Country Report: South Korea (September 2020)

In the summer of 2020 foreign policy was largely on hold. The pandemic effect, the wait for US elections, and the relative caution shown by North Korea unwilling to alienate Donald Trump even if it could lash out at Moon Jae-in’s inaction, all left policy choices in limbo. Ties to Japan remained deeply troubled, although Abe Shinzo’s announcement at the end of August that he would step down could begin to reawaken discussion. Meanwhile, the divergence in regional strategy as well as policy toward North Korea cast a shadow over ROK-US relations, compounding the unresolved negotiations over host-nation support. This was not a time for complacency given expectations that challenges will worsen due to deeper Sino-US, North Korean-US, and ROK-Japanese tensions, and, not least, ROK-US differences soon in the open.   

Reshuffling the national security team

On July 3, President Moon reshuffled his national security team. Suh Hoon, current chief of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), was nominated as the new director of the National Security Council at the Blue House, and Park Jie-won, a former four-term lawmaker, was designated to succeed Suh as the new chief of the NIS. Moon also named Lee In-young of the ruling Democratic Party to lead the Ministry of Unification.1

During Park’s confirmation hearing on July 27, the opposition alleged that he had signed a backdoor agreement with Pyongyang ahead of the 2000 inter-Korean summit. Joo Ho-young of the main conservative opposition party showed a copy of what he called a secret deal, which committed Seoul to provide $3 billion to Pyongyang. However, Park claimed that the document was “fabricated,” saying that he has no memory of signing it.2 The Blue House also denied its existence. “It has been confirmed that the document, called a behind-the-scenes agreement, does not exist inside the government," a Blue House official told reporters.3 During an appointment ceremony on July 29, Moon emphasized the importance of making a breakthrough in the currently stalled inter-Korean relations, explaining his appointments.4

Conservative editorials criticized the new national security line-up for their long history of pro-North Korea attitudes. Chosun expressed particular concern about the appointment of Park Jie-won as the head of the NIS, noting his record of being jailed for illicitly transferring $450 million to Pyongyang to arrange the inter-Korean summit in 2000. The editorial argued that the money he had sent helped Pyongyang to develop its nuclear weapons during the Arduous March. It raised the possibility that Washington and Tokyo may be reluctant to share sensitive intelligence on North Korea with Seoul out of concern about Park’s accommodative stances on North Korea.5 Chosun also criticized several other key figures dealing with foreign policy and national security affairs for their biased and distorted view of the United States and North Korea. For example, Jeong Se-hyun, the executive vice chairperson of the presidential National Unification Advisory Council, during a radio program on July 7, said that the US is a hindrance to the denuclearization of North Korea. “The U.S. called North Korea as if trying to resolve issues but did not follow through with their promises. North Korea felt betrayed and thus strengthened its defensive measures, which eventually led to the country’s ownership of nuclear weapons,” he said.6

Moon Chung-in, special adviser to Moon for unification, foreign affairs and national security, also said that it would be hard to justify a continued US military presence in South Korea if a peace treaty is signed. “For me, the best thing is to really get rid of the alliance,” said Moon. The editorial argued that their views are not different from the views of the student activists in the 1980s, in which the US is an aggressor, and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and human rights violations are understandable.7 Joongang also expressed concerns about the appointment of Lee In-young as the country’s minister of unification, noting his pro-North Korea inclinations. The editorial criticized the fact that Lee had excused the North’s bombing of the joint liaison office, saying that it dismantled the office “due to the sending of propaganda leaflets by North Korean defectors.” Joongang criticized Lee for accusing the joint ROK-US military exercises of heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula, citing his demand that the drill scheduled for August be “downscaled strategically.”8 Regarding Park’s appointment, Joongang recommended that he should benchmark the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during Libya’s denuclearization process in 2003. The editorial noted that the CIA played a significant role in thawing distrust between the US and Libya.9 Donga worried that the current national security team is filled with those who are not versed in US affairs. It emphasized that the alliance and close coordination on sanctions on North Korea are the key to denuclearizing North Korea.10

Progressive editorials, on the other hand, welcomed the new national security team, as all of these newly appointed personnel are experienced specialists on inter-Koran relations. On July 3, Kyunghyang stated that the overhaul epitomizes Moon’s willingness to make a breakthrough in the current stalled relations with Pyongyang. Kyunghyang editorialized on the need to persuade Washington, which takes a firm stance that progress in inter-Korean relations must keep pace with progress on the denuclearization of North Korea. The editorial urged diplomatic efforts to persuade the United States to participate in Moon’s vision for the Korean Peninsula Peace Process.11 Hankyoreh also called for bold and creative efforts to enable denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea to resume before the US presidential election in November, editorializing that it is a “big shame” the government hesitated to improve inter-Korean relations out of concerns about how Washington would react.12

Korea-US relations

There are three major pending issues for the ROK-US alliance: North Korea policy, Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations, and transition of wartime operational control (OPCON). With regard to North Korea policy, Moon, during a video conference with European Union (EU) leaders on June 30, said that he would strive for Washington and Pyongyang to hold another summit before the US presidential election. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha also said that the Ministry is working to create a momentum for U.S.-North Korea talks as well as inter-Korean dialogues.

Conservative Donga warned of political show of President Trump and Kim Jong Un that does not help denuclearize North Korea.13 Conservative Chosun also expressed concerns about the possibility that President Trump would make a “dangerous deal” with Kim in his bid to extend his term. It stated that a path toward the denuclearization will open when both Seoul and Washington let go of political show.14 Progressive Kyunghyang, however, editorialized on the need for the ROK and the U.S. to adjust or even suspend their combined military exercises in August, which, it argued, could unnecessarily provoke Pyongyang.15 Kyunghyang also stated that the ROK-U.S. working group has been hindering inter-Korean relations and therefore called for the adjustment to this consultative mechanism.16 Progressive Hankyoreh also expressed hope that the new national security team could make a full-scale reform on the working group. The editorial argued that the working group, if it cannot be dismantled, should be revised in a way that allows greater South Korean autonomy.17

Regarding the ongoing SMA negotiations, on August 3, the U.S. State Department appointed Donna Welton as its new chief of negotiator. As a veteran diplomat, Welton has recently served as Assistant Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in Kabul. She is known as an expert on Japan with vast experience in Japan and a fluent command of Japanese. Previously, Welton has also served at the U.S. Information Agency in South Korea from mid-1980s to early-1990s.18 According to Foreign Ministry, South Korea’s chief negotiator Jeong Eun-bo has been negotiating with Welton by phone and e-mail since early August. However, diplomatic source in Seoul said that little progress is in sight despite the continuing communication between the two negotiators, and that this trend is expected to continue until the U.S. presidential election.19 In the meantime, on August 20, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Clarke Cooper emphasized that the SMA negotiations between Seoul and Washington are not just cost sharing, but “burden sharing” of the security on the Korean Peninsula.20

Regarding the OPCON transition, the ROK and the U.S. carried out an initial operational capability (IOC) test in their combined military exercise last year, and agreed to move on to a full operational capability (FOC) test. However, given that the coronavirus pandemic limited the number of American troops coming from the mainland, the two countries held the drill in a scaled-back manner. As a result, the two sides were unable to complete the FOC assessment, meaning that President Moon’s plan to take over OPCON from Washington before the end of his term in 2022 has become difficult to be achieved.21

Nonetheless, progressive Hankyoreh stated that it is not impossible to complete the OPCON transition before Moon leaves office. The editorial called for Seoul to persuade Washington to adjust the conditions or the assessment schedule, so that OPCON can be transferred as planned. More specifically, Hankyoreh said that FOC and full mission capability (FMC) could be verified at the same time next year. It also suggested that the government could consider transferring OPCON first, leaving FMC test after the launch of new administration in May 2022.22

However, conservative Donga argued that the essence of the transfer of OPCON from Washington to Seoul is not timing, but South Korean military capabilities required for leading the combined forces. The editorial warned of skipping the verification process or rushing into it to meet Seoul’s own timeline.23 Segye also argued that the government should put security first before politics with the OPCON transition, and called for President Moon to give up his obsession with his self-imposed deadline. The editorial further argued that improving combined defense posture against nuclear-armed North Korea is far more important than transferring OPCON.24

Meanwhile, on August 28, President Moon nominated Army Chief of Staff General Suh Wook as the new defense minister. “He is the right person to push for the OPCON transfer based upon the strong South Korea-U.S. alliance and defense reform without a hitch to build a strong military," Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Kang Min-seok said.25 Gen. Suh also told reporters that he will work toward speeding up the fulfillment of conditions required for the OPCON transfer.26

A report released on August 4 by the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS) under the National Diplomatic Academy pointed out that beyond these three pending issues, there is little discussion between Seoul and Washington over the strategic goals or visions for the alliance. The report cited that ROK-U.S. foreign and defense ministers’ (2+2) meeting, a platform where the two sides affirm a joint vision and coordinate their policy and threat perceptions, has not been held since the last meeting in 2016.27

North Korea

On August 20, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) told the National Assembly Intelligence Committee that Kim Jong Un has given his authority to oversee state affairs to his aides, including his younger sibling Kim Yo Jong, little by little compared to the past. The agency reported that Kim Yo Jong has been entrusted with the country’s relations with South Korea and the United States, while other officials have been given authority to manage economic and military areas. NIS used the term “mandate,” but stressed that Kim Jong Un still exercises absolute power. It added that although Kim Yo Jong is now “de-facto second in command” in North Korea, this does not mean she was named as a successor of Kim Jong Un.28 NIS explained that there are two reasons for Kim to delegate some of his authority: firstly, to ease the workload of himself whose stress levels have risen over the past nine years governing the country on his own; and secondly, to disperse responsibilities for failed policies.29

Conservative Chosun raised doubts about what is going on in Pyongyang right now. The editorial stated that the delegation of supreme leader’s authority is unprecedented in North Korean history, noting that former leader Kim Jong-il purged all of his top aides who were dubbed as the country’s No. 2 and Kim Jong Un executed his uncle and ordered the killing of his brother. It also stated that only the highest power has the authority to handle inter-Korean and U.S. policies.30 Conservative Donga criticized the NIS briefing for using the term “mandate”, which is, by definition, an authorization granted by the League of Nations to a victorious country of World War I to govern a weak country. Donga also pointed out that the use of the term “mandate” is in line with North Korea’s boosting Kim Yo Jong, while noting that some in the South Korean ruling party has presented her as a counterpart to Ivanka Trump. The editorial concluded by warning the subjectivity of intelligence analysis and expressing concern about new chief of NIS Park Jie-won who has a reputation as a crafty politician.31

Progressive Hankyoreh, however, viewed the changes in the governance system of North Korea positively. It pointed out that Pyongyang is now in the transition period, from a system relying on supreme leader’s charisma alone, toward a socialist party-state system. It added that if North Korea becomes a socialist normal state, North Korea will be likely to cast off its negative image of being an unpredictable state. It also expressed hope that the distribution of authority in Pyongyang may have a positive impact on inter-Korean relations in terms of risk management. Regarding the term “mandate”, Hankyoreh also expressed concern as this may arouse misunderstanding that Kim Jong Un’s power base has been weakened, as well as unnecessarily provoke Pyongyang.32

Korea-China relations

Yang Jiechi, a director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs, visited Busan on a two-day trip from August 21 to meet with President Moon’s new national security adviser Suh Hoon. This is the first visit by a high-level Chinese official since the new coronavirus outbreak. According to South Korea’s Blue House spokesman Kang Min-seok, Yang explained China’s position regarding the current U.S.-China relations. Yang has reportedly asked Seoul to remain at least neutral in the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry. According to the Xinhua News Agency, Yang said that “China stands ready to enhance international cooperation in the multilateral sector with South Korea in order to safeguard multilateralism and free trade.”33 Suh responded by emphasizing the importance of cooperative U.S.-China relations for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the world. Suh has reportedly spent much of the time asking China’s role in the stalled inter-Korean relations. Regarding President Xi’s visit to Seoul, the two sides agreed to realize this once the COVID-19 situation stabilized. The Chinese side has confirmed that South Korea is a priority for Xi to visit.34 During a meeting of the National Assembly’s steering committee on August 25, Cho Sujin of the main conservative opposition party asked presidential chief of staff Noh Young-min about the reason why the meeting has been taken in Busan, instead of Seoul. Noh said that the venue was decided at the request of the Chinese side. He added security is one of the reasons for deciding the venue, but declined to explain further.35

Conservative Chosun also raised a question about the choice of Busan as the venue. The editorial criticized that it appears as if the country’s director of national security council was summoned to Busan by his Chinese counterpart.36 Conservative Joongang called Seoul to act in a cool-headed manner amid intensifying U.S.-China rivalry. It criticized the concept of equidistant or balanced diplomacy between the United States and China as an empty rhetoric for South Korea who is allied with the United States. The editorial argued that South Korea has no choice but to pursue diplomacy based on its principles and values.37 Progressive Kyunghyang also argued that there is no other way than to have clear diplomatic principles and respond wisely. It emphasized that Seoul should publicly state its core interests and values that cannot be compromised.38

Death of General Paik Sun-yup

On July 10, General Paik Sun-yup, a Korean war hero and the country’s first four-star general, passed away at the age of 99. Paik is best known for his leadership in the battle of Tabudong in 1950 where he deterred the invading North Korean military from breaking the front line of Nakdong River, or the Busan Perimeter. During the battle, Paik told his fleeing soldiers, “If we are pushed back, the U.S. troops will withdraw. If I retreat, shoot me first,” and led his troops at the forefront of the fight. After the Incheon Landing, Paik was the first to enter Pyongyang at the head of the U.S. forces. He also participated in the armistice talks on behalf of the ROK Armed Forces in 1951, and became the country’s first four-star general when he was 32 in 1953.39

After consulting with Gen. Paik’s family, the government decided to bury him at the Daejeon National Cemetery. The main conservative opposition party, the United Future Party, praised Gen. Paik as a hero who saved the country from falling under the control of the North, and argued that he should be buried at the Seoul National Cemetery, not the Daejeon cemetery.40 The government and the ruling Democratic Party, on the other hand, did not comment on his death. An official of the Democratic Party, told that it is not appropriate to issue a statement on his death considering a controversy over his pro-Japanese activities.41 President Moon also did not visit the altar, and sent his chief of staff instead. However, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo expressed his condolences to Paik’s family. “Gen. Paik protected freedom and peace … and laid the groundwork for the staunch Korea-U.S. alliance and the construction of the strong military,” Jeong said in a statement. “Taking his noble sacrifice and thorough spirit as a service member, our military will do our best to protect the lives and the safety of our people and to create a new peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he added.42 Gen. Robert Abrams, United States Forces Korea Commander, also paid tribute to him, saying in a statement, “He made an incredible contribution shaping the U.S. and ROK alliance into what it is today. From his time serving in the Korean War to becoming South Korea’s first four-star General to serving as the ROK Army Chief of Staff, General Paik is a hero and national treasure who will be truly missed.”43 The National Security Council (NSC) of the White House also expressed its condolence over his death via its Twitter account, saying “South Korea is a prosperous, democratic Republic today thanks to Paik Sun-yup and other heroes who put everything on the line to defeat Communist invaders in the 1950s. We mourn General Paik’s death at age 99 and salute his legacy.”44

Conservative Chosun, in an editorial, criticized President Moon for not visiting the funeral altar to pay his respects. Chosun argued that it is a fundamental responsibility of President, as the commander-in-chief, to visit the altar to pay his respects, saying that we would have not enjoyed freedom, peace, and prosperity without Gen. Paik.45 Chosun compared the Blue House and the ruling Democratic Party with the White House NSC, the State Department, and the former and current commanders of the U.S. Forces Korea that expressed their condolences to the late general. The editorial also noted that there was no key ruling party figure at the burial ceremony.46 Regarding the controversy over his ‘pro-Japanese and anti-nation’ deed during the Japanese colonization period, Chosun argued that at the time he was assigned to the Gando Special Force (GSF) in 1943, Korea’s independence fighters had already left Manchuria for inland areas of China and Russia. The editorial also cited an interview where he argued that he has engaged in fights with the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army of the Chinese Communist Party, and has never seen any Korea’s independence fighters.47 For the same reason, conservative Joongang also argued that there is no specific evidence to suggest that he had suppressed independence fighters.48 Joongang further argued in its editorial that his accomplishments far outweigh any mistakes he made – if there were any. The editorial also criticized President Moon for not commenting on his death, while he expressed shock over the death of his political ally Park Won-soon, Mayor of Seoul, who committed suicide amid sexual harassment claims.49

Progressive Hankyoreh, on the other hand, pointed the arguments made by the country’s conservative media outlets as the distorted view of history. It argued that between 1943 and 1945 Gen. Paik served at the GSF tasked with suppressing armed groups of Korean and Chinese people fighting the colonial Japan. Hankyoreh cited his autobiography published in Japan in 1993 where he admitted that the GSF cracked down on many Korean guerilla forces. The editorial also criticized him for not making an apology for his collaboration with Japanese.50 Kyunghyang also argued that what he did in the Korean War and afterwards is only one side of the story, and opposed to bury him at the Seoul National Cemetery considering his two-and-a-half-year service at the GSF. Kyunghyang compared him with Gen. Ji Cheong-cheon who, like Gen. Paik, graduated from a Japanese military academy but jointed in the independence movement against Japanese imperialism.51