’s retaliation. Moon told Xi, “Economic, cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries have shrunk.” However, Xi did not express any intention of stopping the retaliation. Instead, he said that China hopes South Korea will respect China’s proper concerns and remove such impediment to improving bilateral relations, which is interpreted as a direct demand for the withdrawal of THAAD. While China is doing little to halt North Korea’s missile development, Xi is demanding South Korea withdraw the deployment. The article opined that Moon should have asked Xi if China could truly claim to be a protector of free trade when it imposes economic retaliation against its neighbor over THAAD. South Korea’s history shows that hopes for friendship with its neighboring countries have failed to protect them, and this is not an exception.

The Moon-Abe Meeting in Germany  

According to a DongA Ilbo article on July 8, Moon and Abe, in their first summit in Hamburg on July 7, did not discuss the agreement on sex slaves and other historical issues. As Moon has decided to use a two-track approach regarding historical and diplomatic issues, he was able to avoid thorny issues during talks with Abe. It is unrealistic for Moon to try to resolve such sensitive issues so quickly, the article added, indicating that although Japan should not be indulged on the sex slaves, close military cooperation between South Korea and Japan is required, and the two leaders must work together to pressure North Korea and to prevent further provocations. North Korea’s nuclear threats have led to polarization between South Korea, Japan, and the United States on one side, and North Korea, China, and Russia on the other. The standoff among nations following North Korea’s latest missile launch has become more obvious after the exchanges at the G20 summit. The US draft of a press statement strongly condemning North Korea during the Security Council’s meeting on Wednesday was rejected by Russia, asserting that the launch was only a mid-range missile, not an ICBM. In order to untangle the twisted diplomatic relations in Northeast Asia, Moon should use the ROK-US alliance as a linchpin, prioritizing the normalization of relations with Japan as well as with China and North Korea, and then developing his own roadmap.

On July 7, a Hankyoreh observer said that Moon and Abe showed cooperative attitudes toward improving South Korea-Japan relationship and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. It also noted that the two leaders promised to restore shuttle diplomacy, which will promote close cooperation. However, it is disappointing that Abe did not show any forward-looking attitude about the “comfort women” agreement, which remains the biggest obstacle to the improvement of South Korea-Japan relations. South Korea and Japan have always been in a tense relationship due to historical problems, including the comfort women, Dokdo, and textbook issues. Nevertheless, cooperation is essential in various fields such as the North Korean nuclear problem and the economy. At the summit, Moon said, "The vast majority of our nation cannot accept the agreement on comfort women emotionally." In contrast, Abe mentioned that it is necessary to implement the agreement. Nevertheless, the two have agreed that the problem should not hinder the development of bilateral relations.

Moon’s Berlin Declaration

A Hankyoreh editorial on July 6 commented on Moon’s vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula as presented during a speech at the Körber Foundation in Berlin. He laid out five policy directions for achieving permanent peace: a return to observing the stipulations of the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that guarantees the security of the North Korean regime, establishment of a system for maintaining permanent peace, drawing a new economic map of the Korean Peninsula, and pursuing exchange and cooperation in nonpolitical areas. In particular, he sought to reassure the North Korean regime that the South does not wish to pursue any form of unification by absorption or force. Just two days before Moon’s address, North Korea had test-fired an ICBM, prompting Moon to emphasize that the need for dialogue is more urgent than ever and that he is ready and willing to meet with Kim Jong-un at any time or place. Although the main focus of the president’s address was on the long-term goals and direction of the government’s North Korea policy, he also proposed four tasks for the short term: reinstalling family reunions and visits to ancestral graves around Chuseok in October, participation by North Korea in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, halting hostilities around the Military Demarcation Line, and resumption of inter-Korean dialogue including summits. International sanctions against North Korea are on the rise because of its missile tests, but family reunions could still occur in spite of such sanctions and would enjoy international support. Three months after Kim Dae-jung’s Berlin Declaration of March 2000, the first summit between South Korea and the North was held. The article hopes that President Moon’s "Berlin Declaration" will similarly lead to rapprochement between the North and South.

According to a Hankuk Ilbo editorial on July 6, Moon’s policy toward North Korea emphasized "complete denuclearization and concluding a peace treaty" as a comprehensive solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. It confirmed the core contents of the September 19 Joint Statement at the Six-Party Talks in 2005, while inviting North Korea to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games next year. However, some criticized the speech for not suggesting a concrete way to get North Korea to agree to a nuclear freeze, a prerequisite to any dialogue, amid continued provocations from North Korea. The United States and China are facing a particularly confrontational battle over imposing additional sanctions against North Korea. At an emergency meeting of the Security Council, the United States took a hardline stance that it would not rule out the use of military force. However, China asserted that it opposes military action as well as additional sanctions against Pyongyang. It is very different from the way former UN Security Council resolutions tried to find middle ground. Against this backdrop, the meeting failed to reach any conclusions, and it became unclear whether there will be a new resolution imposing additional sanctions against the North. It is also reported that the United States and China are clearly announcing that they will take their own paths in response to the launch of the ICBM in North Korea. Without peaceful international cooperation, which is key to solving the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea’s peace message will be ineffective. For Moon’s peace concept to be realistic, the article insists he must first find a way to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.        

According to Hankuk Ilbo on July 16, North Korea’s first reaction to Moon’s "New Vision for Peace on the Korean Peninsula," recently announced in Berlin, appeared. This comment strongly condemned Moon’s peace vision on the Korean Peninsula, arguing that it would only exacerbate North-South relations. It repeated the long-standing claim that the "invasion equipment" of the USFK should be withdrawn, and called for "fundamental policy shifts" rather than trying to resume inter-Korean dialogue as a means of nuclear dismantlement. It is noteworthy that a series of criticisms were made that day, while others were more sympathetic, highlighting that Moon’s policy “contains a different set of positions than those of its predecessors, such as the new government’s commitment to the June 15 Joint Declaration and the October 4 Declaration." The government said it is considering a proposal for military talks to discuss halting hostilities in the military demarcation line on the day of the armistice. As the situation on the Korean Peninsula intensifies, there is a growing need for dialogue with North Korea, the paper noted, without finding reason to expect North Korea to respond favorably.

A Chosun Ilbo editorial on July 18 reported that Moon government has suggested North Korea to resume talks between military and Red Cross officials. In addition, the Defense Ministry has proposed talks to discuss halting provocations to mark the 64th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. The Red Cross also wants to discuss the resumption of reunions between family members separated by war. Contact between the two Koreas has been suspended since December 2015. However, it does not seem to be the right time to make such suggestions, the paper asserted. North Korea announced it has succeeded in launching an ICBM in early July and the UN has been discussing imposing tougher sanctions against Pyongyang. In addition, there are US plans for a secondary boycott that puts sanctions on companies in third countries which conduct businesses with the North. Hasty inter-Korean talks could undermine efforts by the international community to stop the North from making further provocations. Moon promised Trump that South Korea will cooperate with the United States closely, but that seems unlikely if, suddenly, without consent from the United States, South Korea proceeds with its peace overtures. If military talks do take place, Pyongyang will be undoubtedly demanding a halt to US-South Korean military drills. Regarding the reunions of separated families, Pyongyang has always used them as a political tool to draw concessions from Seoul. Indeed, this pattern has been long-repeated: The North ratchets up tensions and the South seeks dialogue, yielding to make some concessions. Given this track record, the article insists that the new government should not repeat the same mistakes. A fundamental shift in the North’s attitude is required to bring about denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. No autocratic regime has ever made fundamental changes without strong and continued pressure from the international community, readers were told.