Country Report: South Korea (November 2016)

Recently, domestic events have so dominated the news that foreign affairs coverage has been reduced to only occasional stories. The Trump election was an unavoidable theme. The aftermath of North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September continues to draw some notice. Finally, the decision to sign an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan aroused some responses. Overall, however, the inward-looking focus of the Korean public as it awaits the fate of the Park Geun-hye government has left us without a lot to say about developments that ordinarily would have been newsworthy.

Prospects for the Trump Administration

For Korean progressives there was a mixture of concern and opportunity when news arrived that Donald Trump had won the US election. On November 9, a Hankook Ilbo article said that the ROK-US relationship would be more about minimizing disagreements and even conflicts than keeping the current cooperative mood. Deep uncertainty over the North Korean issue certainly elevated South Korean anxiety. Yet, a ray of light was found in the prospect that the Trump administration might try to launch dialogue with the North unlike the Obama administration, which pursued “strategic patience.” With domestic politics extremely unstable, the author urged the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs to focus on getting rid of uncertainties in the bilateral relationship.

On November 24, Shin Bong-gil opined in Hangyoreh that uncertainties created by the Trump administration could be an opportunity for the South Korean government to enhance its own voice on national security and foreign policy. Shin argued that the incoming administration has brought uncertainty in three perspectives: North Korea, trade, and the alliance. With National Security Advisor nominee Michael Flynn’s hard-line stance on North Korea, Shin argued that this presents an opportunity, as “strategic patience” has failed for the last eight years. On trade, Shin argued that Mexico and China will be Trump’s priorities, but the KORUS FTA is in question too. On the bilateral alliance, Shin argued that ROK defense costs would rise, but, in return, foreign policy and security, which have been under the tight grip of the United States, would become more autonomous. There was not much room to move in the inter-Korean relationship. Like it or not, the Trump administration would force Seoul to be independent in this area. The author concludes that this could open an opportunity to decrease excessive dependence on the bilateral alliance.

The conservative response to Trump is more alarmist, but at the same time possibilities keep being raised for how to adapt to the new circumstances. On November 10, a JoongAng Ilbo writer perceived the Trump administration’s foreign policy as keeping the United States as a maritime power, leaving the competition for continental power to Russia and China. The approach puts South Korea in the dilemma of choosing between maritime and continental power. The author sees two possibilities. In one scenario, Kim Jong-un is afraid of Trump—whom he may perceive as a reckless leader—and seeks a modus vivendi with Seoul. In the other scenario, Kim keeps up his current provocations. If either scenario be the case, the author insists that South Korea sign the GSOMIA with Japan to make itself a part of a maritime coalition along with the United States and Japan. The author asserts that Beijing, obsessed with sinocentrism, cannot be trusted. Xi Jinping’s China can be an economic partner but not a strategic partner. The North Korean nuclear threat is deadly critical for South Korea, but China is not sincere about deterring North Korean provocations, and Russia only talks. Obama’s interest has moved to the Middle East. If Trump pursues only maritime power, the author urges the ROK government to minimize its participation in the One Belt, One Road initiative and the Eurasia Initiative to instead bandwagon with the United States and Japan. South Korea would need to make a clear choice under these stark conditions rather than pursuing a more diversified diplomacy.

On the same day, Kim Taehyo wrote in Chosun Ilbo, comparing Trump’s foreign policy to the concept of “offshore balancing” suggested by Mearsheimer and Walt. The concept says that the world will still be safe even if the United States leaves Europe and the Middle East. In the vacuum created by NATO, European security would be assured by Great Britain, France, and Germany, and the Middle East would be free from extreme terrorism as strong anti-American sentiment decreases. However, East Asia needs to be engaged and its alliances need to remain intact to prevent China from abruptly changing the regional order. Kim argues that Trump’s perception is in line with this argument. For the president-elect, deteriorating human rights or democracy in other regions is irrelevant to US national interests as long as US resources can be put into rebuilding at home. He would abandon the history of US diplomacy oriented toward both values and power. Given that history, however, Kim argues that offshore balancing, as Trump’s foreign policy idea, is not likely to materialize. Regarding North Korea, the president-elect needs to figure out the nature of its regime and the hidden meaning of its foreign policy. While everything is uncertain about how the Trump administration will proceed, Kim argues that South Korea needs to lead the discussion.

On November 26, a Chosun Ilbo columnist rang the alarm against optimism over the bilateral relationship. The author suggested that Korean politicians and government officials prepare for the worst. During the campaign, Trump revealed his perception of South Korea—a rich country that does not pay a fair amount for its own defense and whose FTA with the United States turned out to be disastrous. Though some argue that president-elect Trump is different from candidate Trump, the author highlighted that the essence of the Trump administration will be “change,” as was insistently repeated during the campaign. The author warns that the status quo would be difficult in the Trump administration, and it is prudent to prepare for the worst.

The Aftermath of North Korea’s Fifth Nuclear Test

After South Korea and the United States agreed to create the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG), an October 21 DongA Ilbo article appreciated the move as it laid down a framework to keep discussing extended deterrence with the incoming administration in Washington. However, a Chosun Ilbo article was critical of the move. The author admitted that it would be helpful to deter further provocations to some extent, but argued that there are already enough consultation groups and committees. While Seoul and Washington have repeatedly been fine-tuning their consultative process, Pyongyang has conducted five nuclear tests and fired countless missiles of different ranges. The author questions whether the new or old committees would be actually helpful when the two countries have to make time-sensitive decisions, arguing that the South Korean anxiety over extended deterrence stems from uncertainty over whether the United States would be willing to commit its nuclear umbrella if it meant risking sacrificing its own cities. The article concludes that whatever committees may be formed, national anxiety will not be resolved unless there is a 100 percent guarantee behind the US nuclear umbrella.

During the negotiations, the South Korean government suggested possible deployment of US strategic weapons around the Korean Peninsula on a regular or constant basis. It was widely discussed in major media outlets that this would have had the same impact as tactical nuclear weapons being put in place. However, the provision was not included in the final joint statement, and it was assumed that the US government would have turned down the South Korean proposal.

On October 21, a Hangyoreh article criticized the South Korean proposal to the United States as a misstep, which shows the problematic nature of the North Korea diplomacy of the ROK government. The government is blinded by its own lack of imagination, ignoring both the regional security landscape and steps toward practical resolution of the nuclear problem. Strategic weapons are supposed to target China and Russia. Constant deployment of the weapons would completely change the regional security order and worsen the North Korean nuclear issue. This is far from what Washington would desire. Calling the ROK government’s proposal and hasty announcement to the media a purely political move, the article concludes that military readiness is a necessary means to deter the North Korean nuclear threat, but it should not be the essence of North Korea diplomacy.

On October 25, a JoongAng Ilbo columnist also criticized the government over this issue. The goal of the 2+2 meeting and other existing arrangements between Seoul and Washington was to specify and systemize the US deterrence and to increase confidence in it. The mere creation of a new group does not offer any additional guarantee at all, and the hasty ROK move over strategic weapons only revealed the level of anxiety among South Korean diplomats and military officials. Quoting an anonymous source in Washington, the article says, “With even a basic understanding of US diplomacy, it is unimaginable for the United States to trap itself on the Korean Peninsula, where it already has conflicts with China over THAAD. It is like Russia deploying its missiles in Cuba.” It was also pointed out that the prospect of unofficial meetings between the United States and North Korea is being overlooked in Seoul. The author argues that neither sole dependence on the alliance nor diplomacy without dialogue can be a strategy before concluding that incapable government officials pose a bigger danger than Pyongyang’s nuclear threats.

General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA)

The Park administration pushed through GSOMIA with Japan while it was under increasing public pressure for Park’s resignation. Even some proponents of the agreement were worried about the timing, as a backlash could endanger the relationship even further. In 2012, the Lee administration overlooked public sentiment to almost close the deal in secret before the backlash against it scuttled the deal. The Park administration explained that this time “talk was resumed through official circles, and the process was transparent, unlike 2012.” But public opinion is still strongly against the deal.

On November 23, a Hangyoreh article found two things in common in the three cases of the GSOMIA, THAAD deployment, and the “comfort women” deal of last December. The three decisions all accelerated the process of bringing Korea’s alliance with the United States under the US-Japan bilateral alliance, and all of the decisions were made by Park “imperialistically.” The December agreement was to get rid of a stumbling block in order to strengthen trilateral security cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. THAAD deployment was to bring South Korea into the US global missile defense network. Finally, GSOMIA laid the legal basis for bilateral military cooperation with Japan, a clogged vein in trilateral cooperation. Given that the deal was rushed to a close and finalized in the middle of the ongoing domestic scandal, the author argued that the deal was an order from the president. The article concluded by quoting a former high-ranking foreign affairs official: “With president-elect Donald Trump in the US, the diplomatic circumstances have become uncertain. From the diplomatic perspective, it is time to be more cautious on THAAD deployment and GSOMIA.”

On November 15, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer argued that GSOMIA was not as urgent an issue as the administration insisted, while admitting the need for the deal. North Korean nuclear and missile intelligence is already shared trilaterally among South Korea, the United States, and Japan. It had been over four years since the government had stopped the prior negotiations with Tokyo over direct intelligence sharing. What is more urgent is to consider GSOMIA in the context of the changing security landscape with the new US leadership and to build domestic consensus on the first military agreement with Japan to prevent unnecessary conflicts. However, neither was done. The author criticized Park for playing politics to pursue a breakthrough on national security in the midst of domestic turmoil.

On October 28, a DongA Ilbo article welcomed the resumption of the GSOMIA talks with Japan. The author appreciated that the deal would enable direct and fast information sharing. It would enhance South Korea’s surveillance capabilities against the North and help to cross check the information among the three countries. Pointing out that Seoul has such agreements with 32 countries, including Russia, the author underlines that cooperation with Japan is inevitable in the face of the imminent North Korean nuclear threat. But the author urged the government to keep the negotiations process transparent and be extremely cautious on wording, as the partner is Japan, in order to prevent unnecessary misunderstandings. On November 15, another article insisted that the deal showed that the momentum to resolve foreign affairs problems has not weakened amidst domestic chaos, but the author reiterated that the government and opposition parties need to exert themselves for the public not to be bogged down by anti-Japanese sentiment.

On November 22, another writer appreciated Defense Minister Han for his decisiveness on the deal. Han had said “it was the most needed work to be done even when it makes me step down.” The author explained that Japanese information collection and maritime operation capabilities are not compatible with South Korea’s. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces have absolute superiority in defense capabilities, such as wiring. Given Seoul’s vulnerability in detecting and deterring North Korea’s SLBM and submarines, it is a huge benefit to exchange maritime information. It is mutually beneficial as Seoul has a high level of skill in analysis and experience based on human intelligence and defectors’ revelations. With the high uncertainty presented by the incoming Trump administration, GSOMIA will add a complementary mechanism to the bilateral alliance with Washington.