Country Report: South Korea (November 2019)

Through the fall, Seoul’s relationship with Tokyo has been at its nadir, but relations with both Pyongyang and Washington have also been deeply troubled. While conservative and progressive articles and commentators have differed in their recommendations, neither found much basis for hope. Under pressure, concessions have been made and perceived as responses to desperation. Fear persisted: of a breakdown in US-North Korean diplomacy leading back to “fire and fury”; of the refusal of Kim Jong-un to countenance further diplomacy with Moon Jae-in, symbolized in threatened destruction of the tourist center South Koreans had built in the North; and of US troop pullbacks if burden-sharing was not massively increased. Korean images of Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump, and Abe Shinzo kept deteriorating with scant prospect that any would improve.

Throughout October and November, pressure to reverse the suspension of the intelligence-sharing agreement between Seoul and Tokyo, also known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), could be felt in Seoul. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon’s visit to Japan, attending Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony, was Seoul’s attempt to ease the heightened tension, but the meeting following the ceremony between Lee and his counterpart, Abe Shinzo, bore no fruit. Later in early November, President Moon Jae-in met with Abe on the sidelines of the ASEAN+3 summit in Bangkok, but the brief meeting was not enough to bring a change in Japan’s stance. Meanwhile, North Korea’s provocations continued, including its launch of a Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which six European Union members of the United Nations Security Council jointly condemned with “deep collective concerns” and claimed was a “clear violation of the Security Council resolutions.” Working-level negotiations between the US and North Korea took place in Sweden but collapsed, while Pyongyang continuously pressed Washington to come to the negotiating table with better terms by the end of the year. In the midst of foreign policy struggles, the US-ROK alliance was heavily challenged over the defense cost-sharing negotiations and the potential withdrawal of the US troops in Korea. The Moon administration ended up keeping the intelligence pact with Japan, under pressure by the US, and postponed the US-ROK joint military exercises again to make room for diplomacy with Pyongyang. Regardless, North Korea responded with missile-firing drills, an act that breached the inter-Korean Comprehensive Military Agreement signed last year.

Pyongyang’s SLBM launch and the failed US-DPRK working-level talks

Despite North Korea’s SLBM launch on October 2, which posed a greater threat especially to the US than its previous missile launches, the first working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang since the failed summit in Hanoi finally kicked off on October 5 in Stockholm. However, North Korean envoy Kim Myong-gil left the room with his delegation that afternoon and released a statement a few hours later, announcing the collapse of the negotiations, charging that the meeting broke down “entirely due to the US’ failure to abandon its outdated viewpoint and attitude.” He added that the US “have disappointed us [North Korea] greatly and dampened our enthusiasm for negotiation by bringing nothing to the negotiation table.” But a spokesperson of the US State Department claimed, “The US brought creative ideas and had good discussions with its DPRK counterparts,” asserting that they accepted a Swedish offer to continue the nuclear talks in two weeks, whereas it was clear, North Korea had not accepted the proposed time frame.

Conservative editorials, above all, blasted North Korea for its SLBM launch ahead of the working-level talks, which could have derailed the dialogue. Chosun wrote on October 3 that North Korea is a state that has staked its regime on making a deal with the US; given that Pyongyang has taken particular care of its relations with Washington by buttering up President Donald Trump with beautiful letters. Its SLBM launch less than 24 hours after announcing that it would resume talks means that the action was based on meticulous calculations, not crossing but touching the red line Trump had drawn: only excluding intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). According to Chosun, as Trump has tolerated Kim Jong-un’s numerous provocations with changes in firing locations and projectiles, Kim was assured that Trump would not take any military action against Pyongyang; the fact that the US president, hungry for a Nobel Peace Prize, has an election coming up but no foreign policy victories, gave Kim reason to take this moveJoongang  wrote in a similar tone that the SLBM threat was about pressuring the US ahead of the working-level talks; Pyongyang can leave the table anytime if Washington fails to offer a “new method of calculation”—an effort to boost its negotiating power vis-a-vis the US.

The following failure of the working-level talks between the US and North Korea aggravated concerns, especially among conservatives in Seoul. Joongang wrote on October 7 that Pyongyang reportedly asked for the lifting of five key sanctions imposed by the Security Council and the cessation of US-ROK military exercises, while the US only agreed to a partial lifting of sanctions on coal and petroleum with the condition that Pyongyang gives up its Yongbyon nuclear facility and more, “Yongbyon plus alpha.” The editorial claimed that the current US political situation regarding impeachment and the coming presidential election would leave little room for the North Korean nuclear issue in Washington; if Kim, leveraging American domestic politics, pressures Trump, the US president might take military action, going back to his “fire and fury” comments from 2017. Joongang lastly insisted that both sides should go back to the basics and first, comprehensively agree on the definition of denuclearization and a road map for a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization (CVID) of North Korea; if Trump accepts a phased approach to Pyongyang’s denuclearization, which falls way short of the CVID goal, the phased deal would come under fire by both the opposition and media and become null and void.

Progressive editorials showed disappointment over the breakdown of talks after seven months of impasse but were relatively optimistic about their resumption in the near future. Hankyoreh on October 6 asserted, although the collapse is not a positive sign, it is fortunate that the two sides have not completely abandoned the chance of dialogue as North Korea said it can discuss additional denuclearization measures only if Washington sincerely responds to the previous ones taken, which showed its intention to keep the talks goingKyunghyang pointed out the opposing reaction to the meeting from each side: the US claimed that “good discussions” took place whereas North Korea insisted, “Washington didn’t offer new calculation methods as we demanded.” Considering what Washington said in a statement – the US delegation previewed a number of new initiatives that would allow them to make progress in each of the four pillars of the Singapore joint statement – Washington’s shift in attitude from the Hanoi summit was not enough to meet Pyongyang’s expectations, Kyunghyang inferred. But Kyunghyang chimed in with Hankyoreh, agreeing that it is too early to be discouraged and argued that the nuclear talks should resume as soon as possible.

Kim orders removal of South Korean Mt. Geumgang facilities

On October 23, the North Korean state-run paper, Rodong Sinmun, wrote that Kim “called for removing all the unpleasant-looking facilities of the south side with an agreement with the relevant unit of the south side” of Mount Geumgang. According to the paper, Kim highly criticized Pyongyang’s “dependent policy” and added that the present view, which sees Mount Geumgang as a common property of the two Koreas and a symbol of north-south ties and that tours of Mount Geumgang would not be possible without the development of inter-Korean relations, is “certainly a mistaken idea and a misguided understanding.” North Korea insisted two days later that the South discuss the matter, and, according to the Unification Ministry of South Korea, demanded: 1) Seoul to come and clear out its facility on an agreed date; and 2) further working-level discussions should be done via exchanging documents. The ministry said that the issue deserves a meeting and added, “There needs to be sufficient consultations to reasonably resolve the issue since a unilateral step regarding our companies’ property rights runs counter to public sentiment and may damage inter-Korean relations.” Despite Seoul’s proposal for a meeting, Pyongyang gave its final notice on November 11 that it will unilaterally remove the facilities unless Seoul clears them out, raising the tension between the two sides.

Conservative editorials condemned Pyongyang for threatening Seoul while holding the South Korean-built facilities hostage. Donga wrote on October 24 that it is North Korea playing a game of brinkmanship, putting the blame on the US and South Korea as any sanctions relief is still far-off and its relations with Washington are stalled. The editorial denounced the communist state, laying responsibility for the suspension of Mt. Geumgang tours on the North after it killed a South Korean tourist in 2008; Pyongyang made the resumption of tourism more difficult owing to the May 24 measures that South Korea imposed on the North after the sinking of the Cheonan warship in 2010, which Seoul’s investigation had finally affirmed was triggered by a North Korean torpedo. Donga claimed that Pyongyang ascribing the suspension of Mt. Geumgang tourism to Seoul, without any apologies it owes, is a shameless sophistry. The editorial also criticized the Moon administration for its self-abasing style of diplomacy and urged Seoul to give a strong warning that if the facilities are damaged, Pyongyang will be held accountable.

Munhwaalso wrote on October 23, listing reasons why Kim’s order is very troubling; given that Hyundai Asan, which signed an exclusive contract with the Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee in 2002 to develop the Mt. Geumgang Tourist Zone for 50 years, had spent $480 million (530 billion won) for business rights and invested approximately 220 billion won on the Mt. Geumgang Hotel and more. North Korea had even adopted a law on the Mt. Geumgang Tourist Zone, but it is now arbitrarily declaring that it will confiscate and get rid of the facilities. The editorial added that what Kim demands is clearly reversing both the Panmunjom Declaration and Pyongyang Joint Declaration, using the negotiations on the Mt. Geumgang facilities as a way to pressure Moon. Munhwa lastly urged the Moon administration to put utmost effort into protecting the property rights of the South Korean people and businesses and consider all means possible, including unilateral sanctions and international litigation against the North, if necessary.

Progressive Hankyoreh published a series of editorials on the issue, claiming that Kim must retract his order to remove the facilities. According to Hankyorehon October 23, Kim’s demand seems to be a show of dissatisfaction over the stalled process of reopening the Mt. Geumgang tours, to which the two Koreas agreed last year; although Pyongyang has pressed Seoul to relaunch the tourism business several times to little effect, Kim made a tendentious decision this time to tear the facilities down. After North Korea rejected Seoul’s proposal for a meeting on October 29, Hankyoreh released another editorial the next day that North Korea must come to the table for dialogue and the South, leaving the possibility of an inter-Korean meeting open, should devise creative ways to reach a breakthrough, including high-level talks or sending an envoy to Pyongyang. Kyunghyangalso wrote on October 28 that this opportunity to sit down and talk about the issue – which may include not only the Mt. Geumgang tours but also reuniting separated families, an exchange of culture and even individual tours that do not violate the UN sanctions – would either be a turning point to do away with Pyongyang’s distrust of the Moon administration or the beginning of a long-term severance of relations between the two Koreas.  

Seoul deports two North Korean fishermen accused of murder

On November 7, the Unification Ministry spokesperson said at a briefing that Seoul has deported two North Korean fishermen who were accused of killing 16 fellow crewmen, marking the first time Seoul has ever sent defectors back to Pyongyang through Panmunjom. In response to a harsh backlash at home and abroad against the deportation because it was done against their will and a violation of both domestic and international law, the spokesperson said, “The two North Koreans who were deported were not eligible for protection under the ‘North Korean Refugees Protection and Settlement Support Act’ as they are offenders of nonpolitical and serious crimes, including murder.” He added, “It was the government’s judgment that the two were a possible threat to the lives and safety of our citizens, and that the two cannot be recognized as refugees under international law as they have committed heinous crimes.” A total of 19 North Korean human rights organizations in Seoul and Washington issued statements condemning the South Korean government, saying that the two deportees would almost certainly face harsh punishment, such as torture or execution, back in North Korea, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also expressed similar concerns. Meanwhile, Seoul refused to co-sponsor a North Korea human rights resolution for the first time since 2008, adding fuel to the fire over Moon’s neglect of North Korean human rights issues. 

Conservative papers denounced the Moon administration and strongly demanded a thorough investigation of the case. Joongang wrote on November 15 that the decision to send the deportees back to Pyongyang is a serious crime, breaching the fundamental values of the Constitution and the UN’s Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The editorial challenged Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chu’s remarks at the National Assembly that the defectors had wished to go back to the North despite the risk of their own death, arguing that: 1) one Unification Ministry official said that the deportees actually wrote a letter of intent to defect to South Korea; and 2) South Korean military authorities reported earlier that the boat, which the two fishermen steered, consistently headed South, resisting the South Korean Navy’s orders to leave. Joongang also questioned whether it is actually viable for two men to murder 16 others on a cramped wooden boat and contended that Seoul disregarded the presumption of innocence and abandoned its duty to protect the alleged assailants, who are, constitutionally speaking, our people. Chosun raised another possible claim that Seoul sacrificed the two defectors to Pyongyang so as to have the dear leader at the 2019 ASEAN-ROK Commemorative Summit to be held in Busan in late November; North Korea revealed that Moon sent an invitation letter to Kim on November 5, the same day that Seoul gave Pyongyang an official written notice that two defectors would be sent back, Chosun wrote, lending probability to the claim.

Progressive editorials, on the other hand, defended Seoul’s decision, calling it an “unavoidable choice,” and criticized the political attack by South Korea’s main opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party, against the Unification Ministry and the Moon administration. According to Kyunghyangon November 14, due to a lack of legal grounds, North Koreans cannot be judged as our people. If we allow a broad interpretation of Article 3 of the Constitution, “The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands,” North Korean residents may be considered our people, but given that North Korea is a member of the UN and acknowledged as a sovereign state in the international community, Seoul’s decision to send the defectors back should not become a question of violating domestic law. It also argued, since the alleged assailants and victims are all from North Korea and the crime took place in North Korean territory, it is practically impossible for South Korean law enforcement authorities to prosecute them in a South Korean court.

US-ROK alliance at risk

On November 15, defense ministers from the US and South Korea held the 51st US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul and promised to continue close communications and cooperation to foster the alliance but revealed different views on two pressing security issues: GSOMIA and defense cost-sharing. Especially, the persistent demand from the US, asking for five times more than the current amount South Korea has been paying for defense cost-sharing, has been frowned upon by both the left and right in Seoul. The soured relations were challenged again when the chairperson of the National Assembly Intelligence Committee, who was invited to the US ambassador’s residence, told the press that she was disconcerted as Ambassador Harry Harris repeatedly went over the “5-billion-dollar” request from Washington. The third round of talks on defense cost-sharing on November 18 was cut short by the US, and the American chief negotiator, James DeHart, said it was because Seoul “wasn’t responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden sharing.” In response to the failed talks, domestic news headlines were quickly showcasing the possibility of US troops pulling out of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s foreign ministry soon responded that the news is not true, but an on-air comment by a senior adviser to the South Korean president, Moon Chung-in, that sending 5,000 to 6,000 US soldiers back home – the number of US troops Trump can cut without prior congressional approval – would not make a huge difference in the basic framework of the US-ROK alliance nor in deterrence against North Korea, sparked concern over the unresolved issues surrounding the alliance. Meanwhile, a joint military exercise between the two states, which had been scaled down earlier, got postponed, upsetting many conservatives in Seoul.

Conservative editorials showed frustration with the unreasonable demands from Washington. Donga wrote on November 18 that drawing a plausible agreement will be difficult since the US is asking Seoul to even cover the maintenance costs on its strategic military assets that are currently deployed in Guam or Okinawa but can be sent to Korea during times of crisis. The editorial wrote that such a preposterous request, under the name of “revising and updating the Special Measures Agreement (SMA),” reportedly is attributable to Trump’s dogmatic orders; the working-level people are contriving to legitimize the amount Trump blindly called for in public. Donga commented that despite opposition from members of Congress and experts in the region, Trump seems unlikely to give up as he has less than a year until the election and is covetous of a diplomatic victory. Additionally, countries like Korea, which rely heavily on American military strength and are in an asymmetric alliance, can be pressured with harsher options he can play with, such as pulling the US troops out of the peninsula or pulling out of the alliance with Seoul.

Chosunwent a step further, claiming that Seoul should be nuclear-armed in order to share the security burden and eventually bring down the cost for the US. The editorial on November 9 suggested a way to significantly drop America’s share of defending Korea by citing a National Defense University publication, proposing that the US sign a nuclear weapons agreement with South Korea and Japan, based on the agreement with NATO, and share its nuclear arms with the two Asian allies. Chosun argued that if a nuclear weapons agreement, with the approval of the US president, allows Korean submarines or combat planes to carry American nuclear warheads, Washington’s burden would decrease. It is likely that the US will continuously ask for more, no matter who takes office, and therefore, Seoul should relieve the US of some of its security burden considering the state of US-ROK relations in the long run; given that Trump is not against the idea of a nuclear-armed South Korea or Japan, Seoul should leverage this opportunity to win a greater security benefit worth more than the increased defense cost-sharing.

Progressive editorials criticized Washington for the haphazard request, which goes beyond the SMA-prescribed boundaries and menaces its ally. Kyunghyang’s piece on November 20 titled, “undue pressure for Seoul’s greater defense expenditure can shake the foundation of the US-ROK alliance,” claimed that South Korea is already paying enough with a military budget in 2018 accounting for 2.6 percent of its GDP, higher than Germany’s 1.2 percent or Japan’s 0.9 percent. Also, Seoul was responsible for 90 percent of the construction cost of $11 billion to build the US Army garrison, Camp Humphreys, in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Furthermore, Seoul is the third largest importer of US weapons over the last decade. According to the editorial, the US considers withdrawing or reducing its troops on the peninsula as a bargaining chip, and this is where the risk lies. Hankyoreh agreed, citing what US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in response to a question about whether America plans to pull its troops out of South Korea if the cost-sharing talks fail, “I’m not going to prognosticate or speculate on what we may or may not do.” Esper’s remarks publicly showed an intention to leverage US troops when negotiating on the defense cost-sharing issue, Hankyoreh argued, denouncing the US for overstepping the bounds for money and urged it to consider what actually corresponds to its own national interests.

GSOMIA survives but the ROK-Japan spat continues

Under the pressure from Washington and blowback in Seoul, the Moon administration reversed its earlier decision in August and announced on November 22 that it would maintain its military information-sharing pact with Japan under the condition that Seoul can terminate GSOMIA at any given time. Seoul also announced that it will not push forward with the process of filing a WTO complaint against Tokyo over its export controls but only if the bilateral policy dialogue on export management goes well. As soon as the news broke out, Japanese media, especially conservative outlets, claimed Japan’s “perfect victory,” by referring to high-ranking government officials, including Abe, who commented, “Japan made no concessions to South Korea.” The Blue House, caught off guard by Tokyo’s reaction, filed a formal complaint and consequently, earned an apology from the Japanese foreign ministry for making a distorted announcement on Korea’s conditional halt to terminating GSOMIA, said Chung Eui-yong, Seoul’s national security council director. But Yomiuri Shimbun quoted an anonymous Japanese foreign ministry official saying that Chung’s remarks are untrue, presaging a second round of the dispute between the two countries. Meanwhile, Lee hailed a summit meeting between Moon and Abe in China next month, hoping to settle the unfinished business.

Conservative editorials lamented Seoul’s incompetent diplomacy, claiming that Seoul shot itself in the foot. Chosun wrote on November 23 that GSOMIA is not simply an agreement between Seoul and Washington but a symbol of the US-ROK-Japan security cooperation and also a “basic framework” of American Indo-Pacific strategy, which means, if South Korea did terminate the pact, it would have damaged the US-ROK alliance and, the editorial argued, this is why Seoul had to give in and rescue the deal, six hours before the deadline. It is Japan who is to blame for putting export restrictions on Seoul in response to a historical dispute, but Moon’s decision to pull out of GSOMIA to counterattack Tokyo’s measures was a failure, as the US brought South Korea to account for the broken trilateral cooperation, Chosun insisted. Another Chosun editorial on November 25 urged Moon to hold relevant foreign and security affairs officials accountable for the diplomatic failure, since the GSOMIA turmoil bruised South Korea alone and eventually failed to strike a blow at Tokyo. According to the editorial, Moon’s vow that Seoul “won’t be defeated by Japan again,” became an empty promise and the anti-Japanese struggle turned into a humiliating episode of “begging diplomacy,” gaining nothing.

Progressive editorials were focused on accusing the US of weighing in on GSOMIA, in favor of Japan. Hankyoreh’s editorial on November 6 insisted that Washington’s stance – not to meddle in the ROK-Japan dispute but raising a question over Seoul’s earlier decision to end the intelligence-sharing pact – is an approach that puts the cart in front of the horse. If the US is sincerely concerned about the termination of GSOMIA, then it should first convince Japan to withdraw its economic retaliation measures on South Korea, which drove Seoul to make that decision. The editorial criticized Washington’s maximum omnidirectional pressure on Seoul to keep the pact, and added that several domestic news reports on the GSOMIA termination, which implied that national security would face an imminent crisis as soon as the agreement became invalid, are misleading, as it was signed in November 2016 and Seoul’s national security before the pact was not in crisis.

Another piece by Hankyoreh on November 22 highlighted that Seoul “deferred” its decision to exit from the pact and that it is “conditional.” The editorial wrote that Seoul managed to elude the worst-case scenario, but the decision alone has not yet solved anything practically, and the fact that the Japanese government provided the cause of the “GSOMIA conflict” has not changed. It lastly urged Seoul to fundamentally resolve unsettled issues, including economic retaliation and compensation for forced labor, with Tokyo as soon as possible. Kyunghyang also wrote on the same day, claiming that the two sides found a middle ground, suspending Seoul’s earlier decision to end the pact, which was an unavoidable countermeasure against Tokyo’s unjustifiable trade retaliation. The decision may have left an impression that only Seoul has made a concession while Tokyo has not changed its stance. But considering that Seoul can terminate GSOMIA and push forward with its WTO complaint against Tokyo any time if the trade restrictions remain in effect, this middle ground cannot be called an “unequal exchange,” Kyunghyang argued. It added that the struggle between the US and South Korea regarding GSOMIA would dissipate as the agreement remains, but Seoul should take this as an opportunity, realize the limitations of the US-ROK alliance, and prepare for realistic diplomacy.