Country Report: South Korea (July 2015)

With the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war and the division of the Korean Peninsula coming up in August, diplomatic challenges continued, especially in South Korea’s relationships with North Korea and Japan. It was commonly noted that the upcoming anniversary is the best opportunity to make a breakthrough in the two stalled relationships. Following the North’s reputed SLBM missile launch, reported execution of Hyun Young-chul, and rejection of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the Kaesong industrial complex, doubts over the North’s political stability spread. An expected meeting in celebration of the June 15 joint declaration was cancelled, and a co-host event on August 15 is unlikely. With Tokyo, however, dialogue is proceeding through different channels. The defense ministers met, and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se visited Japan for the first time during his term. Park and Abe attended events held in Tokyo and Seoul, respectively, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the normalized relationship on June 22.


Signs of easing tensions were found around June 22, the fiftieth anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations. The wartime sex slave issue remains most critical for moving forward, but voices from both ideological ends have been raised in regards to holding a summit meeting to discuss the issue. When a group of 16 Japanese associations on history studies made a statement recognizing the forced nature of sex slave recruitment, the Korean media asked Abe to recognize the truth and include an apology in the Abe statement expected to be released in August. A May 27 Joongang Ilbo article highly appreciated the scholars’ statement but criticizes the Japanese media except for Asahi Shimbun for not publishing this news. Analysis on why the bilateral relationship has reached the current impasse was ample over the last two months. On June 23, a Donga Ilbo article appreciated the two leaders’ decision to attend the embassy celebrations but found fundamental differences in their speeches. The author argues that Park highlights resolving their historical memory conflicts, but Abe underlines bilateral and trilateral cooperation in facing a rising China. Both reiterated the importance of “trust,” but they failed to build a consensus to move forward. Reiterating the leaders’ role in thawing the frozen relationship, the author urges these two leaders to meet and discuss the future together. On the same day, a Chosun Ilbo article also highlighted the role of leaders in improving the bilateral relationship. Saying that past summits have been at the forefront in complicating this conflict, the author insists that such outcomes resulted from perceptions that see the relationship as “zero sum.” Arguing that this perspective does not reflect the reality, the article concludes that a Japanese apology on the history of colonization and invasion should be the starting point to advance the bilateral relationship. On June 21, a Kyunghyang Shinmun observer acknowledged the limits of the normalization process 50 years ago, when Seoul had to compromise in exchange for economic development assistance. However, the author reiterates that half a century is long enough to achieve genuine reconciliation. While blaming Japan’s attitude for blocking much improvement, the author urges Korean leaders not to provoke Japan unnecessarily to take further retrospective steps, adding that a summit meeting should not be conditioned on resolving the “comfort women” issue, as the approach only delays both holding a meeting and resolving the issue. Some find the reason for the current stalemate in the process of normalization. A June 22 Hangyoreh columnist said that the current conflict is a consequence of the 1965 normalization treaty, which skipped resolving the history issue and failed to meet the needs of the changing era. The Cold War is over, and Seoul has achieved rapid economic growth and democratization. The author refers to the 1998 joint declaration by Kim Dae-jung and Obuchi Keizo to show a way forward, in which Obuchi apologized for Japanese colonization and Kim highly appreciated the Japanese contribution to world peace and prosperity in the postwar era. Nam Ki-jung opined in the June 7 Daily Hanguk that the 1965 treaty left the history issue in a state of “convenient misinterpretation,” which left room for different ways of comprehending it. The author introduces two opposite perspectives on the issue. Some argue that misinterpretations should be ended by revising the treaty. Others assess this vagueness as enabling the two countries’ cooperation and opening the way for evolution to bear fruit in the 1995 Murayama statement and 1998 joint declaration. Despite improvement in the quantity and quality of interactions, the author finds that the bilateral relationship is perceived to be based on conflicts. In turn, the relationship has become the object of fear, which makes emotions come before rationality. Referring to Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, the author warns of the danger of “national sentiment” in the diplomacy of a democratic country and concludes that the two countries need to get out of this “trap” to have a new 50 years ahead.

A June 24 Chosun Ilbo column prioritizes the need to normalize diplomacy before the bilateral relationship can advance. The observer criticizes the two countries’ diplomacy for not functioning properly, as was revealed in the UNESCO battle. While blasting Japan’s attempt to get recognition only for the selected time frame as another form of history distortion, the article argues that it was not worth getting the ministers involved. This is one more proof that there has been no diplomacy, just attacks against the other side, since Park and Abe took office. The article suggests that the bilateral relationship has been considered only through the prism of five-year presidential cycles since the 1987 democratization. Within each cycle, the diplomatic trajectory changes from the extreme of reconciliation to the opposite extreme of collision, usually from the former to the latter. Park chose to follow the same steps, but in a reversed way from the latter to the former. Adding that the biggest diplomatic mistake under the current administration has been to block all of the diplomatic channels, the article urges a longer-term vision of diplomacy

A June 26 Hangyoreh columnist eyes the aftermath of the Abe statement to be released in August. The author foresees that the statement is unlikely to include an expression of apology or regrets for the past. Also, Japanese news has started reporting that the statement is to be a personal statement not representing the government. Arguing that there is no diplomatic means to stop it beforehand, the author asserts the only thing South Korea can do is to cause the statement to be forgotten by the public. The 2010 statement by Prime Minister Kan Naoto is recalled. Kan was the first prime minister to officially acknowledge that the Japanese colonialization was against the Korean public’s will. However, Seoul’s response to it was frosty. The author introduces criticisms written by himself at the time and says that they were not wrong but too harsh, adding that the Kan statement has slipped from memory five years later in Korea. The article says that the Abe statement is not the end of the bilateral relationship and should be forgotten. It urges Seoul to look beyond the Abe administration and make Japan know the possibilities the two countries can achieve when the history issue is rightly resolved.

The DPRK When Pyongyang claimed to have succeeded in its SLBM test on May 10, South Korea’s strategy against the North was heavily criticized for being too defensive. On May 11, a Joongang Ilbo article warned that the North’s SLBM deployment could be a game changer, making a preemptive attack on the North’s nuclear-armed missiles impossible. As South Korea’s current strategy depends on the US extended deterrence and nuclear umbrella, the author called on the international community to change its perception of the North’s nuclear weapons. When the South Korean NSA revealed that Hyun Young-chul had been executed, Kim Jung-un’s politics of fear were also intensely discussed, most concluding that this reveals internal instability and Kim’s irrational politics. A Chosun Ilbo columnist argued that Kim Jung-un is practicing the politics of fear internationally as well as domestically. Calling it a “nuclear shadow” strategy, the author concludes that Kim is trying to give the impression that he is “reckless and unreadable” enough to actually use nuclear bombs. It was added that South Korea’s current Kill Chain and KAMD have not yet reached the level to find and nullify all of the North’s nuclear weapons, and planning for a preemptive attack against the nuclear state is not realistic.The author finds that a fundamental problem exists in Seoul’s defensive strategy for responding to the North’s provocations. Arguing that the strategy has not only been very costly but ineffective in facing a nuclear North Korea, the author calls for refocusing on a “balance of terror,” which has been at the core of international peace. Diagnosing the greatest danger in the bilateral relationship as the imbalance of terror, the author suggests three pillars of a new strategy. The first should be a mission to “certainly” kill North Korea’s leaders, including Kim Jong-un, as a top priority in case of a crisis. The second is to temporarily have an option of nuclear armament when the US extended deterrence is proven to be ineffective against the North’s nuclear threat. Kill-Chain and a missile defense system follow as the third pillar. The author concludes that peace on the peninsula can be secured only when the North’s nuclear weapons are rendered useless. On May 29, another columnist of Chosun Ilbo shed light on “the imbalance of military forces,” asserting that Pyongyang has the absolute upper hand in its nuclear weapons, missiles, and biochemical weapons, for which Seoul has no match, despite the former’s poor economy and outdated conventional military arms. The author argues that Seoul cannot overcome its inferiority in the above areas but has absolute superiority in another area, i.e., disclosing the truth through flyers and radio broadcasts. The North’s hysterical responses show how effective these are. Criticizing the fact that this impact is not duly appreciated in the South, the author insists that the South Korean government should not give up its only superior power against the North and should strengthen this power when Pyongyang increases its level of provocations. A May 27 Donga Ilbo observer also finds an imbalance of threats. Quoting a military official, the author calls the North Korean nuclear threats and South Korean responses “flying spears” and “crawling shields,” respectively. Seoul is denounced for having overlooked the evolving threats and focusing merely on defensive measures. Its defense budget is three to four times bigger than the North’s, but it has been ambushed several times. South Korea has not yet laid out a solid strategy toward the nuclear North. KAMD is to be built in the mid-2020s. At sea, the North has increased the number of smaller submarines to overcome its technical inferiority, and the strategy proved effective when the Cheonan warship was torpedoed despite its superior quality. The South has only one-fourth the number of submarines, and the imbalance will be bigger once the North has a submarine loaded with SLBMs. As for cyber war forces, the number is only one-tenth of what the North has. The author urges the South Korean military to develop “the hedgehog concept strategy.” A middle-sized submarine loaded with SLBMs targeting the leadership of the North, HPM missiles disabling the North’s nuclear and missile arsenals, and EMP (Electromagnetic Pulses) are suggested as specific examples. On May 19, a Hangyoreh columnist found the reason for Kim’s politics of fear in “adventurism” deriving from systematic rigidity. However, the author also blames neighboring countries, especially the United States and South Korea, for choosing confrontation over peace via dialogue. Arguing it is because the confrontation is convenient for the arms business, the author insists that the impact of the North’s SLBM test is also being exaggerated. Though experts agree that it is just at the beginning level technically, analysis that it can be deployed in the field in a few years was added to make the issue an imminent threat. It is now discussed in Seoul as if a nuclear submarine is needed and KAMD must be restructured. Such reasoning justifies the trilateral ROK-US-Japan security cooperation and THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. The author sees a vicious cycle at work leading to the fourth nuclear test by the North. It is urged that “a new playing field” be set up to end the cycle. The article concludes that South Korea is the only country to have the motive and the capability to take the initiative through conversations with the North and other countries in the Six-Party Talks to avoid another nuclear test. Kim Byung-yun opined in the June 4 Joongang Ilbo that Kim Jung-un’s politics of fear are a rational choice. It is to protect his power from threats posed by reduced funds caused by decreasing remittances, a repealed inflation tax, and the expansion of the market economy. Kim insists that sanctions or pressure against Pyongyang increase the level of fear and effectively stabilize the dictatorship in the short term. In response to the extreme politics of fear, the article concludes that pressure and sanctions only expedite this process, and that constant engagement is the path for peaceful reintegration. Cho Dong-ho also sees that engagement rather than the current approach would stabilize the Korean Peninsula in an article on May 13 in Chosun Ilbo. Cho argues that Kim has prioritized the economy over nuclear weapons to open the country proactively, as shown in the number of newly designated special economic zones. If the current economy first policy fails to have a meaningful achievement sooner or later, voices in favor of prioritizing nuclear weapons would gain support. Cho assesses Kim Jung-un’s economy first policy as more beneficial to South Korea than Kim Jung-il’s military first policy. Pointing out the reality that Kim Jung-un, as an hereditary leader, finds it impossible to abandon the nuclear weapons legacy, Cho urges Seoul to help North Korea achieve some small success in the economic sphere so as to overpower the pro-nuclear party. South Korean Diplomacy

The Park administration’s diplomacy, which used to be her most popular attribute in public opinion results, is being criticized. It is mostly assessed as too simple and rigid to adjust to the complicated and constantly changing regional circumstances. On May 15, a Chosun Ilbo observer said that Park earned domestic popularity with her principled policy, but it has come at a cost of missing several chances to improve relations with Japan and North Korea. The article pointed out how much Seoul’s position has been reversed with the two countries. At the South Korea-US-Japan trilateral summit meeting held in March last year, Park was cold and avoided eye contact with Abe, who greeted her in Korean with a smile. The author criticizes this as a typical example of Park putting her emotions first, unnecessarily worsening conflicts. After Abe had summit meetings with Obama and Xi, Park said, “South Korean diplomacy is not buried in the history issues and is going to expand economic and security cooperation.” The author criticizes that this is like holding out one’s hands after the other side already has taken its back. With North Korea, Park rejected its suggestion early last year to “take pragmatic measures to stop all the slanders,” blaming its unreliability. Instead of sticking to her pledge of trustpolitik, Seoul lost a chance to figure out Kim Jung-un as a leader. The inter-Korean relationship has become more complicated and further out of control. Now, the Park administration suggests having a dialogue regardless of its format. Blaming lack of flexibility for the current circumstances, the article worries that South Korean diplomacy is falling short.

Another Chosun Ilbo article on May 28 remembers the mathematician John Nash to appreciate the simplicity and universality of “the Nash equilibrium” in game theory. The author argues that the theory starts from knowing a partner. By objectively responding to the partner without rage, sometimes the weak side’s strategic position changes to the stronger. Calling South Korea’s diplomacy a highly advanced game, the article finds that too many partners and variables have made it difficult to understand for the general public. Though diplomacy is critical to their survival, it has lost their attention. Reiterating that “every game has a Nash equilibrium,” the observer questions what equilibrium Seoul is seeking, and whether South Korean diplomacy knows its partners. The article concludes that strategic thinking requires knowledgably approaching a partner for survival, even when it is a devil.

Choi Young-jin, former ambassador to the United States, appeals in the May 12 Maeil Business Newspaper for overcoming “self-imposed victimization” (피해의식) in diplomacy. Choi finds this to be a reason for stalled diplomacy, which has naturally emerged in the repeated history of invasion and colonization. The victimization has created a “national sentiment” (국민정서) that burdens diplomacy with excessive worries and criticism. Though the era of a war paradigm is over and has been replaced by a trade paradigm, South Korean diplomacy still operates under the past framework, the author concludes. For instance, the new era of a honeymoon between Washington and Tokyo would be the best means to suppress Japan’s ambitions for imperialism, if they actually existed, under the trade paradigm, but it is mostly misperceived as the start of another era of isolation and loss, as if countries were still operating under the war paradigm.

Arguing that Seoul began to engage with the power and alliance system to exercise independent diplomacy only with the beginning of the twenty-first century, the author asks for a proactive diplomatic strategy matching its changed power and responsibility. As for THAAD, Choi suggests that the Park administration announce a policy that “THAAD is a bilateral issue and the two countries have to decide on its deployment. However, South Korea will technically review it to examine whether THAAD may possibly have a negative impact on China’s security.” On the relationship with Japan, the author finds it unrealistic to expect a resolution of history issues through dialogue with the Abe administration and insists that Seoul needs to have a bilateral summit in the shadow of a multilateral event in order to prepare for the post-Abe era. More engagement and dialogue is recommended also with Pyongyang. Pointing to 18 months of confident negotiations before the US-Cuba normalization treaty, Choi highlights the importance of conversation and contact at a time when trust is hard to build.

A May 26 Kyunghyang Shinmun columnist eyes a changed regional order and the need for increased Korean diplomacy. Against comments arguing that there is a diplomatic crisis based on closer ties between the United States and Japan and a reconciliatory mood between China and Japan, the article instead argues that these are good signs for Seoul. The former is just a result of two countries’ matching interests, in which South Korea is irrelevant, and the latter relaxes tension in the region. However, the author criticizes the inertia of South Korean diplomacy only to pursue a stronger US alliance no matter what happens. Showing concern that Seoul is being pressured to be part of the incredibly costly US missile defense system and that the alliance is becoming a subset of the US-Japan alliance to be on the front line against China, the author insists that there is no room for the South Korea-US alliance to be strengthened, mentioning the FTA in effect, the nuclear umbrella, and the US OPCON. The author underlines that the interests of the two countries do not match in Northeast Asia. The North Korean nuclear issue is vital to South Korean security, but for the United States it is merely a regional issue and perceived as less threatening than a possible Iranian nuclear state. In addition, the alliance is functioning as an excuse to deploy or strengthen US military forces in the region to keep China in check. The author insists that the challenge the South Korean government faces is not to enhance the US alliance but to develop an independent approach on the issue of North Korea and to Northeast Asia, adding that we stand at the brink of an end of an era, when the regional balance depended on military alliances only, and urges Koreans to keep an eye on building a new security order in the region.

The United States and China: The South China Sea and “One Belt, One Road”

A May 28 Donga Ilbo article insists that South Korea should not be blinded by the North Korean threat to the regional order. It also needs to pay attention to the struggle for regional hegemony happening in the South China Sea. Beijing released its Defense White Paper to revise its strategy from defense oriented to a “proactive defense.” The United States had its biggest maritime exercises with the Philippines, and Japan is taking part in maritime exercises with Australia. Pointing out that an overwhelming share of South Korea’s oil imports and trade is passing through this area, the author argues that an unintended collision would badly harm both its economic and security interests. If Seoul misses the bigger picture to deal with the North Korean threat hastily, the article concludes, it will be marginalized among the big powers.

A Hangyoreh columnist sees that the conflict in the South China Sea has great significance for South Korea’s security strategy and the North Korean nuclear issue in an article published on June 9. China aims at achieving a strategic balance against the US military presence in East Asia, which includes the US forces in Seoul and Tokyo. THAAD will be another showdown, the author says. As simultaneous conflicts are hard to manage for both Beijing and Washington, they would weaken the drive to resolve the North Korean issue and favor the status quo. In response to Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel’s comment for Seoul to “speak out” on the maritime issue, the author insists that Seoul has no reason to pick a side. Highlighting that the Korean Peninsula issue has a higher priority, the author suggests creating a cooperative ambience between the two countries on the North Korean issue and extending it to the South China Sea.

Han Woo-deok explains “the China Paradox” in a Joongang Ilbo piece on June 1. This refers to Beijing’s initiative to expand cooperation with neighboring countries in proportion to China’s growing threat to them. Han assesses that this is in line with “the Asia Paradox” and the result of Asia’s unique political and economic circumstances, the only region where hegemonic competition of the twentieth century remains. Quoting China’s slogan “win-win cooperation” for the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the author states that it continues to be tricky to judge if the slogan is a disguised ambition for hegemony. However, participating in such endeavors fits South Korean’s interests, readers are told. Pointing out that Seoul missed the best time to join the AIIB because it was too concerned about the paradox, the article argues for joining the initiative proactively, while trying to persuade the United States to take a selective engagement approach.

Choi Byung-il suggests that South Korea forge a bridge between Washington and Beijing in a Donga Ilbo article on May 26, objecting to the strategy of “China on economy, US on security.” Choi sees that the launch of AIIB hikes the possibility of China’s “One Belt, One Road” becoming fully materialized. More profound strategic thinking and choices are required now, the author insists, as benefits embedded in the new Silk Road cannot be reaped without deeper economic cooperation with Beijing and other countries through which the road passes. There are two domestic challenges facing China: figuring out a specific way to open the service and investment sector and overcoming the opponents against it. Referring to the US-China BIT negotiations struggling against skepticism inside China, the author argues that if Beijing succeeds in overcoming opposition to signing the deal, the following South Korea-China FTA negotiations on this sector would be much easier. Furthermore, China possibly would join TPP. Such developments could lead to a new paradigm for pursuing peace and prosperity in the twenty-first century in Asia, in which Washington’s pivot to Asia and China’s peaceful rise would be harmonized, the author insists. Thus, Choi concludes South Korea needs to resolve its diplomatic dilemma by bridging the two powerful countries to point the way to the future.

  • Godfree Roberts

    “With the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war and the division of the Korean Peninsula coming up in August..”
    I’ve been out of the loop for the past 70 years. Will someone refresh my memory?
    Last thing I remember was the USA and Russia agreed to terminate their (quite illegal) occupations of Korea and let the country decide its own fate.

    Did that not happen? Why?