Country Report: South Korea (September 2019)

August saw a series of missile provocations from North Korea in the midst of growing tension between South Korea and Japan; the hostility against one another reached its peak as Seoul eventually announced its decision to end a military intelligence-sharing agreement, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with Tokyo and later filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over Japan’s trade restrictions. Seoul’s pullout from the agreement, which was signed in 2016, aroused mixed feelings among Koreans but surely worried Washington; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he is “disappointed,” and urged the two nations to continue to engage. In the meantime, President Donald Trump downplayed the repeated threats from Pyongyang while demanding that Seoul raise its share of the defense costs for the US troops in Korea, a move that angered many, especially conservatives, in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in, on top of the diplomatic turmoil, had wrestled with nominating his former aide as justice minister, which was followed by his lowest approval ratings since taking office, and flew to New York to attend the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. During the visit, he met with Trump for the first time in three months and reinforced the importance of the US-ROK alliance to overcome Washington’s concern over the weakened trilateral security cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea. But no bilateral meeting was held between Moon and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Pyongyang’s consecutive missile tests

North Korea’s spree of firing projectiles, including short-range missiles, continued throughout August – on August 2, 6, 10, 16, and 24, Seoul time – making top headlines in the South. According to Pyongyang, the repeated provocations were tit-for-tat remonstrances over the resumed US-ROK joint military exercises in the same month, which had been downgraded and consisted mainly of computer-simulated drills designed to strengthen the allies. The Blue House’s restrained response to the threats precipitated popular discontent led by the main opposition party calling for the relocation of US tactical nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula. The prevailing assumption, backed by some military experts, was that all projectiles Pyongyang has fired since May this year are newly developed weapons with greater mobility that may be a new hazard to both Seoul and the US forces in South Korea; this assumption challenged where Seoul stands with Washington on the alliance since Trump said that he is “not worried” about the North’s “very standard” short-range missile tests. Meanwhile, Moon’s remarks during a cabinet meeting on August 5 – the first one of its kind held since Japan’s announcement to exclude South Korea from its preferred trading partner list – that inter-Korean economic cooperation, or the “peace economy,” can help Korea outdo Japan on the economic front, were followed by the North’s missile launch on the very next day and presented a worse headache for Moon.

A great majority of conservative editorials in Seoul condemned Moon for his persistent efforts to stay engaged with North Korea while Pyongyang successively provokes. Chosun wrote that North Korea’s firing of two projectiles on August 6 was the fourth threat in less than two weeks. Chosun also argued that Pyongyang has been changing its launching sites, missile ranges, and maximum altitudes in order to demonstrate its capabilities to hit any target in the South whenever it wants. According to the editorial, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un knows that the only two cards Moon can play during the coming elections in Seoul are inter-Korean engagement and the Korea-Japan dispute; the missile threats are Kim’s signals pressuring Moon to persuade Trump to ease sanctions against Pyongyang; if not, Kim’s power trip could get worse. Segye chimed in and blamed the Moon administration’s self-abasing style of diplomacy with Kim. It also denounced Moon for not showing up at the National Security Council (NSC) meetings and his administration’s laid-back handling of the threats. The national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, who presided over the NSC meetings instead of the president, responded to a lawmaker at the national assembly that the recent series of North Korea’s missile provocations are “not a violation of the September 19 South-North Military Agreement” and “not a significant threat” to South Korea and its people; Chosun’s editorial released on August 8 harshly criticized Chung’s comments and wrote that the Blue House is preoccupied with securing the Moon administration instead of the nation.

In a similar tone, Joongang wrote on August 13 that if Seoul takes these threats from Pyongyang merely as complaints over the US-ROK military exercises, it is a greater concern; this is because the stalled talks between the US and DPRK will likely resume after the joint drills, but Pyongyang has been blunt about excluding Seoul completely in the process. According to the editorial, Kim thinks that now, when he can negotiate with Trump, is the best time to drive a wedge between the two allies and push his demands by making a direct deal with the US. Munhwa on August 12 also raised a point about the growing distance between Seoul and Washington; North Korea’s intention to “talk only with the US and isolate the South” has become conspicuous, and Washington has turned a cold shoulder to Seoul, which is a result of begging for talks with Pyongyang while neglecting the US-ROK alliance. Citing Trump’s long-standing negative view on the joint exercises and demand for Seoul to increase its defense contributions, Munhwa called for making fundamental changes to Moon’s foreign and security policies. 

Progressive editorials were focused on addressing a warning to North Korea that it should stop missile provocations immediately. Hankyoreh wrote on August 6 that the recent threats were aimed at expressing the North’s discontent over the joint exercises, boosting its negotiating power ahead of talks between Washington and Pyongyang and solidifying the North’s internal unity. But the editorial added that the missile launches would only escalate the military tensions growing on the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asia region and therefore, Pyongyang should stop its provocations. Kyunghyang also acknowledged the North’s advanced missile fired on August 6 by referring to an analysis done by the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the North Korea-developed Iskandar missile is speculated to be at its completion stage. It criticized Pyongyang’s justification for the missile launches with an argument that the nature of this exercises between Seoul and Washington is very different from ones in the past; this exercise includes testing South Korean military’s capabilities and readiness to take over the wartime control from the US forces without military maneuvers involved and, therefore, North Korea picking a fight over this scaled-down drill is an overreaction. Furthermore, intentionally provoking only a day after Moon’s remarks on the “peace economy” to catch up with the Japanese economy was completely disregarding Seoul, which has put forth its utmost effort to mediate between Pyongyang and Washington.

Hankyoreh’s editorial on August 8, however, expressed deep concern over an argument by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party that Seoul should also be armed with nuclear weapons to gain nuclear deterrence; such an idea is an irresponsible and dangerous appeal to “security populism” that may sound plausible but is actually vacuous. The editorial added that as soon as Seoul publicizes either the relocation of US tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea or nuclear development, all of Northeast Asia could fall into the trap of a nuclear arms race; we would also lose our grounds to cooperate with the international community to pressure the North to give up its nuclear program. Going nuclear to counter nuclear, Hankyoreh claimed, will only justify a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Letter to Trump from Kim

Trump tweeted on August 10 – approximately 15 hours after the North’s firing of two projectiles – that he received a letter from Kim that the North Korean leader wishes to “meet and start negotiations” with him as soon as the US-ROK joint exercises are over. In the tweet, Trump also wrote that Kim complained about the “ridiculous and expensive exercises” and gave him a “small apology” for the latest testing of short-range missiles. The tweet was a surprise to many, along with Trump’s joke at his re-election campaign fundraiser a day earlier, “It was easier to get a billion dollars from South Korea than to get $114.13 from a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn.” His additional comment, “So why are we paying for their defense? They’ve [South Korea] got to pay,” threw many into confusion since the two allies had concluded a defense cost-sharing deal early this year with an 8.2 percent increase in South Korea’s share. The sitting American president, who seems to be on the same page with Pyongyang on the US-ROK military drills, grumbling about the already-negotiated defense sharing cost sparked mounting concern of Seoul being ignored. But at the same time, expectations on restarting the stalled talks between Washington and Pyongyang have risen, thanks to the letter. Meanwhile, Mark Esper, the newly appointed US secretary of defense, paid a visit to Seoul in late August, his first since being nominated, and met with Moon, but he did not explicitly mention anything about the defense cost-sharing issue.

Conservative editorials showed discomfort with Trump’s view and the troubled US-ROK alliance. Chosunwrote on August 12, citing The Washington Post, that Trump sided with the North Korean dictator instead of his ally, Seoul; he also publicly echoed what Kim said about the joint military exercise in the letter. Chosun added that North Korea fired missiles with ranges that could target anywhere in South Korea and bullied Seoul for bringing the threats into question but apologized to the US; Pyongyang acting as if it is on a honeymoon with Washington is ridiculing Seoul. In another piece, published by Chosun the next day, some said that Trump’s rhetoric at the fundraiser event, comparing getting dollars from South Korea to getting them from a rent-controlled apartment, is his negotiating strategy, but we have to reconsider what actions Trump would take if Seoul were under attack. We cannot help but doubt whether the price-sensitive Trump would send American military reinforcements to the peninsula when our security is at risk; the same applies to the nuclear umbrella issue since Trump is negative towards not only the joint military drills but also US forces in Korea in general. Most worryingly, according to Chosun, once Kim is certain that Trump will not take action in response to Pyongyang’s threat against Seoul, he would likely be tempted to enhance the level of provocation.

Joongang’s release on August 12 attributed the current notion of bypassing Seoul to the Moon administration; Seoul has placed a great significance on the meeting between Trump and Kim itself, which condoned communications not going through South Korea. Joongang urged Moon to be assured by Trump that every North Korea policy must be consulted with Seoul. It also brought up was the growing closeness between Japan and China. Citing a rare meeting that took place between two senior government officials, the first strategy talks to be held in seven years, the editorial pinpointed Seoul’s worsened relations with China – which have not fully recovered from the issue of deploying an American missile-defense system, THAAD, on Korean soil – not to mention its relations with Japan. Joongang insisted that while Washington-Pyongyang and Tokyo-Beijing relations improve, Seoul has been left alone and, therefore, it should shift its course in foreign policy, be less engrossed in North Korea-only, and remain flexible when dealing with Japan.

Progressive editorials welcomed the potential reignition of talks between Trump and Kim and claimed that the talks must bear fruit this time. Hankyoreh wrote on August 18 that a visit to Seoul by Stephen Biegun, the US special representative for North Korea, on the last day of the joint military exercises, focused attention on whether this would restart the working-level nuclear negotiations. The editorial wrote that if Washington and Pyongyang communicate while Biegun is in Seoul, working-level talks could be expedited as both sides are running out of time. Kyunghyang also, on August 11, showed excitement over the letter, leading to resuming the talks, but it expressed regret about Pyongyang incrementally hurling criticism at Seoul and demonstrating its willingness to negotiate with Washington only; the editorial speculated that Pyongyang’s complaints to Seoul may be aimed at highlighting the agenda of security guarantees for North Korea at the working-level negotiations by accusing South Korea of introducing advanced weapons and US-ROK military drills. While acknowledging the importance of talks between the US and DPRK, Kyunghyang argued that North Korea’s attempt to weaken South Korea’s stance and inflame public opinion in Seoul will not do any good for Pyongyang. As for the continued and blatant request from the US president about defense costs, both progressive papers released an editorial mostly blaming Trump for not behaving with proper decorum and hurting the alliance. Hankyoreh wrote on August 8 that given Trump’s character, he may likely push for a “significant increase” in South Korea’s share of the defense costs as the US election nears in order to label the raise as his achievement. The editorial added that South Korea should clarify when meeting with the US defense secretary visiting Seoul that unreasonable demands cannot be accepted.

Moon’s Liberation Day speech

This year, Moon’s Korean National Liberation Day speech on August 15, celebrating the 74th anniversary of Korea’s independence from Japan, drew greater attention than usual, given the ongoing trade dispute between Seoul and Tokyo. Moon’s strong stance against Japan’s decision to officially drop South Korea from its whitelist of trading partners in early August had been toned down during a cabinet meeting on August 12, saying, “Seoul’s reaction to Tokyo’s economic retaliation shouldn’t be emotional.” During this year’s speech Moon took a softer tone, saying, “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands,” in an effort to avoid an irreparable split. His overall message refrained from putting the blame on Japan – Moon did not mention wartime forced labor or the comfort women issue in his speech – and it was geared towards his willingness to have a dialogue with Japan. But according to NHK, Japanese foreign minister Kono Taro kept his original stance in response to Moon’s address that Seoul should first take corrective measures on South Korea’s highest court’s ruling over the forced labor issue; he commented that South Korea must comply with international law and Moon should exercise his leadership to rectify the situation. Regarding Pyongyang’s subsequent missile firings, Moon said, “compared to the past when the whole Peninsula experienced turbulence whenever North Korea engaged in a provocation, the situation has definitely changed.” He also promoted establishing a peace economy through the unification of the peninsula, saying, “The peace economy begins with efforts to continue dialogue and cooperation so that North Korea can choose economic prosperity over its nuclear program upon the foundation of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Moon’s speech, however, was followed by North Korea’s firing of projectiles the next morning with a harsh commentary that Pyongyang has nothing to say to South Korean authorities and has no intention of sitting down with Seoul ever again.

Conservative editorials expressed outrage over North Korea’s provocation and dismissive language. According to Chosun on August 17, only a day after Moon’s pledge that he would put all his efforts into building a peace economy with the North, Pyongyang responded that Moon’s remarks would “make the boiled head of a cow burst into side-splitting laughter” and fired missiles. Chosun reminded readers that this is not the first time that discrepancies have existed between Seoul and Pyongyang; when Moon said, “through inter-Korean economic cooperation we can overtake Japan’s economy” in early August, North Korea replied, “It would be much more expedient for it [South Korea] not to commit such an act that will only make a rod for itself” and fired two projectiles. Earlier, when Moon claimed that “There are a variety of communication channels running between the two Koreas,” the North Korean foreign ministry denied it, saying, “there is no such thing.” The editorial argued that Pyongyang’s recurrent, offensive language delivers its message that it has no reason to sit down with Seoul since the communist state now has a communication channel with Trump, and if Moon wants an inter-Korean summit, he should pay the price, which is lifting sanctions against the North.

Joongang’s editorial, focused on Moon’s message to Japan, appreciated his moderation. Moon’s declared objective, “a nation that cannot be shaken” was an ambition he revealed while being conscious of Japan’s retaliation on trade, but he avoided intimidating Japan; Joongang responded that it was Moon’s attempt to resolve the ongoing conflict in a diplomatic manner. The editorial added that as the two foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Beijing next week and several multilateral summit meetings are upcoming, including the United Nations General Assembly in September, Seoul should leverage any opportunities to iron out the dispute; otherwise, Seoul-Tokyo relations will get stuck in a quagmire. Joongang insisted that the ball is now in Abe’s court and urged him to keep the dialogue momentum going with Seoul. As for North Korea policy, Moon said, “I pledge to solidify the foundation so that we can successfully host a joint 2032 Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics and stand tall in the world as one Korea by achieving peace and unification by 2045, which will mark the 100th anniversary of our liberation,” but Joongang worried over his optimistic view being too far removed from reality. 

Progressive editorials complimented Moon’s address, calling it opportune remarks when Seoul-Tokyo relations are at their worst. Hankyoreh praised the fact that Moon’s message went beyond “anti-Japanese” sentiment and expected the speech to serve as a turning point to lead to Seoul’s reconciliation with Tokyo. The editorial especially valued: 1) Moon making it clear that he will work with Japan for a successful 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “a source of hope for friendship and cooperation”; and 2) Moon’s vision to achieve a reunified Korea by 2045 while acknowledging “a series of worrying actions by North Korea recently,” a warning against Pyongyang in a roundabout way. However, North Korea did launch two projectiles the next day and publicly denounced Moon’s address. Kyunghyangexplained that Pyongyang’s slanderous remarks seemed to be an expression of disappointment at Moon’s speech, which did not include resuming the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and more. The fact that the North’s launch site this time, the Tongchun area in Gangwon province, is near the South showed Pyongyang’s displeasure with the US-ROK military drills and the South Korean defense ministry’s five-year plan that features an improved missile-defense system to counter threats from North Korea. Pyongyang’s public statement blasting Seoul also referred to “contact the US and isolate South Korea,” which Kyunghyang argued enhances the North’s negotiating power ahead of the working-level nuclear talks with Washington, while it asked for Seoul to play the role of mediator.

South Korea ends GSOMIA with Japan

On August 22, Seoul announced that it would terminate its military intelligence-sharing agreement, also known as GSOMIA, with Tokyo. After a meeting on the issue, an NSC official said, “Maintaining the agreement, which was signed to facilitate the exchange of sensitive military intelligence, does not serve our national interest.” The news did upset Washington as the pact has been a core part of the trilateral security cooperation between the US, South Korea, and Japan; some argued that if Seoul pulls out of the agreement, it would also hurt the US-ROK alliance. In an attempt to silence such concerns, the Blue House held a press conference on the following day and said, “Now, since Japan claims that the basic trust between Seoul and Tokyo has been damaged, there is no justification to maintain the GSOMIA pact, whose objective is to share sensitive military intelligence based on mutual trust.” The Blue House also claimed that Seoul had frequent communication with the US on reviewing GSOMIA issues and pledged to develop an “even stronger alliance” with Washington. But as the news broke out, Pompeo publicly said that he is “disappointed,” and the Pentagon also expressed “deep concern and disappointment” over the decision. The Japanese foreign minister summoned South Korea’s ambassador in protest against Seoul’s determination. Adding fuel to the fire, South Korea’s military training near the disputed island of Dokdo, postponed earlier considering its relations with Japan, started on August 25 and drew strong opposition from Tokyo. Meanwhile, the main opposition party in Seoul condemned the Moon administration; some within the party even went further, accusing the Blue House of trying to cover up a domestic issue – nominating one of Moon’s aides as justice minister – with the GSOMIA termination.

Conservative editorials understandably slammed Moon’s NSC and its decision. Joongangwrote on August 23 that the GSOMIA pact has been repeatedly helpful in security matters. In fact, Seoul and Tokyo exchanged a total of 29 pieces of information, and seven of them were shared after relations worsened between the two countries due to the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on the forced labor issue; this proves that both sides think GSOMIA is valuable and it is worrying that such substantive help is no longer available. One of the maladies Joongang also pointed out was that the termination of the military information-sharing agreement would be a blow to the US-ROK alliance. The scrapping of GSOMIA, Joongang argued, is Seoul trying to voluntarily draw a new Acheson line – the American defense line in the Pacific zone which excluded South Korea declared by Secretary of State Dean Acheson in a January 1950 speech referred to as the Acheson Declaration. Another editorial by Joongang on August 26 wrote that despite the end of the joint military drills between Washington and Seoul, Pyongyang went ahead with launching short-range ballistic missiles on August 24, its ninth provocation since May; the missiles flew approximately 380 kilometers, targeting the South. While North Korea’s missile threat builds up, Seoul is rather diminishing the security alliance with its allies, which may cause the US to reorganize its security initiatives in the Northeast Asia region, centering on the US-Japan alliance without South Korea.

In contrast, progressive editorials ascribed the situation to the Abe administration. Kyunghyang on August 22 seconded Seoul’s announcement that the Japanese government groundlessly raised security concerns, calling Seoul-Tokyo relations damaged, and removed South Korea from its preferential trading partner list, which brought fundamental changes to the security environment and cooperation between the two. The editorial also argued that: 1) the amount of information exchanged between the two has been on the decline annually, and the decrease has questioned the effectiveness of the GSOMIA pact; and 2) public opinion in Seoul supported the termination of the agreement. Kyunghyang added that Tokyo, which triggered the trade row, could have managed to avoid the situation if it had shown a conciliatory attitude but it did not; at the meeting held between the two foreign ministers, prior to Seoul’s final announcement, Japan was unyielding. Hankyoreh on August 23 wrote that it is disappointing that the US, which remained an idle spectator when the trade dispute between its Asian allies reached its boiling point, now is voicing concerns against Seoul; Washington kept quiet when Tokyo imposed economic retaliation on the pretext of historical colonial issues but spoke up when Seoul took countermeasures, which is not the right attitude. The editorial also criticized those in domestic politics hyping up security risks, coupling it with the termination of the GSOMIA. Hankyoreh asserted that the GSOMIA termination: 1) only means no more information-sharing between Seoul and Tokyo and therefore, would not cause any problems to the US-ROK alliance itself; and 2) was South Korea’s righteous countermeasure to cope with Japan’s wrongdoing and an inevitable choice to maintain Seoul’s pride.

Pyongyang wishes to resume talks and Trump fires Bolton

Breaking the impasse, North Korea’s first vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui, announced a statement on September 9 that Pyongyang “is willing to have comprehensive discussions with the US in late September,” but cautioned Washington to come to the table with new proposals. Despite the last-minute meeting between Trump and Kim at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in late June – where the two leaders patched things up from the collapse of the Hanoi summit and agreed to set up teams for working-level negotiations over the North’s nuclear program – the two sides have not done much communicating. Against this backdrop, Choe’s announcement did seem like a step forward but was followed by another firing of projectiles, only a few hours later, which confused many in Washington and Seoul who were trying to figure out Kim’s hidden calculations behind suggesting talks and provoking with missiles at the same time. Adding confusion to the situation, Trump tweeted the next day that he had asked for the resignation of his national security adviser, John Bolton, saying, “I disagreed strongly with many of his suggestions, as did others in the administration.” The resignation of the hawkish Bolton, which was hinted at for a long time and finally happened, meant less opposition for Trump to do whatever he wants with US foreign policy; some optimists welcomed the news with expectations that a Bolton-led “big deal” would no longer be demanded but others argued that Bolton’s absence from the White House would not make much difference in Trump’s North Korea policy as Bolton had been kept out of the loop for a while. Moon, who saw a new chance as things unfolded, made his third visit to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to turn the DMZ into an “international peace zone.”

Conservative editorials paid great attention to Pyongyang’s impure calculations of firing projectiles targeting Seoul while suggesting talks to Washington. Donga wrote on September 11 that Trump’s response to Choe’s suggestion, “having meetings is a good thing, not a bad thing,” increased the likelihood of resuming the stalled talks and, therefore, is a relief. According to the editorial, North Korea has arrived at this decision to restart the talks as Washington has constantly pressured Pyongyang for dialogue. But Donga argued that: 1) North Korea’s stance does not seem to have changed much, considering the conditions requested, “If the US toys with an old scenario… a deal between the two sides may come to an end”; and 2) even though the two sides resumed the working-level negotiations, it is doubtful whether the talks would produce meaningful results since the North’s short-range missiles, fired with a range long enough to reach anywhere in South Korea, sent a clear message to Seoul to take a back seat. Chosunwrote on the same day, claiming that Seoul’s national security is at risk. Citing special representative Biegun’s comment at the University of Michigan in early September – while the possibility of the US military forces withdrawing from the Korean Peninsula is currently unlikely, “forces are driven by the perception of threat. If we can address the threat, we give ourselves a lot more options” – the editorial argued that the US troops in Korea could be used as a negotiating card for nuclear talks with Pyongyang; this is an issue that would shake Seoul’s national security, but the Moon administration is not taking any measures. Chosun warned that if Trump, whose mind is only on being reelected, accepts Kim’s fake denuclearization, an equivocal and incomplete deal could be signed, trading the North’s denuclearization for the withdrawal of US troops in Seoul.

Progressive Hankyoreh agreed that the reason why Pyongyang chose to come to the table after months of deadlock is because of the recent placating comments made by Pompeo and Beigun; Pompeo recently acknowledged North Korea’s right of self-defense, saying, “Every nation has the sovereign right to defend itself,” and Beigun said, “The president [Trump] is fully committed to making significant progress” towards negotiating with Pyongyang “in the year ahead.” But regarding the North’s double play, the editorial gave a different analysis, claiming that the projectiles were fired in order to pressure Washington once more, warning that “easing Pyongyang’s security concerns” would be one of the top agenda items for the working-level talks. The provocation, Hankyoreh argued, also showed the possibility that inter-Korean competitive military actions could take place while the talks are ongoing. Therefore, Seoul should find ways to firmly deal with Pyongyang’s armed demonstrations and also alleviate the military tensions.

Kyunghyang’s editorial released on September 11 was rather focused on Bolton’s departure and how it would have an impact on the US-DPRK talks. Bolton joined Trump’s White House in April 2018 and led the hardline stance on Pyongyang; he has long insisted on the Libya model, in which “North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons first and then receives compensation later,” and said on the air prior to the first Trump-Kim summit that he wanted North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to be shipped to Tennessee, which almost killed the meeting. He was also held responsible for the collapsed summit in Hanoi and was sent to Mongolia when Trump and Kim met at Panmunjom in late June, which reportedly was done to placate Pyongyang. Given that Bolton’s ill-fated relationship with North Korea has a long history – even before joining the Trump administration, he was involved in the breakdown of the US-North Korea Agreed Framework in 2002 and later served as the US ambassador to the UN with hardline views of the North under the George W. Bush administration – his resignation is expected to have a positive impact on the imminent talks between Pyongyang and Washington, according to Kyunghyang. The editorial added that the US is now more liable to offer the “new proposals” Choe mentioned to North Korea and both sides should not miss this newly opened opportunity without Bolton. 

The US-ROK summit

On September 23, Trump and Moon met during the UN General Assembly in New York, marking Moon’s ninth time meeting with the US president since taking office. The meeting, about an hour long, did not cover the “new proposals” that North Korea demanded or the termination of the GSOMIA; but it reconfirmed that the US would not use armed force against the North and if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, the US would provide a bright future for Pyongyang. Trump said, “There’s been no nuclear testing at all,” and his relationship with Kim has been “very good.” Moon told Trump that a third summit meeting with Kim would be a historic breakthrough to go down in world history, but in this regard, Trump said, “I want to know what’s going to be coming out of it [third US-DPRK summit]. We can know a lot before the summit takes place.” In Seoul, political parties divided over the summit results; the ruling party commented that the summit reaffirmed the strong US-ROK relations whereas the main opposition Korea Liberty Party criticized it, saying that it carried “no substance” but only made us face the rising demands from Washington, including higher defense-sharing costs and more purchases of US military equipment. Meanwhile, on September 24, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) chief said at the national assembly meeting that the North Korean leader may visit the South in November to attend a special ASEAN summit, which South Korea will be hosting in Busan.

Most of the conservative editorials agreed that the ninth US-ROK meeting was a big nothing burger. Joongangpointed out on September 25 that the summit avoided all of the critical agenda items, such as ending the GSOMIA pact, which would be a risk to the US-ROK alliance, and in-depth ideas on how to bring about the North’s denuclearization. The question-and-answer session with the press was a one-man show with Trump dominating the stage, where no trust could be found between the two sides. The editorial argued that the working-level negotiations on the defense cost-sharing kicked off a day earlier, and the US is asking for five times more than the current share, approximately $5 billion in total; adding fuel to the fire, the GSOMIA, ends in November and will create a fissure in the US-ROK combined defense system. But the two leaders failed to produce a tangible outcome with respect to recovering the alliance, not to mention that the GSOMIA was not even on the table. As for Pyongyang’s denuclearization issue, the editorial forecast that Trump seems to agree to a nuclear freeze, which concedes North Korea’s nuclear armament, and condemned Moon for only suggesting ways to secure Kim’s regime – “no use of armed forces against North Korea” and “removal of landmines at the DMZ” – without any fresh solutions to achieve Pyongyang’s denuclearization. He rather offered to purchase American weapons, shale gas and liquefied natural gas to curry favor with Trump.

In contrast, progressive editorials were hopeful that the meeting would boost the working-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang. According to Hankyoreh’s release on September 25, US-DPRK relations have been buffeted by strong currents, and the meeting offered reassurance of the ending of the 70-year-long hostile relations between Washington and Pyongyang. Adding what the NIS chief said, that Kim could soon be on South Korean soil depending on how well the nuclear talks go, the editorial shared a positive view on the looming nuclear negotiations. Hankyoreh especially appreciated Trump’s comment that a meeting with Kim “could happen soon,” which he repeated three times. Other achievements, Hankyoreh insisted, were eliminating suspicions about cracks in the alliance due to the GSOMIA termination and agreeing on producing reciprocally satisfying results on the defense cost-sharing negotiations. The editorial touched upon Moon’s vow for “reasonable” and Trump’s emphasis on “fair” sharing of defense costs, and Trump’s comment on South Korea being one of the biggest buyers of American military equipment, which implied an amicable agreement on the defense cost-sharing issue. But the editorial also identified what the summit left to be desired: 1) Trump and Moon didn’t provide concrete measures on security guarantees or sanctions relief for North Korea to elicit a positive response; and 2) Trump did not play the active mediator role in solving the Seoul-Tokyo relations.