Country Report: South Korea (March 2015)

Assessments of the Park administration’s foreign policy

Marking the third year of the Park administration, criticism of her foreign policy grew more intense. On March 2, a Chosun Ilbo article assessed it as unbalanced, charging that too much weight has been put on the inter-Korean relationship. Reunification is, for sure, important, but related policies are dominated by populism and propaganda rather than carefully chosen strategies, the author charges. Given that cooperation with other countries including the United States, China and Japan, is essential to achieve the goal, the author argues that it is a waste of resources to expend all of South Korea’s diplomatic energies on a North Korean centered approach to the issue. This warning is supported by criticism of the current bilateral relationships with the United States as overly formal, with China as overly dependent, and with Japan as overly hostile. The article concludes by asking Park to shift the current momentum towards elevating Seoul’s strategic value as a balancer among major countries.

Choi Wonmok’s article in Hangyoreh, also published on March 2, questions the basis and direction of Park’s diplomacy. Choi criticizes South Korea’s diplomacy as an extension of domestic policies, which swing every five years depending on the shift in power within the country. Choi acknowledges that pressuring North Korea and Japan is needed but adds that this should not deplete diplomatic assets built over several generations. The article urges the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to have a long-term vision and to raise its voice against absurd or short-sighted policies advocated as a result of domestic political games.

On January 2, a Joongang Ilbo observer urged Park to go beyond independence and division as issues highlighted to mark the seventieth anniversary in order to prepare for the next 70 years, as Park had indicated in her New Year’s speech. The situation concerning the two issues has deteriorated since Park’s inauguration, the author says. Although both depend on the behavior of counterparts, Tokyo and Pyongyang, Seoul cannot wait forever for them to change their stance first. Otherwise, it would lose control of the situation. The author finds a slight chance of change in the inter-Korean relationship, given that a summit meeting was suggested in Kim Jung-un’s New Year’s speech. Regarding the South Korea-Japan relationship, the author urges the government to realistically figure out and implement what benefits Seoul the most, as it did 50 years ago to normalize the relationship. Cold reality is acknowledged that power comes first then morality, and it is almost impossible to give moral lessons to counterparts in the international community. Highly appreciating Park’s solid supporting base, the author sees Park as best fit to resolve these tricky diplomatic issues. The article suggests that the third year of an administration is the golden time to focus only on policies not politics.


Whether the fiftieth anniversary can or should be a turning point in the bilateral relationship was discussed. Journalists worry about the contents of the forthcoming Abe statement and any adverse impact it would cause. Deepening historical and political tension has affected the economic sector, leading to the termination of the currency swap initiated in 2011. A February 18 Chosun Ilbo article is alarmed about such spillover. The author is critical that Japan seemed to utilize the issue to pressure South Korea. Japan officially stated, “The extension can be considered if South Korea asks for it.” Another example cited is in 1997 the two countries suffered from a diplomatic conflict, and Japan rejected extending the expiration date of South Korea’s foreign bonds for political reasons. Some analyses that the author introduced claim that this was a fatal blow to Seoul, causing it to fall into financial crisis. The article warns that such adverse impact should be prevented in the future by the two countries and urges the government to bolster currency diplomacy by signing currency swaps with the US and EU central banks.

Lee Sook-jong in the February 4 DongA Ilbo opines that the fiftieth anniversary should be utilized to break the current stalemate with Japan. Historical conflicts have damaged both government-level relations and public opinion in the two countries. Lee argues that relations are critical to stability and peace in the region. The author finds a reason for Japanese right-leaning politics in Japanese anxiety over a rising China. Tokyo wants more proactive security cooperation with Seoul but is suspicious that Seoul has closer ties with Beijing, while Washington worries about the possibility that the history conflicts will weaken the Asia-Pacific alliance system. The more the Seoul-Tokyo relationship deteriorates, the more energetic Beijing’s gestures to Seoul become. The United States wants the ROK-Japan relationship to be closer, but China wants it to be farther apart. The author argues that the relationship with Japan should be at least as cooperative as that with China, even in Seoul’s effort to implement the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. The article foresees that the fiftieth anniversary will be overshadowed by the spotlight on the seventieth anniversary of Korea’s independence, but insists that the fiftieth anniversary should not be neglected. Lee concludes that this year should be a turning point in the strained Seoul-Tokyo relationship.

Skepticism, however, proved to be rampant. On January 6, a Joongang Ilbo column called hopes such as these naive, demanding that Abe’s Japan “open its eyes” not to walk further into the swamp. It argued that “revisionist conservatism,” rooted in what was a minor stream of the LDP and represented by Abe, is the basis of the deepening hatred against South Korea and of anti-US sentiment recently found in Tokyo. The author distinguishes it from the traditional conservatism of the LDP for its dangerous ideas—an ideology to revise history and rally against the United States for forcing “the peace constitution” on Japan. Assessing that Japan’s historical revisionism could cross the red line that Washington has set, the author warns that if it did, Japan would be alienated from the international community. Pointing to an elementary school level educational video arguing that Dokdo is Japan’s territory, which was distributed early this year, the author warns that more provocations will follow all year long. Reiterating that Japan is led by revisionist conservatism and adding that the Japanese public also has changed, the author insists that even to manage relations so that the current fissures do not widen further will not be easy in 2015.

A February 12 Hangyoreh article also is skeptical. It introduced the concept of a “new normal” era of the bilateral relationship, suggested by a Japanese journalist. It refers to a politically frozen but, to some extent, an economically and culturally friendly relationship. The author argues that such a relationship is to be the new standard unless a perceptional gap is closed between the two countries on the 1965 normalization agreement. For Seoul, it is a humiliating outcome too weak to include sensitive issues. South Korea is now capable of negotiating fair conditions unlike 50 years ago; however, Japan cannot abandon the 1965 framework. The sex slave issue was not covered in the agreement. The article introduces the Japanese stance on the issue. In a meeting with Japanese officials participating in director-level negotiations, the author was intrigued by their highlighting the importance of “mutual efforts,” and asked, “If South Korea is not asking for Japanese legal responsibility, can Japan offer a deal as comprehensive as the deal suggested in 1995 when the Asia Women’s Fund was launched?” A Japanese official answered, “The Japanese government needs to explain to its people two things before discussing new offers; first, how Seoul assesses Tokyo’s efforts so far; and second, if Seoul can voluntarily reduce the anti-Japanese movement and demolish the girl statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Without responses to those questions, it is almost impossible to suggest any new offers to the top level.” The author questions if Seoul is ready for such demands for mutual efforts, concluding that it would not be and foreseeing the current political relationship as the new normal.

Historical tensions rose again with the United States when Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said, “Of course, nationalist feelings can still be exploited, and it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy. But such provocations produce paralysis, not progress.” A Joongang Ilbo article on March 4 argued that these comments show the fundamental US perception of South Korea-China-Japan historical conflicts. Admitting that they do not represent the US official stance, the author sees Japan’s logic in the comments to the extent that they serve as evidence of failed diplomacy by Seoul on the issue. Highlighting Japan’s ongoing efforts to disseminate its stance in Washington, the article urges the South Korean government to make its logic clearer and more persuasive. The logic should be that Japan’s attempts to distort history are the greatest hazard to trilateral cooperation, the author argues, reiterating that Sherman’s comments are not helpful at all for easing regional tensions, as they blame the victim countries.

A March 3 Chosun Ilbo column also took the comments as evidence of failed diplomacy on the “comfort women” issue. While stating that they are not an official US statement, the author argues that they still matter, given Sherman’s expertise and long career in the State Department, and that the transcript was necessarily circulated and approved. Assuming the object of the sentence “it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause” to be China or South Korea, the author criticizes the notion that the two countries caused the current conflicts, not Japan, whose leader visited the Yasukuni Shrine and undermined the Kono statement. Asking for an official US stance on the issue, the article insists that South Korean needs to develop an alternate strategy to be more persuasive.

On March 2, a Hangyoreh journalist assessed that the comment was targeting China by clearly restating US cooperation with Japan. It also is pressuring South Korea to stand more firmly on that side of the alliance and with Japan to close the TPP deal sooner than later. The author acknowledges the need for cooperation on regional security but insists that practical needs do not replace or cancel out the history issues.

Son Yeol analyzed the situation in the context of public diplomacy in the March 5 Kyunghyang Shinmun. Son finds that the real problem is the widespread perception in Washington that South Korea’s rigid stance against Japan is damaging their bilateral relationship and harming US interests. The author proposes changing US opinion through public diplomacy. Seoul cannot compete with Japan in terms of budget, but Son finds relief in the nature of public diplomacy. It is more about persuasive logic that can convince the general public. Son notes that Japan’s public diplomacy has been severely damaged by asking for a change in the description of sex slaves in US textbooks, which led 19 historians to sign a petition against such government censorship in violation of academic freedom. They are on South Korean side on the issue. (Although Son did highlight the petition is technically about the violation of academic freedom, not about picking sides between South Korea and Japan.)

Son finds that comments directed against South Korea’s stance come from ignorance of the unique aspects of East Asian international relations, where sentiments come into play. Words such as sex slaves, Dokdo, Yasukuni, and Senkaku have different psychological impact in countries like South Korea, China and Japan, and foreign relations are too volatile to allow for common sentiments. In this context, Son argues that “vilifying a former enemy” is not “to earn cheap applause,” but to avoid expensive backlash caused when the dominant sentiment in the country is neglected. Son suggests that Seoul needs to develop the logic that it is making efforts to forge a common sentiment for a constructive relationship with Japan. Under this logic, it needs to effectively counter the allegation that South Korea is leaning towards China, which is propagated by Japan. Reminding readers of Japan’s mistake in public diplomacy, the article concludes that well-designed public diplomacy can persuade US officials, including Sherman.

Kim Sunghan, former vice minister of foreign affairs, also underlines the importance of public diplomacy. In the March 9 DongA Ilbo, Kim finds that Sherman’s comments are inappropriate in that they define neighboring countries’ urge to correct Japan’s historical revisionism as serving as “provocations” instead of rebuking revisionism. Though it was a misunderstanding to conclude that Sherman’s comments were targeting South Korea, the author argues, public diplomacy is necessary to change the growing perception that Seoul is getting tight with China. Currently, the United States needs Japan’s help to make sure that China rises peacefully while its hands are tied in the Middle East. Washington finds Abe’s historical perceptions problematic, but it needs the Abe administration’s contributions and a stronger trilateral security alliance in the region. Kim explains that it considers the bilateral alliance with Seoul in the context of the trilateral one. When the South Korea-Japan relationship is deteriorating, the United States sees the bilateral alliance with Korea as a problem even though there is no bilateral conflict. If the regional order were reorganized to put South Korea and China on one side and the United States and Japan on the other by external force or by pushing Seoul into Beijing’s arms, the new order would be the most adverse to US interests. This is the real worry in the United States, he explains.


Several articles find a change in the diplomatic strategy of China. A January 28 Joongang Ilbo article observes that China’s strategy to Japan has changed since the CPC Foreign Affairs Work Meeting(중공중앙외사 공작회의) last November, where Xi put the most weight on “neighboring country diplomacy,” while enumerating four strategies, including toward “major countries, developing countries, and multilateral diplomacy.” “Broader neighboring country diplomacy (대주변 외교)” was introduced at that time—diplomacy expanding the scope of neighboring countries. The author expects Xi’s diplomacy to focus on Asia this year for boosting economic growth and solidifying leadership in the region before China grows more active on the global stage.

Two examples are listed to show easing of tensions between China and Tokyo. First, Xi criticized Japanese militarism instead of the Abe administration in the first state memorial ceremony for Nanjing Massacre victims in December 2014, unlike during the sixty-ninth anniversary of victory in the war against Japan last September. Second, Chinese media selected Japan’s surrender on September 2 as one of the four most important anniversaries of the year and not September 3, when China claimed victory over Japan. The author forecasts that Abe will improve economic ties with Beijing after his US visit as it is pointless to exclude China, given Japan’s need for economic recovery. The article urges Seoul to utilize the opportunity of eased tensions between Beijing and Tokyo as an opportunity to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of independence and the fiftieth anniversary of normalization as well. Specifically, the author suggests extending China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, a means of neighboring country diplomacy, to the east, connecting Tokyo through Seoul. Park has suggested opening the railroad between Seoul and Sinuiju around the seventieth anniversary. If Seoul can find a way to extend the route to Tokyo, the author argues that it would signify a breakthrough in strained bilateral relationships with both North Korea and Japan.

On February 18, a Joongang Ilbo columnist argued that the US-China confrontation would be less serious as China continues its “new taoguang yanghui” policy following the APEC Xi-Obama meeting last November. The author quoted Wang Yang, a Chinese vice premier, at JCCT saying, “The world is led by the US. China respects the US-led world order.” Yang added, “China has no willingness or power to challenge the US. China respects US leadership.” This sudden strategic change is attributed to the US economic recovery, which is proceeding much faster than expected, and the US shale gas boom, which is having an increased geopolitical impact, weakening the economies of Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, China’s major partner countries. The author concludes that this change opens an opportunity for South Korea to strengthen economic ties with both the United States and China without facing further political pressure, while bolstering its alliance with the United States.

On January 15, a Hangyoreh article opined that China’s diplomacy towards North Korea is poised for a change. For the last three years since the death of Kim Jung-il, the bilateral relationship has been volatile. The author finds a subtle change in that China sent a message celebrating Kim Jung-un’s birthday and the expression “traditional friendship” has reappeared. Domestic discussions in Beijing are introduced as evidence for two reasons for the change. First, when the South Korea-US-Japan GSOMNIA was signed, Chinese state-owned media criticized it as an attempt to contain Beijing and to build an organization like NATO. Second, after Russia invited Kim Jung-un to its seventieth anniversary event, it was concerned that the first China-North Korea summit meeting might happen in Moscow not in Beijing. With this prospect in sight, calls in China have been growing for an improved relationship with North Korea, the author said. In other words, the two events elevate China’s anxiety over the changing landscape in the region. Quoting an unnamed source in Beijing that “China would watch South Korea closely before making further movement,” the article urges Seoul to be more proactive towards Pyongyang and concludes that exchanges and engagement are a shortcut to getting rid of distrust and tension.