Country Report: South Korea (May 2019)

Since the diplomatic collapse in Hanoi, talks between the US and North Korea have remained at an impasse throughout April and May, while President Moon Jae-in kept seeking ways to play his role as a middleman and bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. One such attempt was another meeting with President Donald Trump in Washington, which conservatives in Seoul harshly criticized as it only revealed that Washington’s stance on sanctions and inter-Korean economic projects had not changed since Hanoi and proved that the gap between the two allies is wider than imagined. But at the summit there was a ray of hope for a third US-DPRK meeting as Trump hinted at this possibility as did Kim Jong-un during his speech at the Supreme People’s Assembly. Before long, Kim met with Vladimir Putin for the first time in an effort to gain Russia’s support in the nuclear deadlock, and Putin showed his eagerness to have the six-party talks convened, complicating the nuclear equation in Northeast Asia. As the impasse continued, Pyongyang fired rockets and missiles twice, only five days apart, and created a ferocious dispute between the ruling and opposition groups at home. Regardless, Moon approved of shipping humanitarian aid to North Korea and allowed South Korean business owners who still own property in the Kaesong Industrial Complex to visit the North, sticking to a dovish approach to save the dialogue.

The 7th US-ROK summit

On April 11, Moon flew to Washington to meet with Trump. The seventh meeting between the two leaders occurred amid expectations that Moon would be able to save the stalled denuclearization process following the “no deal” at the summit between the US and North Korea in Hanoi in late February. The summit yielded three talking points: 1) a “top-down” approach is essential; 2) giving humanitarian aid to Pyongyang is acceptable, but it is not possible to resume Mount Geumgang tours or reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex at this moment; and 3) most importantly, a third US-DPRK summit could happen but not anytime soon. The meeting disappointed many progressives at home, who were looking forward to inter-Korean economic cooperation as a way to deter North Korea from testing and producing nuclear weapons; it also served as an occasion for Trump to push for sales, appreciating Seoul’s decision to purchase “a tremendous amount of” US military equipment. On the next day, Kim delivered his first official speech since the Hanoi failure at the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly and called Moon an “officious mediator” and signaled a “yes” to a third meeting with Trump, but only if the US comes with the right attitude. In addition, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on April 13 that Kim would give Trump until the end of the year to be more flexible. Trump immediately tweeted in return that “a third summit would be good in that we fully understand where we each stand.” Meanwhile, despite Kim’s criticism, Moon, during his cabinet meeting on April 15, appealed for another inter-Korean summit meeting, with which he claimed Washington agreed.

Conservative editorials blasted Moon and insisted that the summit bore no fruit. Chosunwrote on April 13 that the two presidents’ viewpoints differed on every issue; when Trump was asked whether he would accept Moon’s suggested small deal (partial denuclearization), he replied, “I’d have to see what the deal is. There are various smaller deals that could happen… You could work out step-by-step pieces, but at this moment we’re talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of nuclear weapons,” which means that the concepts of “a good enough deal” or an “early harvest” pitched by the Blue House weren’t acceptable from the get-go. Moreover, Trump’s remarks that sanctions against North Korea should remain in place and his opposition to the resumption of Mount Geumgang tours and Kaesong Industrial Complex operation also went against Moon, Chosun wrote. Concerning a third US-DPRK summit, Moon said, “It is important to implant a positive outlook for a third summit to happen soon,” whereas Trump said, “But this is not going to go fast… If it goes fast, then it’s not the proper deal.” Discrepancies were apparent on almost every issue, including how to achieve denuclearization, under what conditions to relax sanctions on North Korea, and when should a third summit between Trump and Kim take place.

Dongaon April 13 presented similar arguments to those of Chosun and wrote that Moon has lost ground due to this summit. The Blue House said that the summit would “produce good results,” but it only revealed the different views between Seoul and Washington, leaving a question about whether the agenda setting in advance was done properly. The editorial added that Moon is no longer a “mediator” in between Trump and Kim but acting in the role of a “messenger,” delivering Trump’s words to Kim. Accordingly, it would be difficult for Moon to persuade Kim, who seems to have solidified his anti-American stance with the lapse of time, and whether Kim would accept the offer of an inter-Korean summit remains unknown.

Joongang agreed that the summit was far from a success, but unlike Donga, it still acknowledged Moon as a mediator. According to the editorial, Trump asked Moon to let him know as early as possible about Pyongyang’s latest thinking, and the request was made as Trump accommodated Moon’s proposal of having an inter-Korean summit and recognized his role as a mediator. Joongang lastly warned Moon not to be desperate for a summit with Kim. As it would mark the fourth meeting between the two Koreas, the meeting itself would not carry any meaning unless a tangible outcome regarding the North’s denuclearization is expected to be achieved.

Progressive editorials paid attention to the reaffirmed commitment, which both presidents showed, to continue the denuclearization process at this summit. Kyunghyangwrote on April 12 that Trump and Moon put their efforts into reviving the momentum of the stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the Hanoi summit. The editorial also highlighted that Trump empowered Moon to play the mediator role by supporting Moon’s determination to have an inter-Korean summit soon. Thanks to this summit, a mood for resuming the US-DRPK talks was formed, Kyunghyang wrote. Although Trump stressed a “big deal” as a solution for North Korea’s denuclearization and insisted on keeping the sanctions in place until the North gives up its nuclear program, he said, “There are various smaller deals that maybe could happen. Things could happen. You can work out, step by step, pieces,” which Kyunghyang found promising as Trump displayed potential flexibility with “small deals” and may not cling to a “big deal.” Another gain from the summit was Trump’s endorsement of South Korea giving humanitarian aid to North Korea. But as Trump said that resuming Mount Geumgang tours and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex are yet premature, it showed the US sticking to its stance from Hanoi but leaving room to maneuver and kicking the ball into Kim’s court; Washington’s attitude toward Pyongyang is neither hot nor cold, Kyunghyang wrote. The editorial lastly claimed that Moon should now meet with Kim and kindle a ray of hope for dialogue. As for an inter-Korean summit meeting, Hankyoreh chimed in on April 15, justifying it on the grounds of both Trump and Kim’s green light for a probable third summit. While admitting the gap between Washington and Pyongyang on how to achieve denuclearization, the editorial argued that a chance of narrowing the identified gap emerged little by little through Trump and Kim’s remarks at the US-ROK summit and North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. With both leaders’ opinions known, now is the time to push for the inter-Korean summit, Hankyoreh wrote, calling for Kim’s response to Moon’s offer.

The Kim-Putin summit

On April 25, Kim met with Putin for the first time, less than two months after the Hanoi summit fell apart. Even though the meeting ended without producing any joint statement, some observers claimed that the encounter delivered a strong message to the world that Kim has more comrades other than China and Putin seeks to meddle in the nuclear talks. But they also pointed out that Kim does not have much to gain economically from Putin-–such as sanctions relief, expansion of economic cooperation, and visa waivers for North Korean laborers in Russia-–as Russia is also under US-led sanctions since its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and, therefore, there are no measures Putin can independently take while staying within the sanctions’ boundaries. A Japanese media outlet later reported on May 4 that Putin actually demanded the final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) of North Korea from Kim at the summit, following US special envoy Stephen Biegun’s meeting with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Igor Morgulov, in Moscow; the news supported a statement that the Kim-Putin meeting was not as rewarding for Kim. But regardless, KCNA on April 28 eagerly promoted the view that Kim’s visit to Vladivostok was a great success.

Conservative editorials expressed worry over the growing closeness between the two leaders, which could potentially obstruct the nuclear talks from moving forward. Joongang wrote on April 27 that the Kim-Putin summit, unlike the international community’s hope of seeing the summit serve as a catalyst promoting the resumption of the nuclear negotiations, went against expectations. Kim blamed the US for the Hanoi collapse and said that peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is fully dependent on Washington’s future attitude, and Pyongyang will be prepared for every possible situation, which, according to Joongang, shows Kim’s intention to dodge denuclearization negotiations for now and overcome difficulties through alliance ties with Russia and China. Putin’s comment that North Korea needs security guarantees and suggestion about resuming six-party talks to discuss the matter also escalates concerns, showing Russia butting in on the denuclearization process established between the US and the two Koreas, and complicating the negotiations; the six-party talks proposal is an offense against the denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang proceeding through a top-down approach and also clashes with Seoul’s strategy, Joongang wrote.

Another challenge the editorial raised was Putin’s comment on North Korean laborers in Russia, whom he claimed are “working successfully.” He implied a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2397 – which requires a total of 11,000 North Korean workers to leave the country by the end of 2019 – as he said, “there will be ways to solve this problem.” If Putin allows them to stay, it would damage the “maximum pressure” regime led by the international community and add another hurdle on the path to a nuclear-free Korea, Joongang wrote. Donga voiced the same concern that the loophole in UN sanctions against the North may get bigger, quoting what Putin said, “A lot needs to be done in order to improve the economic and labor exchanges between the two countries.” According to Donga, Putin’s statement signaled that Russia would, along with China, provide Kim with ways to counteract the sanctions. The editorial lastly urged Seoul to overhaul its alliance with the US and relations with Japan, instead of being impatient with inter-Korean relations.

Progressive editorials, in contrast, appreciated Putin chipping in and wrote that his effort could have a positive impact on resolving the nuclear standoff. Hankyoreh wrote on April 25 that for North Korea the purpose of this summit is to win Russia’s support in “step-by-step and simultaneous” action, which Pyongyang has long favored, and strengthen its position against the US. The editorial expected this summit to help resume the denuclearization process and contribute to building peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula as the two leaders chose denuclearization of the peninsula to be the most important item on the agenda. Especially, Putin said to Kim, “We welcome your efforts to develop an inter-Korean dialogue and normalize relations with the US,” which is a changed stance from Russia’s former position that may have a good influence on reviving the talks. Concerning the six-party talks, Hankyoreh wrote that it was suggested as a way to multilaterally assure security guarantees for North Korea, but more discussion is necessary to find out how realistic it would be as an alternative. Lastly, with Russia’s support reaffirmed, Pyongyang should actively pursue negotiations with the US while keeping in mind that its negotiating power only weakens as time passes.

North Korea’s missile launches on May 4 and 9

Over the course of merely five days, North Korea fired rockets and missiles twice, breaking the 17-month-long moratorium it had kept since late 2017. Both firings on May 4, from Wonsan in Gangwon Province, and on May 9, from Kusong in North Pyongan Province, were of short-range ballistic missiles and, according to military experts, they looked a lot like Iskander short-range ballistic missiles from Russia. North Korea’s missile launches aroused a fierce dispute in Seoul over whether they were a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and South Korean military authorities’ initial announcement on May 4, identifying what Pyongyang fired as “missiles,” later changed to “projectiles,” only added fuel to the fire.

Timing-wise, the devastating news broke out: 1) just a week after the one-year anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration, signed between the two Koreas on April 27, 2018, in which Moon and Kim promised to realize the common goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization; and 2) on the day when Moon’s interview with a South Korean broadcaster KBS, marking the completion of his second year in office, was aired. During the interview, Moon said, “Short-range, ballistic missiles are prohibited by the UN Security Council resolutions” and added, “If the recent launches of projectiles are proven to be ballistic missiles, it could be against the resolutions.” Moon also warned Kim, “North Korea repeating these moves could make dialogue and negotiations more difficult.”

Conservative papers rushed out editorials condemning North Korea’s brinkmanship. They also heavily criticized the South Korean military and the ruling party’s intentions to act as a shield for Pyongyang. On May 6, after the first launch, Joongang wrote that North Korea’s brinkmanship tactics are nothing new; whenever nuclear talks do not go its way, it disregards dialogue and resorts to the risk of military conflict. As the Hanoi talks ended without a deal and Kim failed to earn what he longed for, such as sanctions relief, he turned to military provocations, and according to Joongang, the threat resulted from North Korea’s calculations that the recent low-level provocation – a short-range, ballistic missile launch – won’t bring any additional sanctions. The editorial insisted that the move is a clear violation of the UN resolutions as Pyongyang is banned from firing any ballistic missiles, regardless of the range.

Chosun on the same day denounced both Pyongyang and Seoul, saying that the missile threat was definitely an infringement of the inter-Korean military agreement, which states “the two Koreas agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain, including land, air and sea that are the source of military tension and conflict,” and therefore, Seoul should stop sticking up for Pyongyang. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) briefed the National Assembly that the projectiles were not missiles considering their altitude and range, and a spokesperson for the ruling party announced that the projectiles are estimated to be rocket launchers or tactical rockets but not ballistic missiles and, therefore, not a violation of the UN Security Council resolutions. Even after North Korea released footage of missiles being fired on May 5, South Korean military authorities claimed those are “new tactical guided weapons” and avoided using the term “missiles.” The editorial blasted Moon, saying that the dangerous idea that peace could be achieved by tearing down our defense system and calling off military exercises has been debunked.

After Pyongyang’s second missile launch, Donga wrote on May 10 that the provocation was an obvious act of disdaining Seoul, as it was made on the two-year anniversary of the birth of the Moon administration and only a day after the unification ministry announced its plan to provide food aid to North Korea. The editorial blamed Moon for his comment during the KBS interview that the recent series of missile threats are “not a violation of the military agreement,” although they were clearly and intentionally made, not to keep the North’s ordinary guard up, but to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Another editorial by Donga on the next day wrote about Washington’s tough response to Pyongyang signaled by Trump’s comment on Pyongyang’s missile threat, “We are looking at it very seriously right now. I don’t think they [North Korea] are ready to negotiate.” Also, the US Justice Department announced that it had seized a North Korean ship, which was used to export coal in violation of international sanctions, only a few hours after Pyongyang’s missile threat, and the Pentagon defined the projectiles as “ballistic missiles,” which means that the US will not leave the situation as is, Donga wrote. But while Washington is taking a stronger stance against Pyongyang, Seoul is busy pacifying the communist state and trying to downsize the provocations that would only raise doubt about Seoul’s approach.

Progressive papers, while acknowledging the seriousness of the threats, labeled them “low-level armed protests” aimed at seeking a dialogue. In response to the first provocation, Hankyoreh wrote on May 5 that the purpose of the firing was to shake up the negotiating table after the extended deadlock owing to the Hanoi failure. As the US adheres to a “big deal” keeping the sanctions in place pressuring the North, the missile launch was an armed display of Pyongyang’s protest. The editorial also highlighted the fact that the fired projectiles were short-range ones that flew at a low altitude; speculation exists that these may be ballistic missiles, but the firings suggest North Korean deliberations not to go too far. It is fortunate that both Washington and Seoul showed restraint, and the US responding with force against North Korea’s show of force would only increase the tension on the Korean Peninsula and delay talks, Hankyoreh wrote. Unless there is a move to break the impasse between the US and North Korea, the tension may escalate. Considering that Pyongyang has suffered from severe food shortages and is in desperate need of internal unity, “pressuring sanctions” only may cause a stronger North Korean backlash against the outside world.

Kyunghyang’s editorial on the same day concurred with Hankyoreh but paid more attention to what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, in response to the North’s missile launch on May 4, that he is “highly confident that Pyongyang didn’t fire any intermediate-range, long-range or intercontinental missiles” and he still believes “there’s an opportunity to get a negotiated outcome where we get fully verified denuclearization.” He added, “At no point were there ever any international boundaries crossed,” which means the length of the range and direction of the projectiles indicate that the purpose of the firing was not to present a threat to the US or to Japan. In addition, regarding North Korea’s potential violation of a moratorium on missile launches ordered by the UN, he said “that only involves intercontinental missiles threatening the US,” leaving the door open for talks. Following the second provocation on May 9, Kyunghyang released another editorial on May 10, affirming that a diplomatic solution is the only remedy to cope with the strained situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula. According to the editorial, it seems evident that the North will raise military tensions in the name of confronting US-ROK joint exercises. Pyongyang’s additional provocation delivered while the Moon administration was pushing for giving food aid to the North sends a message that what matters most is neither humanitarian aid nor sanctions relief but security guarantees and the elimination of military threats against Pyongyang, Kyunghyang argued. The editorial asked for: 1) Washington and Seoul to come up with a response in order to cope with the North’s demands to shift from “denuclearization-sanctions relief” to “denuclearization-security guarantees”; and 2) Pyongyang to stop its tension-heightening activities and return to the talks. 

Humanitarian aid to North Korea and business owners’ visit to Kaesong approved

In defiance of growing discomfort in Seoul due to Pyongyang’s latest missile launches, Moon approved giving food aid to North Korea; he also allowed South Korean businessmen who used to own a business in the Kaesong Industrial Complex to visit the North. Moon’s decision was based on the authority of a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) in early May, which found that Pyongyang now faces great food shortages owing to the worst harvest in the last 10 years, leading to 10 million people starving. According to the Blue House, Trump showed support for the aid for Pyongyang during his phone conversation with Moon on May 7, and the spokesperson of the unification ministry said during a briefing on May 8, “We will work closely with international organizations to push ahead with providing food aid for humanitarian purposes to the North Korean people.” Regarding the business owners’ visit to Kaesong, the spokesperson explained on May 17, “There has been a repeated request from the Kaesong business owners to visit the complex and considering that it’s been three years since they left the complex, the approval was granted as a way to protect our people’s property rights.” Thanks to the decision, approximately 193 Kaesong business owners would be able to inspect their factory equipment and facilities for the first time since the forced shutdown in February 2016. But on May 12, North Korea railed through its propaganda outlet, Meari, over Seoul linking the opening of Kaesong to the sanctions matter and postponing the reopening of the complex because it was walking on eggshells about Washington’s potential reaction. Meari also said, “Seoul makes a big fuss about its humanitarian projects as if that could bring a great advance in the inter-Korean relations, but it is a deception on the public sentiment.”

Conservative editorials denounced Moon’s decision to ship humanitarian aid to the North, claiming that it would send the wrong message, namely, handing the North a reward for its missile provocations. Donga pointed out on May 9 that, unlike the announcement the Blue House made, a statement from the White House said, “The two leaders discussed recent developments regarding the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and how to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” with no mention of the aid in the phone call the two leaders had. The editorial added, officially announcing food aid as soon as Pyongyang fires missiles is inappropriate as it would send the wrong signal; North Korea would take the aid as a trophy won by virtue of the earlier provocation, which is a tactic they have played for so long. Another point Chosun raised on May 18 was that the food shortage situation in North Korea may not be as dire as the joint report by the FAO and WFP claims. Chosun argued that International Trade Centre (ITC) statistics show: 1) North Korea imported more tobacco and fruits than food, such as flour, from China in the first quarter of this year; 2) the price of rice at North Korean black markets (jangmadang) dropped compared to that of late last year, a fact which questioned the seriousness of the North’s food shortage situation. The editorial also quoted a former adviser to the World Bank, “Taking Pyongyang’s trade statistics and market prices into consideration, there is no indication of a food crisis in North Korea yet,” and a former American envoy for North Korean human rights from The Wall Street Journal, “The North Koreans are anxious to show that sanctions are causing people to suffer, in an effort to get sanctions lifted.” The WFP estimated North Korea’s grain production to be 4.9 million tons this year, but when the North was going through its great famine in the 1990s, it yielded about 3.5 million tons and therefore, the current situation in Pyongyang is not as dire as Seoul presumes. But Moon completely turned a blind eye to these facts and is only looking forward to re-engaging with the North, Chosun wrote. 

In contrast, progressive editorials welcomed Moon’s decision to support North Korea on humanitarian grounds and the Kaesong business owners by allowing them to visit their property in the North. Hankyoreh’seditorial on May 15 titled, “Aside from denuclearization talks, food aid to North should be hastened,” argued, based on an investigation done by a UN organization, that North Korea’s food shortage has reached its worst point in the last 10 years owing to drought and natural disasters in 2018; the country lacks 1.36 million tons of food, and 40% of its population is going hungry. David Beasley, the executive director of the WFP, visited Seoul on May 13 and met with Moon to seek his support, and Moon’s response that Seoul would actively make contributions stands to reason, Hankyoreh wrote. The editorial added that political and military issues should be dealt with separately from the matter of humanitarian aid, following universal human rights norms, and it pressed North Korea to stop its provocations and slander against the South, which only creates a challenging environment for Seoul and the international community to give humanitarian assistance to the North.

With regard to the South Korean businessmen visiting Kaesong, Hankyoreh appreciated the decision on May 19, writing that although it cannot directly lead to reopening the industrial complex due to US sanctions, it has significance; North Korea should pay attention to the fact that the restrictive visit under the name of “inspecting property assets” was made possible at the cost of close consultations between Seoul and Washington. Kyunghyangon May 17 also listed similar arguments and wrote that the eight previous requests made by the business owners to visit Kaesong were all disapproved by the South Korean government on account of Washington’s concern that the visit could be taken as a signal to resume operations at the industrial complex. It would help promote the stalled US-DPRK talks, Kyunghyang argued. Lastly, the editorial insisted that North Korea should realize that the property rights of the Kaesong business owners for over three years have been infringed and must accept their visit.