Country Report: South Korea (November 2017)

From September to November of 2017, South Korean news editorials discussed Trump and Moon’s UN speeches and the growing dissonance in their approaches toward North Korea. They also covered bilateral dynamics, emphasizing US-North Korea relations, US-South Korea economic relations, and China-South Korea détente over THAAD. Lastly, South Korean media traced Trump’s visit to Asia, in particular his summits with Moon and Xi, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Vietnam, focusing on the Moon-Xi summit.

Trump’s UN Speech

On September 19, Trump gave his first major speech at the UN General Assembly. Calling North Korea a “rogue regime,” he stated, “the United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He also derided Kim Jong-un by referring to him as “Rocket Man,” a nickname Trump devised on Twitter only a week earlier.

Progressive coverage likened Trump to a “thug,” highlighting his incendiary rhetoric and tone. A Kyunghyang article on September 20 observes, in fact, that Trump’s statement was not only inappropriate, but counterproductive. It merely serves to aggravate tension while failing to provide any concrete solutions. Moreover, threats on the floor of the UN General Assembly are different from those casually thrown on Twitter, as they directly address leaders of 190-some countries. Trump disrespected the UN—an institution created to preserve peace—by using it as a theater to instill fear and provoke war. Kyunghyang further claims that Trump deliberately used inflammatory words to divert attention from the rising discontent at home and consolidate his domestic support base.

A Hankyoreh article on September 20 relates Trump’s speech to former President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002, recalling the way Trump labelled North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela as “rogue regimes.” At the same time, the article makes a crucial distinction that Bush was addressing a domestic audience, whereas Trump was facing an international one; that the leader of the world’s greatest power explicitly threatened fellow delegates at the UN General Assembly is both unprecedented and disturbing. Additionally, Hankyoreh states that Trump is holding hostage 25 million ordinary North Korean citizens by threatening to “totally destroy” the country, and urges Moon to make clear his position that no war is acceptable on the Korean peninsula.

In contrast, conservative coverage assessed Trump’s aggressiveness in a generally positive light. A Dong-a article on September 21 claims that Trump’s speech represented his “principled realism” and will to protect US allies. The article also discusses Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ statement a day after the speech, in which he subtly contradicts Trump by expressing hope for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean problem. The mixed signal, Dong-a argues, is calculated by the Trump administration. The article recalls a similar incident in May when, during his visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump harshly criticized Iran—just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the phone with his Iranian counterpart. Dong-a interprets Trump’s speech at the UN as a diplomatic maneuver, aimed at maximizing national interest.

A Kookmin article on September 20 shares Dong-a’s assessment, but worries that Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy is being undermined by a lack of coordination and trust between the Trump and Moon administrations. Kookmin argues that Moon cannot simply talk about peace and dialogue; rather, he must demonstrate his willingness to do everything to prevent another war in Korea—including measures that are coercive. The article calls for a deeper engagement between the two governments—in particular on military options—to prepare for a worst-case scenario, even as they work toward an eventual dialogue. A weaker party only acquiesces in a negotiation, and no South Korean will accept this fate.

Similarly, a Seoul Shinmun article on September 21 depicts Trump’s speech as “realistic”—intended to project power—but warns that this realism may one day threaten the viability of the US-South Korean alliance. Trump’s speech emphasized the sovereignty of each nation, a principle embedded in his “America First” policy, and reflected his priorities: tangible gains over ideology, values, and other imperceptible pursuits. While today, Trump’s realism compels the United States to pressure North Korea over its nuclear arsenal, it may prompt the United States to abandon South Korea when the alliance proves too costly or unequal, benefitting the latter disproportionately. Moreover, Seoul Shinmun suspects that Trump might be increasingly tempted to follow a “madman strategy,” in which he reciprocates Kim Jong-un’s illogic with more senselessness. This may lead to an accidental war on the Korean peninsula, a scenario which the Moon government must prevent at all costs.

Moon’s UN Speech

On September 21, one day after Trump warned North Korea of total destruction, Moon delivered his speech at the UN General Assembly. To juxtapose Trump’s hawkish rhetoric, Moon reaffirmed that he does not desire the North’s collapse, nor will he “seek reunification by absorption or artificial means.” In addition, he stated, “If North Korea makes a decision even now to stand on the right side of history, we are ready to assist North Korea together with the international community.”

Progressive coverage saw Moon’s message of peace and dialogue as timely and balanced. A Hankyoreh article on September 22 contrasts the constructiveness of Moon’s speech to the destructiveness of Trump’s. Moon mentioned the word “peace” thirty times throughout his speech, and professed, in a deeply personal manner, that achieving peace on the Korean peninsula is his life-long purpose. Even when he evaluated positively the international community’s resolve behind sanctions against the North, he emphasized that those pressure tactics must serve the ultimate objective of dialogue. Further, Moon stressed the importance of multilateralism and the role of the international community, diverging from Trump’s emphasis on state sovereignty and “America First” doctrine. While approving of Moon’s call for peace, Hankyoreh acknowledges that he now faces an uphill battle to bridge the differences with Trump.

Conservative coverage was more critical of Moon’s speech. A Chosun article on September 22 derides Moon’s appeal to North Korea to send its athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang and his proposal that the two Koreas form a joint cheering squad. The article sarcastically asks: “will nukes disappear if both Koreas join hands in cheering?” Chosun also criticizes Moon’s decision to send $8 million in humanitarian aid to North Korea, arguing that the decision was ill-timed and based on inadequate deliberation. Saegyeon September 22 echoes this view, claiming that the gesture signals a discord within the US-South Korea-Japan cooperative framework. Moon’s speech and his humanitarian initiative fail to correspond with Trump and Abe’s position on North Korea. Abe had been certain in his speech: “Now is not the time for dialogue. Now is the time to apply pressure.”

Other conservative outlets were more sympathetic with Moon’s ambitions, but pessimistic about their prospects. A Joongang article on September 22 portrays Moon’s speech as balanced, recounting how he acknowledged a need for sanctions even as he emphasized the objective of peace. The article attributes this to Trump’s bellicose speech a day prior, arguing that Moon would have made a far more conciliatory appeal to both the international community and North Korea if he reckoned it would not jeopardize his relations with Trump. Given the precarious situation, Joongang asserts that Moon must reconsider whether it is the right time to send humanitarian aid to the North. Following a similar line of reasoning, a Dong-a article on September 22 concludes that any unilateral effort by Moon to appease the North will be viewed with suspicion by the Trump administration, to the detriment of the US-South Korea alliance.

US-North Korea Relations

US-North Korea relations worsened rapidly over the rhetorical contest of their leaders. On September 21, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho delivered his speech at the UN General Assembly. In response to Trump’s bellicose speech, Ri retorted that Trump is a “mentally deranged person,” the only one that is “on a suicide mission,” making North Korean “rocket’s visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable.” On the same day, Trump announced new sanctions against North Korea, adding fuel to the fire.

Progressive coverage expressed concern that the competition between Trump and Kim Jong-un will undercut Moon’s effort toward peace. A Kyunghyang article on September 22 cites in particular Kim Jong-un’s official response to Trump’s speech; Kim claimed it was a “declaration of war,” the consequences of which the United States must fully suffer. Kyunghyang argues that such a direct response by the North’s leader is unprecedented, and may signal an impending provocation—potentially in the form of a nuclear test in the Pacific Ocean as Ri suggested in his speech. Given the unpredictability of Trump and Kim—and the risk of accidental war that is not trivial—the article asserts that Moon must seek concrete measures toward forging peace. Kyunghyang recalls, however, that such measures do not include arms procurement and development, which was the main topic of discussion during the previous Trump-Moon summit.  

While concerned about the situation, conservative coverage emphasized the importance of US-Japan-South Korea coordination in containing the North’s threat. A Dong-a article on September 23 sees the deteriorating US-North Korea relations in binary terms—resulting in either war or dialogue—and asserts that the trilateral cooperation is imperative in either scenario. However, despite the appearance of teamwork—as demonstrated by the latest summit of Trump, Abe, and Moon during the UN General Assembly—the article claims that Moon is increasingly isolated due to his varied and inconsistent approaches to the North. In fact, during the trilateral meeting, Abe asked Moon whether it is the right time to offer humanitarian aid to North Korea, hinting at his objection. Dong-a concludes that Moon must commit to the alliance unequivocally, especially as the dangers of war loom near.   

More neutral outlets focused on the significance of US secondary sanctions, which Trump announced on the same day as Ri’s speech at the UN. According to Hankook on September 22, Trump’s new executive order empowers the US treasury to penalize firms and financial institutions conducting business with the North, and is essentially a warning against China and Russia, which have consistently undermined sanctions efforts at the UN Security Council. The article states that China’s central bank ordered the Chinese banks to immediately stop doing business with North Korea. It also cites US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s claim that the latest sanctions are “a result of dialogue” with the head of the Chinese central bank. The article observes that international sanctions efforts have entered a new phase of cooperation.

US-South Korea Economic Relations

On October 4, during the second special session of the KORUS FTA Joint Committee in Washington, the United States and South Korea agreed to revise the terms of their bilateral FTA. Immediately following its conclusion, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-chong said, “[Trump’s] threat of withdrawing from the agreement is real and imminent. I don’t think that he’s bluffing.” Discussions over the specific terms of revision are expected to commence early next year. 

Progressive coverage saw the recent agreement as a major defeat for South Korea. A Kyunghyang article on October 8 recalls South Korea’s earlier proposal to the United States that they jointly conduct an economic analysis of the effects of the KORUS FTA before committing to its revision. That the Moon administration agreed to revise the FTA suggests that it conceded to US demands, in the face of Trump’s “madman strategy” and repeated threats of unilateral withdrawal. Defying the Moon government’s initial conviction that “there is nothing to worry as we have many different cards at our disposal,” Trump’s “America First” trade policy is proving to pose nontrivial challenges. In fact, Kyunghyang construes the recent development as reflecting the transactional nature of US-South Korea relations under the Trump administration. The article warns the Moon administration against the naïve belief that the United States will act sympathetically even when its interests do not align with South Korea’s.

In addition, a Hankyoreh article on October 8 asserts that US pressure on commercial relations is unjustified and petty. On automobiles and steel, for instance, both countries abolished tariffs; the latter, in fact, enjoyed tariff-free trade since 2004, even before the conclusion of the KORUS FTA. The article argues that the trade deficits from which the United States supposedly suffers are more likely to be caused by the lack of US companies’ competitiveness including in terms of prices, rather than unequal commercial relations with South Korea. Hankyoreh also postulates that the United States might be using the North Korean nuclear threat as an opportunity to bully South Korea into accepting steep losses in its trade relations with the United States—a maneuver that the article characterizes as contemptible. Rather than aiming to “protect” the status quo, Hankyoreh urges the Moon administration to aggressively renegotiate areas of its interest—such as intellectual property, travel service industry, and the investor state dispute (ISD) settlement clause—and bring home greater benefits.

Conservative coverage broadly echoed assessments by the progressive outlets. A Joongang article on October 9 evaluates potential damage that a revised FTA might impose on South Korea. Given that the United States currently levies a 2.5 percent tariff on imported automobiles from Japan and Europe, tariff duties at similar rates might be reintroduced against South Korean automobiles. According to the Korea Economic Research Institute, this could cost South Korean exporters up to $17 billion over the next five years, and cause 154,000 workers to lose their jobs. On the other hand, the United States might demand the same tariff abolishment in the agricultural sector, including rice and beef, as a price for keeping tariff-free trade in the automobile industry. In either case, South Korea anticipates significant challenges in protecting its economic interests under the KORUS FTA.

Growing friction in the US-South Korea economic relations is compounded by the recent ruling of the US International Trade Commission (ITC), which determined on October 5 that South Korean exporters Samsung and LG were “dumping” washing machines in the United States to the detriment of its domestic manufacturers, including the claimant Whirlpool. According to a Dong-a article on October 9, once the ITC recommends remedies, Trump will need to decide on the extent of trade barriers against the South Korean companies within 60 days. The case poses a dilemma for Trump and his “America First” trade policy: On the one hand, imposing “global safeguards” restrictions in favor of US companies represents an obvious way to protect American manufacturers. On the other, doing so will be to punish foreign companies that have created manufacturing jobs in the United States, potentially discouraging them from investing in the future. Given the uncertainty, Dong-a urges the Moon administration to appeal to Trump on two specific points: 1) the value of South Korean companies in terms of job creation in the United States; and 2) the right of US consumers to access cheaper goods.

China-South Korea Détente over THAAD

On October 31, China and South Korea announced their commitment to improving bilateral relations. The joint statement affirmed, “The two sides agreed to engage in communication on THAAD-related issues about which the Chinese side is concerned through communication between their military authorities.”

Progressive coverage saw the recent rapprochement as a constructive way to acknowledge differences and repair bilateral relations. A Hankyoreh article on October 31 notes South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa’s “three no’s”: 1) no to deploying additional THAAD units; 2) no to joining the US missile defense system; and 3) no to enhancing US-Japan-South Korea security cooperation into a trilateral military alliance. Hankyoreh portrays both Kang’s initiative and China’s acceptance of that initiative as “practical”: South Korea gets to keep the existing THAAD launchers to defend against potential North Korean aggression, and China receives assurances that South Korea will not participate in US attempts to encircle China. The article expects the latest détente to help rebuild trust between China and South Korea, and allow them to escape the insoluble dynamics of US-China strategic competition and North Korean nuclear threat.

A Kyunghyang article on October 31 is less optimistic about the implications of the rapprochement. Even as the article finds that there is an alignment of strategic understanding between China and South Korea, it emphasizes that the latest agreement merely delays resolving the THAAD issue. Further, Kyunghyang stresses that Kang’s third “no” precluding a US-Japan-South Korea military alliance may collide with Washington’s wishes, and undermine ongoing trilateral security cooperation. Lastly, in order for the latest détente to have meaningful and lasting effect on bilateral relations, Kyunghyang concludes that the two countries will have to identify and implement concrete steps, including measures to improve public opinion on each other.

Conservative coverage criticized the joint statement as overly accommodating Chinese needs. A Kookmin article on October 31 describes Kang’s “three no’s” as “short-sighted”: Without knowing what kind of North Korean provocation is under way, making such promises is simply imprudent. The article also condemns China for failing to apologize for its retaliation over THAAD; there was no mention of compensation for the losses accrued by South Korea, or of promises not to reoffend. Kookmin argues that any combination of such gestures would have been appropriate given the substantial damage Chinese retaliation had caused the South Korean economy, and the negative South Korean public reception of China as a result. The article underlines that the THAAD issue is as yet unresolved, and additional stages of retaliation may follow. Taking steady steps toward building trust is important and urgent.

Other conservative outlets portrayed South Korea as the decisive loser in its recent diplomatic bargain with China. According to a Dong-a article on November 1, some suggest that Kang’s “three no’s” represent South Korea’s “abandonment of sovereignty over its own security matters.” Likewise, Chosunon November 11 observes that Kang gave China everything it wanted: on THAAD, US missile defense systems, and US-Japan-South Korea security cooperation. Chosun, in fact, argues that China’s blatant attempts to interfere with South Korea’s defense policy may be a more serious threat than one posed by North Korean nuclear development. The article urges the Moon government to defend its autonomy and interests against an increasingly assertive China.

Trump-Moon Summit

From November 3 to 14, Trump visited Asia. Following his two-day stay in Japan, he arrived in South Korea on November 7. Moon made a surprise visit to Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek to welcome the US leader. During their talks, they discussed North Korea, bilateral trade, and weapons purchases.

Progressive coverage expressed concerns about Trump and Moon’s existing differences on North Korea, despite conceding that Trump helped calm fears about “Korea passing” and a weakening alliance. A Kyunghyang article on November 7 states that the two leaders agreed to a principle of peaceful resolution on the Korean peninsula, but observes that they did not identify specific steps toward that end. In fact, the article suspects that military options are still under consideration. Moreover, even as Trump reaffirmed that South Korea is a “friend,” and that “there will be no skipping Korea,” he made little effort to engage with Moon on substantive issues surrounding North Korea. The article sees this as potentially reflecting Trump’s view that answers to the North Korean problem must be worked out with China, not South Korea. Fears of “Korea passing” within the progressive circles remain real.

A Hankyoreh article on November 7 is even more pessimistic about Trump’s intentions. On weapons trade, Trump stressed that his main objective is to “create jobs in the United States,” insinuating his preoccupation with domestic opinion. While the article admits that acquiring additional strategic assets is important for strengthening South Korea’s independent military capabilities, it warns Moon against dealing with the United States simply for purposes of “reinforcing alliance commitment.” In addition, Hankyoreh anticipates a taxing negotiation over defense burden-sharing, citing Trump’s dispassionate assertion that South Korea’s investment on outfitting Camp Humphreys is “to protect South Korea, not the United States.”

Conservative coverage widely celebrated Trump’s visit to South Korea. A Chosun article on November 8 elaborates on this assessment. First, Trump’s visit was accompanied by a dispatch of three US aircraft carriers and nuclear-powered submarines in nearby waters, which sent a strong message to North Korea. Second, Trump directly addressed growing fears in South Korea of being sidestepped, by reaffirming that “there will be no skipping South Korea.” Lastly, contrary to earlier expectations that Trump would harshly complain about trade issues, he merely expressed hope that the bilateral trade agreement would be revised in a mutually constructive manner. In fact, he even thanked South Korea for agreeing to its revision—a tact seldom anticipated of Trump.

Yet, the article raises certain reservations about the implications of Trump’s visit. First, the talks between Trump and Moon only lasted 55 minutes; given time needed for translation, it means they actually spoke for approximately half an hour—too short a conversation to resolve any major issues. Second, Trump’s boastful claims that South Korean purchases of US military equipment “means jobs [for the United States]” may diminish the significance of bilateral military cooperation into a deal of a strictly commercial nature. Despite these qualms, Chosun concludes that “Trump’s first visit to South Korea should serve as a benchmark” for reinforcing the bilateral alliance.      

Trump-Xi Summit

Following his visit to South Korea, Trump arrived in Beijing on November 8. In what was billed as a “state visit-plus,” he was welcomed with an elaborate ceremony, for which he thanked Xi generously over Twitter. During the two leaders’ summit the next day, they discussed various issues including North Korea, trade imbalances, and US-China relations. Given his campaign rhetoric, many expected Trump to adopt an aggressive stance on trade. Yet, Trump remarked: “I don’t blame China, I blame the incompetence of past admins for allowing China to take advantage of the US on trade leading up to a point where the US is losing $100’s of billions. How can you blame China for taking advantage of people that had no clue? I would’ve done same!”

Progressive coverage claimed that both Trump and Xi focused on pursuing common objectives rather than revealing their apparent differences. A Kyunghyang article on November 9 attributes Trump’s balanced attitude toward Xi to business deals he reached in China, totaling $253.5 billion. As a pro-business president, Trump may have seen them as an appropriate compensation for the lack of Chinese commitment to sanctions against North Korea. Realizing that there is a limit to how far China would cooperate, Trump may have resigned himself to extracting concessions in other areas. Kyunghyang urges Trump to review his North Korea strategy, arguing that the North Korean problem cannot be resolved by simply relying on China or consolidating the US-Japan-South Korea sanctions regime. Combining dialogue and pressure is necessary.

Conservative coverage was more worried about the Trump-Xi summit. A Joongang article on November 10 asserts that their joint statement failed to deliver a strong message to North Korea, and that there was no consensus—or “big deal”—between the two leaders on how to realize denuclearization on the Korean peninsula and protect the non-proliferation regime. While Trump softened his stance on sanctions, Xi maintained his position on dialogue and instead presented Trump with business deals worth $250 billion. This peace offering satisfies Trump’s desire to correct US-China trade imbalances, and also distracts him from focusing on the North Korean issue. Joongang reminds readers that both leaders will ultimately need to face and eliminate the North Korean nuclear threat before it endangers the entire world—and that pressure is the only way to achieve it.  

In a more neutral coverage, a Yonhap article speculates that there were probably more differences between Trump and Xi than their joint statement suggested. Citing an interview in The New York Times with a high-ranking US official, the article claims that Trump probably demanded that Xi cut North Korea’s access to Chinese oil and financial institutions and to expel North Korean workers in China, at least temporarily. That there was no mention of such specific measures indicates that Xi declined to cooperate. While the two leaders’ real positions on North Korea may only be uncovered with time, Yonhap argues that they should inform South Korea of any subsequent agreements that might affect the Korean peninsula. As Trump promised, there should be no “Korea passing.”

Moon-Xi Summit

On November 11, Moon and Xi met on the sidelines of the APEC conference in Da Nang, Vietnam. Building on their latest détente over THAAD, the two leaders also established that they would “normalize exchanges and cooperation in all areas.” Moon is set to visit Xi again next month in Beijing, signaling a steady improvement in bilateral relations.

Progressive coverage welcomed the two leaders’ consensus on resolving the North Korean nuclear problem through peaceful means. A Hankyoreh article on November 12 focuses on the limitations of the US-South Korea alliance in pushing North Korea toward dialogue—this cannot be achieved by force alone, and requires active participation by and cooperation with China, the only country that can influence the Kim regime. At the same time, the article concedes that THAAD remains an issue of contention. Initially, during its briefing on the latest Moon-Xi summit, the Blue House did not mention Xi’s position on THAAD. However, following a Xinhua article on China’s enduring objection to THAAD, the Blue House scrambled to explain.  Hankyoreh advises the Moon administration against giving an impression that it is hiding the differences of opinion between South Korea and China. Everybody already knows them, and the real challenge is how to overcome—not ignore—them.

Conservative coverage criticizes Moon for promising Xi too much, to the point of jeopardizing the US-South Korea alliance. A Chosun article on November 13 highlights the discrepancies in South Korean and Chinese coverage of the summit: While the former emphasized their agreement to normalize relations, the latter focused on South Korea’s responsibility to keep its promises, referring to Kang’s “three no’s.” The article suggests that those promises were both unnecessary and damaging to South Korean sovereignty; they will challenge Moon whenever he attempts to make independent defense choices for South Korea. In addition, Moon pledged to actively contribute to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, while declining to partake in Trump and Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. These decisions seem to contradict Moon’s earlier claim that South Korea’s “balanced diplomacy” is not about its “stance vis-à-vis the United States and China.” Chosun concludes that Moon cannot continue to make such ambitious promises to Trump and Xi—this will ultimately lead to being condemned by both for failing to deliver.