Country Report: South Korea (May 2015)

The Park administration’s diplomatic strategy was tested in the last two months concerning AIIB and Japan. On AIIB, while Seoul kept silent about its decision before joining as a founding member, the pressure from Beijing and Washington was growing. The South Korean government labeled its diplomacy “strategic ambiguity,” but, on both the left and the right, commentators questioned if it could really be called a strategy, charging that it was just walking on eggshells around the United States and China. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se’s statement on March 30 triggered a backlash, calling for more clarity about the strategy. At the annual meeting for South Korean envoys to diplomatic missions, Yun said: “Receiving love calls from the U.S. and China proves our strategic value can never be a headache or dilemma. It could be, so to speak, a blessing.” This statement was generally criticized for being too optimistic. Especially after Xi and Abe held a summit meeting at the sixtieth anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, skepticism grew. When Abe delivered his speech to the US congress, many urged South Korea to review its diplomatic strategy and set a new approach in response to changing regional dynamics.

The US and China: AIIB and THAAD

A March 31 Kyunghyang Shinmun article charged that Yun’s statement revealed his diplomatic incompetence and excessive dependence on bandwagoning and a free-riding approach. The observer added that Seoul had lost its balance and delayed a decision to join AIIB until it had the unspoken approval of the United States. Earlier, on March 26, when South Korea had made its participation official, another article blamed the administration’s diplomacy for being neither strategic nor ambiguous. On the issue of THAAD, it pointed out that the government changed its stance several times and already had indicated its welcoming attitude three times. The author also blasts proponents of THAAD for being blinded by ideology to be obsessed with the means to security, not security itself. To guarantee South Korea’s security, readers were told another Cold War type conflict is the last thing to be desired in the region, but THAAD would bring about such a collision as China would instinctively feel threatened. The observer finds reasons for its reaction in the competitive nature of the relationship between Washington and Beijing. Explaining that many steps remain before Pyongyang succeeds to develop and launch nuclear missiles targeting Seoul without damaging itself, the author adds that THAAD is practically targeting Beijing. The Park administration’s capacity to implement balancing diplomacy between Washington and Beijing is questioned. The author also insists that by delaying OPCON transfer, Seoul had already lost that balance, but raises the possibility that Xi is now testing Seoul’s sense of balance by officially opposing THAAD even before a decision over its deployment.

On March 26, a Hangyoreh observer blasted the Park administration for missing both opportune timing and any sense that it was in control, described as the core elements of diplomacy, on the two issues of AIIB and THAAD. These failures were attributed to a lack of principle not a result of strategic ambiguity. On THAAD, the government denied repeatedly that there were behind-the-scene discussions with United States but this was not believed as advocates from the military community made their wishes known. On AIIB, the author denounced the fact that South Korea rushed to join the mainstream without fully exercising its economic and political leverage and concluded that, as it is being swamped by a radically changing environment in the region, Seoul is failing to earn either the trust or a genuine welcome from either side of the regional divide.

A cartoon from The New York Times was introduced as accurately illustrating South Korea’s geopolitical reality in a March 31 Joongang Ilbo article, which depicts the United States and China respectively betting missiles and cash on the table of the Korean Peninsula. Despite the much improved economic status of Korea, the author finds geopolitical conditions much the same as they had been when it was surrounded by international powers in the last period of the Chosun dynasty. South Korea was described as being the fishing area of Japan and China in 1894 and becoming the object of a tug-of-war by Japan and Russia in 1905 in a French cartoon. Quoting Minister Yun’s comments to the effect that the United States and China are appealing to Seoul with “lovecalls,” the author questions why Seoul has failed to make improvement in the North Korean nuclear issue by taking advantage of this blessing. Reiterating that THAAD requires a sophisticated diplomatic approach balancing the United States and China, the author prioritizes efforts to denuclearize the North, the source of the diplomatic challenge in the first place.

The US-Japan Alliance, A New Honeymoon Era

The US-Japan alliance is now assessed to have entered a new honeymoon era, and South Korea’s diplomacy is being vigorously reassessed, notably over its relationship with Japan. On April 13, a Hangyoreh observer foresaw that the closer tie between the Obama and Abe administrations would persist as long as the United States is set on keeping China’s rising power in check. The author adds that the fundamental nature of the relationship has never changed, but only its target has switched from the Soviet Union to China. Japan proactively is joining with the United States to contain China. In the economic sphere, Tokyo rejected along with Washington joining the AIIB and is preparing to join TPP. In the security sphere, not only have the two countries built a missile defense system together, Japan has asserted the right of collective self-defense, and the Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation have been renewed. Though the United States is demanding that South Korea be part of this military strategy, Park is sticking to a moral response, putting the history issue first. The author concludes this response has widened strategic fissures between Seoul and Washington, as shown in the comments seemingly in support of Japan’s perspective by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Warning that although the history issue is important it is not the only matter at stake, the author urges the Park administration to develop persuasive strategies in response to neighboring countries’ strategic demands.

An April 23 Joongang Ilbo article interprets Abe’s visit to Washington as marking the beginning of a new era in the bilateral relationship. The article highlights three points. Abe gave the speech to the US congress as the first Japanese prime minister to do so, standing where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had delivered the speech declaring “a date which will live in infamy” after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The author suggests that the United States has made this historic reconciliation in response to China’s rise and in anticipation of Japan’s contribution to regional security. The bilateral alliance 2.0 renews its defense guidelines, while changing its contents to make Japan a more equal partner and to recognize the end of Japan’s postwar system. With TPP, the United States and Japan are trying to set new rules on regional trade and investment before China has a chance to establish its own rules. The renewed relationship is said to have both plusses and minuses for South Korea; it can deter the expansion of communism and Japanese militarism to some extent, but the competition between China and the US-Japan alliance can evolve into a cold war type of confrontation.

An April 30 Donga Ilbo observer appreciated Japan’s experienced diplomacy with allies. The author points out that South Korea has never had an opportunity to choose its ally, but rather it was obliged by intrusive outside powers after the period of the three kingdoms (the author says diplomacy with allies is not found after the end of the period of the three kingdoms) to abide by their expansionist ambitions. Readers are told that rising China gives Seoul the option to choose its ally for the first time in thousands of years. Tokyo has had ample experience learning the importance of allies in the process of modernization and of wars against Russia and the United Kingdom, and now it is South Korea’s turn too.

The author insists Abe’s visit to the United States is beyond the beginning of a “new honeymoon relationship.” The visit shows a qualitative change in the alliance, Abe eventually aims to forge a “democratic security diamond,” including India along with the trilateral alliance of the United States, Australia and Japan. Though Japan alone cannot match up with rising China’s power, the diamond can. Washington would welcome the idea as it is finding increasing difficulty in managing the world. The author initially found that Seoul’s participation does not matter for Tokyo. But recently, the Abe administration has questioned if South Korea shares the same values, trying to block its participation. The article says that Abe’s visit proves South Korea’s lower priority than Japan in the US alliance system. Though it is not desirable, readers are told that is the reality, which obliges Seoul to choose its allies to win the battle. The article urges the government at least not to let itself be excluded from this struggle, which means that it has to swallow bitterness to be part of it.

The South Korea-Japan Relationship

The South Korea-Japan relationship has failed to achieve a breakthrough even after a meeting among the South Korea-China-Japan foreign ministers was held for the first time in the last three years. Though they reached a deal to try to hold a trilateral summit meeting, Abe’s historical revisionism continued and accusations soon followed. However, Abe’s meetings with Xi in Jakarta and with Obama in Washington sounded the alarm that South Korea is marginalized in both the South Korea-US-Japan virtual alliance triangle and the South Korea-China-Japan trilateral framework. In the bilateral relationship with Japan, the history issue takes center stage, but voices for greater flexibility and a broader approach are becoming more pronounced.

On March 27, in his interview with the The Washington Post, Abe said: “On the question of comfort women, when my thought goes to these people, who have been victimized by human trafficking and gone through immeasurable pain and suffering beyond description, my heart aches.” Responding to the statement, a March 30 Joongang Ilbo article criticized it for passing over the Japanese government’s responsibility to forcefully recruit wartime sex slaves to civilians. The author urges the Park administration to fully exercise its diplomatic resources to stop such sophistry rather than just hoping for Abe to make an apology. The article underlined the US role in the issue, arguing that Park needs to make the United States understand that the Kono statement already acknowledged the coercive nature of Japan’s mobilization of the sex slaves, and also that the US alliance with Japan only guarantees the partial success of its pivot to Asia. Readers are reminded of US congressional resolution 121 passed in 2007 condemning Abe. The resolution states that Abe’s denial of the forced nature of the slaves is far-fetched, and it recommends that he issue an official apology statement. Given that Abe is again leading Japan, Washington should not be blinded by its desire to keep China in check, the author concludes.

On April 24, a Joongang Ilbo observer highly valued China’s diplomatic tradition of “principled flexibility.” Against the argument that the China and Japan have entered a honeymoon era, the author points out that a 30-minute meeting is too short to make any practical achievements, and the fact that Japanese cabinet members visited the Yasukuni Shrine right after the meeting darkens the picture. The background of the past 15 years also should dissuade those who think that a breakthrough has been reached. From 2001, China refused bilateral summits with Tokyo for five years in response to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. Yet, the two leaders met several times on the sidelines of multilateral talks to satisfy diplomatic demands. The author finds that Xi is just following this tradition; despite his strong anti-Japanese sentiments, he met with Abe twice over the last six months.

Expressing concern over deepening anti-Korea sentiment in Japan, the author urges the Park administration to be more pragmatic and flexible on issues of the economy and security. It is suggested that she revise her approach of linking the history issue with a summit meeting and to have a semi-official meeting on the sidelines of multilateral meetings. It was also recommended that she resume bilateral FTA negotiations to reach a breakthrough in this longstanding stalemate.

After Abe’s speech to the US congress, a May 3 Donga Ilbo article introduced the notion of an “Obama Wave” in Japan. The author calls it an “Obama Shock” for South Korea, as the United States seems to have turned its back on Seoul, which was pressuring Washington to induce Japan to apologize over history. The Xi-Abe summit in Jakarta is called the “Xi Jinping Shock” to Seoul, unexpected given the mutual support of Seoul and Beijing on the history issue. Referring to the “Nixon Shock” to Japan in 1971, when the United States changed its policy towards China without promised prior discussion with Japan, the author finds that such shocks are repeated. Of most concern would be the United States and China directly reaching a deal, excluding the neighboring countries. For South Korea and Japan, strong solidarity is the only way to protect their national interests regardless of how the two major countries change their strategy. While the history issue is important, current events prove its ineffectiveness. Quoting Kimiya Tadashi, the author urges Park to meet with Abe and directly address the history issue to pass the ball to Japan.

On the same day, Shin Ju-baek focused on Abe’s speech techniques in Kyunghyang Shinmun. Shin picked up themes from Abe’ speeches in Washington and Jakarta respectively, such as “alliance of hope” and “building peace and prosperity together.” On the one hand, Abe did not face up to history nor apologize for the past, but he addressed minority human rights and their contribution to the world’s stability and peace. The author adds that this approach to values will be used as a basis for revising the peace constitution later. On the other hand, South Korea is giving the impression to the international community that it is clinging to only the “wartime sex slave” issue and failing to link history issues to regional peace and humanity. Blaming a lack of future-oriented values and specific strategies for building peace in the region, the article concludes that Park needs to take Abe’s techniques into consideration before August.