Country Report: South Korea (March 2014)

Two themes have been in the forefront in Korean media coverage of international relations in the region: diplomacy related to reunification and ROK-Japan relations. The former was sparked by President Park’s New-Year Speech, saying “reunification is like hitting a jackpot (통일은 대박이다).” As two major powers also mentioned reunification (Secretary of State John Kerry touched on it at the Munich Security Conference and a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ report projected a reunified Korean Peninsula as one possible future scenario), observers discussed what should be done next and what is required for South Korea to achieve this goal. In this period bilateral relations with Japan kept deteriorating due to Japan’s constant attempts to revise its history. This prompted further discussion of how to respond to this growing challenge.

Inter-Korea Relationship and Reunification

Highlighting the importance of how neighboring countries are influencing change on the Korean Peninsula, a Joongang Ilbo observer sees the two powers’ mention of reunification as meaningful and exceptional, especially the mention from China. The author urged the newly installed National Security Council to play a significant role in coming up with a mid- to long-term strategy in preparation for reunification. A Chosun Ilbo article also assesses the current international circumstances as the most favorable since the division. The author urges South Korea to play a central role in forging a strategic dialogue framework with the United States and China, leaving the door open for the North too, if necessary. Without Seoul’s participation, the author argues, such dialogue is no longer realistic, and Seoul needs to seize this opportunity to lead the discussions.

Kim Hangil, chairman of the opposing Democratic Party, seeks one consistent and bipartisan policy, proposing to set up a committee, in which all political parties and civil society can participate along with the administration. Kim introduced Germany’s “Eastern Policy,” adopted by liberal Chancellor Willy Brandt and consistently implemented by the following conservative administrations until, under the conservative Christian Democratic Party, the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred and Germany was reunified.

A Joongang Ilbo columnist also draws lessons from the German experience, reiterating that the “Eastern Policy” was just one part of the long, 40-year journey of reunification, albeit its impact was significant. The author admires the consistency of reunification policy under the first six West German chancellors, beginning with Konrad Adenauer’s constitution “Grundgesetz,” meaning the basic law, not “Verfassung,” to avoid names that suggest permanent division, a spirit that was respected until reunification. Also, the author highlights efforts from below—civil and student exchanges pushed from the 1970s—, despite East Germany’s unwelcoming initial response. Apart from 1983-1985, when East Germany unilaterally stopped them, they lasted until reunification was achieved. Sister cities were established, becoming economically intertwined. Through 1988, local public entities in over 50 cities gave economic assistance to residents in sister cities of East Germany, which was referred to as a capillary approach. The author acknowledges that a volatile inter-Korean relationship is inevitable as long as the protection of each political system is the top priority. German’s capillary approach is strongly recommended, as it would build a solid base for reunification regardless of any political crisis.

Commentators assessed that reunification is an economic agenda for the Park administration rather than a political one, as shown in the term “jackpot.” Later, Park said that the, “value of reunification is immeasurable,” and the administration at the end of February announced the establishment of a preparatory committee for reunification as part of a three-year economic innovation plan. An advisor said that it shows Park puts more emphasis on the economic impact of reunification. A Hangyoreh observer criticized the approach as just populism, as necessary institutions are already in place. Another observer expressed concern that populism would create a bubble, suggesting a rosy future after reunification, which would contribute to people losing patience over the long and painful process that is actually required. From the left to the right, pragmatic and concrete policies to facilitate bilateral exchanges were requested.

As a reunion of war-divided families was successfully completed, it was generally assessed that the inter-Korea relationship is poised to improve. The North did not suddenly cancel the reunion or attach strings to the agreement, thereby separating humanitarian from security issues. This was generally assessed as a behavioral change. However, the Chosun Ilbo warned of a hidden strategy behind its decision to hold the reunion in February. The author of the article argues that the move was to take the spotlight away from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights (COI) final report, not just to attract more assistance or to stop South Korea-US joint military exercises. The author cites a former official, “The reunion started on the 20th, when COI’s final report was scheduled to be released.” Pyongyang confirmed the reunion three days prior to the release of the report, which can be seen as an “order” to the Security Council to add the North’s human rights situation to the main agenda alongside the nuclear issue. The author concludes that deeper analysis of Pyongyang’s policy is required.

Both countries agreed to continue official meetings following the reunion; however, in Seoul as the nuclear issue continues, discussions were conducted on how to tighten security while also enhancing this relationship. Specific suggestions on reunification were also discussed.

A Joongang Ilbo observer points out that the DPRK nuclear weapons program puts obvious limits on further improvement in relations. Fundamentally, Seoul needs to induce change on the nuclear issue through dialogue and cooperation, the author concludes. A Hangyoreh observer also argues that it is high time to deal with the nuclear issue and to talk about resumption of the Six-Party Talks, writing approvingly that the United States and China had discussed the issue in earnest, and suggested a new proposal from each side, during a visit by Kerry to China in February. Acknowledging a fundamental gap between the two countries’ approaches, the author urges Seoul to find common ground by figuring out what will make Pyongyang change. One Chosun Ilbo article is more skeptical, assuming that Beijing’s new proposal would not be much different from the old and that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear ambitions voluntarily unless Beijing takes a clear stance that the nuclear issue is non-negotiable.

A Joongang Ilbo columnist insists on a balanced approach and that hardliners, including the head of the National Security Council, defense minister, and director of the National Intelligence Service, who are reportedly dominating current foreign policy making, lower their voices. The author reasons that a hardline approach alone will not overcome the adverse environment that the two countries are facing; 1) the security of the peninsula is subject to a power game between the United States and China, and 2) Pyongyang’s nuclear issue is losing urgency in the face of US “strategic patience.” The reunions are strongly approved of as a creative, soft approach that the two countries on their own made happen. The author concludes that Seoul needs to make the most of the current situation, in which Kim Jong-un is eager to revitalize North Korea’s economy in order to stabilize his political leadership. The author sees Kim as the one who makes the final decisions, not military leaders as some had predicted after the execution of Jang. Currently, Seoul is the only partner willing to engage in economic projects with Pyongyang, as revealed in the “Eurasia Initiative”; most development projects with Chinese companies that were under way have stopped since the execution; and US assistance is not on the horizon.

A Hangyoreh observer urges another high-level meeting, as agreed in January, to prevent deterioration of the relationship. The author sees the North consistently pursuing dialogue with neighboring countries this year for the sake of its economy. There was a press conference linked to a missionary from the South that was caught last October, and there will be a Red Cross meeting with Japan in March. Acknowledging that Pyongyang’s missile launches after the reunion raised tensions in the region, the author concludes that it is not time to push Pyongyang further, but rather to have a dialogue, since improvement only comes when relations are in good shape.

Shin Gi-Wook suggests “Greater China” as a practical model for Korea’s reunification. Shin lists three models of reunification: 1) the Vietnam model, using military force; 2) the German model, absorbing East Germany; and 3) the Yemen model, agreeing through negotiation. Shin assesses that none of the models are suitable for the Korean Peninsula, where two different political systems have been in place for a long time and international great powers’ interests are deeply involved. Given that “Greater China” overcame systematic differences beginning with Hong Kong, Shin sees this model as most adaptable to the peninsula. China has achieved a high level of economic and social integration even with Taiwan. Shin argues that Korean reunification discourse should go beyond political and military integration, pointing out that “Greater China” built an economic network across Asia to bear fruit. Using the “Eurasia Initiative” or North Korea’s participation in the “Greater Tumen Initiative” as a path toward “Greater Korea,” Shin concludes that such a process should not provoke neighboring countries, offering a needed, creative, practical approach.

Hahm Chaibong urges abandonment of a “two-Korea” policy in favor of a “One-Korea” policy, as the former has completely lost its purpose. He argues that the “two-Korea” policy was adopted in pursuit of an internally acceptable policy at the end of the Cold War in 1998 when South Korea saw the North changing to reform and opening for peaceful coexistence and Seoul welcomed assistance from China and Russia as essential for desirable change. Accordingly, Seoul chose a practical approach internationally, although its constitution defines only its government as legitimate on the peninsula. Yet, the North is still isolated and has developed nuclear weapons and long-distance missiles, repeatedly provoking the region. Hahm concludes that there is no reason to hold to a failed policy any longer, while the North breaches international norms and regulations, threatens neighboring countries with weapons of mass destruction, and starves and oppresses its people. South Korea should instead ask neighboring countries to strongly press the North for denuclearization, improved human rights, and, also, support for reunification led by the South.

Kim Hyungjong, a former trade representative and ambassador to the UN, insists that South Korea should strive to create leverage to lead the reunification dialogue. Disapproving of Seoul’s decision to join TPP for lack of a strategy, Kim argues that Seoul needs to use TPP participation as a card to meet its demands for security. While he thinks that the United States needs Seoul to press Japan to further open its market, Seoul does not need to join TPP for purely economic reasons. Highlighting that the United States suggested establishing a bilateral dialogue channel with China to prepare for a possible crisis on the peninsula, Kim argues that South Korea should build strategies to maximize its leverage to achieve reunification in the manner it desires.

Lee Huiok focuses on China’s diplomatic strategy to actively engage with neighboring countries, including Russia, India, and Southeast Asian states. Acknowledging that Seoul has strategic value and a good relationship with Beijing for now, the author argues that the relationship depends on a high-level game, as it is increasingly subject to China’s various diplomatic strategies, such as major country, neighboring states, and multilateral diplomacy. Lee suggests the possibility that China’s neighboring states diplomacy may change the regional order abruptly. Its participation in RCEP is not solely economic but partly political to stand against US efforts to weaken the impact of its rise on neighboring countries. He adds that the North’s current attitude of reconciliation is also a result of such diplomacy and that inter-Korean relations will increasingly be affected by China’s diplomacy. The author concludes that Seoul needs to prepare for various future scenarios.

What accounts for this flurry of proposals on how South Korea might adjust its policy toward North Korea in the context of Chinese and US statements and policies? Has there been some significant change in great power relations or North Korea’s thinking about denuclearization? Even without tangible signs of that, there appears to be urgency for finding a way forward as a result of growing discomfort with the status quo. The internal debate is well removed from media discussions in the other countries dealing with the North Korean regional challenge.

South Korea-Japan Relations

Following the end-of-the-year Yasukuni Shrine visit by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, insensitive comments and policies in Japan have been widely discussed in the South Korean media. Coercion of sex slaves has been repeatedly questioned as Japanese officials argue that the Kono statement needs academic verification. A vice-minister level official attended “Takeshima Day” events, arousing further concern over claims on Dokdo. Yet, many articles called for a calm, rational approach to provocations. They highlighted that Seoul should let the world know the truth of these matters and avoid presenting them as issues to be disputed, as Tokyo would prefer.

Among the provocations, the revised teaching manual was considered to be the most serious, as it would make historical and territorial tensions permanent and more difficult to resolve in the next generation. The revised manual says that Takeshima is Japan’s legitimate territory, but that South Korea has illegally been occupying it. Previously, the wording was that Seoul and Tokyo have different points of view on the sovereignty of the rocky islet. Joongang Ilbo points out that the manual has dramatically increased the number of textbooks (2 to 9) arguing that Dokdo is a Japanese territory. Now, practically every middle and high school student will read the revised textbooks.

A Hangyoreh columnist traces the first conflict over a teaching manual between the two countries to 1982. The Japanese government screened high school textbooks to revise the phrase “Japan invaded” (침략) to “Japan went abroad” (진출). Soon afterwards, Japan released the Miyazawa statement, saying “Japan will not distort its history of invasion.” The author argues that this statement, known as “Provision on nearby countries” (근린제국조항) has successfully functioned to reduce further historical tension. The author argues that the new revision repeals one of Japan’s three important statements about history along with the Murayama and Kono statements. Two options were listed for Seoul; 1) to control history textbooks and strengthen nationalism through education just as Japan does; or 2) to press Japan to have a proper historical perspective through the Korea-Japan civil society link. The author argues that the former is not an option, as it is proves to only escalate tensions. The bilateral relationship started to severely deteriorate after President Lee’s visit to Dokdo, giving rise to such a tit-for-tat strategy.

Commentators agreed that only Japan has the key to resolving the historical feud in the region. Acknowledging that it is not likely in Abe’s administration and South Korea has no way to make it happen, discussions centered on what South Korea should do if Japan becomes a “normal state” and what the United States should do to oblige Japan not to continue provoking.

Another Chosun Ilbo journalist focuses on long-term strategy. Admitting that Seoul does not have tools to immediately change Japanese policy, the author argues that Seoul needs long-term policies to help Japan to realize its revisionism is meaningless, while reinforcing Seoul’s effective rule over the island. The author introduces Lee Taejin’s opinion arguing for the partial responsibility of Seoul for Japan’s current historical perceptions, pointing out a lack of research on the ideological roots of its colonialism and that when victims are careless, invaders forget their wrongdoings. Noting that the German parliament recently commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and further atoned for its history, the article argues that it was possible only because the victims thoroughly and doggedly traced the Nazi crimes, e.g., the “Simon Wiesenthal Center” has succeeded in bringing cases against over 1,100 war criminals. The author concludes that if there were one such center in Korea, Japan would not be carrying out such provocations. Welcoming the government and the East Asia Hisotry Foundation’s plan to conduct international joint studies on “Japan’s History of Imperialist Invasions” (일본 제국주의 침탈 만행사), the author urges setting a 50-100 year, long-term goal to unravel this history, concluding that it is the only way that Seoul and Tokyo can have a normal and future-oriented relationship.

Shin Jubaek looks at what Japan is expected to do in the near future, anticipating that the Abe administration will institutionalize its rightist movement, including revised teaching manuals. Arguing that this will involve two steps—constitutional revision and an Abe statement—Shin suggests that the statement might be issued next year for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. It would be much less apologetic, while suggesting much more comprehensive values than Kono or Murayama’s. Conceding that Korea and China have no way to prevent such moves, Shin urges Seoul to go beyond diplomacy and criticism. The bilateral approach—Korea-Japan and China-Japan—to resolve historical tensions is not working with Japan, which will become a “normal state” with Abe’s statement. Thus, a multilateral approach is required, Shin concludes.

A Joongang Ilbo article urges South Korea to deal with historical tensions more cautiously in the context of regional geopolitics. The author expresses concern over the impression that Seoul is cooperating with Beijing against Tokyo, part of China’s strategy along with an anti-Japan public relations campaign running internationally. China built a memorial hall for Ahn Jung-guen, the Korean nationalist who killed Ito Hirobumi, in response to a request to build a “memorial stone” during Park’s visit last June, which is described as in line with this strategy. Calling attention to historical tension with Beijing over its Northeast Project (including Koguryo), the author argues that excessive dependence on China is a double-edged sword. Highlighting that current regional conflicts are basically between China and Japan and pointing out that South Korea shares a history of being colonialized with China and democracy and human rights values with Japan, the author concludes that Seoul needs to play a leading role in forging peace among the three countries by revisiting Ahn’s “East Peace Theory” (동양평화론) and creating a horizontal trilateral alliance (연대), Peace Talk Committee, Economic Union, and Peacekeeping Forces (평화회의체, 경제공동체, 평화유지군).

Finally, a Chosun Ilbo observer argues that the United States should consider itself as a directly involved party to the history issue, not as a third party. Trilateral cooperation depends on the South Korea-Japan relationship and the United States is the only country that can stop Japan’s provocations. While the United States strategically needs a robust Japan in Asia due to its fiscal problems, the article criticizes neglect of Japan’s denial of its invasion as not in accord with US values. The US consistent request for South Korea to separate history from security is wrong and impractical in the region, as history has created the current security issues. Citing a US statement that dialogue can reduce gaps among parties and benefit all the countries in the region, the author questions what kind of dialogue can do such things if Japan keeps escalating the feud.

Frustration over Japan was behind many of the articles in this period along with a degree of desperation over North Korea, leading to writers grasping at straws to solve both challenges. There was little sign of strong criticism of Park’s leadership on both issues, although appeals by conservatives and progressives for what may be a path forward continued to diverge.