Country Report: South Korea (May 2014)

President Barack Obama’s late April visits to Asian countries were assessed in Korean papers as an attempt to make the “pivot” to Asia more sophisticated with special emphasis on their implications for the Korean Peninsula. The increasing nuclear threats from the DPRK, the more complicated geopolitics in the Northeast Asian region in the wake of the Ukraine crisis and the impact of the crisis in restraining the US capacity for engaging in the region, and the stalemated Korea-Japan relationship were at the center of the discussion. The coverage was indicative of fundamental concerns about relations with the United States in three triangular contexts: with Japan, with North Korea, and, not least of all, with China.

South Korea- Japan Relations

It became abundantly clear in this four-nation tour that the most important and indispensable axis of the Asian rebalancing is a stronger US-Japan alliance. This fact posed a challenge for Koreans, who had been inclined recently to put the ROK-US alliance in the forefront. One response could be to link the two alliances. After all, the United States is eager to develop a US-ROK-Japan trilateral alliance, but historical conflicts and already deteriorated Korea-Japan relations were making that difficult, Korean sources frequently observe, as they also note that the United States has been increasing its pressure for reconciliation between Seoul and Tokyo. The trilateral summit at The Hague in March could be seen as a turning point. After that, a director level meeting (과장급) was convened with Japan in April on the exclusive agenda of sex slavery for the first time. Both were welcomed in Seoul as necessary steps; nevertheless, such attempts failed to overcome the current stalemate, analysts agreed. At the director level meeting, Japan stuck to its logic that the sex slavery issue was completely resolved in the 1965 normalization treaty. Also, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide said on the same day, “There was no coercion in the matter of sex slavery.” Though the Korean media appreciated Prime Minister Abe’s stance before The Hague summit to stick to the previous apologies, new textbooks revived the textbook issue and the mass visit of Japanese Diet members to the Yasukuni Shrine followed. Before Obama’s visit, Abe made an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine. At the joint press conference after the summit, Abe justified the Yasukuni Shrine visit by officials, while Obama remained silent on the matter. Coverage indicated that Koreans continued to be torn between the demand for Washington to play a more active role in easing these bilateral tensions, and hope that Washington would shift to a more hardline policy towards Japan’s revisionism, guided by the logic that it is partially responsible for the current conflicts over history as a leading country in the normalization process. National identity kept a tight grip on Korean consciousness, even as Obama strove to shift the focus to international security.

Yu Myunghwan, former minister of foreign affairs, shed light on the negotiation process to normalize ROK-Japan relations, which had started in the middle of the Korean War, as US officials insisted, but took 14 years to conclude. Yu said that the fact that it took so long shows that the negotiations were not at all smooth, consequently, it led to an incomplete result excluding the sex slavery issue from the agreement and leaving the Dokdo (Takeshima) issue unresolved—both being seeds for future disputes. Japan did not express any apology or regret over its colonial rule, until much later when the Kono and Murayama statements were issued. Yu argued that historical issues are not likely to be resolved smoothly as Japanese consider themselves to be victims of the Pacific War too. Despite the fact that Japan was the aggressor toward Korea and China, such a perception derives from the process by which the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 was signed. Instead of punishing the defeated country, the United States focused on rapidly stabilizing it to deter the expansion of communism in the world. In exchange, Japan stuck to its “Peace Constitution” and was able to concentrate on reconstruction. While highlighting the importance of efforts to overcome the current bilateral dispute, Yu stressed that Washington should not neglect Japan’s revisionism, a fundamental obstacle to regional stability. Concern that Obama, in fact, is neglecting this was, at least, implicit in many recent articles.

After the summit meeting, a Chosun Ilbo columnist urged the United States to show more action than words—to be an “Asia-Pacific country,” as claimed. Highlighting that the current historical tensions stem from the 1965 treaty, the author concluded that the United States needs to put trilateral cooperation back into orbit and to exert leadership in the region, where multilayered challenges exist, including the Sino-US power struggle, the Korea-Japan conflict, and the DPRK nuclear issue. Framing the dispute between Seoul and Tokyo in this extreme manner—on a par with the two geopolitical tremors rocking the region—reveals the intense arousal in portions of the Korean media, especially this conservative newspaper.

One common conclusion is that Japan’s revisionism is not compatible with the pivot to Asia. A Donga Ilbo columnist argues that the biggest obstacle to the policy is Japan’s historical conflicts with other neighboring countries. The author highlights that the United States faces intertwined historical issues in the region, and the circumstances are not that simple to expect increased Japanese military contributions or a stronger Japan-US alliance to resolve them. After Secretary Kerry and Obama made the US stance clear on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, saying that currently they are under Japanese jurisdiction and covered by the security alliance with Japan, a Chosun Ilbo columnist insisted that if the United States showed half as much sincerity and firmness toward Japan’s revisionism, the Korea-Japan historical conflicts would have been resolved long ago. As Obama remained silent on Japan’s historical provocations around the time of the summit, another Chosun Ilbo journalist argued that if the United States keeps neglecting issues caused by Japan, rebalancing would fail for missing the core cause of regional instability. While South Korea acknowledges that the US-Japan alliance is the core of the rebalancing policy, the author insists that the alliance cannot be the solution to fit all issues. Instead, the author adds, the United States should look deeply at why the current historical tension is not resolved and come up with a more sincere gesture to resolve the issue than a short visit to South Korea.

On the issue of sex slavery, the fact that Obama harshly criticized Japan in the meeting with President Park was highly appreciated. Some argued that it was a belated reaction to Abe’s justification of visits to the Yasukuni Shrine at the joint press conference with Obama. Yet, some voices argued that it is impractical to expect the United States to play a role in resolving the historical issue. A Chosun Ilbo columnist said that the summit meetings clearly showed that Washington would not be involved in the historical issues any further, no matter how critical Obama is of the revisionist viewpoint.

Son Yeol argued that South Korea should come up with another strategy, adding that even Abe’s Yasukuni visit did not change the circumstances Seoul faces that much. The United States still asks South Korea to separate the history issue from security. It expects its two allies to counter China, while it simultaneously is pursuing a “new type of great power relations.” Unlike Japan, South Korea’s strategic interests cannot exclude China from the picture, due to the North Korean nuclear issue and the historical issue. Even if Washington somehow prodded Tokyo to correct its current revisionism, Son argued that Seoul would not be able to implement the US rebalancing strategy in a reciprocal way. Thus, it needs a diplomatic option beyond taking the side of either the United States or China and leading South Korea-China-Japan trilateral cooperation. After the summit in Seoul, Son asserted that Obama’s statement on the sex slavery issue and Abe’s reaction to it were nothing new at all. Arguing that Washington has started to label the sex slavery issue a human rights issue not a history issue, the author concluded that South Korea needs to prepare for negotiations that separate the issue from the other history issues. Also, Son stressed that South Korea should not be pushed to China’s side unwillingly due to historical issues. How to deal with Chinese efforts for mutual assistance on historical issues against Japan and to reconcile bilateral relations with Japan strategically are the two most important issues South Korea faces, the author concluded.

On China’s attempts at “역사공조” (forging mutual assistance on the history issue), a Donga Ilbo columnist urged caution. The author argued that such cooperation is abstract and not reliable, as such attempts have happened in a different form based on national interests of the time. The author gave an example of such efforts between China and Japan in 2010 and of the Chinese government’s demolition of Ahn Jung-Guen’s statue in 2006. Stressing that China also has shown very aggressive historical perceptions, the author said that South Korea does not need to act together with it, adding that Germany rejected China’s request for Xi Jinping to visit the Holocaust memorial hall in Berlin not to be involved in historical conflicts between China and Japan. Increasing Korea’s dependence on or excessively cooperating with China is not desirable, added the author.

A Joongang Ilbo columnist urged acknowledgement of the limits of the bilateral relationship as it is currently being pursued, observing that reconciliation on the history issue for the time being is not possible. It follows that South Korea needs an exit strategy, which the author concluded, most practically, would be a two-track approach, separating history from security, given three fundamental realities: 1) a nuclear North Korea; 2) the military normalization of Japan; and 3) the struggle for regional hegemony between Beijing and Washington. Whereas other writings, cited above, insist on keeping the linkage, this author calls for acknowledging the strategic realities of the region and prioritizing security, treating history as separate.

The North Korean Nuclear Threat

While the 4th nuclear test of the DPRK is assessed to be imminent, the Ukraine crisis has complicated the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. If the crisis means revival of the Cold War in the region, it was agreed that the DPRK would appreciate the value of nuclearization even more. Kim Sukhwan sees the crisis as a result of the new cold war, as colliding economic interests turned into political and diplomatic conflicts. Kim finds a great deal of similarity in East Asia and Europe with an explosion of embedded tensions between the EU and NATO on the one side and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union and “Sphere of Interest” on the other, parallel to the rising tensions between the US alliances and China as well as others. In spite of expected sanctions, Russia did not back off due to the geopolitical value of the Crimea, a natural fortress with great access to natural resources. In East Asia, RCEP and TPP are colliding and the strategic value of Rajin port in the DPRK and Russia’s eastern relations are increasing. With the highway constructed between Rajin and Hunchun, Chinese maritime power will reach the northeast coast of the Korean Peninsula, where only the US, South Korean, Japanese, and Russian navies have had the right to operate. The author notes other implication for the peninsula. Because Ukraine lost its sovereignty despite agreeing to the Budapest Treaty of 1994, North Korea will further cling to nuclearization. China’s role is also stressed. In the aftermath of the crisis, China indirectly supported Russia through its abstention at the UN Security Council. The author foresees that Russia will reciprocate, perhaps by remaining silent in a territorial dispute involving China in the region. Given that Europe is proving to be helpless in the crisis, despite its longstanding stability, the author calls for reinforced security toward the peninsula. This logic focuses both on parallels and on likely spillover to Asia.

Kim Sunghwan, the former vice minister of foreign affairs, also sees the pivot to Asia as not necessarily favorable for resolving the DPRK nuclear issue. Kim urges the South Korean government to find a game changer to revive US interest in the issue. Assessing that the pivot means more tension in the region due to increasing competition, Kim argues that Washington prioritizes strengthening the Korea-US-Japan trilateral alliance. Consequently, it has lost its sense of urgency on the nuclear issue, where cooperation with China is needed. Kim concludes that Pyongyang seems more interested in “a new type of nuclear test” than in implementing conditions to resume the Six-Party Talks.

The summit meeting was highly criticized from the left for failing to come up with a practical approach other than sticking to strategic patience. Lee Hyejung expressed concern, saying, “The two countries seem to be starting a military approach and abandoning the Six-Party Talks.” A Hangyoreh observer argues that the meeting proves that the United States basically prioritizes rebalancing over the nuclear issue. The summit focused on joint military training and North Korean human rights rather than on how to resume the Six-Party Talks, the author argues, while urging the South Korean government to take the lead to resume the talks. A Kyunghyang columnist also insists that outside countries have little to do on nuclear and human rights issues as long as Pyongyang is closed. Reiterating the need for resuming talks to bring changes to North Korea, the author concludes that skepticism over the rebalancing policy will not disappear as long as the North Korean issue remains the same as it now is.

Fatigue over strategic patience is raised also by the right wing. A Chosun Ilbo columnist argues that nobody envisions the DPRK giving up its nuclear weapons. It is unnecessarily time-consuming and even ridiculous to make denuclearization a prerequisite for the next move, when we know the possibility is almost zero. A Joongang Ilbo columnist also argues that a car needs to stop to back up, thus a top priority, especially for South Korea, is to freeze nuclear generation in North Korea. The author added that South Korea should take the lead in devising a practical cooperation system that leads along these lines.

Cooperation with China vs. the Trilateral Alliance

The Ukraine crisis raised skepticism about the strategy of excessively focusing on a trilateral alliance. Some called for a new strategy to complement it. A Joongang Ilbo columnist saw the crisis as an opportunity for the United States to renew its Asian policy, arguing that it and the EU made a mistake in undervaluing Ukraine’s geopolitical significance and should avoid repeating the mistake in Asia. Furthermore, the United States needs its allies not to be a paper tiger as Europe was in the crisis. In this context, reconciliation in Japan-Korea relations to solidify trilateral security cooperation is necessary. It would be more effective for the United States to set a geopolitical Maginot line in Asia, the last place it and its allies cannot cede to China, than just to concentrate their efforts on solidifying the trilateral alliance, readers are informed, without being told how ineffective that line had proved to be at a time of war.

Moon Chungin analyzes the crisis results from the prism of domestic politics in the interested countries. Moon argues that its nature seems far more dangerous than that of the Cold War, as it can happen anywhere in the world. Putin annexed Crimea in pursuit of restoring domestic political ground, Moon assesses, which proved successful in his soaring approval rate to 70 percent after the intervention. A similar vicious circle of obsession over geopolitics, nationalism on the rise, and domestic political rationales also can be found in East Asia, where such tension is becoming unpredictable. Given that the nature of the challenge is different from that of the Cold War, Moon concludes that solidifying a trilateral alliance is not enough—a creative strategy is needed to prevent the abuse of nationalism and geopolitics in domestic politics.

The pivot to Asia has been criticized as having an excessive focus on the US-Japan alliance, hampering other issues from being resolved. The North Korean nuclear issue, for example, has been stalled, as cooperation with China is not encouraged under the current system. Both on the left and on the right, this leads to frustration. Many seek to keep alive Seoul’s options with Beijing, especially at a time when Pyongyang may take some action that puts a premium on working with Beijing to achieve the most optimal response. The Obama stops in various states in Asia raised concern that he would put greater pressure on Seoul to lean closer.

A Hangyoreh columnist argues that the rebalancing policy lacks the required capabilities and a stable system to succeed. After all, the United States has to decrease its defense budget dramatically by early 2020. The policy, it is said, is riddled with systematic contradictions among its three parts: 1) an increase in the security capabilities of allies and partner countries in the region, 2) expanded engagement through bilateral and multilateral diplomatic relations aimed at having a smooth relationship with China; and 3) conclusion of the TPP. The author finds that while the United States is trying to counter China through TPP, cooperation is necessary to have a meaningful outcome, given that Southeast Asian countries have much closer economic relations with Beijing. Also, while the United States neglects the Abe administration’s revisionism in order to empower its alliance with Japan, this damages US hegemony in the region, as worsening China-Japan conflicts increase uncertainty.

How to cooperate with China is a challenge for South Korea as it continues to strive to resolve the nuclear issue. Hahm Chaibong argues that the US security alliances and pivot to Asia are actually targeting China, as generally accepted, causing a great deal of uncertainty for Beijing. South Korea wants China to pressure the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapons and to open its economy and society. Hahm argues that North Korean nuclear weapons are not desirable for China either, but allowing the Korean Peninsula to be reunified in a manner desired by the United States, it considers a worse option, since it would worsen the current security instability China faces in the region. Hahm concludes that South Korea needs to lay out a strategic vision to ease such concerns and to encourage China’s active engagement in denuclearization of Pyongyang, which is necessary for realization of the goal of reunification.