Korea’s Choice: Synopsis of the Asan Plenum 2019

The theme of this year’s Asan Plenum was Korea’s Choice, and the core question regarded a choice between reaffirmation of the ROK-US alliance and prioritization of reunification with the long-separated northern part of the peninsula. For the first time in seven decades this choice had become a serious factor in Seoul’s diplomatic thinking. In many panels, both Koreans and Americans gave their views on this choice. Often, these opinions reflected a state of pessimism about both the impact of domestic politics in each country on the environment for choosing and the state of diplomacy with North Korea and the wider Northeast Asia. Concern was often raised about the degree to which national interests are being pursued under the guidance of experts—whether officials steeped in security analysis or social scientists informed on regional affairs—or are being disregarded by the unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of the White House and Blue House respectively. At risk is, first of all, a sustainable policy toward North Korea—the essence of alliance solidarity since the Korean War. Beyond that, there is fear of a loss of a shared understanding of the framework for regional coordination: for trilateralism with Japan; for a vision to address China and Russia’s growing challenges, individually as well as collectively; and even for a sense of fairness in making sacrifices needed for bilateral solidarity. Moon Jae-in seems obsessed with boosting ties to Kim Jong-un, as Donald Trump’s obsession with “America First” also casts doubt on the balance between national interests and values, even as Kim attempts to draw a wedge between the two, playing on national identity.

Relevant panels included: “Values or Interest?” “Nationalism or Internationalism?” “ROK-U.S. Alliance,” “US-Japan Alliance,” “Collective Memory or Collective Future?” “CVID or ‘Peaceful Coexistence?’” and “Is Democracy in Crisis?” There were also panels on “North Korea’s Choice: Nuclear Issue” and “North Korea’s Choice: Economic Reform.” By extracting comments from a wide range of panels, we can look for sustained themes that kept reappearing in presentations and questions. As for South Korea’s choice, seven questions may usefully guide our quest for sustained themes: 1) Are values or interests more decisive in making a choice that boils down to one between alliance and reunification? 2) Within the realm of values is the balance ultimately tilted toward nationalism or internationalism? 3) What is the glue holding together, more than anything else, the ROK-US alliance, values or interests? 4) How does the US-Japan alliance—viewed through the prism of values vs. interests—affect the determinants of Korea’s choice? 5) When Koreans consider the values driving their decision are they focusing more on collective memory or collective future? 6) How does the state of democracy in South Korea and the United States impact this decision? Finally, 7) how is North Korea’s choice on both the nuclear issue and economic reform influencing that of South Korea? 

To some extent, the choices facing the Moon administration resemble those other countries in East Asia and elsewhere face in the shadow of the Trump administration. Given Trump’s habit of devaluing alliances, signs of hedging against dependency on Washington have grown. Given the economic pull of China as the country’s principal trade partner, hesitation about becoming entrapped by US demands to stand against China’s policies is expected. Given unilateral moves by Trump on matters of vital national interest, resentment is understandable. Yet, the choice in most discussions of alternatives to Washington is Beijing. In the Moon era, there is scant talk of closeness between Seoul and Beijing, unlike 2013-15. The focus overwhelmingly is Pyongyang. This poses unique challenges: a divided nation with one side long threatening the other while posing a nuclear threat to the world and Seoul’s ally; an economic basket case ripe for worker integration into South Korean firms, but a state lacking rule of law and economic reform; and a centerpiece in regional balance of power maneuvering with potential to join Seoul and boost its leverage in regional geopolitics. Leaning to Pyongyang opens up complex questions at this time.

Values or Interests?

Panelists asked if values or interests should be the principles that determine the foreign policy of a nation in light of the shifting international environment. Trump is seen as leaning toward values, but narrow national ones in place of past US support for universal ones. Brexit reveals a Great Britain that allowed narrow national values to supersede universal ones and what many see as British national interests. Realists who stress concrete security or economic interests are eclipsed in Washington, at least with the dominance of far-right unilateralists, and in Seoul, with the dominance of far-left progressives intent on resolving intra-Korean issues for identity reasons. The idealists, pacifists, and Asian regionalists prone to ignore hard facts about tensions have been replaced by a different breed of national identity boosters ready to strain alliances.

Koreans are skeptical of idealism, which was found wanting when the March 1 movement came on the heels of Woodrow Wilson’s Versailles idealism but found no global resonance. Later, the fact that champions of the “free world” made their peace with South Korean dictators left a sour taste. Furthermore, there is no trust in Japan’s recent claims to the mantle of values leader in a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” Dropping human rights as a short-term concern in managing North Korea, Moon has moved further from universal values to national ones in his diplomacy.

One panelist rejected the false dichotomy of interests and ideas or values, since interests are mostly defined on the basis of who a country thinks it is, i.e., its identity as constructed through domestic politics. After the Cold War domestic politics and identities as well were released from the straitjacket of holding the line against communism, freeing Seoul to think of Pyongyang in a new light, especially as its economic weakness and isolation appeared to open the door to new approaches, and anti-communism no longer seemed pertinent. Meanwhile, domestic actors are able to gain traction with assertive claims about national identity that need to drive interests. In defining Korea’s choice there is more distancing from US interests and US-led value diplomacy.

US pursuit of values in Iraq as neo-conservatives exaggerated the receptivity to the US invasion with little grasp of the values present undermined the appeal to universal values. US failure to do much more than mouth slogans about North Korea in response to its defiance raised doubts too about the relevance of universal values to resolving the rising North Korean threat. In this environment, South Korean progressives found room to pursue different values, appealing to a shared history and Korean identity. Yet, conservatives found little reason to trust that the North would be responsive to those values, given how encrusted its Kim family theocratic values have become. Meanwhile, the widening values gap and new confrontation between Washington and Beijing leave Koreans, especially progressives, determined to stay away on the sidelines. To the degree that this is the great power values divide of our times, replacing the “free world” versus communism, it prompts South Koreans to lean toward avoidance, opening more space for the choice of North Korea as a values target. China’s shift from national interests in the forefront under Deng Xiaoping to values, as if it can forge a “community of common destiny” not only with economic ties but with some degree of value agreement, also alienates South Koreans. Yet, Chinese insist that China respects value diversity as it does multiple economic models and that it is opposed to national identities hostile to regional multilateralism and globalization without acknowledging the reality perceived by others. By advocating that Seoul choose to be a bridge between China and the United States and keep its autonomous pursuit of Pyongyang despite US concerns, Chinese take a position on Korea’s choice implicitly serving their national interest.

Attentive to the widening Sino-US divide but wary of rhetoric that China is a revisionist power, some suggest that middle powers including South Korea band together and stand apart from the two combatants, striving to soften their contestation. This is based both on an impression that national interests overlap among these other states and that they are not entrapped by the national identity arguments of the two great powers. Thus, Korea has a choice, which is manifest not only in its divergence from the US in North Korean diplomacy but also in its role in regional diplomacy, remaining at a distance from the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy and from the US-Japan push for alliance trilateralism in Northeast Asia or the regional Quad. So far, however, suggestions that middle powers can promote values or serve as a bridge between China and the US fly in the face of these great powers’ disinclination to listen and the urgency of the North Korean nuclear crisis, which leaves little room for other themes to gain headway. At present, trade is also divisive, as the Sino-US divide is playing out unpredictably on that front.


Nationalism or Internationalism?

Before addressing the impact of nationalism, panelists asked what happened to internationalism. The US-led international order has been exposed as fragile. When it was within the Cold War, global, bipolar order, it was framed in a manner that facilitated it. Afterwards, the lack of any consensus on a new international order became increasingly clear as multiple centers of power arose. Given that the liberal order has had ups and downs over 200 years, its latest setbacks may be seen as just another trough, as occurred in the perilous 1930s. There was even mention of the seeds of a backlash to the backlash of late already becoming visible. Yet, two worrisome matters could not be dismissed: the impact of Trump in undermining the pillars of the order such as the alliance system, free trade, international institutions, and a sense of democratic solidarity; and the failure to connect internationalism to building a more just society, as was done from the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the 1960s. Rebalancing the international-national connection is needed, listeners heard. This also requires accepting nationalism to some degree rather than letting a vacuum emerge to be filled by extremists on the right and the left. Divisions could be detected among those defending the old order, even if they agreed China’s BRI does not serve globalization since it is bilateral in nature and defies many of the principles of the liberal order.

An alternative viewpoint is that the international liberal order gained little from international institutions; UN paralysis has not served the cause of peace. Moreover, in this perspective, the main danger to the order and to democracy is the drive for imperial restoration by China, Russia, and Iran. The correct response is tighter alliances and coalitions, beginning with the Quad to the degree China proves a challenger to the order. The implication is that the US must assert itself more as a leader, as it did versus the Soviet Union in the final period, but also must make its appeal without insisting on narrow US interests, e.g. by recommitting to the TPP, while calling on allies to do a good deal more, akin to Trump’s demands for burden sharing. Whatever one makes of Trump’s tweets and excesses, the implication is that he is largely right in his course.

When asked how the tension between nationalism and internationalism affects Korea’s choice, the response indicated variations over time. From the 1960s nationalism was boosted by pride in Korean culture, expressed in competition with North Korean claims to have more legitimacy as the heir to tradition and the national liberation movement, and increasingly in economic results. Yet, with democracy, South Korea became a model for the world, soon backed by the global aura of its dramas and K-pop. “Global Korea” further boosted Korea’s image as a contributor to the liberal international order. Yet, the weight of internationalism was not as great as many said, especially for many left behind. Distrust of the US, as if it was in Korea for selfish motives, was one sign. Refusal to focus on Japan’s place in the liberal order rather than its pre-1945 history was another. The allure of reunification as a boost to nationalism was a third. Whenever the North opened the door to diplomacy, the response would test the degree of internationalism. In this discussion, there is the whiff of insufficient internationalism in doubts raised toward Seoul.

Tensions in the ROK-US alliance?

A subtext running through discussions of Korea’s choice is how are the strains in the alliance influencing that choice. Of course, when the alliance is proceeding smoothly, a choice at odds with strong US-ROK ties is unlikely. The very fact that a choice is up for discussion raises the level of tension in the alliance. So far, Kim Jong-un has cleverly driven a wedge between the two, recognizing that Moon Jae-in entered office eager for upbeat diplomacy with him, but he has not followed through with a strategy for widening the wedge by giving Moon adequate cooperation rather than hurling blame at Moon for being a lackey of the United States rather than a supporter of the national cause, which, naturally, Kim gets to define. This approach is too abrasive to give Seoul much of a choice. So far, the situation has remained sufficiently under control for officials from both Washington and Seoul to be able to insist that coordination is close and no gap exists, but few listeners to such optimistic claims are inattentive to the many strains testing relations.

Moon Jae-in keeps seeking sanctions relief, centering on intra-Korean projects, at odds with the US insistence on maximum pressure until denuclearization. Neither holds tightly to these views, as Moon tries to show Kim Jong-un his commitment to their relationship even if he cannot really deliver, and Trump conveys an image of toughness when he is actually eager to cut a deal. Both give the impression of dismissing the other’s concerns, even if some think that this is a “good cop, bad cop” situation. Observers cannot avoid the conclusion that the alliance is in trouble, viewing the cause in values more than interests. It is likely that few who focus on the theme of “Korea’s choice” treat Moon’s inclinations as a sober reflection of national interests. Similarly, Trump is not known for weighing national interests in his spontaneous decision-making tweets. Yet, many view Trump as the greater danger for the alliance since he disparages it and demands changes to bilateral relations regarded as bullying in Seoul with threats of what he might do.

Is the US-Japan alliance affecting Korea’s choice?

Panelists discussed Korean envy and resentment of the US-Japan alliance overshadowing the US-ROK one. One is broadening in scope, the other narrowing. One is characterized by unusual personal chemistry, the other by short meetings with little substance. One responds to the rise of China and the search for a multilateral security framework, the other seeks to avoid sensitive issues. National interests between Tokyo and Washington are seen as overlapping heavily, while those of Seoul and Washington are viewed lately as potentially conflicting. Yet, US voices are keen to emphasize trilateral overlap in values and interests, which the other two treat skeptically. In the Cold War era divisions within Japan appeared more threatening to the alliance framework, while the threat of North Korea was presumed to keep South Koreans in tow. Increasingly, since 1990 it is the South Korean side that has proved more problematic for the US, given the success of progressives and their shift in thinking about North Korea as well as China. Add the trilateral factor, and the mix grows more volatile; Tokyo exacerbates the divide between Washington and Seoul. The two tug the US in different directions, not only in their recurrent history wars, but in their appeals on North Korea and China. Should Trump alienate both simultaneously, such as by imposing tariffs on cars exported to the US, they could be driven to find common cause, but that is not happening now. Decoupling with China also could cause similar pain in the two. For now, the focus in Tokyo and Seoul is on what divides them bilaterally and in relations with the US.

If North Korea were set aside, the US military presence in South Korea would lack much of a rationale, while in Japan it combines all forces, covers a wide range of Asia, and keeps growing stronger in the vital maritime domain. It is indispensable for the US remaining a power in the Indo-Pacific. One panelist pointed to drift in the US-Japan alliance during the early 1990s, but as coordination toward China intensified, the alliance found new energy. In contrast, as snags in US-ROK coordination toward North Korea have arisen, the alliance faced new uncertainty. In the near future that may change: US-Japan coordination on China is less clear of late, and US-ROK coordination on North Korea could strengthen quickly. The “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” remains vaguely defined with sharp differences over trade policy proving worrisome at this time, and Japan has found an accommodation with BRI that the US has clearly not. Still, the Japanese embrace of collective self-defense has been a boon to the alliance. In contrast, Seoul’s refusal to expand the scope of the alliance and, lately, its alienation of Japan, raise doubt about the alliance.


Blame assigned to Seoul for the deterioration in Japan-ROK relations in 2018-19 puts the onus on its values for interfering with its national interests and US ones too. This adds to mistrust over differences in how to deal with North Korea and over tensions aroused by Trump’s heavy hand in bilateral disputes. While the Moon administration seeks to explain differences as due to national interests in regard to North Korean and regional policy, it has a hard time doing so for its Japan policy, which only casts a shadow on the other choices. Japan has become a litmus test; Korean appeals to universal values for the “rule of law” and abuse of women are not persuasive.  

Collective Memory or Collective Future?

Two types of memories compete: One of an incomplete, divided nation and a humiliated one at the hands of at least one great power; and the other of a country that has already made its choice for democracy, free trade, and the liberal international order—together bringing an “economic miracle,” albeit one that left many people behind, and a respected place within the G20 and other international institutions. The direction has been set, and, while there is still work to be done, no major course correction is needed. Those with a collective memory of humiliation are prone to view the future differently, often assessing the regional order differently as well. For them, the existing order is rooted in bad, if necessary bargains, which a pro-active Korea could lead in transforming. Thus, memories are linked to policy choices and different future destinies. Conservatives and progressives differ in the memories they highlight and the future they foresee.

Comparisons of Europe’s earlier success in envisioning a collective future while East Asia is stuck in the rut of divisive historical memories shaped some of the discussion. Memory is fluid, and memory fields can be manipulated to control the present and heavily shape the future. Such reconstructed recollections serve those aiming to concentrate political power. Indeed, leaders of other states may be susceptible to history lessons that privilege one state over another. Xi Jinping is known to give Trump, who has an unusual degree of ignorance and does not agree to briefings of much substance from his own experts, lessons on Taiwan and South Korea as well as Japan. It is not clear if in their meetings with Trump, Abe or Moon have had similar success in imparting their own national viewpoints on history. In any case, the countries of East Asia, despite shared traditions, have never forged a community since Japan lost its empire, whose memory is divisive. If a collective future requires a collective memory, East Asians are moving away from that, not toward it. Koreans resent Japan’s distorted memories, fear the consequences of discussing with China clashing memories, and have found no way to discuss with North Korea their history in the Korean War or afterwards. As interests have yielded to values in driving foreign policy, historical revisionism has spread. Panelists who argued that truth is the key to reconciliation have no reason for optimism that the quest for truth is advancing, suggesting that even if leaders find a way to reduce tensions and increase dialogue, they have no prospect of finding reconciliation.

Korea’s choice with its Asian neighbors offers no prospect of reducing historical memory gaps and no path to a collective future in which values are shared rather than something to avoid if tensions are not to be exacerbated. Sticking with the US on the foundation of universal values is the only promising path to avoid this awkward state of alienation over the past and silence over the future beyond less sensitive, non-identity themes, one heard. Japan-bashing, China-avoidance, and North Korea-pretense about a distant history are not pathways to increased mutual trust.

Impact of the state of democracy in South Korea and the US?

A sharp exchange arose over whether democracy is in crisis, ranging broadly in geography but with few unaware that this is a divisive theme for the United States. If voters are distracted from making choices on the basis of factual assessments of their personal interests and national ones and respond largely on the basis of messages that tug on their emotional heartstrings by leaders proficient in messaging national identity themes, then democratic outcomes may be distorted, and a systemic crisis may arise, was one viewpoint. Others wondered if the Park Geun-hye fall from grace, while arousing an unmistakable democratic backlash, had not muddied the waters as voters turned against conservatives, giving the opening to the progressives. If there is little talk in Seoul of democracy in crisis after the vibrancy of the “candlelight demonstrations,” the relentless divide between two camps with clashing views has parallels with the current US gap between two camps, which have little trust in each other and are at odds on the most fundamental issues.

Increased disenchantment with the results of elections and the imperfections of democracy as it exists—insufficient balance of power, doubts about the rule of law, the rise of winner-take-all approaches, vindictive policies toward the losers, and attempts to skew the playing field for an advantage—have raised doubts about democracy itself. There is erosion in the legitimacy of democratic systems. The forces able to take power have less capacity for reform, eroding the social foundation of democracy. Loss of economic sovereignty in hyper-globalization has had an impact too. If people cannot agree on facts, democracy further suffers. Yet, a counterargument held that the Cold War was when totalitarianism flourished, and now, despite some setbacks, the number of democracies is greater, and the free market, the foundation of democracies, is doing well. If Obama did too little to resist the growing threats to the US, Trump should be credited with invigorating the struggle against democracy’s enemies and pressuring others to support the cause, it was argued. If some have been drawn to the Chinese model, it has nearly run its course. Thus, there is no alternative to democracy, and perceived problems in the US are not serious.

Impact of North Korea’s choice?

If Kim Jong-un is not serious about denuclearization, as most assume, and grows impatient about sanctions relief, as is increasingly apparent after the Hanoi summit, Moon Jae-in has scant room to choose a course of diplomacy with him that would be perceived in Washington as picking the other side. However much some try to keep hopes alive after the Hanoi summit, as if it were not a failure, the path forward for Moon is not promising. He could defy the US with overtures that undermine the sanctions regime with little likelihood that Kim would offer much in return. His best bet has been to work hard at persuading Kim to take a different course, but he appears to have spent more energy on luring Trump to join his strategy with some success but with doubtful prospects apart from serving Trump as an election campaign subterfuge. Moon is known to favor a “small deal” with room for North-South economic projects, as if engagement of this sort would build trust and even lead to denuclearization, but this is precisely the choice most in Washington as well as conservatives in Seoul would find unacceptable and bereft of optimism.

For Seoul to have a choice, as seen outside the Moon administration, depends on Kim making a choice that Moon claimed he was ready to make but subsequent evidence shows is not happening. Thus, it really is not South Korea’s choice that we should be discussing but that of the North. Indeed, if Kim opts for a path to compromise, which could raise hopes for denuclearization, Moon would be joined by the US in engaging Kim to encourage this result. In that sense, it is also not Seoul’s choice but that of Washington that would matter. Of course, there are grey areas of potential compromise the two allies might interpret differently, but so far Kim has stayed well away from the negotiations and give-and-take that would lead in that direction.    


South Korea is not making a choice in a vacuum. Indeed, it is a reactive, middle power in the midst of five assertive states not prone to follow its lead. If the US were normal in support of the pillars of the liberal, international order, its choice might be easier, but Trump has the dual effect of alienating Seoul and encouraging it—both in ways unlike prior US presidents–in its overtures to Pyongyang. If North Korea were normal in pursuing serious diplomacy with the South or even consistent with its belligerent past, that too would simplify Seoul’s option. Indeed, if China were to go back to its less assertive posture of the early 2000s, that also would make Seoul’s choice easier. Instead, Moon Jae-in both senses an opportunity—due to unusual changes in the region—and is willing to take risks because he recognizes that his country has been driven into a corner.

The overwhelming impression is that South Korea made its choice for the US-led international order steeped in universal values long ago, and there is little prospect of change. China has failed to build confidence that its regional leadership would be beneficial for the South, and the North Koreans have gone no further than vague overtures in 2018 toward a less antagonist co-existence. Even if Trump alienates Moon Jae-in and the Korean people, he is not seen as representing the US outlook over the long run. Fears about what might happen in the short run do not amount to a case for making a far-reaching, irreversible transformation in foreign policy orientation. Already in 2019, the possibilities appear to be narrowing for veering in a different direction, but there is still room for unpredictability given Kim’s impatience, the chaotic decision-making of Trump, and the sense in the Moon administration that this rare opportunity should not be lost.