Country Report: South Korea (May 2016)

Implementation of Sanctions against North Korea

Chun Young-woo opined in the March 25 DongA Ilbo that rigorous implementation is the key to denuclearization of the North. Chun says even such tight implementation would take more than a year until the North changed its behavior and agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Though the Security Council resolution 2270 imposed the highest level of sanctions against the North to date, it is not comprehensive compared to those against Iran. It is confined to nuclear and missile development and slave labor outside the country. Two provisions can have telling effects on the North Korean economy: the import ban on North Korean coal, and the tight regulation of North Korean shipping. The North’s annual income from these two measures could be cut by USD 1 billion. Beijing holds the key to implementation of the former and Seoul to the latter, Chun argues, adding that South Korea should set a good example, and the international community should not lift sanctions in exchange for a freeze of the North’s nuclear weapons. If, however, the North abandoned nuclear weapons, then the five parties should offer unprecedented incentives to develop its economy. The point is to strictly link progress on denuclearization to the level of political and economic incentives. The sequence of denuclearization and peace agreement negotiations is not the essence, said Chun. The article concludes that loosened sanctions will eliminate North Korean’s interests in those incentives.

In the April 6 Joongang Ilbo, Kim Byungyeon said that all available resources should focus on implementation, calling it an “uphill battle.” Kim drew attention to two extremes that stand in the way of successful implementation. One is the call for unconditional conversation, which overlooks the need for alternative policies ready in advance. Otherwise, the proponents are just deluding themselves that Kim Jong-un is an unprecedentedly benign dictator. The other extreme are voices for the regime collapsing. They argue that the ultimate resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue is reunification; thus regime collapse should be the policy goal. Kim warns that there have been no examples of the collapse of a dictatorship triggered by economic sanctions. Even if measures are effective in pressuring Pyongyang, it will take decades. Moreover, the South Korean economy has no capability to absorb the shocks of a sudden collapse. Kim reiterates the need to set realistic goals to be achieved with economic sanctions. Excessively high expectations can turn into the rigidity of no dialogue before the North’s anticipated collapse, readers are told. The article concludes that to lift the sanctions at the right time will be more challenging than the decision to impose them.

On March 27, a Hangyoreh observer found new features in dealing with North Korea. The North Korean crisis is not just being repeated but deepened with emotional and provocative aspects added. The toughest sanctions are imposed, South Korea has taken its hardest stance ever, and China also seems to have implemented the sanctions sincerely. Pyongyang shows off its technological developments in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hysterically compared to the past. Saying that the success of the sanctions will be revealed only months later, the author questions whether the Park administration is ready for the post-sanctions phase. Expressing concern that the government seemingly is counting on collapse of the regime, the author argues that the United States and China both regard the sanctions as a means to start negotiations. If the South Korean government is not ready for the aftermath of the sanctions, those two powers are highly likely to take the lead in shaping the political landscape of the peninsula. The article concludes that the Park administration needs to draw a bigger picture, and there is no reason to exclude dialogue and negotiations in doing so.

Hong Hyunik expressed a similar concern in the May 12 Kyunghyang Shinmun regarding the Park administration’s narrow focus on sanctions. Hong argues that dialogue is inevitable to denuclearize the North. It has become clearer after the Seventh Worker’s Party Congress, as Kim Jong-un inserted the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development in the party’s rule book. This means that the success of negotiations will depend on whether military and diplomatic incentives can both be offered to secure a denuclearized regime. In other words, economic incentives alone will not change the North. In this context, Hong regards the Park administration’s approach as risky. It would take decades before the sanctions would cause behavioral changes from Pyongyang, but the current phase could be overturned at any time, given that China and Russia have common ground with North Korea in blocking the US presence on the peninsula. The author reiterates the need for negotiations along with sanctions in enhancing South Korea’s readiness in response to the North’s nuclear missiles. The Park administration’s strategy of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) deployment and kill-chain build up by the mid-2020s are insufficient, readers are told. The US guarantee of automatic and immediate nuclear retaliation is needed. Reintroduction and withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons can be punishment and incentives to North Korea in the process of negotiations. The article concludes that if dialogue is inevitable, it would be smart to lead it.

On April 28, a Joongang Ilbo columnist suggested two policy options to deal with nuclear North Korea. One is simultaneous pursuit of denuclearization and a peace agreement, as China argues, and the other is enhancing military deterrence and tightening trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan on one side and with the United States and China on the other. The author worries about the period of leadership change in both South Korea and the United States. The inter-Korean dialogue will not resume until the new government kicks off in 2018. The new US government would not be ready to take proactive policies until its foreign policy teams are organized, which is expected to take until next May or June. Thus, the Park administration should set a realistic strategy to prevent a military collision in the course of finding ways leading to denuclearization. The author suggests deploying US nuclear submarines continuously. This measure would silence internal voices for South Korean nuclear weapons or the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons.

China-Russia Cooperation

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se attended the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) led by China and Russia. Yoon was the first foreign minister to attend the meeting since South Korea joined in 2006. It was considered a strategy to appeal for the necessity of rigorous implementation of sanctions and stronger diplomatic pressure against the North. Yet, it occurred against the background of sharp criticisms from the two regarding indications that South Korea and the United States would deploy THAAD on the peninsula. Articles concentrated not on Yun’s appeals but on Sino-Russian warnings.

On May 5, a Hankook Ilbo article shed light on what appear to be the concerted policies of Beijing and Moscow at a meeting at the end of April of their foreign ministers on the South China Sea and THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. A Chinese diplomatic source was quoted as saying: “The two countries still have deep and traditional mistrust of each other, but recently tightened cooperation is based on mutual interest in curbing Washington.” The author finds that the “honeymoon era” became clear after the Ukraine crisis. Russia looked for an exit in “China Money” from economic turmoil caused by economic sanctions. There is also Putin’s personal political ambition to revive past glory as one axis of the Cold War era. China is also in need of Russia’s cooperation to realize the “One Belt, One Road” initiative both on the continent and at sea. China needs Russia’s military capability to stand against US military power in the South China Sea. Moscow’s international influence, as a standing member of the UN Security Council, is also beneficial to raise China’s voice in the international community.

In a May 3 Hangyoreh article, Choi Jong-goen saw THAAD deployment in the context of a nuclear power game with the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other. On April 29, the two countries stated their opposition to this deployment for “posing a direct threat” and “harming the region’s strategic balance.” The readers were told that THAAD on the Korean Peninsula destroys the deterrence power of the two countries’ nuclear weapons, allowing for an easier US preemptive attack. Thus, South Korea’s argument that THAAD is targeting North Korea does not relieve the two countries’ concerns at all, since it serves as an expansion of US missile networks. In response, the two countries cannot help but to develop more missiles, the article asserts. The author concludes that the two countries’ proposal for negotiations with Pyongyang is a warning sign that this option is the only exit from the international politics caused by THAAD.

Nuclear Security Summit

On April 4, DongA Ilbo published Choi Kang’s opinion that the separate meetings between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping and Park Geun-hye, Barack Obama and Abe Shinzo on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit posed two challenges for South Korea. One was to figure out how to secure China’s understanding and cooperation on regional security. China revealed its difference of opinion on almost every aspect of North Korea other than the denuclearization principle. Seoul alone cannot change its stance. Choi suggests building international networks to induce a change from Beijing and to overcome the current strategy to pursue cooperation among the involved parties only. The other challenge was how to proceed in trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan. The three countries showed the most proactive stance on the issue, a mood conducive to the other two countries pressing to expand cooperation substantially. If Seoul were to hesitate once more, suspicions of South Korea leaning toward China would arise again, and it would diminish South Korea’s diplomatic options. Choi argues that the trilateral cooperation would have a negative impact on the relationship with Beijing, but it is not likely to destroy it. The article concludes that the North’s provocations have created the best environment to proceed with trilateral cooperation, and Seoul’s apparent engagement in such cooperation would increase Seoul’s strategic value and leverage.

On the same day, a Hangyoreh observer pointed out the Nuclear Security Summit’s limitations. Though the Obama administration initiated the meeting, calling for a “World without Nuclear Weapons,” US policies have, instead, increased the influence of nuclear states. Washington and Moscow have stopped making strides to abandon their nuclear weapons after the 2010 START agreement. The United States has been concentrating on modernizing its nuclear forces, and Russia also announced a similar plan. Putin did not attend the meeting due to conflicts with the United States. Non-proliferation is also troubled by North Korean nuclear development. The Obama administration did not invest time and effort into this issue as it did to conclude the deal with Iran. The North Korean nuclear weapons program was even used to legitimate its “pivot to Asia.” The presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump even officially denies the goal of non-proliferation. Much of the blame is placed on the United States in this recitation of recent criticisms.

Hwang Ji-hwan compared the Iran and North Korea nuclear issues and looked into why Obama left the North Korean nuclear issue unresolved in Hankuk gwa Kukje Jeongchi 32, no. 1. Hwang finds two similarities between the two countries. They legitimized their nuclear development for regime security, and they insisted on their right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy at the initial stage. However, there are big differences between the two, Hwang argues, linked to the problem of implementation of the North Korean nuclear deals. There were several negotiations similar to those between the United States and Iran, but they were undermined due to the North’s provocations afterwards. Moreover, Iran’s new leadership is moderate and practical unlike previous leaders or North Korean ones. Its nuclear development progress was also much lower than that of North Korea. Tehran is known to have low-enriched uranium only and has never had nuclear tests or insisted on having nuclear weapons. However, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in 2016 and calls itself a nuclear state. With North Korea, there are much more complicated steps to take before closing the deal such as verifying its nuclear facilities, materials, and weapons. Kim Jong-un, in any case, would not intend to make such a comprehensive deal. Geopolitically, Iran could fundamentally change the Middle East landscape with its nuclear program, affecting US relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, denuclearization of North Korea would not change the essence of the US East Asian policy. Last, Iran suffered from economic hardship caused by international sanctions and has an alternative development strategy through oil exports. But Pyongyang believes it has no benefits to gain in exchange for denuclearization other than political risks as Libya, Iraq, and Egypt experienced.

The author finds that Iran’s nuclear deal cannot be a model for North Korea. Rather, the North Korean case can be studied to prevent trust issues at the implementation level. The author argues that a new framework is needed to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang is now changing its negotiation agenda from non-proliferation to nuclear arms reduction. Old strategies would not work in the new phase. The reason for the repeated failure of negotiations was that Pyongyang has no willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons. Negotiations focusing only on the nuclear issue are bound to fail. The author suggests including issues from politics, economics, and diplomacy to society and culture in talks.

Japan: Comfort Women

New Japanese textbooks reignited criticism of the Abe administration’s history perceptions. A March 18 Kyunghyang Shinmun article condemned Japan’s provocations on Dokdo, saying again and more insistently that South Korea is illegally occupying Japanese territory. The author argues that the textbooks inculcate anti-Korea sentiments in a younger generation, which will serve as a substantive cause of conflict in the future. The author is concerned that the December 28 agreement will give Japan more confidence to distort history in next year’s Japanese textbooks, arguing that current ROK government policies have not succeeded in deterring such provocations and urging the Park administration to prepare a comprehensive strategy going beyond the same old policies of condemning Japanese statements and increasing international awareness of the Dokdo issue.

On March 22, a Joongang Ilbo correspondent also called for the Park administration’s proactive response on the issue. A Japanese foreign affairs official had denied the forced nature of the “comfort women” at the UN committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in mid-February. After the denial, South Korean officials had a couple of chances to speak out on the issue. Foreign Minister Yun gave a speech at the UN Human Rights Committee, and Women and Family Minister Kang attended the Committee on the Status of Women meeting at UN headquarters. Giving examples of individual and civil groups’ efforts to disseminate the truth, the author criticized the two officials’ silence. Stating the facts is not against the December agreement, the author reiterated. Protecting a correct version of history is a challenging task as offenders try to distort it. The textbook screening result confirms again that Japan has no willingness to teach history correctly. The article concludes that the current South Korean government needs to step up to protect the truth.

On March 20, another Kyunghyang Shinmun article called history a “fight for memory.” The fight has continued in Korean civil society since the December agreement. The film “Going Home” remains popular at the box office, and significant numbers of people have been protecting the “comfort woman” statue for months. Voices have been heard to nullify the agreement. The Japanese textbook screening result added fuel to their cause, readers were told. Though the government issued a statement expressing strong disapproval of the textbooks, the author questioned whether the government is actually willing to correct Japanese historical perceptions, when it is clear that civil society has this goal.

On May 6, Chun Young-woo expressed concern that a worsening bilateral relationship with Japan damages South Korea’s democratic values and the rule of law. The indictments of a Sankei Shinmun correspondent and Park Yoo-ha, the author of Comfort Women of the Empire (제국의 위안부) for libeling the president and the victims, respectively, showed that anti-Japan sentiment can have a powerful effect on limiting freedom of speech and academics. Chun understands domestic dissatisfaction with the agreement and criticism of the Park administration for increasing the stakes and letting the issue get out of control. However, readers are told that the agreement should be implemented because the government’s credibility is on the line. Though the agreement is not satisfactory and there were other national interests sacrificed, Chun argues that the agreement was the best possible outcome, considering the risk of almost destroying the bilateral relationship. It is unfortunate that implementation of the agreement remains uncertain due to different understandings on removal of the statue of a girl. No matter how many statues are built, national anxiety over the “comfort women” issue cannot be relieved. Chun argues not to let national anxiety trump rationality and national interests, allowing the past to hold the present and future hostage. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on May 10 that a preparatory committee is to be organized by the end of the month to establish the foundation to support the “comfort women” victims as agreed.

Japan: Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima

Across the ideological spectrum, concern was expressed that Obama’s visit to Hiroshima might turn Japan’s image into a victim country, not a war crime country. A May 11 Kyunghyang Shinmun article acknowledged that Hiroshima is the proper place to send a warning message on the use of nuclear weapons, although the author worried about the effects of the visit under the Abe administration. It might send a political message to Japanese society that Abe’s right-leaning movement and historical perceptions are supported by the United States, making revision of the Peace Constitution easier.

 On May 12, a DongA Ilbo article worried that some Japanese regard the visit as an apology. While acknowledging the meaning of the visit as the final peace of Obama’s nuclear-free agenda, the author said that it would be unforgivable if the Abe administration used the visit as a way to evade its responsibility as a war crime country over history. The article suggests that Obama visit the Korean victims’ monument as an indirect warning to Japan and to send a message against the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

A day later, a Chosun Ilbo columnist expressed anger and regret over South Korea’s geopolitical insensitivity. The author said that the visit proves that “History is constantly rewritten from the present perspective.” The perspective reflects the current interests of involved parties. When Japan tried in 1996 to list the “Hiroshima Peace Center” as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the United States and China were at the center of the opposition. But Obama and Abe are going to deliver a message of a nuclear free world before the building. South Korea is now in a position to ask if Korean victims are included in “all the innocents” to be respected. The author called the visit a joint peace show between the United States and Japan, and Korea should not just be in the audience for it. 30,000 Koreans, who were forcefully drafted or worked there to make ends meet, were bombed there, and their monuments were moved inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park only 29 years after the center was built in 1970. The article concludes with alarm that geopolitical insensitivity cost the country a century ago, and it still has not changed much.