Country Report: South Korea (May 2017)

Park Geun-hye was removed from office on March 10 as the Constitutional Court endorsed the parliament’s impeachment, a first in its history. While there was only an acting president in the country, concerns over “Korea Passing” mounted. There were fears that the five-month-long vacancy in top-level diplomacy in South Korea would accelerate its diplomatic isolation. Finally, on May 10, Moon Jae-in was sworn in as South Korea’s new president, and it was anticipated that he would bring a shift in South Korean politics. The new administration is expected to reexamine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, triggered by THAAD. A senior press secretary of the Moon administration mentioned that the process of important state affairs such as THAAD deployment should be transparently disclosed and reflect public opinion. South Koreans generally welcomed this new transparency; however, some expressed concern that important security decisions might be decided by politics, rather than a thorough assessment of security needs and the importance of South Korea’s alliance with the United States.

The Current Security Situation in Northeast Asia

In Juyo Gukje Munje Bunseok issued on March 27, Jeon Bong-Geun mentioned that military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the security crisis in East Asia have escalated rapidly, due to both military and political issues, notably the North Korean nuclear threat, security competition between the United States and China, and Japan’s remilitarization. The article claims that they pose a major threat to South Korea’s security, and argues that Seoul should come up with better diplomatic and security strategies to more effectively respond to such challenges. The article also argues that while security crisis in South Korea had previously been triggered by North Korean provocations, this time, it is caused by complex relationships between the regional powers.

The fact that the regional powers now triggered the crisis could possibly bring the following impact. First, a majority of domestic and foreign experts predict that the competition between the United States and China will become more intense and that the Korean Peninsula and the East Asian maritime region will become their battleground. If so, the current foreign and security crisis is likely to be prolonged. Second, South Korea has been cooperating with the United States and China to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, which is its greatest security threat. As China is focused on US-China competition and its opposition to the THAAD deployment, diplomatic momentum for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue will significantly deteriorate. Third, if China considers the THAAD issue as a litmus test for inter-Korean competition, China’s pressure on South Korea will increase further. Fourth, Japan is entering into a full-fledged security competition with China, further promoting remilitarization and intentionally ignoring past political and historical issues. Tokyo will therefore seek to strengthen its security alliance against China. According to the above scenarios, as the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia fall within the scope of intensified US-China hegemonic competition, Seoul’s diplomatic and security policy has entered a transition, calling for a serious reexamination.

The THAAD System and South Korea’s Relations with the United States and China

On May 1, a DongA Ilbo observer opined that Donald Trump should closely reexamine the true value of the bilateral alliance, properly calculating gains and losses. During an interview with Reuters, Trump had remarked that Korea should pay the $1 billion tab for THAAD. In an attempt to clarify his statement, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster called his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin and explained, “the remarks were made within the context in line with the general US public expectations on burden-sharing with allies," while conveying Trump’s firm message that US-South Korean relations is the most solid alliance and the top US priority in the Asia-Pacific region. The observer argued that the matter still should not be overlooked even though Trump’s national security advisor had swiftly calmed the situation. Though it is true that South Korea was able to achieve quantum leaps based on the alliance for the past six decades, it has also played a pivotal role in supporting US global strategy in the Northeast Asian region. He further maintained that unsettling the alliance will only serve to please North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. These commentaries register the widespread concern in South Korea that Trump does not appreciate the value of the country’s contributions to the US strategic position in the region, and instead, abuses US great power leverage to pressure a weaker power unfairly—practices against which South Korea must more strongly defend its sovereign power.

In an interview with Seoul Sinmun on May 17, the floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party, Woo Won-sik said that the new administration should reconsider the THAAD issue. He raised the possibility of sending back a recently-installed missile defense system to the United States if there have been any procedural problem in its deployment. The party has long called for suspension of the THAAD installation, while stressing the need to secure parliamentary approval, claiming that the former government failed to forge sufficient public consensus over a crucial national defense decision. This party is at the extreme of the South Korean political spectrum, but its concerns resonate with others concerned about the position to which Seoul has been placed, given China’s stern resistance and the US haste to deploy.

On a May 16 Sejong Commentary, Jung Jae-heung pointed out that since the inauguration of the new government, the Chinese government expressed its high expectations for improving bilateral ties with South Korea, paying keen attention to the possibility of changes in its North Korean policies and the THAAD deployment. Most Korea experts in China predict that the Moon Jae-in government will be able to cooperate with North Korea in a relatively smooth manner in the future, as it emphasizes not only the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but settlement through dialogue rather than through pressuring the North. Xi Jinping made a congratulatory call to Moon on May 11, noteworthy since it was the first time for a Chinese president to do so to a newly-elected South Korean president. In the telephone conversation, Xi said that "The two countries are important neighbors in the region and have made great progress in the relationship,” adding "we should cherish such an achievement,” which emphasizes the importance of improving relations between Korea and China. Jung argued that Korea and China are already aware of the need for their strategic cooperation. South Korea needs China’s cooperation and help to resolve the North Korean nuclear and missile issues and unification of the Korean Peninsula. For China, it needs to strengthen its position as a responsible country in the region through the consolidation of Korea-China relations. The new Korean government is necessary for creating a new and sustainable cooperation model and reviving the relationship is crucial to maintaining peace and stability in the region. In this and other articles, there is striking omission of any analysis of China’s strategic objectives.

The First Trump-Xi Summit Meeting

With regard to the Trump-Xi summit meeting, Shin Jong ho, a China expert at Korea Institute for National Unification, commented on April 12 that the summit failed to produce any remarkable achievements related to trade or security. Since North Korea was high on the agenda in their talks, the way it was addressed was expected to set the tone for Washington-Beijing ties and approach. The international community was paying keen attention to whether they would reach an agreement regarding North Korea. However, they failed to do so, neither issuing a joint statement nor holding a press conference at the end of the summit. From this, Shin concludes that the main purpose of the summit was to test each other to set their directions for the future. Trump stressed the importance of the US relationship with China, based on his “America First” policy, and Xi also sought to avoid sensitive issues, while taking advantage of China’s economic importance for the United States. Shin argues that the most important implication of the US-China summit for the Korean Peninsula was that it made it clear that the two countries were recognizing this issue as a “substructure” of US-China relations, and this perception is likely to continue in the future. This suggests that the North Korean nuclear issue can be used as a tool for Sino-US "agency power competition" in the region, and they may seek solutions for the North Korean nuclear issue, excluding South Korea in the process.
An April 13 DongA Ilbo column argued that China has shown subtle changes in its position since the Trump-Xi summit. Huanqiu Shibao urged North Korea not to misjudge the situation as the United States is not bluffing with the redeployment of its aircraft carrier to the Korean Peninsula. The newspaper put further pressure on the North, saying if the North crosses the line once again, Beijing will have no choice but to consent to additional UN sanctions. If China makes a change in its North Korea policy, it should not be a temporary one forced by US pressure, the columnist argues, adding that China is largely responsible for the failed efforts to denuclearize the North. With this opportunity, the Chinese leadership should ponder with which country—North or South Korea—it will go forward with in the 21st century. The Chinese leadership should also contemplate whether China would suffer losses in its core interests by protecting North Korea. If China changes, South Korea will fully understand its implications and consider China’s concerns over facing US troops right across its border after the collapse of the North Korean regime. This binary approach treating a shift in Chinese policy as a path to the collapse of North Korea—as if China would countenance it—confuses the options ahead.

Concerns over ‘Korea Passing’

An April 10 DongA Ilbo editorial commented on a US aircraft carrier heading to the Korean Peninsula. However incorrect the timing reported from Washington, the Nimitz-class USS supercarrier Carl Vinson group eventually moved towards the western Pacific near Korean shores, seemingly as an aftermath of the Trump-Xi summit. The two leaders had failed to come up with a coordinated solution for the North Korean nuclear issue, according to the article, and this deployment served as a stern warning to both Pyongyang and Beijing, should North Korea push forward its serious provocations such as a sixth nuclear test.

After the first Trump-Xi summit, Trump called Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and explained that it was "an in-depth discussion over directions on the North Korea nuclear issue, and conveyed the U.S. stance on the deployment of THAAD." However, no details were covered in the summit briefing, which came as a disappointment to South Korea, which had hoped that Trump would pressure China to play an active role in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue by officially announcing a policy of secondary sanctions against Chinese firms and making clear that China must stop economic retaliation against South Korea for THAAD. While the stark reality is that the future of the Korean Peninsula will be decided, in large part, by the United States and China, South Korea cannot just wait and see how the two superpowers play out, the article insists. Close coordination between Washington and Seoul is vital, and under no circumstances should South Korea’s future be decided in its absence.

A March 20 Maeil Business Newspaper article on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ‘s visit to Korea, China, and Japan on March 15-19 raised many questions about Korean diplomacy. Tillarson, who in Seoul emphasized US concerns about China’s retaliation against South Korea due to THAAD, did not mention a word regarding THADD in China. In addition, while he identified Japan as the "most important ally," he said that South Korea is just an "important partner." It was also controversial that Tillerson did not hold a formal dinner when he visited South Korea. In comparison, he scheduled a formal dinner with Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio during his visit to Japan. Whether or not there was an invitation from the Korean side, it was obvious that he put more importance on his visit to Japan than that to Korea. The article attributes this partly to the fact that Korea had been left out of international affairs due to its leadership vacuum, adding that the situation in Northeast Asia is changing rapidly due to the North Korean nuclear issue and the THAAD system. Given these circumstances, the level of “Korea Passing,” whereby issues on the Korean Peninsula are discussed in Korea’s absence, is growing. In addition, the article mentioned the Trump-Abe summit in February. A common view is that the two leaders coordinated a joint response to the North Korean nuclear program. Meanwhile, Russia and China are working closely together, based on their opposition to the THAAD deployment in Korea. Lee Sang-hyun stated, "All of the neighboring countries of the Korean peninsula are operating in a stable policy environment based on solid domestic support." He further maintained that the current diplomatic and security situation is a storm that can bring out simultaneous challenges.

Setting up Diplomatic Relations by the New South Korean Government

A May 12 Hangyoreh article said that it is time for Seoul to devote itself to balanced diplomacy while taking the initiative to resolve problems on the Korean Peninsula. During the first two days after he took office, Moon called the leaders of the United States, China, and Japan, discussing pressing issues related to the Korean Peninsula. With the US and Chinese leaders, he agreed to hold a summit within a short time. There is a noteworthy aspect of Moon’s telephone conversations with the leaders of the three countries. He explained his plans to send special envoys to each of their countries to address urgent issues such as THAAD and the North Korean nuclear issue, underscoring the promise he made in his inaugural address to resolve the THAAD issue through dialogue. This is also regarded as an effort to promptly dispel concerns over Korea’s diplomatic isolation. The article also pointed out that effectively resolving diplomacy and security problems requires bipartisan cooperation and a process of seeking public consent.

In a May 17 Sejong Commentary, Woo Jung-yeop mentioned that with the new president in power, the uncertainty in domestic politics is gone; there is hope for the new government led by Moon Jae-in. However, there is also concern, he warned, since South Korea is at such an important moment in its foreign and security relations. In particular, setting a new relationship with Trump will be vitally important to its foreign policy. He argued that concerns over the new administration’s foreign policy arise mainly from two factors. The first is that the Moon government’s policies on diplomatic and security issues, especially toward North Korea, will be significantly different from those of previous governments. The second is that it is still very hard to grasp Trump’s thoughts even after three months in office. In a media interview on the 100th day of his inauguration, he mentioned that Korea should pay for the THAAD system deployed in Korea, and that it is necessary to revisit the South Korea-US FTA. Such controversial messages have made it difficult to set a direction for South Korea’s relationship with the United States.

A May 18 Kyunghyang Shinmun article reported that Moon’s special envoy to the United States Hong Seok-hyun met with Tillerson mainly on how to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. Reportedly, Tillerson said that China is also well aware that the THAAD deployment does not pose a threat to its security. They shared their concerns over China’s economic retaliation in response to THAAD. Hong explained to Tillerson that the THAAD system needs to be discussed in the National Assembly, not because of any political issues between South Korea and the United States, but because of insufficiencies in procedures to ensure public approval. Tillerson said that he wants the North to trust the US promise of no hostility and refrain from nuclear or missile tests. During a meeting with Hong, Trump said that he is willing to make peace by engaging with North Korea under the right conditions. It was the first time that Trump used the word “peace” in relation to the North Korean nuclear issue. This is in line with US senior officials’ recently more flexible attitudes towards North Korea, says the article, suggesting that they have a lot in common with the position of the Moon administration. Calling the US position realistic, considering that North Korea’s nuclear capability has reached its completion stage, the article finds that the two countries can expand their room for cooperation.

A May 16 Hangyoreh editorial argued that the Moon administration should adopt a two-track strategy of pursuing economic as well as other forms of collaboration with Japan without backing down on the “comfort women” issue. During a telephone conversation with Abe on May 11, Moon made it clear that the “majority of South Koreans do not accept” the “comfort women” agreement. Overturning it is one of Moon’s ten pledges. It is hard to expect the existing agreement to lead to any historic changes in relations with Japan. It is an issue that we have to deal with through patience, adds the article. South Korea and Japan are obliged to cooperate in many ways on Northeast Asian political and economic matters. We need to learn a lesson from the hot-and-cold approach of the Park administration, which seemed ready to sever ties with Tokyo early on before it suddenly entered negotiations on the “comfort women” issue. The expectation is that Moon will avoid both extremes toward Abe.

A May 19 Chosun Ilbo editorial commented on the visit of Moon Jae-in’s special envoy to Japan, Moon Hee-sang, which resulted in an agreement to resume shuttle diplomacy between the two countries and strengthen cooperation against the North Korean nuclear threat. Shuttle diplomacy had started in 2004 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, leaders of the two countries taking turns visiting each other, but it was suspended due to unfavorable political circumstances. In a letter from the Korean president delivered to Abe, the new president called for closer cooperation to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea. However, it also clearly expressed the view that an overwhelming majority of South Koreans are emotionally unable to accept a deal to compensate victims of “comfort women,” signed during the Park administration. Yoon Ho-joong, a member of the delegation said that 80 percent of the meeting was about the North Korean nuclear crisis, and both sides refrained from comments that could make the other side uncomfortable.

In a Juyo Gukje Munje Bunseok article on April 4, Kim Hyun-uk argued that there is still uncertainty in US foreign policy, especially in Asia and North Korea, because Trump remains an outsider when it comes to foreign policy. As a result, the process of learning about foreign policy takes longer than for past presidents and Trump is still in progress. In addition, there are disagreements between the White House, the Defense Department, and the State Department on the selection of diplomatic and security personnel, and the appointment of necessary personnel in some positions has been significantly delayed. Against this backdrop, it is still difficult to predict policies towards China and North Korea. Kim argued that Trump advocates a strategy based on “peace through strength.” US forces should not be influenced by the sequester (the automatic budget cuts), and should consult with Congress in rebuilding. Trump emphasizes a transactional approach, attributable to his negotiating background in business. He leverages the other side’s weakness and capitalizes on pushing their pressure points. Strong military power is a possible means of pressure for trade deals. The article argues that US-China relations will likely determine the region’s political and economic climate in the future, but the overall outline of the Trump policy towards China has yet to be clarified. It is still not clear if the United States will take an offensive stance based on realism or keep hedging and engage based on the interdependence of the two countries. This commentary in April before the Trump-Xi summit may have seemed dated by impressions formed after the summit, but the uncertainty persisted after Moon Jae-in took office and Trump’s approach to China and North Korea still appeared to be unsettled.