Country Report: South Korea (November 2020)

The fall of 2020 left South Korea in limbo. Who would win the US presidential elections? Would there be an October or post-election surprise from North Korea? How would US ties to China change after the election? Would the replacement of Abe by Suga result in new hope for the troubled ROK-Japan relationship? At the end of October there were no clear answers, but the suspense was mounting. Meanwhile, close attention was paid to three foreign settings with emphasis on linkages to South Korea: North Korea, the United States, and China in a context of triangularity with both the United States and South Korea.

The pandemic continued to provide the backdrop to foreign policy debates. On October 3, the national holiday, police mobilized around 300 buses to set up a wall in central Seoul to head off anti-government protests amid concerns over COVID-19. Around 11,000 police officers were deployed, and drivers and pedestrians were stopped and questioned about their destinations. Subways did not stop at stations near the planned protest venues.1 Two days later, Moon, during a meeting with his senior secretaries, praised police efforts. “The police also did everything possible to prevent any glitch in epidemic control. In particular, concerns were mounting over illegal rallies on National Foundation Day, but the police made thorough preparations and put airtight controls in place, so they would not trigger a resurgence of COVID-19,” Moon said.2

Conservative Chosun strongly criticized the government decision to block protests. While emphasizing the importance of preventing the spread of the virus, the editorial criticized the government for not trying to come up with a compromise between its prevention efforts and the freedom of assembly and demonstration guaranteed in the Constitution. It argued that the government should have allowed a drive-through protest.3 Progressive outlet Kyunghyang also expressed disappointment, saying that the government overreacted, and argued that the prevention efforts should not put our basic constitutional rights in danger.4 On the contrary, progressive Hankyoreh criticized the opposition party and conservative media outlets for criticizing the government’s action, which, it argued, was inevitable considering the huge risk the protests entail.5 At the same time, however, it also called for the government to find a balance between the efforts to contain COVID and the people’s basic rights.6

North Korea

Killing of a South Korean official

On September 24, the South Korean military said that North Korean troops fired at a South Korean official who was found adrift in North Korean waters and burned his body. The official, affiliated with the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, disappeared from a patrol boat for fishery guidance in waters near Yeonpyeong island on September 21. The North’s navy found the fisheries official at around 3:30 pm the next day and questioned him from a distance, before they shot and burned the corpse at around 10:11 pm, according to Seoul’s military. The Ministry of National Defense of South Korea strongly condemned the North’s “brutality” and urged it to provide an explanation and punish those responsible.7

The opposition parties criticized the timing of the defense ministry’s announcement, which was made two days after the incident had happened. The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) pointed out that the government released news of the incident to the media on September 24 even though it had full awareness of the situation two days earlier. PPP spokesperson Bae June-young suspected that the timing of the announcement was delayed due to President Moon Jae-in’s video speech for the UN General Assembly, which was relayed on September 23. During the speech, Moon touted an end-of-war declaration. Spokesperson Bae said that one cannot help but suspect that the government puts more emphasis on its proposed end-of-war declaration than on the lives of its people.8

On September 25, amid heightening public outrage over the incident, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un offered a rare apology to the South. In a notice sent by the United Front Department, a Workers’ Party organ in charge of inter-Korean relations, the North conveyed Kim’s message that he feels “very sorry” for “disappointing” President Moon and the people of the South.9

Conservative and progressive editorials criticized the government and the military authorities for failing to prevent the killing of the official. Both conservative Donga and progressive Hankyoreh pointed out that the military authorities did not take any action for about 6 hours while the official was still alive and watched by North Korean troops before he was shot to death, even though they were aware of the situation through special intelligence (SI).10 Donga further expressed concern about the fact that Moon was not aware of the incident for ten hours after his death. The editorial said the government had abdicated its foremost responsibility: protecting the lives of its people.11 Chosun strongly criticized how the government and the ruling party responded to Kim Jong-un’s apology. The editorial listed a number of remarks made by high-ranking government officials and members of the ruling party – Unification Minister Lee In-young said it was “unprecedented” for Pyongyang to use the expression “sorry” twice in one statement; ruling Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon construed the Kim’s apology as “water flowing beneath a frozen river”; Jeong Se-hyun, the executive vice chairperson of the presidential National Unification Advisory Council, said the apology is a chance to “turn an evil into a blessing” – and criticized the government for keeping “dancing to Kim’s tune.”12 Conservative Joongang also criticized the ruling party for submitting resolutions, calling for the declaration of the end of the Korean War and urging that individual tourism to North Korea be allowed, despite the murder of the civil servant by the North.13

End-of-war declaration

On September 23, Moon proposed the declaration of the end of the Korean War in his video speech for the 75th session of the UN General Assembly. Moon stressed that peace on the Korean Peninsula begins with the end-of-war declaration, and called for the support of the UN and the international community. He said that the declaration will “open the door to complete denuclearization and permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”

This is the first time that Moon mentioned the end-of-war declaration since his speech right before the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi last year. Last year, however, he said that such a declaration could be taken by Washington as a corresponding measure to Pyongyang’s denuclearization measures. In his speech at the UN General Assembly in 2018, Moon also said, “I look forward to seeing bold measures for denuclearization implemented among the related countries, leading to the declaration to end the War.” In contrast, in his speech this year, Moon suggested the declaration be a starting point for the denuclearization of North Korea.14

Conservative editorials criticized Moon’s proposal for the end-of-war declaration. Joongang expressed concern that an end-of-war declaration without any meaningful progress for denuclearization of North Korea would weaken the justification for the presence of US forces in South Korea and, as a result, endanger the country’s national security. The editorial further pointed out that it is not only naïve but “foolish” to believe that an end-of-war declaration may serve as a stepping stone to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization.15 Donga also argued that it is time for the government and the ruling party to show firm resolve to protect the lives of its people, rather than “blindly” pursuing the declaration to end the Korean War.16

Hankyoreh, however,editorialized that Moon’s proposal for declaring an end to the war illustrates his strong commitment to overcoming North Korea’s distrust toward Seoul and Washington and restoring denuclearization talks. It urged Pyongyang to respond positively to his proposal.17 Kyunghayng also welcomed the proposal, stating that an end-of-war declaration may be a clear sign of withdrawing Washington’s hostile policy toward Pyongyang and serve as a stepping stone for reviving stalled US-North Korea denuclearization talks.18

Military parade

On October 10, North Korea held a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of its ruling Workers’ Party. During the commemorative speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said, “I also send this warm wish of mine to our dear fellow countrymen in the south, and hope that this health crisis would come to an end as early as possible and the day would come when the north and south take each other’s hand again.” At the same time, however, he said the country will “continue to strengthen the war deterrent.”19 During the parade, North Korea unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Hwasong-16, capable of reaching the continental US, as well as a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) called the Pukkuksong-4A. In addition to these new strategic weapons, the regime displayed other new weapons, including a North Korean version of Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile and a 500~600mm large caliber artillery gun, which could reportedly penetrate ROK-US missile defense systems. Analysts surmised that the new weapons unveiled during the parade are those that Kim had vowed to introduce in his speech at the Workers’ Party plenary meeting last December.20 “The world will witness a new strategic weapon to be possessed by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] in the near future,” he had said during the meeting.21

Joongang stated that the parade clearly shows that North Korea has been continuously developing its nuclear and missile programs. The editorial urged the Moon government to “read the real intention” of Pyongyang.22 Donga criticized South Korea’s defense ministry for saying it took note of Kim Jong-un’s remarks that the country will never use its war deterrent “as a means of preemptive strike.” Citing Kim’s following remarks, “But, if, and if, any forces infringe upon the security of our state and attempt to have recourse to military force against us, I will enlist all our most powerful offensive strength in advance to punish them,” the editorial criticized the ministry, saying it distorted the truth.23

Hankyoreh, in contrast, cautioned against overreacting to new weapons unveiled during the parade. It stated that North Korea’s showing off new types of ICBM and SLBM cannot be seen as provocative moves as they are not tested yet.24 Kyunghayng took note of Kim’s remarks expressing his hope for restoring inter-Korean relations. The editorial stated his speech, together with the North’s apology for the killing of a South Korean civil servant as well as its decision to postpone military action toward the South in June, is a positive sign of Pyongyang’s willingness to improve inter-Korean relations.25

Human rights

On September 4, in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of enacting the North Korean Human Rights Act, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on North Korea’s human rights, stressed that peace without discussing the human rights situation does not serve the interests of the people of the North. Quintana also expressed a concern that the act has not been normally enforced, pointing out the delay in the establishment of the North Korea Human Rights Foundation. He said he has been pushing for the establishment of the foundation by meeting officials of the government of South Korea and expressed a willingness to continue with this work. Though the twelve-member board of the foundation is selected by the National Assembly and the Ministry of Unification, the selection procedure has been delayed for four years since the enactment of the act.26

ROK-US relations

Security Consultative Meeting
On October 14, the 52nd US-ROK Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) was held in Washington D.C. The two sides reportedly disagreed over the timetable for the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON), leading to cancellation of the joint press conference which was scheduled to be held after the meeting.27 During the meeting, ROK Minister of National Defense Suh Wook stressed the aim of expediting the process of the conditions-based OPCON transition. In his opening remarks, Suh said, “We will also work together to thoroughly prepare for a combined defense posture under the South Korean military’s leadership by fulfilling the conditions as early as possible.”28 Earlier in the meeting, the ROK chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Won In-choul also publicly emphasized the necessity of revising or supplementing the conditions of the OPCON transfer. During a parliamentary audit session, Won said, "If the OPCON transition becomes a distant aim, or is delayed too much compared to what we expect due to the conditions, those parts need to be revised or supplemented." Moreover, Won raised the possibility of changing the transition from the current conditions-based to time-based. He said that Seoul proposed to Washington to carry out the Full Operational Capability (FOC) test by the first half of next year, noting that once the two sides complete the FOC test and decide on the target year, the transition will become time-based.29

In contrast, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper emphasized the importance of fully meeting the conditions. “Fully meeting all the conditions for the transition of operational control to a ROK commander will take time, but the process of doing so will strengthen our alliance,” Esper said.30 According to a joint communique released after the SCM, “The two sides noted progress made in the COTP (conditions-based operational control transition plan) and discussed the way forward for wartime OPCON transition to the Future Combined Forces Command (F-CFC) including the FOC certification. The two leaders reaffirmed that the conditions stated in the mutually agreed COTP must be fully met before the wartime OPCON is transitioned to the F-CFC.”31

Another important issue that was discussed in this year’s SCM is the defense cost-sharing for maintaining US forces stationed in South Korea. There has been speculation that the Trump administration might press Seoul to increase its contribution by raising the possibility of reducing US troop levels in the region. Notable was the absence of the phrase “commitment to maintain the current force level of USFK” in this year’s joint statement. This phrase was inserted in the joint statement of last year’s SCM.32 “I hope we will all agree on the necessity of reaching a Special Measures Agreement (SMA) as soon as possible to ensure the stable stationing of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula," Esper said in his opening remarks.33

Chosun stated that although allies can disagree, it becomes a “big problem” when their differences and rift over the “fundamental aspects” of the alliance are expressed publicly and repeatedly. Regarding the OPCON transition in particular, the editorial criticized the Moon government and the military for prioritizing its preconceived schedule over national security.34 Progressive outlets, on the other hand, criticized the US for being uncooperative in transferring the OPCON to South Korea. Hankyoreh expressed doubt that Washington stresses the importance of meeting the conditions with the intention of delaying the transition process. It also cited the recent argument made by the country’s former defense minister Song Young-moo that the conditions for the OPCON transition are not “preconditions” but “points for verification.” The editorial stated that any shortcomings in meeting the conditions could be supplemented after the transfer.35 Kyunghayng argued that it is not normal that wartime OPCON of a sovereign state has been possessed by another country for 70 years, and called on Washington to fully cooperate on the transition process. The editorial also expressed concern that the US might consider a significant increase in Seoul’s defense contributions and its participation in countering China as conditions that must be met for the OPCON transfer.36

South Korea between the US and China

On September 25, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said it is “not a good idea” to join the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aimed at keeping China in check. "We don’t think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of, the interests of others is a good idea," Kang said in response to the question if South Korea is open to join the Quad Plus, during a webinar hosted by the Asia Society, a US-based nonprofit foundation.37 This is the first time that one of the country’s high-ranking government officials publicly expressed a negative view on the Quad. Washington has mentioned the prospects for creating the so-called Quad Plus, a NATO-like security mechanism that would include South Korea and other countries that share common values including liberal democracy.38

Meanwhile, during a parliamentary audit hearing on October 11, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States Lee Soo-hyuk told lawmakers that the country’s choice of America 70 years ago does not mean that it will choose America for the next 70 years.39 In response to Lee’s comment, the State Department stressed that it was “extremely proud” of its alliance with South Korea. “Based on our shared values, our two countries are constantly working together as allies and friends to ensure that our alliance is able to meet new and emerging challenges in the region, including those that would seek to undermine the rules-based international order,” the department said.40 This is not the first time that Ambassador Lee has made controversial remarks. In June of this year, Lee had said that he feels proud that South Korea became a country that can choose between the US and China,41 and a State Department spokesperson, in response to his remarks, had responded that “South Korea made its choice decades ago when it accepted democracy over authoritarianism.”42

Chosun editorialized on the significance of the ROK-US alliance in South Korea’s national security, stating that the US is the only country that has no territorial ambitions in the Korean Peninsula and shares the common system of liberal democracy, whereas China sees Korea as its vassal and tributary state and pursues an aggressive foreign policy.43 Chosun also stated that the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Quad countries held in Tokyo on October 7 epitomizes “Korea Passing.” Regarding Lee’s statement, Joongang called for Moon to question if he is qualified to serve as the country’s ambassador to the US and if his service benefits our country. Joongang stated that unlike ambassadors of all countries who do their best to earn the trust of the countries where they are stationed in order to maximize the national interest, Lee’s remark damages the “very foundation of the mutual trust” of the alliance. The editorial also stated that even if he has his own view on the country’s position between the US and China, he should be extremely prudent in expressing it.44

ROK-Japan relations

On September 16, Moon sent a congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, expressing hope for working together to further develop Korea-Japan relations during Suga’s time as prime minister, according to presidential spokesperson Kang Min-seok. In a press briefing, Kang said that the president is ready to sit down anytime with the government of Japan, which not only shares basic values and strategic interests but is also the closest friend geographically and culturally, for dialogue and communication, and he is looking forward to a positive response from the Japanese side.45 Three days later, Suga sent a reply to Moon, where he also expressed hope that the two countries build future-oriented relations by overcoming difficult issues. However, Suga reportedly did not respond to Moon’s call for dialogue.46 On September 24, Moon and Suga had their first official phone call. This was the first conversation between the leaders of the two countries since the Korea-Japan-China trilateral summit held in Chengdu last December., Moon proposed that the two countries work together to find an “optimum” solution to the wartime forced labor issue. Suga also noted various pending issues between the two countries, including historical issues, and expressed hope for establishing bilateral relations in a forward-looking way.47

On October 29, South Korea and Japan held face-to-face director-general-level dialogue in Seoul. However, the two sides reportedly repeated their original positions on the issue of forced labor. Kim Jung-han, director-general for Asian and Pacific affairs of the foreign ministry, emphasized that the “Japanese government and the defendant companies need to show a sincerer attitude in order to resolve the issue,” the ministry said in a release. Kim also called for the Japanese government to withdraw its “unjust” export restrictions, and stressed the need for Tokyo to “respond actively” to Seoul’s efforts to host the Korea-Japan-China trilateral summit within this year.48 In response, however, Takizaki Shigeki, director-general of the Asian and Oceanic Affairs Bureau of Japan’s foreign ministry, strongly urged Seoul to find a solution for the forced labor issue in a way that does not liquidate the seized assets of Japanese firms.49

Both conservative and progressive outlets editorialized on the need to improve the strained bilateral relations. Joongang urged both leaders not to be chained to past issues and emotions, and stressed the importance of cooperation in addressing COVID-19, nuclear-armed North Korea, and the intense US-China strategic rivalry.50 Donga cited Suga’s previous remarks that “Ignoring a neighboring country and denying its history will not serve any strategic interest for either of the countries,” and expressed hopes that he will open up a “new horizon” of ROK-Japan relations. At the same time, the editorial also emphasized Seoul’s efforts to actively seek ways out of their worst bilateral relations since normalization in 1965.51 However, progressive Hankyoreh, while emphasizing the importance of bilateral cooperation in the era of uncertainty caused by US-China “New Cold War,” expressed a pessimistic view of the prospects of major change in the country’s relations with Suga’s Japan given his commitment to upholding the policies of the Abe administration.52 Progressive Kyunghayng cited a Kyodo News report that the Japanese government delivered a message to Seoul that Suga would not attend the trilateral summit in Seoul this year unless South Korea stops the liquidation of Japanese corporate assets in South Korea. The editorial pointed this as an “unreasonable argument” which demands that the South Korean government violates the separation of the three powers in its government system. Kyunghayng suspected the intention of the Japanese government to demand such a thing that Seoul could never accept. The editorial also called for Suga to positively consider attending the trilateral summit if he genuinely wants to restore the bilateral relations.53