Country Report: South Korea (March 2016)

Whereas relations with Japan remained a preoccupation throughout 2015, the December 28 agreement on the “comfort women” issue left more room for attention in 2016 to turn in other directions. In the first months of the new year, after the fourth North Korean nuclear test, the Park administration’s responses grabbed the spotlight, especially the decision to stop the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC). Following the way China handles North Korea closely, articles also took strong interest in its reaction to new ROK-US talks about the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD). These two issues became the center of discussion over two months.

The impression in the articles reviewed is that South Korea’s situation has deteriorated not so much due to North Korea’s renewed provocative actions, but due to diplomatic changes. From outside South Korea, the combination in the span of less than two months of a breakthrough agreement with Japan and a tough United Nations Security Council resolution against North Korea would seem to be a cause of celebration about unexpected and even unprecedented diplomatic dexterity. The articles, however, convey a wish to start over with Japan, a fear of abandonment from the United States, and a sense of loss of diplomatic room for maneuver by South Korea. They speak to long-nourished illusions of diplomatic opportunities that really did not exist as well as a serious lack of realism about China and Russia. Above all, there is an apparent lack of trust in the United States negotiating with China, forging a stronger alliance with Japan, and consulting closely with South Korea. The articles may be correct that a turning point has been reached as we enter 2016, but they fail as explanations of why this has happened and what should be done next. Conveying anxieties, they offer little direction for reorienting foreign policy at this critical juncture.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex

On February 12, a Joongang Ilbo observer expressed appreciation of Park’s decision to close the KIC complex. Though it damages South Korean companies operating in the KIC and also the national economy to a small degree, the author argues that this is a worthwhile price to pay, arguing that this measure will be effective for two reasons. First, the economic cost of the closure will be much more of a burden on Pyongyang than on Seoul; 50,000 workers in the complex suddenly have lost their jobs. Readers are told that this massive unemployment will shake the foundation of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Indeed, the economy of Kaesong follows right behind Pyongyang’s economy thanks to the relatively high wages paid (even if much of the money does not stay in the hands of the workers). The closure means that there will be much less money to be circulated in markets, which have enabled the North Korean black economy to grow. It is also noted that Kim Jong-un’s power is vulnerable to psychological warfare and that history shows that a totalitarian reign of terror collapses due to internally expanding liberalism not because of external shocks. Three years ago, Park had gone through the same experience. Kim pulled out all of the employees, then Park made all the owners come back to Seoul. It took five months to get back to normal even without US sanctions or Chinese pressure. The author attributes the even greater impact ahead to the power of monetary losses, the reverberations from 50,000 workers, and the recognition of South Korea’s consistent, resolute stance.

The article concludes that Park’s firm stance rings an alarm among those who are depending on Washington and Beijing only. This stance turns Seoul into a force, dealing with the actions of North Korea in its own way. Now the country stands together behind this leadership. It quotes the opposition party leader Kim Jong-in as saying, “The Soviet Union fell down not because there were no nuclear arms. Pyongyang’s simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear power will prove self-destructive.” But the author stresses that this is not a sufficiently assertive response and calls for more domestic political unity to prepare for Kim’s next move.

A February 15 DongA Ilbo article agreed with the need for closing KIC but doubted its overall effectiveness. The move shows Seoul’s strong will to neighboring countries, but it will not affect their policies, as it does not change their national interests, readers are told. The United States and Japan would have imposed their own sanctions against the North even without the closure. More importantly, it is not expected to change Pyongyang’s behavior either.

The author said that the fourth nuclear test turned back the clock on foreign policy to the moment of Park’s inauguration. The test revealed that all of Park’s foreign policy goals have failed: balancing diplomacy between the United States and China, resetting the relationship with Japan after at last resolving the history issue, and building a new inter-Korean relationship pursuing the jackpot of reunification. Criticizing the lack of a plan B or C, the author concluded that Korean diplomacy has no option but to go back to the beginning.

The former foreign affairs minister Han Sung-Joo also has acknowledged the necessity of the KIC closing. In an interview with Chosun Ilbo on February 17, Han said, “It is complicated, but it is a necessary and inevitable move. It is quite convincing that the money invested in the complex was exploited to develop nuclear arms. It is self-contradictory to keep operating the complex under the circumstances.”

In an interview with Kyunghyang Shinmun on February 11, however, former unification minister Jeong Se-hyun had a different opinion. Jung argued that the closure will not be effective in pushing neighboring countries, especially China, to act. China’s current policy stems from the changed relationship with Washington over the last three years since the third North Korean nuclear test, the article asserted. The United States is indirectly pressuring China by supporting the right-leaning movement of Japan. China sees US sanctions against Pyongyang also as part of the strategy. Under the circumstances, there is no way Beijing will perceive Seoul’s decision as anything more than another facet of the overall US strategy aimed against China.

A February 11 Hangyoreh article assessed the closure as proof of how reckless and floundering Park’s diplomacy is. The day before, both the South Korean and Japanese governments had announced sanctions against the North. South Korea closed the complex, the only fruit of its economic cooperation with the North remaining. Japanese sanctions followed an hour later. There were lots of measures announced by Japan, but they were a symbolic move, including nothing detrimental to its diplomacy with Pyongyang, readers are told. The author even argued that Japan’s move was designed to continue a dialogue with Pyongyang on Japanese abductees. The key message from the Japanese sanctions is to keep the talks amid conflicts. The article highly values Tokyo’s diplomacy and links this situation to criticisms of how Seoul had lost the upper hand on the “comfort women.” The author concludes that thorough and cautious Japanese diplomacy made Park’s diplomacy lose the upper hand it had for the last three years.

The Peace Agreement Proposed by China

On February 17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a speech calling for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and replacing the current armistice agreement with a peace agreement. Two days later, a DongA Ilbo article blasted the speech, saying that it was an attempt to deflect recent international criticism of Beijing’s delaying tactics over a UN Security Council resolution. The author argued that the proposal is unacceptable to South Korea as it would, in effect, justify the North’s nuclear development and give Pyongyang the status of a nuclear state. Reminding readers of the denuclearization first principle, the author urged China to join international sanctions against the North and not to blur the nature of the denuclearization issue.

A February 18 Joongang Ilbo observer wrote with alarm about the “Chinese way” of handling the North Korean nuclear issue, as if it is another form of unilateralism. The author recalled five principles from a conversation of Wang Yi and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in January 2014. They are: 1) Beijing does not intervene in other countries’ domestic politics; 2) it pursues multilateralism by acting in accord with UN resolutions; 3) it opposes using military force or pursuing regime change; thus, it prioritizes Six-Party Talks on the North Korean issue; 4) it decides right or wrong on its own; and 5) it pursues a solution acceptable to all the involved countries. However, given current Chinese behavior, the author questions if the “Chinese way” is really a set of unnegotiable principles, which disguise China’s inherent unilateralism.

In contrast, on February 19, a Kyunghyang Ilbo article considered China’s proposal worthy of further consideration. Admitting that the proposition is nothing new—already included both in the 9/19 Joint Statement and the 2/13 Joint Agreement—and that the North Korean missile tests following these agreements made them meaningless, the article still valued the idea of a peace agreement as a fundamental solution. To denuclearize the North, it argued, the Cold War era confrontation on the peninsula should be resolved first. While acknowledging the necessity of sanctions against the North, the author reiterated that sanctions alone cannot resolve the conflict, as has been proven throughout history and urged the Park administration to map strategies to achieve regional peace in the long run, while focusing on punishment only in the short term.

A February 24 Joongang Ilbo article stressed the importance of diplomatic flexibility. Although Seoul and Washington had taken the same official stance in support of denuclearization before any peace agreement is reached, the United States reportedly had held a secret meeting with the North in 2015 that could have led to further diplomacy. The author asked what if the meeting had been successful. The two countries would have then discussed a peace agreement without South Korea knowing about it. Such agreement would not properly have reflected Seoul’s interests; thus, such a situation should be prevented, readers are told. Even the Obama administration, which has been sticking to “strategic patience” for years, has left room to change course when necessary, the article adds, while expressing alarm at the lack of diplomatic flexibility in Seoul, which threatens to make it an outsider on the resolution of the future of the Korean Peninsula.


On February 27, a DongA Ilbo article caught a subtle change on the US stance toward THAAD deployment and a US-North Korea peace agreement after the meeting on February 23 between Secretary of State John Kerry and Wang Yi. Two days later, Admiral Harry Harris said, “The decision to discuss it is not necessarily a decision to do it, not yet.” The author saw the comment as a step backward from Kerry’s earlier remarks suggesting imminent deployment, concluding that “the US government is not in a hurry at all.” This shift is interpreted to mean that the United States and China possibly have traded China’s support for the UN Security Council resolution for a US adjustment on THAAD deployment in South Korea. The author followed by asking what the Park administration’s strategy would be if simultaneous talks for a peace agreement and denuclearization started right after the fourth Nuclear Security Summit meeting in Washington and the Obama-Xi meeting on the side. Pointing out that a peace agreement would mean withdrawal of US forces from South Korea and normalization of US-North Korea relations, the author stresses that such an agreement would be unacceptable before denuclearization. The article concluded that the Park administration needs to have a strategy to prioritize denuclearization even when the international atmosphere has turned to putting priority on conciliatory gestures.

On February 25, a Chosun Ilbo observer said that THAAD has put Seoul right in the middle of a power game among the nuclear power countries. The US missile defense system in South Korea would be a significant threat to China and Russia, and it would consistently affect their national defense strategies, the writer asserts. Quoting a diplomat who said, “THAAD is the most complicating issue South Korea has faced so far,” the author elaborated. Without China’s influence, South Korea cannot achieve reunification, and China does not want South Korea to be joining the US-Japan alliance permanently. Given this complexity, the author expressed alarm that negative prejudice is as dangerous as fantasy over China’s role. As for the possible tradeoff between Washington and Beijing, the author finds it natural, with the possibility that THAAD deployment could be cancelled. The article concludes that the power game between the two world powers will continue and Seoul will be subject to the result. What Seoul needs to do is to develop a long-term strategy analyzing the costs and benefits to prevent the worst-case scenario.

The UN Security Council Resolution

A February 25 Hankook Ilbo article paid attention to the fact that it took 50 days to conclude the UN Security Council resolution. The unusual delay showed how difficult the negotiations were. The negotiations brought noticeable changes to the regional order, the article argued. Voices calling for talks with the North have become more conspicuous, and THAAD deployment, which had practically been decided between South Korea and the United States, is now in doubt. Although Kerry and Wang both have said that the resolution represents “important progress,” the problem is implementation, readers are told. The last six resolutions were not implemented sincerely, and no one knows if the situation will be different this time. The key to better implementation is China’s willingness to break away from non-transparent trading with North Korea. Looking beyond the resolution, the author argued that if the United States considers THAAD to merely be leverage to have China on board in securing North Korean sanctions, it would be a diplomatic disaster for South Korea, which has repeatedly separated the two. The worst scenario would be that the two world powers reach a deal on THAAD deployment excluding Seoul, after all the diplomatic tension with China that has just taken place. The author reiterated that the resolution is just a beginning, and Seoul needs to be prepared for a possible Sino-US trade-off ahead.

On February 27, a Chosun Ilbo observer scrutinized Chinese intentions in agreeing finally to tough North Korean sanctions. The author quoted an unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing, “Xi seems to conclude that further neglect of North Korean nuclear and missile developments would take away China’s control over the regional order.” Along with the push from other countries, Pyongyang’s announcement of a missile test, made on the day of China’s chief nuclear envoy Wu Dawei’s arrival, also seems to have affected Beijing, the author added. Pointing out that banning trade in minerals was a tough call for Beijing, the author foresees a drumbeat of voices in opposition to THAAD. Thus, the article concludes, China’s change in posture targets not only the nuclear weapons program in North Korea but also the THAAD deployment in South Korea.

A February 28 Joongang Ilbo article also shed light on China. To make the resolution effective as designed, implementation is critical, and Beijing holds the key, the author said. But China secured some room for flexibility through the phrase, the “North Korean people’s welfare.” If mineral exports were interpreted as for the people’s livelihood, sanctions would be lifted. The author argued that China wanted to push Kim Jong-un but not in a way the US designed, as Beijing is not ready for the sudden downfall of the regime in Pyongyang or for South Korea-led reunification. The humanitarian clause meets these two goals. The problem is who determines the standard for judging which exports are for the people or not, and Beijing is left with that critical role. The author concluded that China will pressure North Korea, according to its own calculations to get them to the negotiating table, but appealed for Seoul to take part in the process of setting standards and to lead in a humanitarian approach to the Korean Peninsula.

On the same day, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer presented the results of cost-benefit analysis. The United States has succeeded in getting China on board and writing another chapter in their history of cooperation. China has confirmed its authority as a “regional peace manager,” striking a one-to-one deal with the United States and succeeding in stopping the deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula even temporarily. North Korea also has scored gains, demonstrating to China its value as a strategic asset, as the two countries are reaching a crossroads over China’s insistence on simultaneous pursuit of denuclearization and peace agreement. The article argued, however, that Seoul’s gain is confined to passing a relatively tough and comprehensive UN resolution. Its ties with Pyongyang have been broken, and its relationship with Beijing has been damaged. Given that the United States is seemingly using THAAD as leverage against China and Park’s proposal for five-party talks drew immediate opposition, the diplomatic options of the Park administration now seem to have decreased, the article concludes. This sense of letdown is understandable, given the inflated expectations in Seoul in 2014 and 2015 of the options open to it.

On March 2, a Hankook Ilbo writer found that the fourth nuclear test has degraded denuclearization as an issue in the competition for hegemony between Washington and Beijing. It is now less likely that South Korea, the United States, and China will find themselves on the same side as before, regarding denuclearization. Readers are told it means more risks for South Korea coming from the United States and China as well as from a nuclear North Korea. Thus, South Korea’s diplomatic strategy should be about which risk it is going to prioritize by managing it more than the others. The author suggested that prioritizing risks from the two world powers is not only beyond South Korea’s capabilities but also would not be the right move. Once the risk from Pyongyang is managed, the two additional risks would naturally be gone, readers are told, as the importance is stressed of inter-Korean exchange and cooperation as providing the only leverage Seoul has to change the North.

On the same day, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article suggested that Russia is going to be a new major player on the North Korean issue. Russia has shown a different behavior this time, proactively engaging on the issue. It is because Russia’s stakes on the peninsula have increased as a result of its “turn to the East” policy, the article asserts. It means that one more world power considers Pyongyang to be an asset. Russia is committed to the principle of denuclearization, but its perspective is different from that of the United States. If Moscow should decide to speak out vigorously, it would further complicate the chances of resolving the issue; so the Park administration must not neglect the implications of Moscow’s different path in the region.

On February 26, a Joongang Ilbo observer opined that passage of the toughest resolution in history on North Korea reminds people that the power to end the nuclear program in North Korea is in the hands of the United States and China, not South Korea. Pointing out that Park hinted at a desire to tear down Pyongyang in her speech, the author said that this is like building castles in the air because ninety percent of North Korean trade, mostly in minerals, is with China, and there is no internal or external sign of possible collapse. Internally, there is not even a premature form of civil society to conceive a grass-roots revolution, such as in the Arab Spring in 2011 or in Eastern Europe in 1989. Externally, there is no measure other than a war, but both Washington and Beijing would not want to be involved. Especially, the downfall of Kim Jong-un does not guarantee either the collapse of the regime or South Korea-led reunification. Calling the idea of collapsing North Korea a fantasy, the article concluded that the Park administration’s North Korea policy should be focused on how to enable and maintain close cooperation between the two world powers.

In the March 6 Hankook Ilbo, Ha Yong-chul pointed to interesting traits of South Korea’s foreign policy observed after the nuclear test, e.g., that Seoul converts international politics into personal relations to express a sense of betrayal. This sense was expressed when China did not cooperate right after the test despite the fact that Park had visited Beijing in September. On the KIC complex and the “comfort women” issue also, Ha criticized Pyongyang for posing a threat of not returning all the funds and Tokyo for continuing to provoke even after the December agreement. Ha argued that the history of depending on one single great power, whether China, Japan, or the United States, has led to an accumulated sense of humiliation, subordination, and remorse. The experience has resulted in emotional foreign policies, interfering with comprehensive and strategic thinking. Readers are told that Seoul’s reaction to the nuclear test is an extension of this short-sighted and compulsive approach. If the Park administration had clearly acknowledged the reality, THAAD should have been used as a negotiating card against Beijing. But Park officially announced the deployment before there was a domestic consensus, which led to opposition from both many in South Korea and China and further complicated the US-China competition in the region. The author warns that an excessive sense of both inferiority and confidence hinders accurate perceptions of reality, reinforcing the need for overcoming the past.

The South Korea-Japan Relationship

On March 14th, a DongA Ilbo observer appreciated the agreement. The two summits discussed the North Korean nuclear issue on the phone and both civil and academic exchanges are set to increase. Though the author is uncertain if Seoul needs to purse security cooperation aside from the history, readers are told that to see the bilateral relationship in the multilateral context to diminish emotional influence. The author agrees that there are problems in the agreement, but they are not critical enough to the essence of it. Agreement would cause some wounds but was a necessary determination to normalize the bilateral relationship. On March 14, a DongA Ilbo observer appreciated the December agreement, opposing those who are calling for its repeal. The author argues that this has already led to changes in the bilateral relationship. Park and Abe discussed the North Korean nuclear issue on the phone, and both civil and academic exchanges are set to be increased. Though the author is uncertain if Seoul needs to pursue security cooperation aside from the history issue, readers are told that it is time to increasingly see the bilateral relationship in a multilateral context to diminish emotional influences. The author acknowledged problems in the agreement but argued that they are not critical enough to deny its essence, concluding that the agreement is opening some wounds but it is necessary to normalize the bilateral relationship.

The Sindonga February issue published a discussion between Choi Hui-yong and Yang Ki-ho over the implications of the December agreement. Choi approved the agreement as significant progress between the two countries under the circumstances. Acknowledging its limitations, Choi argued that there was no government that did more than the Park administration to prioritize the issue to draw international attention and support from the US president, reminding readers that Obama has defined the issue as a “horrible human rights violation.”

Alarmed by the continuing provocations from Tokyo, Choi argued that the agreement is a starting point to resolve the issue and such attitudes would jeopardize the outcome. Reiterating the meaning of the phrase “final and irreversible,” Choi insists that only sincere implementation by Japan validates the phrase—the Japanese government acknowledges its responsibility, Prime Minister Abe expresses his apology and remorse, and the Japanese government pays JPY one billion to support the foundation. Making sure that the agreement is reciprocal, Choi warns that JPY one billion does not solve everything. If Japan continues improper comments on the background or nature of the issue, it means that Tokyo is not in accord with the agreement; thus, responsibility for a stalemate goes to Japan. Choi expresses excessive self-victimization in the discussion.


Choi agrees that there was a serious problem in the process, failing to have empathy from the victims. It is urged that the government should visit them to explain the agreement and seek their understanding while soothing them emotionally. Yet, Choi still highly values the psychological impact the agreement will have on people in both countries. Though the immediate impact will be impressive, even more important will be the increase in bilateral exchanges over the long run to serve as the foundation of a new future-oriented, bilateral relationship.

Unlike Choi, Yang expressed skepticism over the agreement. While acknowledging that the Park administration successfully internationalized the issue, Yang added that the administration also complicated the issue in the last four years, treating it as a precondition of the summit. With the fiftieth anniversary of the bilateral relationship approaching, the two governments rushed to conclude the agreement, neglecting a domestic consensus. Yang criticizes the fact that Japan did not acknowledge its legal responsibility, the same as in the 1965 agreement, and that the Park administration excluded the victims and civil groups, who had publicized the issue for the last 24 years, throughout the process of negotiations. Reminding readers of the nature of the issue—half-bilateral and half-domestic—, Yang concluded that a domestic backlash was inevitable when the government did not hold hearings for the victims and the public.

Amidst expecting some improvement in the bilateral relationship at the government level, Yang doubts the same impact at the public level. Thus, the agreement again created a perceptional or acceptability gap between the two countries to conflicts. The improvement would fall short of serving as a turning point, similar to like the 1998 Declaration to pursue a future-oriented relationship.

The significance of domestic politics in the bilateral relationship was pointed out before the agreement. In Kukje Jeongchi Yeonku 28, no. 2, Park Hwirak argued that the two countries need security cooperation at the international level but nationalism and negative public opinion override it. The level of common threat is not significant either. Currently, the North Korean nuclear program is not threatening enough to nullify the domestic politics. China’s further expansion would pose another common threat, but South Korea is currently more wary of Japan.

Park is concerned that domestic politics and a lack of mutual confidence will stand in the way even when the need for cooperation is urgent. The author argues that the July 2012 cancelling of the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between the two countries came amid the intensifying influence of public opinion on the relationship, for which politicians should be held responsible, as shown in the impact of Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Dokdo and Abe’s comments on history.

To advance the relationship, the author reiterated the importance of managing domestic politics and public opinion. To that end, Park suggested that politicians of the two countries converse with each other more often and abandon populist policies, while admitting that it is extremely tricky to manage nationalism in South Korea related to history. It is recommended that the two governments reach a new agreement on a proper apology and compensation and then disclose it to their parliaments and the public for approval. If the agreement is acceptable in both countries, Seoul can pursue a future-oriented relationship by not mentioning the past. As for the lack of trust between the two countries, the author recommended building on their experience of cooperation under the multilateral security cooperation system.