Country Report: South Korea (July 2018)

From May to July 2018, South Korean news editorials continued to focus on bilateral dynamics among the two Koreas, the United States, and China. On inter-Korean relations, analysts assessed the second inter-Korean summit, which followed the North’s unilateral suspension of high-level talks and momentary refusal to allow South Korean journalists at the dismantling of the Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. On US-Korean relations, analysts discussed the Moon-Trump summit and Trump’s sudden cancelation of his meeting with Kim, which—in spite of all preceding qualms—eventually transpired as scheduled. On China-Korean relations, analysts evaluated Kim’s third visit to China following his meeting with Trump. This report reviews the domestic debate in South Korea before, during, and after the Singapore summit, widely heralded as an “historic” first meeting between a sitting US president and a North Korean leader.

Moon-Trump summit

On May 22, Moon and Trump met in Washington DC to discuss Trump’s scheduled summit with Kim. Moon expressed high confidence that the summit will go ahead as scheduled. Meanwhile, Trump stated: “There is a very substantial chance that it won’t work out, but that’s OK. It doesn’t mean it won’t work out over a period of time, but it may not work out for June 12.” Trump’s statement cast doubt on the prospect of his highly anticipated summit with Kim.

Progressive coverage expressed disappointment with Trump’s distrustful tone toward the North. A Kyunghyang article on May 23 notes that Trump’s statement reflects his reservations about the upcoming summit with Kim. Although Moon tried to reassure Trump that “there is no reason to doubt Kim’s commitment [to denuclearization],” Trump reiterated that the meeting may not take place if his conditions are not met. The article questions whether such coercive rhetoric was necessary so close to the summit and criticizes Trump for over-stressing his goal of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) without providing the details of his promised “security guarantees.” Moreover, the two leaders failed to create a more specific roadmap for dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons and securing its regime. Kyunghyang concludes that while the summit helped to sustain the momentum of dialogue (amid the North’s recent change of attitude), it delivered little in substance ahead of the Trump-Kim summit.

A Hankyoreh article on May 23 offers a more optimistic evaluation of the Moon-Trump summit. The article finds it encouraging that Trump reiterated his pledge to provide security guarantees in exchange for the North’s denuclearization, including through extensive economic assistance. Further, Trump demonstrated a greater degree of flexibility in his approach to denuclearization: While stating that he preferred an “all-in-one” method (as opposed to the North’s incremental approach), he also admitted that this may be technologically and physically difficult. Effectively, this could mean that Trump simply desires a comprehensive deal in the shortest amount of time possible—if so, his model for denuclearization would not be too different from Moon’s “big deal” framework. Hankyoreh argues that the North likely welcomed the results of the latest summit, evidenced by its decision to re-invite South Korean journalists to the Punggye-ri nuclear test site for its scheduled shutdown. Nonetheless, the article urges the Moon government to stay vigilant and proactive as the talks advance, facilitating Washington and Pyongyang in closing their gaps and widening shared interests.

Conservative coverage expressed disappointment with Kim’s change in attitude and Moon’s naïve defense of Kim. A Segye article on May 24 points out that even as Trump threatened to cancel the summit, Moon insisted that there is “no reason” to doubt Kim’s sincerity. The article worries that Moon’s continued justification of Kim’s actions and demands will ultimately drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Segye also postulates that Kim’s sudden change in attitude signifies his disingenuousness about denuclearization and, perhaps more importantly, his renewed confidence in Chinese support. In demonstrating Kim’s ever brazen behavior, the article cites how the North refused to allow South Korean journalists at the Punggye-ri shutdown until the very last minute and declined to invite experts as promised earlier. The article likens the event to the dismantling of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities in 2007, which it describes as a “denuclearization show.” Segye also recalls Kim’s unilateral cancelation of high-level talks and demands for a group of North Korean defectors to be repatriated. The article argues that Moon is in part responsible for Kim’s growing intransigence: ever since the Panmunjom declaration, the Moon administration has appeared deferential to the North, opting to stay silent on its abysmal human rights records (for fear of upsetting Kim) and offering only “carrots” even though no real progress has been achieved on the denuclearization front. As Kim resorts to more reckless negotiating tactics, Moon must demonstrate his willingness to stand firm against the North.

A more centrist Kookmin article on May 24 interpreted Trump’s remarks as a warning against both Kim and Xi. While the probability of either Trump or Kim walking away from the summit is low, the article concedes that Trump’s latest comments may signify their failure to narrow differences during the preparatory talks (to which the South is not entirely privy). Kookmin argues that the North must present a convincing denuclearization roadmap instead of pressuring the South to leverage its position against the United States. In addition, Trump believes that Kim’s attitude has changed since meeting Xi for the second time—that, in fact, China is meddling in the progress of denuclearization under the ruse of its national interests. In particular, Trump is disgruntled with China for disabling the sanctions regime by, once again, tolerating black markets to flourish in its border regions with the North and allowing the passage of North Korean laborers. This is why Trump has directly linked the US-China trade negotiations to his talks with Kim. Kookmin urges China to maintain the pressure on the North to avoid further suspicion.

Trump’s cancelation of his summit with Kim

On May 24, Trump canceled the Singapore summit in a personal letter to Kim, citing the North’s “tremendous anger and open hostility” as reason for his decision. While accusing the North of bad faith, Trump also ended his letter on a more conciliatory note, suggesting that the he is still open to talks: “If and when Kim Jong-un chooses to engage in constructive dialogue and actions, I am waiting.” Trump’s letter was released barely hours after the North publicly demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site as a gesture of goodwill before the summit. The North’s response to Trump’s announcement was swift and measured: North Korean vice foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan described the unilateral cancellation as “unexpected and very regrettable,” but stressed that the North remains “willing to sit down with the United States any time, in any format, to resolve the problems.”

Progressive coverage condemned Trump for his unilateral decision to pull out of the scheduled summit with Kim, which came just days after Trump hosted Moon in Washington. A Kyunghyang article on May 24 describes Trump’s reasoning for canceling the summit as “arbitrary.” Trump stated that the meeting feels “inappropriate,” because of “the tremendous anger and open hostility” displayed by the North, most likely referring to a strongly-worded statement by North Korea’s vice-foreign minister Choe Son-hui, in which she suggested the possibility of a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.” Refuting Trump’s accusations, Kyunghyang points out that Choe’s remarks were in response to Mike Pence’s hardline comments. Further, the article argues that the North has consistently demonstrated its goodwill by, most recently, shutting down its Punggye-ri nuclear testing site and releasing three American prisoners. Yet, the United States has failed to reciprocate in any substantial manner. For the talks to succeed, particularly amid mutual contempt and suspicion, two parties must work toward building trust. Answering one’s gesture of good faith with more coercion only weakens the momentum of the dialogue—the United States must respond to the North’s Punggye-ri decision with an incentive in kind.

Progressive coverage also praised the restraint with which the North responded to Trump’s move. A Hankyoreh article on May 25 notes that the North’s statement was released merely 8 hours after Trump’s announcement, in uncharacteristically controlled language and tone. The article deems such response evidence that the North takes the cancelation seriously and aims to revive dialogue. (Taking the argument further, a Kyunghyang article on the same day posits that the North’s reaction proves its genuine commitment to denuclearize: the North seeks to denuclearize not to temporarily evade sanctions but to become a normal country with a long-term strategic resolve.) In addition, Hankyoreh speculates that the stated reasons for Trump’s cancelation are likely a ruse—that the real reason is because the two parties failed to narrow the gap between Trump’s “all-in-one” approach and Kim’s “phase-in” approach to denuclearization. Kyunghyang appears to share the assessment; it maintains that managing distrust is, for the moment, more important than tackling the core matters regarding denuclearization and security guarantees. Both outlets emphasize that the future remains open-ended, and that all parties—including South Korea—must mobilize all their channels of communication to restore dialogue.   

Conservative coverage, on the other hand, criticized Kim’s change in attitude. According to a Chosun article on May 25, US-North Korean relations took a sour turn following Kim’s second meeting with Xi Jinping, after which the North unilaterally postponed high-level talks with the South and raised the possibility of canceling the planned summit with Trump. Chosun points out that Trump had been extremely accommodating toward Kim: when Kim protested against the “Libyan model,” Trump conceded that immediate and total denuclearization may be physically difficult and that a “phase-in may be a little bit necessary.” Moreover, Trump had instantly accepted the North’s invitation for dialogue, without preconditions, and praised Kim as “honorable” in a stark reversal of rhetoric. Given Trump’s earlier efforts to appease Kim, Chosun offers two potential scenarios for why he may have canceled the summit. First, the North habitually resorts to brash language prior to an important negotiation, as evidenced by Choe’s criticism of Pence, but Trump—unfamiliar with the North’s tactics—may have taken greater offense. Second, Trump may have judged that US and North Korean positions on denuclearization were not sufficiently narrowed, despite his compromise regarding a “phase-in” approach, rendering the talks pointless. As fears of a nuclear showdown resurface, Chosun concludes that sanctions and military pressure must be strengthened and South Korea must seek to bolster its alliance with the United States. This is not the time to appease Kim.

In addition, conservative coverage found the North’s response to Trump’s cancelation both inadequate and skeptical. According to a Donga article on May 26, while the North’s solemn attitude signals Kim’s desire to restore dialogue, it did not compromise on any substantive issues, most significantly on denuclearization, staying firm with its preferred approach. Indeed, Donga asserts that Kim is different from his father: Kim Jong-il had normally responded to external pressure with more aggressive measures, but Kim Jong-un immediately lowered his stance when confronted with Trump’s threats. Still, the article finds troubling that Kim’s basic position on denuclearization remains identical to his predecessors’, which raises questions about his sincerity. Even during the Punggye-ri shutdown, the North emphasized the country’s nuclear status, depicting the demolishment of its nuclear testing site as “voluntary” and part of the “international nuclear disarmament process.” Donga urges Kim to prove his willingness to compromise on substantive matters rather than simply shifting his image and rhetoric to sustain the dialogue.  

Second inter-Korean summit

On May 26, two days after Trump canceled his planned summit with Kim, Moon and Kim met for a second summit in Panmunjom. The Blue House stated that the two leaders “exchanged views and discussed ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration [on improving inter-Korean ties] and to ensure a successful US North Korea summit.” The North’s state-run news agency also noted that they agreed to “meet frequently in the future to make dialogue brisk and pool wisdom and efforts, expressing their stand to make joint efforts for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”

Progressive coverage described the meeting as noteworthy in many ways. A Hankyoreh article on May 27 lists the following: 1) The summit confirmed Kim’s commitment to meet with Trump and allowed Moon and Kim to freely discuss the prospects of the Singapore summit; 2) Moon relayed Trump’s intention to end all hostilities and cooperate economically in return for Kim’s commitment to “complete denuclearization”; 3) Moon also expressed that “Kim’s concern is whether he can fully trust the United States,” which, according to the article, is central to the success of US-North Korean talks; 4) Trump responded positively to the summit by announcing that preparatory talks with the North will take place as scheduled; 5) Moon and Kim met within a month of the Panmunjom Declaration, with little formality yet greater coordination, and in a solution-oriented style—all of which will contribute to building closer inter-Korean ties; and 6) Moon urged the two Koreas and the United State to jointly declare an end to the war through trilateral talks—an objective he has long sought  and efforts for which he must redouble. Hankyoreh acknowledges that inter-Korean relations cannot advance to their full potential unless US-North Korean relations improve; alternatively, however, progress in inter-Korean relations can catalyze trust-building between Washington and Pyongyang. In crisis situations, therefore, the two Koreas must seek more contact.

Conservative coverage was more critical in its evaluation of the second inter-Korean summit, reiterating the need to reaffirm CVID as the ultimate objective and bolster cooperation with the United States. A Joongang article on May 28 admits that the meeting helped revive the impetus for the Singapore summit and highlight South Korea’s position as an intermediary; but more importantly, the article denounces the North’s failure to commit to CVID as a principle and the South’s dishonesty in embellishing the North’s assertions on its behalf. When asked whether the North had agreed to CVID, Moon deflected his response, “North Korea and the United States will hold working-level talks soon—doesn’t this confirm the North’s intentions (to denuclearize)?” Yet, the US position is different: Contrary to Moon’s simplified understanding, the North has continually dictated its demands for security guarantees and insisted on demarcating its efforts as “nuclear disarmament”; the North’s true intentions, therefore, cannot be reliably ascertained until further negotiations take place. What’s more worrying, such diverging positions could exact more permanent damage on the two allies’ relations. Signs are already there: Trump redirected a significant portion of the time designated for Moon during their summit to speak with the reporters, and just as Moon was returning from Washington, Trump blindsided Moon by canceling the Singapore summit with Kim. Joongang interprets those signs as warnings from Trump for Moon’s inadequate and partial performance as the middleman and concludes that Moon must reinforce South Korea’s solidarity with the United States.

Trump-Kim summit

On June 12, US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore. The summit transpired following weeks of speculation and mounting skepticism as Kim reverted to harsher rhetoric against the South and Trump raised doubts about the viability of the summit. Marking the first-ever US-North Korean summit, the two leaders shook hands and jointly announced the Singapore declaration. The declaration reaffirmed Kim’s agreement to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in exchange for Trump’s commitment to provide “security guarantees,” the details of which remained unspecified. The declaration also welcomed the “establishment of new US-DPRK relations and the building of a lasting and robust peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” Toward that end, Trump announced his willingness to halt US-South Korean military exercises, which he described as “provocative.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a relevant North Korean official were tasked with leading subsequent negotiations to implement the outcomes of the Singapore summit.

Progressive coverage was cautiously optimistic about the summit and what it might signify for the trajectory of US-North Korean relations. A Kyunghyang article on June 12, titled “Trump and Kim march toward peace,” characterizes the summit as “comprehensive” and “declaratory.” The article discusses three aspects in particular: 1) denuclearization; 2) security guarantees; and 3) trust between Trump and Kim. First, while their joint declaration fails to mention CVID and lacks a specific denuclearization timeline, the summit allowed two adversarial leaders to meet and agree to a broad framework of reconciliation. The details of the denuclearization roadmap can be negotiated at working-level stages later and, in fact, this may be more efficient. The article also notes that the North sees CVID as unilateral compromise and finds it humiliating to accept the expression—even so, the North conceives of “complete denuclearization” as not too dissimilar from CVID. In Kyunghyang’s view, the debate surrounding CVID is, therefore, of limited utility. Second, Trump agreed to provide security guarantees and normalize relations with the North. The details of these pledges will need to be fine-tuned as the two sides work on a denuclearization roadmap, but Trump already mentioned in passing that the US-South Korean military exercises seem “inappropriate” and “provocative” in light of the ongoing talks, signaling his willingness to postpone them. If enforced, this could serve as a turning point for alleviating military tension between the two countries. Third, the summit helped Trump and Kim make personal acquaintance and build trust. Trump praised Kim, saying he could be “remembered as the leader who ushered in a glorious new era of security and prosperity for his people.” Further, the two leaders agreed to meet again in the future, with Kim accepting Trump’s invitation to Washington; Kyunghyang argues more frequent contact will help relieve the North’s concerns about regime security. Based on these observations, the article is hopeful. It stresses that Trump and Kim now share a destiny, and that Moon’s continued support and mediation are ever critical to allow their trust to mature and uproot the conflict that had long plagued the peninsula.

Conservative articles evaluated the summit as a one-sided victory for Kim. A Chosun article on June 13 postulates that the Singapore agreement merely reaffirms, rather than clarifies, the Panmunjom declaration. Previously, when questioned about the ambiguities in the inter-Korean declaration, the Blue House responded that more specific agreements had to be made between North Korea and the United States—yet, the results of the Trump-Kim summit suffer from the same vagueness, to the North’s advantage. The article also recalls the joint statement of the Six-Party Talks in 2005, in which the North agreed to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The latest agreement appears far more impotent in comparison. Furthermore, during the press conference, Trump pledged to end US-South Korean military drills (and stated his desire to pull out US troops altogether). This announcement is alarming, because the drills are one of the most effective means of pressuring the North and no concrete measures toward denuclearization have yet been taken to warrant their dismissal. Trump appears to rejoice in the North’s promise to demolish its ballistic missile testing site—a gesture similar to its performance in Punggye-ri. However, a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing does not translate to denuclearization; as Chosun puts it, “the North will only have to hide its nuclear weapons.” Declaring the Singapore declaration “the worst outcome for South Korea,” Chosun expects little from the impending working-level talks and fears that subsequent negotiations will revolve around arms reduction rather than denuclearization. It then concludes pessimistically: if this trend persists, much like India and Pakistan, North Korea would soon become accepted as a nuclear-armed state.

Third Xi-Kim summit

On June 20, one week since holding a summit with Trump, Kim met with Xi Jinping, marking their third meeting since March. Many speculated that Kim traveled to Beijing to brief Xi on the Singapore summit and seek economic assistance. Following their meeting, a Chinese spokesperson stated, “We hope this visit can help to further deepen China-North Korea relations, strengthen strategic communication between both countries on important issues and promote regional peace and stability.”

Progressive coverage saw the latest Xi-Kim summit as a sign of warming relations between the two countries, which is not necessarily detrimental to the South. A Hankyoreh article on June 19 asserts that closer China-North Korean relations are only natural and based on an alignment of their interests. For the North, China serves as much-needed leverage against the United States—Kim understands this and seeks Xi’s intimate involvement in the talks to draw more credible guarantees from Trump. For China, which is eager to expand its role in the ongoing diplomacy, Kim’s persistent efforts to pursue Xi’s advice is equally welcome. Deeper engagement with China on peninsular matters is not bad for South Korea, either. After all, when US-North Korean tensions were at their zenith, China was already calling for a “freeze-for-freeze” (simultaneous moratorium on nuclear testing and military exercises) and parallel processes on denuclearization and a peace regime. With the conclusion of the Trump-Kim summit and the cancelation of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, Beijing’s suggestions appear increasingly feasible. Hankyoreh admits that too much interference from Beijing will lead to a competition for influence between China and the United States. As another intermediary, South Korea should bolster its cooperation with China to ensure that China does not overstep its boundaries.

In contrast, conservative coverage warned that China could endanger the very sanctions regime that brought the North to the negotiating table in the first place. A Segye article on June 20 states that Kim’s intentions for visiting Xi are not difficult to fathom: 1) relay the results of the Singapore summit; 2) seek sanctions relief; and 3) collaborate on a strategy to deal with the United States. The particulars of their exchange are more mystifying: these could alter not only the dynamics dictating the North’s denuclearization but the security landscape in Northeast Asia. In particular, China’s attitude is vital: if it decides to upend the current sanctions regime, the North would soon renege on its pledges. This is why it is disconcerting that China is violating its sanctions obligations, however discreetly. In Dandong, North Korean merchants are crowding the markets once again and defunct factories are reopening. Recently, Beijing also lifted its comprehensive ban on travel to North Korea, increasing the North’s much-desired cash flow. As history has shown, threats of “maximum pressure” are toothless without China’s faithful participation in the sanctions efforts against North Korea. Yet, according to Segye, China is using North Korea to compete against the United States on trade and military influence. Segye admonishes China that a failed deal on North Korean denuclearization could reinforce calls for US military strikes and even Japanese nuclear armament. This is not the future China wants.    

Cancelation of the US-South Korean military drills

On June 22, the United States and South Korea agreed to postpone indefinitely two Korean marine exchange program (KMEP) drills, in addition to the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG) exercises. According to the South Korean defense ministry, the suspension is “a part of follow-up measures after the North Korea-US summit and South Korea-North Korea summit. There could be additional measures should North Korea follow suit with productive cooperation.”

Progressive coverage welcomed the decision to freeze US-South Korean military exercises and expected the gesture to encourage trust-building. A Seoul Shinmun article on June 26 argues that the North will likely respond in kind—for instance, by returning the remains of the US war dead. This was a promise Kim made in the joint statement with Trump at their Singapore summit and holds special value for Trump, who seeks to score points domestically. If the North fulfills this pledge, it would help reenergize the talks, the progress of which has been appreciably slowing down recently. Indeed, despite plans to hold high-level talks, there has been no sign to suggest they will happen any time soon. With additional reciprocal steps, the article hopes that the United States and North Korea could overcome their trust deficit and proceed smoothly to subsequent stages in their negotiations.

Conservative coverage denounced the suspension of the military drills and expressed concern about a weakening US-South Korean alliance. A Chosun article on June 26 contends that the alliance will face significant risks if Trump truly believes the joint exercises are counterproductive and dispensable. According to Burwell Bell, a retired US Army general and former USFK commander, the allies’ combat readiness would be irreversibly damaged if the drills do not resume within 6-9 months. Further, Chosun claims that a sizeable majority of the South Korean public is dismayed by the failing US-South Korean alliance amid continued nuclear threats from the North. The alliance has protected the stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia for over 60 years—it is not something a US president can undo during his 4-year term. Faced with formidable opposition from the military, the Congress, and security experts, Jimmy Carter had to relinquish his plan to withdraw US forces deployed in the South. Likewise, to persuade Trump, South Korea must first clarify its position and express its fear and discomfort with the weakening state of the alliance. The upcoming visit by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis would be a suitable opportunity.

Reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex and sanctions relief

Following the demolition of the Tongchang-ri missile testing site and the return of 55 US war dead remains in July, some began to call for the reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex and broader sanctions relief for the North. Opened in 2004, the Kaesong industrial complex was once hailed as a symbol of deepening economic cooperation between the rival Koreas. However, the South closed the complex on February 10, 2016, in retaliation for the North’s fourth nuclear test. South Korean unification ministry stated, “It would be desirable to push for its resumption after the lifting of the sanctions,” adding that it hopes the complex will reopen “as soon as possible.”

Progressive coverage regretted the United States’ lack of flexibility on sanctions relief for the North. A Hankyoreh article on August 2 asserts that the Trump administration’s rigidity with regard to sanctions is harming the progress of the dialogue. For instance, the two Koreas had promised to open a Joint Liaison Office in Kaesong during the Panmunjom summit, but this cannot be accomplished unless the United States eases its sanctions on the North. In addition, the North has been calling for a resumption of Mount Kumgang tourism and reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex, to which the United States has shown little interest in facilitating. The article sees both programs as vital to advancing inter-Korean relations—yet, the United States remains adamant against any form of sanctions relief, which is required for the renewal of those programs. Hankyoreh blames the Trump administration for the current impasse in negotiations, stating that its hardline stance on sanctions significantly limits what South Korea can do as an intermediary.

Conservative coverage condemned the demands for sanctions relief as ill-timed and risky. A Donga article on August 3 asserts that sanctions relief is inappropriate in the absence of any meaningful measures toward denuclearization. The article cites US objections, in particular that of Senator Cory Gardner, who pointed out that reopening the Kaesong industrial park would be in violation of the existing sanctions regime. The US position is clear: no financial compensation before denuclearization. Given reports of continued nuclear and missile development in the North, easing sanctions is not only premature but counterproductive. Sanctions are the only tool to push the North toward denuclearization—by supporting their relief, South Korea may inadvertently embolden the North and worse, jeopardize relations between the South and the United States. If the North defaults on its denuclearization pledge, no amount of improvement in inter-Korean relations would prove consequential. Donga urges South Korea to abide by its sanctions obligations and intensify coordination with the United States.