Country Report: South Korea (March 2021)

Relations with the United States took center stage as South Koreans eyed the formation of the Biden administration, while phone conversations with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the arrival of a new South Korean ambassador in Tokyo widened the scope of foreign policy concern. The focus of ROK-US relations shifted from joint military exercises (and their impact on North Korea) to a cabinet reshuffle (and the US response) to the annual NSC briefing in Seoul to US policy on North Korea, and finally, to the finalization of the SMA (Special Measures Agreement). As for China, coordination on North Korea was foremost, but there was also a warning against joining the Quad. In the case of Japan, the challenge remained to bring life back to troubled bilateral relations.

ROK-US joint military exercises

Kim Jong-un, in his New Year address, suggested a suspension of ROK-US joint military drills as the condition for the restoration of inter-Korean relations. The government and ruling party are reportedly concerned about the possibility that the resumption of the ROK-US military exercises might provoke Pyongyang. President Moon Jae-in, in his New Year address, also raised the possibility of negotiating with the North over whether to hold the upcoming joint military drills with the US. Unification Minister Lee In-young expressed hope for a "flexible" solution. "I anticipate that we will find a solution in a wise and flexible manner so that it won’t lead to serious military tensions," said minister Lee.

Against this backdrop, Seoul and Washington are actively considering a plan to conduct the command post exercise (CPX) for nine days beginning on March 8. This will be conducted as a computer-simulated exercise without outdoor drills. While the US side wanted to conduct outdoor drills, Seoul wanted to keep this low key, considering the possibility of Pyongyang’s resistance. The two sides also seemingly differed in their opinions on whether to verify the conditions for the wartime operation control (OPCON) transition in the upcoming exercise. While the South Korean side wants to verify the Full Operational Capability (FOC) of the ROK-led Future Combined Forces Command (F-CFC), the US side reportedly said that it may need to delay the verification process due to COVID-19. The US said that COVID-19 makes it difficult for a large number of American experts to come to South Korea to process the verification properly, according to a source familiar with this issue. If the FOC test is not verified in the upcoming exercise, it would be almost impossible for South Korea to retake OPCON before the end of the current Moon Jae-in administration’s term in May 2022.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Suh Wook, in a New Year press conference, pledged to make progress on the OPCON transition within his term. The 2020 defense white paper published on February 2 also stated that the government will expedite the process of the OPCON transition. However, the Pentagon expressed skepticism on a time-based transition. "A commitment to a specific timeframe would put our forces and people at risk," said Pentagon spokesperson John Supple. "Ensuring the security of military forces, people, and the region is more complicated than swapping the leadership of the Combined Forces Command." Secretary of Defense Lloyd, during his Senate confirmation hearing, also emphasized the importance of "conditions" for the OPCON transition, saying that he would "review" the status of OPCON transition, including the conditions-based OPCON transition plan (COT-P) under the 2015 agreement between the two countries.

Conservative Chosun strongly criticized the South Korean government for saying it could negotiate with Pyongyang over whether to hold the ROK-US joint military drills. It also editorialized about its concern that the upcoming drills will be, again, conducted as a computer-simulated exercise. It introduced the commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Command (CFC) General Robert Abrams’s comments that underlined the importance of combined live training. "We must continue to conduct combined live trainings … with rigorous scenarios," the commander said during a lecture last year. The editorial also expressed concerns over the possibility of an increasingly pessimistic view in US policy circles about maintaining US forces in South Korea if the computer-simulated drills substitute for outdoor exercises. Further to this, Chosun criticized the Moon administration for expediting the OPCON transition, citing North Korea’s increase in both conventional and nuclear weapons. The editorial specifically underlined the importance of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in deterring North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and pointed out the lack of ISR capabilities, among others, of the South Korean military. The editorial also pointed out that none of the three conditions for the OPCON transition, to which the two allies had agreed, has been met. It further expressed concern about the absence of major ROK-US combined military drills, which are necessary for the alliance to verify the South Korean military’s capabilities to take over wartime OPCON. Chosun argued that it is not timing, but capabilities, that matters in the transition of the wartime OPCON, stressing that this is a matter of the country’s survival, and expressed grave concern about populism in national security. On the contrary, progressive Hankyoreh editorialized in favor of the need for the alliance to conduct the computer-simulated exercises, if not suspended, in order to manage tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The editorial criticized those who underlined the importance of conducting outdoor live drills, arguing that national security cannot be ensured solely by military means.

Meanwhile, South Korea has not participated in the US-led, multinational, anti-submarine warfare exercise "Sea Dragon 2021." According to the US Indo-Pacific Command, the US and several partner nations, including Australia, Canada, India, and Japan, kicked off this annual exercise in Guam in January. The South Korean Navy cited a sharp growth in COVID-19 cases in the country as the reason for not joining the drill this year. Last year, the South Korean Navy sent its P-3C patrol aircraft to the exercise. However, criticisms have been raised inside and outside the military that it is inappropriate not to participate in the multinational anti-submarine exercise in a situation where there is an increasing possibility of North Korea’s provocation of a Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

Cabinet reshuffle

On January 20, Moon Jae-in nominated Chung Eui-young, special adviser to the president on foreign affairs and national security, to replace foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha. The Blue House said that it expects Chung to elevate the country’s prestige by promoting the Korean Peninsula Peace Process and the New Southern and Northern policies During his confirmation hearing at the National Assembly, Chung said that he believes North Korea is willing to denuclearize. He also said that "peace on the Korean Peninsula has become commonplace." In response, the US State Department spokesperson said that "North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its willingness to proliferate advanced technology, constitute a serious threat to international peace and security and undermine the global nonproliferation regime." On the same day, Moon also appointed Kim Hyoung-zhin as the new second deputy director of the National Security Office of the Blue House. Kim has previously served as the director-general of the North America Bureau at the Foreign Ministry and ambassador to Belgium. National Assembly member Thae Yong-ho strongly criticized the nomination of Chung as foreign minister, saying that "Chung was at the center of the controversial event of sending North Korean defectors back to the North in November 2019."

Conservative media outlets editorialized over the appointment of Chung as the new foreign minister. Chosun strongly criticized Chung for his remarks during the confirmation hearing, where he said that he did not consider those two North Korean defectors who were sent back to the North in 2019 Korean citizens. During the hearing, he claimed that those defectors were criminal and therefore not qualified to be protected by the Constitution. The editorial argued that Chung’s remark is a violation of the Constitution that indicates that "the territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands." It argued that even if the defectors had committed a crime, they should have been tried in court and punished. Joongang pointed out that Moon’s appointment of Chung as the new foreign minister implies his strong commitment towards the Korean Peninsula Peace Process, as Chung played a role as arbitrator between Trump and Kim in both the Singapore and Hanoi summits. Joongang said Chung may not be a good choice considering the Biden administration’s negative assessment of the Trump-Kim summits. It further noted that Chung, during his time as the national security advisor for Moon, has not been successful in tackling the country’s bilateral issues with Japan, citing the issue of termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the wartime forced labor issue, and so on.

NSC meeting and annual briefing by the ministries

On January 21, the day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as the president of the United States, Moon Jae-in presided over the general meeting of the National Security Council (NSC). This is the first time that he had done so since March 2019 right after the no-deal Hanoi summit. During the meeting, Moon urged staff members to do their best to break the deadlocked inter-Korean and US-DPRK talks.

On the same day, officials of the foreign ministry, defense ministry, and unification ministry conducted their annual briefing to the president. The foreign ministry stated that it will pave the way for the denuclearization of North Korea by encouraging the resumption of US-DPRK talks. The defense ministry said that it is open to discuss with Pyongyang the upcoming ROK-US joint military drills, adding that it will work towards creating a positive climate for the transition of the wartime operation control (OPCON) through active cooperation with its counterparts during the early phase of the Biden administration. The unification ministry pledged that it will establish an organization for inter-Korean communication, while not mentioning the North’s bombing of an inter-Korean joint liaison office last June. The ministry also said that it will continue to work towards promoting cooperation with the North in the field of public health, which Kim Jong-un had dismissed as non-essential.

ROK-US relations

North Korea policy

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said, in a press briefing on January 22, that the Biden administration has a "vital interest" in deterring North Korea. "It is without question that North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile and other proliferation-related activities constitute a serious threat to the international peace and security of the world, and undermine the global nonproliferation regime," she said. Psaki also said that the administration will come up with a "new strategy" towards Pyongyang, which will begin with a "thorough policy review" in consultation with its allies including South Korea. Earlier on January 19, in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Tony Blinken also said that the administration will thoroughly review the country’s approach towards North Korea. "I think we have to review and we intend to review the entire approach and policy toward North Korea because this is a hard problem that has plagued administration after administration, and it’s a problem that has not gotten better. In fact, it’s gotten worse," said Blinken.

Progressive Hankyoreh editorialized about its concern over the difference between the allies on their North Korea policies, adding that the fact that Washington’s "new strategy" has not been finalized underscores the need for the Moon administration to coordinate with Washington. Meanwhile, Jeong Se-hyun, former unification minister and senior vice chairman for the National Unification Advisory Council, said that Washington may focus on "managing" the North Korean nuclear problem for the purpose of boosting the US arms industry. Jeong is known as Moon’s mentor on foreign policy and national security issues. In a radio interview on January 21, Jeong said that while South Korea hopes to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem as soon as possible, the US wants to manage the issue in a way to maximize its national interests. His remarks may imply that Washington has not actively dealt with the nuclear problem in order to sell weapons to South Korea. Jeong also criticized US government officials, including the secretary of state, for not supporting President Trump’s agenda and his top-down approach to denuclearize North Korea. He claimed that the US officials think that denuclearizing North Korea does not serve US interests in expanding its military in the region and maintaining hegemony. Song Young-gil, chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, underlined North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities that could reach the US homeland. He said that a policy of "strategic patience," which he said was Washington’s North Korea policy during the Obama administration, may no longer be useful in dealing with such threats. Yet he expressed hope for Biden’s policy towards Pyongyang, saying Biden is highly experienced in this area.

Meanwhile, on January 23, South Korea’s national security advisor Suh Hoon had a phone call with his new American counterpart Jake Sullivan. The two sides reaffirmed the solidness of the ROK-US alliance and agreed to cooperate on global challenges such as COVID-19, economic recovery, climate change, and cybersecurity. Sullivan said that the bilateral alliance is the "linchpin" of the peace and prosperity of the region, according to the Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok. The next day, Defense Minister Suh Wook had a telephone conversation with Lloyd Austin. "The South Korea-U.S. alliance is a lynchpin of peace and stability of Northeast Asia and the most exemplary alliance. We will closely cooperate to further develop it," said Austin, according to Seoul’s defense ministry. The two defense ministers agreed that their close cooperation is more important than ever and to meet in person in the near future.

Special Measures Agreement (SMA)

Seoul and Washington are nearing an agreement in their negotiations over sharing the cost of maintaining American troops in South Korea, according to a government source in Seoul. The deal is likely to be a multi-year contract that increases Seoul’s contribution by 13% compared to the previous 2019 agreement. When he was a presidential candidate last year, Mr. Biden submitted an article to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, saying that his administration would not ‘extort’ Seoul "with reckless threats to remove our troops."

ROK-China relations

On January 26, Moon Jae-in spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the phone, their first phone conversation since May last year. During the conversation, Moon expressed hope that Xi would visit South Korea as soon as the COVID-19 situation stabilizes, according to the Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok. Moon also said that he looked forward to the constructive role of China in resolving the North Korean problem through dialogue. In response, Xi said that he supports inter-Korean and US-North Korean dialogue, and emphasized the important role of South Korea in a political resolution of the North Korea issue. Xi also evaluated the recent 8th Congress of the Workers’ Party of North Korea as indicating that Pyongyang has not closed the door for dialogue with Seoul and Washington.

Foreign minister Chung Eui-yong also had a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, who reaffirmed Xi Jinping’s desire to visit Seoul. The two sides also discussed issues of mutual interest, including overall ROK-China bilateral relations as well Korean Peninsula issues, according to South Korea’s foreign ministry. Regarding the North Korean problem, the two foreign ministers agreed to strengthen bilateral cooperation to make substantive progress in achieving the complete denuclearization and establish permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. They also exchanged views on the specific ways to move forward for the "Northeast Asia Cooperation Initiative for Infectious Disease Control and Public Health," which had been proposed by Moon on December 29 last year.

Meanwhile, on February 5, Chinese ambassador to Seoul Xing Haiming had a joint interview with The Korea Times and its sister paper the Hankook Ilbo. Xing expressed China’s opposition to anti-China coalitions, including the Quadrilateral Security Cooperation (Quad). "China deems forming a small group internationally or instigating a new Cold War in an attempt to exclude, intimidate, and isolate a third country as well cutting off its ties with others will inevitably force the world into division and confrontation," he said. Regarding South Korea’s dilemma between the US and China, Xing said that Seoul’s relations with both Washington and Beijing are "both important." "From China’s perspective, such ties will not necessarily be in conflict as long as someone does not deliberately stir up problems," the envoy said. "I believe South Korea has the wisdom to manage its bilateral ties with the U.S and China for the long-term interest of its statehood and people," Xing said. Regarding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issue, the envoy dismissed the belief that Beijing’s economic retaliation following Seoul’s decision to deploy the THAAD remains in effect. He called the belief "a groundless rumor that will naturally go away as cultural exchanges deepen, and the basis for mutual friendship is solidified over and over." "The two countries have had their ups and downs in bilateral relations with their exchange and cooperation being affected by THAAD deployment, but this is something that neither party wanted," the envoy said. "We have a shared consensus to resolve THAAD-related problems step by step, and China-South Korea ties are back on a normal track." Nonetheless, Xing reaffirmed Beijing’s concerns over THAAD, saying it threatens China’s national security. "China’s stance has been consistent, clear and remains unchanged. I hope any THAAD-related matters will be dealt with appropriately and settled completely," he said.

Chosun editorialized about the Moon administration’s China policy in the era of US-China strategic competition, criticizing it for not issuing a single statement about Beijing’s claim that it entered the Korean War to defend peace, its attempts to claim sovereignty over the West Sea, and its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, while issuing fifteen statements protesting Japanese distortions of history. The editorial acknowledged the significance of the Chinese market in the country’s economy, but claimed that China’s ambitions for hegemony in Asia can only be stopped with the help of the US. Conservative Joongang, in a series of editorials, argued that Seoul should positively consider participating in the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy and the Quad. It argued that the ROK-US alliance should be the basis of the country’s foreign policy and national security. At the same time, Joongang noted German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s flexible approach in the era of the US-China rivalry. While joining US-led campaign against China, Germany urged Washington to cooperate with Beijing in the area of climate change and biodiversity conservation. Hankyoreh also noted South Korea’s challenge in the era of US-China competition. It emphasized that Seoul needs to cooperate with Washington based on universal values such as democracy and human rights, yet it should not join anti-China military coalitions.

ROK-Japan relations

South Korea’s new ambassador to Japan, Kang Chang-il, arrived in Tokyo on January 22, and called the Japanese Emperor his "Majesty the Emperor." Kang previously claimed that the Emperor should be called a king, rather than an emperor. He also said that Moon appointed him the country’s ambassador to Tokyo in order to promote friendly cooperation and relations. Regarding the "comfort women" issue, Kang dismissed the belief that Seoul broke the agreement with Tokyo. "There are people who say the comfort women agreement (in 2015) was broken but it is not," he said. The new ambassador also emphasized that "the dissolution of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was due to the resignation of the chairman or directors," and "not because of government pressure." Kang also said, "I feel a little heavy because the relationship between Korea and Japan is so twisted right now. […] I think I should discuss what to discuss, negotiate what to negotiate, and cooperate with what to cooperate."

On March 1, Moon delivered a speech in commemoration of the 102nd anniversary of the March First Independence Movement. He emphasized efforts for future-oriented development of Korea-Japan bilateral relations. "The only obstacle we have to overcome is that, sometimes, issues of the past cannot be separated from those of the future but are intermingled with each other. This has impeded forward-looking development." We must not let the past hold us back, he added. "We have to concentrate more energy on future-oriented development while resolving issues of the past separately." Such a conciliatory gesture is different from his previous remarks that stressed Japan’s "sincere self-reflection." While emphasizing the development of Seoul-Tokyo relations, Moon reaffirmed the government’s principle of resolving the historical issues by stressing a "victim-centered approach." He also said, "[t]he perpetrator might be able to forget, but the victim will never be able to." In response, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Kato Katsunobu, at a press conference, urged the South Korean government to first suggest concrete proposals to settle pending bilateral issues.

A Hankyoreh editorial expressed disappointment at Tokyo’s response. It urged the Japanese government to take a flexible attitude and positively respond to Seoul’s gesture Chosun, on the other hand, pointed out it was Moon who broke the 2015 "comfort women" agreement by saying that there are "significant defects" in it. The paper also noted the fact that the Moon administration has decried those who suggest diplomatic resolution of the issues between the two countries as pro-Japanese, criticizing Moon’s "duplicity."