Country Report: South Korea (March 2017)

In the first months of 2017, the cloud of impeachment hung heavily over South Korea’s foreign policy, while China’s anger at the THAAD deployment kept growing, and signs of the Trump administration taking a tough stance against North Korea’s increasingly serious threat capacity were growing too. Seoul’s relations with Tokyo were more troubled than before, and ties to Moscow were not improving after their downturn in 2016. This was a difficult atmosphere to set a new policy direction, but progressives—emboldened by the popularity of the impeachment cause—were raising hope that a way forward existed by repudiating Park’s recent policies. The challenge deepened in mid-March when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Seoul with the unmistakable message that US policy toward North Korea had changed, putting more pressure on the incoming government to accept a more assertive sanctions and military posture.

Park’s Impeachment and the Presidential Election

For the last two months, all eyes and ears in South Korea were focused on Park’s impeachment. The progressives received a boost for the forthcoming election after almost a decade of conservative administration. Just as in other election seasons, the inter-Korean relationship has emerged as a top priority for the next administration. North Korea’s missile tests, Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, and intensifying Chinese retaliation against the THAAD deployment all added fuel to the discussion of alleged strategic mistakes by the Park administration and what needs to be done by the next government.

Two days after Park was forced from office on March 10, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer said that the Park administration’s three diplomatic pillars—Korean Peninsula trustpolitik, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), and the Eurasia Initiative—had dissolved due to the lack of detailed and consistent implementation strategies, which jeopardized South Korea’s diplomacy. For instance, NAPCI was initiated to resolve the “Asia paradox,” but Pyongyang was excluded from the process. Conflicts with Tokyo had continued to escalate in the early years, then all of sudden the humiliating “comfort women” agreement was signed—which is called the crux of the failed diplomacy. Then, the THAAD deployment spoiled the relationship with Beijing. As a result, Seoul has lost both trilateral cooperation opportunities with the United States and Japan and a friendly relationship with China. A government official said, “the next administration is left with no option, as there are obstacles in every facet of diplomacy: the ‘comfort women’ agreement for enhancing trilateral cooperation, THAAD for crisis management, and the Kaesong Industrial Complex for the inter-Korean relationship.” As critical as this article is about Park, it leaves unexplained how trustpolitik could have been combined with US alliance cooperation in the circumstances of 2016, how rejection of THAAD would have been received by Washington, and what would have been the alternative to the agreement with Japan. This sort of unrealistic criticism can serve the progressive cause.

A March 6 Hangyoreh article argued that the Park administration should have changed course when it realized the above three pillars were not working. Instead, Cold War era thinking and extreme political decisions filled the void. Major diplomatic decisions were made not at all transparently. Nothing was certain about who initiated policies or how they were adopted. But the only thing certain is that Seoul is becoming a sub-set of the US-Japan alliance. Seoul’s diplomatic options have narrowed down while the North Korean nuclear issue is escalating. Ringing an alarm that Seoul should not be carried away with the trend of an increasing arms race in the region, the author concluded that Park’s impeachment should be taken as an opportunity to reset from the previously failed diplomacy. Otherwise, it would be impossible to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and forge peace in the region. Again, the progressive case is based on repudiation of Park’s 2016 diplomacy without clarity on how alternative choices would be received.

In the February 14 Joongang Ilbo, Wi Sung-rak, the former ambassador to Russia, took a more fundamental look at why South Korean administrations’ foreign policies, including Park’s, have failed. Just as Park’s policy goals in the three pillars have been unrealistic and too political, Wi said, “Presidential candidates showed a tendency to make ambitious foreign policy pledges neglecting the neighboring countries’ policies and Seoul’s actual international status and capabilities. The problem was that they did not tailor policy to fit into the reality even after taking office. That is the bad heritage to be broken in the next administration.” Again, there is a lack of clarity on how the “reality” of a more polarized region could be managed given actual capabilities.

Kim Tae-hyo in the February 20 Chosun Ilbo described the impeachment as a significant moment in terms of national security,as it is the first time that the left or progressives, represented by candlelight demonstrations, absolutely outnumbered the right or conservatives, represented by the national-flag, in South Korea. Acknowledging that the vigils built momentum for the biggest opposition party to lead in the pre-election polls, Kim raised concern over what will be the next administration’s national security and foreign policies. These are the areas most directly influenced by a president, and the two leading candidates both consider the North to be a partner in negotiations. Kim argued that Pyongyang would never give up its nuclear weapons, the core means to protect the regime. But it would pretend to sit at the negotiating table to ease the international sanctions and strike a peace treaty agreement with Washington on the condition of temporarily or deceptively freezing its nuclear power. The Trump administration perceives an increasing North Korean nuclear threat to the United States. With Kim Jong-nam, protected by China, assassinated, Xi would not be sympathetic to the regime, but he will not let Pyongyang be forced over a cliff with increasing sanctions. The election will decide the next administration’s foreign policy direction. The author rang the alarm that if the next president shows a different North Korean stance from the United States, it would shake up the grounds for the existence of the bilateral alliance and break down the pillar of South Korea’s national security strategy. This is a conservative response to the progressive arguments, which has not been directly refuted.

THAAD Deployment and the South Korea-China Relationship

With China’s retaliation intensifying, controversies over the efficacy of THAAD have resurfaced. Proponents argued that the recent missile tests proved the need for THAAD to protect the southern part of the peninsula. Opponents offered the rebuttal that technological improvements made THAAD deployment pointless, as they enable Pyongyang’s missiles to be fired undetected. With Kim Jong-nam assassinated, concerns over Kim Jong-un’s unpredictable and radical moves deepened. Then, ROK acting-president Hwang abruptly moved faster to deploy THAAD just ahead of Park’s impeachment ruling. A series of events further intensified internal political conflict on this issue. Chinese economic retaliation was harshly criticized across the ideological spectrum, but how to manage it drew varied responses.

Choi Yeong-mi and Kwak Tae-hwan looked into why the issue had become so controversial and what to do to resolve internal conflicts in Hankuk kwa kukje jeongchi 32, no. 3. They found four areas where ideological division was stark—perceptions of the North Korean nuclear threat, the efficacy of THAAD, its impact on international relations, and its impact on inter-Korean relations and reunification. Based on an opinion poll of 150 North Korea and Northeast Asia security experts, they determined that the efficacy issue recorded the most significant conflicts—reflected in four detailed concerns—defense capability, deterrence, complementarity, and cost. Among the four, cost was found to be the most controversial concern among the experts. Proponents argued it is successfully complementing KAMD, and the cost is not huge as it is mainly covered by the US forces based in Korea. Even if the cost is high, it is worthwhile for guaranteeing national security, they said. However, opponents argued that there would be huge derivative expenses, and they would be a waste given that the efficacy of the defense system has not been proved yet. They also disagreed that it is complimentary with KAMD. Kim and Kwak also found it interesting that the experts were starkly divided on its impact on the relationship with China. Proponents argued that the deployment did not necessarily hurt the relationship as it is not targeting Beijing, but China was using it to split the South Korea-US relationship. However, opponents argued that intentions did not matter, as it meant being part of the regional US missile defense system, which was denied by the proponents. It was suggested that the South Korean government clearly explain what the costs are and how they are going to be covered. As for its connection to China, the government was urged to make sure to get rid of any possible misunderstanding from China, proactively explaining its defensive nature. The authors reiterated that whatever the government decides, if the controversial issues remain unexplained to the public, the THAAD issue will be a burden for future administrations.

The ideological divides were found in media outlets after the North Korean missile tests in February and the advanced deployment of THAAD. A February 20 Hangyoreh article argued that the new technological advances meant that Pyongyang is now able to fire missiles without being detected. This makes South Korea’s defense efforts—the Kill chain, KAMD, and THAAD—effectively useless. Criticizing that the current government and conservatives are irrelevantly linking Kim Jong-nam’s assassination and the recent missile test with THAAD deployment, the author urged the government to acknowledge the harsh reality before moving further. The author argued that THAAD is more about protecting the ally, the US military bases located in Okinawa and Guam, than about protecting the South Korean people. Protecting an ally can certainly be one ground for security policies. However, as long as the government denies the actual reason for the deployment, internal conflicts will never stop, and there will be no reasonable public discussion.

On March 13, Choi Jong-geon criticized in Hangyoreh that Hwang’s sudden move to deploy THAAD has eliminated South Korea’s only leverage over the Trump and Xi administrations. Choi argued that THAAD should be deployed only after a gradual plan is in place, to which both the United States and China have agreed, based on how the North Korean issue develops. Criticizing acting president Hwang for not reacting properly, the author said that his response is tantamount to sacrificing the economy for security, which is ill-timed, given that the economy is heading toward a long-term depression. More importantly, it is not a decision that an impeached administration should make, the author concluded.

A Joongang Ilbo columnist on March 7 also urged the administration not to hurry. Seoul needs time to conduct diplomacy with China. The author argued that Seoul should push Beijing to close its pipeline to Pyongyang and make it clear that THAAD deployment does not necessarily mean being involved with the US-Japan missile defense system. It was suggested that the Hwang transitional administration should focus on keeping South Korea from any toll from increasing retaliation until the next administration begins. Only when its relationship with China is stable can Seoul reflect its interests in Trump’s new North Korea policies—for instance, preventing unilateral or preemptive strikes against North Korea without consulting Seoul.

On March 7 Chosun Ilbo, Yoon Yung-kwan, the former foreign minister, said that Hwang’s rush to deployment was not easy to understand. Lack of preparatory work had caused huge political and economic losses. However, Yoon rejected the notion that this is just a domestic issue, adding that what is important is how to respond to China, which has been managing its relationship with South Korea under its policy toward the United States. Beijing is trying to gain hegemony in Northeast Asia, forcing Seoul psychologically to accept a framework of choosing between it and Washington. It regards North Korea as a buffer country, shown in its insincere implementation of the sanctions. Thus, Seoul needs to stick to the principle that THAAD will be gone only when North Korea denuclearizes. If China wants THAAD off the peninsula, it should maximize its influence to make North Korean denuclearization happen. To increase the credibility of its pledge to remove THAAD under the right circumstances, Seoul needs to work on specific plans for how to do so in accord with the North’s behavioral changes. Yoon stressed that it is high time to expand the country’s diplomatic horizons beyond the United States, China, and Japan toward Russia, Southeast Asia, and India. As for Russia, there are signs of improving US relations under the Trump administration. ASEAN is South Korea’s second biggest trade and investment partner, which has the same diplomatic dilemma of being positioned between Washington and Beijing. Deepening cooperation with ASEAN would enhance Seoul’s diplomatic leverage. India has the potential to surpass China in the future. Warning that the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs is too focused on the short-term agenda, Yoon urges building a system with enough resources to focus on mid- and long-term strategy development, crisis management, and prevention.

On March 9, Chun Yung-woo opined in DongA Ilbo that it is an irresponsible, dangerous idea that South Korea needs to persuade China on THAAD deployment. Beijing has conflicting security interests with Seoul. National security decisions like THAAD do not require any agreement or persuasion of such countries, but only advanced notice and explanation if they are interested in listening. Chun found that South Korea’s strategic missteps increased the intensity of China’s reckless economic retaliation. While the two countries were enjoying the honeymoon era, the Park administration had left China with the hope of South Korea preventing a decision on THAAD deployment. Park should have made it clear during the good days why THAAD deployment is inevitable for Seoul and that other security measures would also be taken unless the North changed its behavior toward denuclearization. Chun argued that the internal political split, e.g., the statements against THAAD in Beijing by some opposition party politicians, also increased the scale of the retaliation. To avoid arousing further false hopes, Chun insisted that THAAD should be deployed before the new administration begins. The new administration needs to start its relationship with China from scratch acknowledging that THAAD deployment is irreversible. Meanwhile, Seoul needs to have Washington consider China’s retaliation against Seoul as the same as retaliation against itself. Over the long term, Seoul needs to diversify its diplomatic and economic partners to Vietnam and India. These countries have matching economic and security interests. Deepening economic relations with a country whose security interests do not match one’s own is destined to leave one’s country vulnerable at some point, Chun concludes.

The Trump Administration’s North Korea Policy

Rapidly changing perceptions of Trump’s policy intentions led to divergent responses in the media. The Trump administration’s seemingly bigger interest in engaging the North was briefly assessed by some as an opportunity for South Korea. However, the unpredictability of the two leaders in Pyongyang and Washington was seen warily as making anything, even a military clash, possible. In the February 5 Chosun Ilbo, Yoon Yung-kwan had assessed that Secretary of Defense Mattis’ visit proved US willingness to engage on the issue, adding that it is important to take this opportunity to make the Trump administration aware of the significance of the issue and reflect Seoul’s interests in the new policies so that US-China conflicts on trade and the South China Sea will not overshadow the issue. Yoon argued that the inauguration of the Trump administration completely changed the regional landscape. It is giving up leadership to protect and expand liberalism in the world, pursuing instead “America first” and economic benefits. Though this would not suddenly weaken the bilateral alliances with Seoul and Tokyo, if it happens, Asia will fall into an arms race. A silver lining is that there is consensus in Washington that sanctions need to be toughened to bring the North to the negotiating table. Given that the North Korean nuclear issue is less complicated than other regional issues, Yoon said it could be a chance for the Trump administration to prove its negotiating skills. However, no one knows what kind of deal Trump would make with China. The author highlighted the importance of being looped into the policymaking process under the Trump administration.

On February 7, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article expressed concern that the two leaders’ unpredictability in the United States and North Korea was complicating the increasing regional tensions. It is better than the Obama administration’s strategic patience, however, in that the two are responding to each other in a way. Kim announced his ICBM development status, Trump dismissed the possibility, and Secretary Mattis chose Seoul and Tokyo for his first visits. The author saw this as no longer wasting time passing the responsibility back and forth between Washington and Beijing, even if all possibilities are now on the table. Pointing out East Asia’s increasing share of international defense budgets, the author argued that what is lacking here is a dialogue. The author urged pragmatism, suggesting a temporary halt in the US-South Korea joint military exercises. Pyongyang repeatedly has set this as a condition to start a dialogue, but South Korea and the United States have consistently rejected it. The result is a higher level of these exercises, accelerated North Korean nuclear armament, and a chronic nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula. The deeper South Korea is dragged into trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan, the further peace on the peninsula is slipping away, readers were told. The temporary halt would break the logjam that North Korean behavioral change should come before anything happens. It will bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. The North Korean nuclear issue was born as a result of lack of peace in the region, said the author, concluding that if Seoul wants to avoid falling into a disaster with both hands tied between the United States and China, it should lead the way in easing regional military tensions and the regional arms race.

On February 3, a Joongang Ilbo columnist was also worried about a possible clash between the two radical leaders. The author said that the Trump administration seemed to have three options against the North—a preemptive strike, regime change, and assassination of Kim. Its new national security officials have track records of taking a hard line against the North. Secretary Mattis should have chosen Seoul for his first visit to figure out how the two new administrations would resolve the North Korean issue, rather than just to ensure THAAD deployment. The Trump administration needs to stop Kim Jong-un from taking the final step toward having an ICBM. Military tension is escalating while South Korea is distracted by the impeachment and presidential election. The author raised concern that the two leaders’ unpredictability and radical nature could result in a nuclear war—starting with a preemptive strike and leading to the North’s nuclear assault. Reiterating that a military clash should not be risked in the region, the author suggested scaling down the joint military exercises. If there were preemptive strikes against the North from the Trump administration, the author insisted that Seoul should make the call together with Washington from the initial phase of detecting the North’s attempt to attack.

After Secretary Tillerson’s visit to East Asia, Park Cheol-hee opined in Munhwa Ilbo on March 20 that directly addressing the North Korean nuclear issue proved the Trump administration perceives the issue as imminent and dangerous. It is comprehensively reviewing its North Korea policy while South Korea’s leader and its security and foreign policy advisors and ministers are in question. While a stark difference was revealed between Washington and Beijing on this issue, Park urged the presidential candidates to take a more considerate approach to diplomatic issues like THAAD deployment and the “comfort women.” Pointing out that Tillerson said to Abe “Sincere implementation of the comfort women agreement is important,” Park told readers that the two issues are part of the trilateral response to the North Korean nuclear issue from the US perspective. If a presidential candidate argued in favor of dialogue and negotiations with the North, it would mean taking the Chinese approach, revealing strategic differences with the United States. Delaying or reviewing the THAAD deployment is like pouring cold water on the US efforts to defend South Korea, which could be perceived as dismantling the ROK-US alliance under pressure by China. Repealing the “comfort women” agreement would mean breaking the most fragile link in the trilateral cooperation system. Any diplomatic strategies should not be simply pro-Washington or Beijing. But the candidates need to be aware of the international meaning of their diplomatic choices and prepare for realistic policy options.

On March 21, a Kyunghyang Shinmun columnist said that there are actually three options for the North Korean issue—strike, acknowledge, or negotiate. Arguing that foreign policy making is more about choosing less bad alternatives rather than ideal ones, the author insisted that negotiations should be chosen over the first two options. Striking the North would result in millions of deaths on the peninsula. Once the North is acknowledged as a nuclear power, it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. Under these circumstances, the Trump administration seems to focus on pressuring China. The author argued that this approach is a minor change from the Obama administration’s strategic patience, which proved to be ineffective for the last eight years. Chances are too low that Beijing would place pressure on Pyongyang, risking a possible collapse of the regime. Negotiations are all that remain. The author admitted that this is a bad choice that gives another chance to the North, which repeatedly has broken agreements and would do so again. However, it is better than a deteriorating situation with military strikes or the hopelessness of expecting more responsibility from China. Agreeing with Tillerson that strategic patience should be over, the author reiterated the call for unconditional dialogue. Stopping the North from further nuclear and missile advances is the first thing to do both for the United States and South Korea, the author concluded.