Country Report: South Korea (July 2013)

Country Report: South Korea (prepared by Han Minjeong)

The single event of most far-reaching significance for the Korean media was the visit of President Park Geun-hye to Beijing. Coverage focused on whether China’s policy toward North Korea is changing. Indications that it was changing had already fueled cautious optimism that the time is ripe for South Korea to make a move. As Park stated, “it is a critical time for the inter-Korean relationship” and “the way we handle the current situation will decide the fate of the Korean Peninsula, East Asia, and the World.” One observer notes that “As the Cold War ended with reunification of Germany, the twenty-first century Asia-Pacific era should start with guaranteed peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Yonsei University Professor Lee Chung Min, recently named ambassador for national security, responded to the Obama-Park summit by arguing in Bukhan kyongjae ribyu that Korea’s strategic importance is increasing between continental-power China and maritime-power United States. It is uniquely situated as the home to US forces in the region and the only country that has a close relationship with China among US allies. It followed that the message Park was sending to China was critical for capitalizing on this potential at this critical juncture. The Obama-Xi summit was seen as opening the door wider for Park to win Xi Jinping’s trust.

In her first months in office Park often highlighted China’s importance in resolving the DPRK nuclear issue and achieving regional peace. If previous summits were criticized for not being substantive, apart from economic cooperation, this summit was seen as evidence that China has shown genuine willingness to adopt measurable actions and broaden areas of cooperation. One example is the new dialogue channel opened between Seoul and Beijing, a “joint committee on humanities exchange.” On the economic dimension, there was progress as well: A currency swap was extended, and a goal was set of US$300 billion in bilateral trade by 2015. Of course, all eyes were on how the North Korean issue was handled. The Joint Statement won support from both conservatives and progressives. Kim Haing, a Blue House spokeswoman, said that “The meeting covers almost every sphere and issues in the mid-to-longer term. It shows a detailed blue print for the development and qualitative improvement of the bilateral relationship. This is not only for Park’s presidency but also for the next 20 years.” She added that “It’s meaningful to utilize ‘action plans’ to implement the results of the talk. Within this context, bilateral cooperation is expected to be closer and intensified.” Kim Han-gil, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said “The meeting has proved China’s willingness to denuclearize the peninsula officially. I value the result highly.” The Korean media were similarly positive, concluding that the summit has helped to overcome the longstanding limitation of bilateral relations that are “politically cold, economically hot.” Park had labeled this asymmetry “the Asia paradox” and highlighted the importance of overcoming it. Her “Trustpolitik” and “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” were working to resolve this paradox, reports trumpeted.

Optimism, however, occurred against the backdrop of diverse views on whether China’s policy toward the DPRK alliance was fundamentally changing. A debate had been ignited when Chinese officials after the late May visit of the DPRK’s special envoy to Xi referred to “normal relations” with the DPRK, implying less than a special bond transcending national interests. One observer in Joongang Ilbo stated that this is how China shows its disappointment following the third nuclear test. Another in Chosun Ilbo saw a marked deterioration in the treatment of the envoy, quoting Kim Sook, the ROK UN ambassador that “China is feeling ‘anger’ and ‘humiliation’ against the DPRK of late.” Some commentators, however, argued that China’s policy has not changed and such speculation is based on just a few official comments. Park Doo Bok, emeritus professor of Korea National Diplomatic Academy, suggested that referring to the relationship as “normal” may have resulted from nothing more than a change in the Chinese Communist Party, which increasingly values national interests over ideology or class. Monthly Korea Forum, which represents the conservative end of the spectrum, also criticized the idea, insisting that China is not able to change its strategy because it must show that it is loyal to its allies to earn trust as a major player in the international arena. The article pointed out that even when China officially criticized the DPRK’s nuclear test by joining Security Council resolutions, it played a critical role in deleting all propositions really damaging to the DPRK. Given the strategic benefits derived from these relations, the author concluded that China has little reason to push the DPRK hard enough to bring about meaningful change.

The above debate has been extended to the language of the joint statement. Proponents point out four expressions that show that China’s priority has changed from support of the DPRK to denuclearization of the peninsula. First, while when speaking to the press, Park made the statement “South Korea will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea under any circumstances,” Xi joined in urging the DPRK to comply with UN resolutions and the 2005 Joint Agreement. Jeung Young-Tai, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said, “It’s a drastic change that China agreed on the language of ‘not tolerate a nuclear North Korea under any circumstances.’ This indicates that China will not ignore the DPRK’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons or trigger conflicts in the region as an ally but take measures accordingly.” Second, the statement calls “certain nuclear weapons programs a ‘serious threat’ to the stability of East Asia,” the first time that China has acknowledged the DPRK’

This analysis is in line with Lee Chung Min’s comments in the aftermath of the Obama-Park summit, anticipating that Xi would treat Park in the best manner possible to send a message to the DPRK. This suggests that China is willing to develop its relations with South Korea based on its national interests, no matter what the DPRK does. Lee adds that China would have realized that it needs supporters within the Asia-Pacific other than its current allies, who happen to be failed states. He sees China coming to terms with the reality that South Korea might reunify the peninsula and recalibrating its interests. Critics argue, instead, that the joint statement fails to include the expression “denuclearization of the DPRK.” The statement simply states that China supports denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula. Also, even though “certain nuclear weapons” implies the DPRK’s, it does not specify that. It follows that China’s three basic principles have not changed: 1) denuclearization of the peninsula; 2) peace and stability on the peninsula; and 3) dialogue as the approach to the DPRK nuclear program.

Park’s approach to “trust-building” evoked conflicting responses. The “Korean Peninsula Trust Process” and “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” are the two pillars of her reunification and foreign policy strategy, based on “Alignment Policy” to balance the North-South talks and international cooperation on peninsula issues. Both processes aim to build “trust” by initiating dialogue on “soft issues,” where common ground is easier to identify. Xi’s support of both is believed to be significant in that China alone exercises direct influence on the DPRK and should be a part of a multilateral effort leading towards lasting peace in the region. With the United States and China both supporting the process, it is believed that the time is ripe for trilateral cooperation. Yet, Hankyoreh on the left asserted that the administration is not supposed to set “trust” as a precondition to talks, blaming this approach for the eventual cancellation of South-North conversation before the summit meeting. Progressives criticize the administration for a lack of concrete principles and/or plans. In contrast, conservatives feared that what Park was proposing was just another version of the Six-Party Talks, doubting that cooperation on soft issues would lead to spillover to the complex security conflicts in the region.

Relations with Japan are one issue on which the ruling and opposition parties do not disagree. Park has gone so far as to announce that she has no plans to visit Japan in the near future. When Japan established the Planning and Coordination Office for Territory/Sovereignty Measures within the Cabinet Secretariat in February and then Japanese politicians paid homage to the Yasukuni shrine Korea cancelled the originally planned foreign ministers meeting on April 26, expressing “deep regrets” over Japan’s reluctance to cooperate. At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July, they engaged in dialogue for 25 minutes (shorter than planned) only to express their differing views, but the South Korean government has declared its intention to pursue tactical interests with Japan in deterring North Korea’s nuclear proliferation and in other sectors as well. Some conservative voices warn that ostracizing Japan may go too far. Chosun Ilbo suggests that leaning towards China might not be so wise considering that Japan is the closest US ally in Asia and it also plays a crucial role in trilateral cooperation deterring North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. Kyunghyang Shinmun avers that South Korea should not be blinded by nationalism and disregard its economic relations with Japan, but maintain a realistic stance in perceiving the overall situation. South Korea and Japan have decided not to extend their won-yen swap worth $3 billion, reducing the swap to its lowest level since 2006. Seoul said that political or diplomatic considerations were not motivating this, but experts worry that it could lead to further deterioration in bilateral relations.

Another theme drawing considerable interest in South Korea is the prospects for the China-Korea FTA. Consensus seems to be building that the China-Korea FTA is inevitable given the high level of interdependency among the two economies. It is an essential part of South Korea’s long-term goal to be a trade hub in the region. Proponents suggest that China is transforming itself from being a global factory to becoming a global market and access to the market would help to overcome an economic slowdown. Chosun Ilbo highlighted how the KORUS FTA has affected the bilateral political relationship. South Korean politicians now have ready access to the US Congress. Following the negotiations, US officials began to describe South Korea as a lynchpin, a term reserved for Japan previously. This view suggests that the FTA negotiations can be a turning point in bilateral relations with China too. Another positive effect of the FTA is that the ROK can influence the DPRK economy through the Chinese market. Concerns about negative side effects, notably in agriculture and small and medium-sized businesses, raised doubts over whether the FTA would reach a high level. Yet, the summit gave further momentum to talks, as non-economic factors are rising in importance. The idea that South Korea would later forge an FTA with Japan or would proceed to TPP, including Japan, was voiced, as was the argument that better Chinese ties would prove useful in dealing with North Korea. Expectations in the early summer for some pathway toward regionalism seem to be far stronger in Seoul than they are in other capitals, especially Tokyo.