Country Report: South Korea (November 2015)

The first half of the fall was a trying period for South Korean diplomacy, which the conservative and progressive media viewed differently. There was a persistent sense of US pressure on the Park administration: against leaning toward China in support of reunification, for reassuring Washington that she is not leaning toward China, for accepting Japan’s new right of collective self-defense and strengthening trilateral ties, for a strong Park-Obama summit statement putting pressure on North Korea, for a clear affirmation of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and for a Park-Abe summit that would satisfy US expectations even if Abe did not offer a solution on the “comfort women” issue. Progressives were dissatisfied with the choices Park made, offering reasons why they were undesirable or unbalanced. Conservatives found more reason to be pleased, but their articles also show some concerns. In contrast to the previous two months, when the focus was on an assertive, rather autonomous foreign policy—toward Abe as he prepared his statement, toward North Korea when it escalated tensions, and in taking an independent stand toward China on September 3—, the priority of a successful Park-Obama summit was in the forefront.

Park’s Reunification Diplomacy and China’s Role

On September 10, a DongA Ilbo article criticized Park’s “reunification diplomacy” for its “overwhelming” pace. Citing the need for international empathy that the reunification is beneficial to neighboring countries and the world, it asserted that experts are concerned about whether it is appropriate to discuss the issue deeply with China before doing so with the United States, the ROK’s ally. Timing also matters. Washington is closely watching if Seoul is leaning toward Beijing, and both it and the ROK see no sign that Beijing would change its strategy to abandon its alliance forged in blood with North Korea. More importantly, there is no consensus in Seoul on how to pursue reunification. Arguing that Park is rushing to leave a legacy in her remaining time as president, the author advises her to focus on allaying an ally’s’ suspicions and laying down a cornerstone for a sustainable mid-term or long-term reunification policy, unlike what she is doing at this time.

On September 18, DongA Iblo carried an article by Chun Yungwoo, who opined that Park’s visit to Beijing was of less consequence than many in Seoul have argued. In response to growing expectations that China will help to resolve the nuclear issue and reunification, Chun calls them fantasies. It is undeniable that Beijing has the greatest influence on Pyongyang, but the problem is that it has no willingness to exercise the power to resolve the nuclear issue, because the stability of the DPRK is more important. Chun argues that South Korea’s intensified pursuit of Beijing on the issue will only increase Beijing’s voice in the region and not prove helpful to resolving the issue. He adds that the only way to achieve reunification is to reach an agreement between the two Koreas. China cannot stop the agreement nor force the North to have one. The only situation where China’s cooperation would be needed on reunification would be if North Korea collapsed, leading to anarchy, and South Korea’s military intervention were the only way to stabilize the status. Seoul needs to keep Beijing from intervening against such an effort, but it is doubtful if Beijing would conclude an official agreement on this, given the sensitivity of the issue. Readers are reminded that Beijing has financed the North’s nuclear arms development by limiting UN sanctions and increasing imports from it. Chun argues that Park’s attendance at the military parade has left the impression that South Korea is being incorporated into the Chinese hegemonic order. He concludes that the Park-Obama summit should be an opportunity to restore lost confidence by reaching agreement on military measures in response to the nuclear and missile threats.

A September 15 Chosun Ilbo article also calls it a fantasy to expect China’s help on reunification, i.e., Beijing cannot tolerate any type of reunification led by Seoul, as its first defense principle is not to share a border with a US military ally. Other major countries think the same way. Without Poland, Moscow would not have agreed on German reunification without military intervention. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the US invasion of Cuba in 1961 are explained by the same logic. History tells us that Beijing would not keep its hands off should South Korea lead in reunification, unless Seoul gave up its alliance with the United States or US forces were withdrawn. The article reiterates that as long as China needs North Korea as a buffer zone, its cooperation on Seoul’s reunification efforts cannot be expected.

The progressive Hangyoreh on October 1 warned of the danger of mounting expectations over China’s role, explaining that North Korea is both an asset and a liability to China. It gives Washington an excuse to be more active militarily in the region, actually targeting Beijing, while it leaves Beijing unable to join the trilateral band against North Korea, due to its function as a buffer zone. The author introduces a Huanqiu shibao piece to show China’s dilemma on the issue, asserting, “South Korea, the US, Japan, and North Korea all have a simple stance. China is in the trickiest situation.” Unlike the others’ view, Beijing is not in a position to control Pyongyang, the author makes clear (The author says Beijing does not have the power though the others think it has). The article argues after the military parade not to regard China as being “on Seoul’s side” nor count on it to press the North.

Liu Yunshan’s Visit and China – North Korea Relation

With Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, visiting Pyongyang, media discussed if the bilateral PRC-DPRK relationship is to be restored. It is the first time that a member of the Standing Committee has visited North Korea since Xi took the office. Liu was right next to Kim all the time, showing that he was treated with honor. Also, Kim did not fire any missiles or mention nuclear weapons in his speech. It was a positive meeting, the beginning of a relationship between Xi Jinping and Kim Jung-un, but concerns are being raised about the consequences of China’s sudden policy shift for the region.

On October 11, a Hangyoreh article argues that the meeting shows that the two countries’ needs overlap. It quoted an unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing, saying, “China seems to play the card of restoring the bilateral relationship in response to the enhanced US Asia rebalancing strategy.” And Pyongyang was desperately in need of China’s assistance in the economic area primarily, but in others also. Projecting accelerating economic cooperation and high-level official meetings, the author insists that South Korea’s North Korean strategy should be revised. Seoul has been pushing China to have Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons. The article concludes, quoting Lee Huiok saying, “As Xi’s ideas have common ground with Park, to encourage the North to change and achieve stability on the Korean Peninsula, Seoul needs to take proactive steps together.”

On October 17, Joongang Ilbo carried an article by John Everad, the former UK ambassador in Pyongyang, who opines that the honeymoon era is to begin between the two. Beijing can enjoy three benefits from it. First, it can rebuild the only ally and prevent an undesirable way of reunification of the peninsula. Second, it can reduce the risk of the North’s missile or nuclear tests. Last, its influence over North Korean lawmakers, which was lost for the last few years, would be restored. China has been dissatisfied with the fact that it was not able to figure out what is going in Pyongyang. The author surmises that the October 10 meeting will be remembered as a historic moment and adds that it is not a good sign for Seoul, as Pyongyang is becoming more dependent on Beijing.

On October 12, a Chosun Ilbo observer argued otherwise that the summit was not necessarily an alert for South Korea. Pyongyang did not launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and China played a role in that. The author sees the unexpected visit by Chinese key officials as opening the possibility of ties improving beyond expectations. Reminding readers that Pyongyang has repeatedly made provocations right after its temporary gestures of reconciliation, the author is concerned that Beijing’s policy changes should be based on more concrete and fundamental changes from the North. The author also urges Beijing to assure Kim Jung-un that nuclear weapons and missiles cannot revive its economy nor the relationships with neighboring countries. On the same day, a DongA Ilbo columnist appreciated China’s success in stopping the North’s provocations, but was also wary of a possible hasty move from China. Given that Liu was the only high-level foreign official attending the anniversary and Kim said, “North Korea and China have a strategic relationship rooted in a traditional friendship forged in blood,” the author argued that both sides want to restore the good, old relationship. For sure, it is a good sign that Kim highlighted the “people” in his speech and did not launch missiles. However, Kim would not easily give up nuclear weapons, as he was reported to have avoided discussing the Six-Party Talks with Liu and recently reasserted the need of nuclear development. Arguing that Beijing’s move, the only country to have influence in Pyongyang, would change the circumstances in the region, the author urged Park to cement trilateral cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Beijing against North Korean nuclear weapons at her meeting with Obama, agreeing on a detailed strategy.

On November 1, a Chosun Ilbo correspondent in Beijing raised a somewhat skeptical voice about the geopolitical circumstances behind China’s shift toward North Korea. It pointed out that Liu mentioned “peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula” before “denuclearization” in the meeting with Kim, as the first of three principles. The sequence remained the same in Seoul when Premier Li Keqiang met Park on October 31. It shows Beijing’s retreat from prioritizing “denuclearization” over “North Korea’s stability” since the North’s third nuclear test in 2013, readers are told. Then, the author sheds light on Xi’s state visit to Vietnam in the middle of a confrontation over the South China Sea to prevent it from leaning toward the United States. As Beijing does not want the US armed forces to cross the thirty-eighth parallel even after reunification, the author argues, it would not abandon Pyongyang. Though South Korea seemed to enjoy the best relationship ever with China, as good as the one North Korea had under Kim Il-sung, the author concludes that nothing much changed, after all, since then.

While the conservatives focused on China’s role and its implication, the progressives highlighted how South Korea can take advantage of the change to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table to abandon its nuclear weapons. On October 11, a Hangyoreh article argued that Kim’s conciliatory gestures show that he has started to put more weight on dialogue over confrontation. Before the meeting with Liu, Kim signed the 8/25 agreement with Seoul and suggested that the United States replace the armistice agreement with a new peace treaty. Readers are told that this series of actions should not be taken lightly. Pyongyang’s willingness now indicates that it may abandon its nuclear weapons, and Seoul needs to play a role in encouraging it. The article concludes that the Park-Obama summit should be the opportunity to forge a detailed strategy. On the same day, Kyunghyang Shinmun reiterated that South Korea needs to accept the North’s conciliatory gestures to lead the international efforts to resolve the nuclear issue. The article urges Park to check on the US willingness for her to conduct a summit with Kim.

Japan’s Right of Self-Defense and TPP

On October 14, a Hangyoreh observer concluded that this year marks the beginning of a new international system, designed by the United States to counter an emerging China. Called rebalancing, the US strategy has two core parts; expansion of Japan’s military role (collective self-defense) and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Washington is now equipped with these two mechanisms to shape a system likely to last over the next 10 years.

As for the right of collective self-defense, both left and right media outlets expressed concern that it would trigger an arms race in the region. Especially, the question of deploying Japan’s self defense forces (SDF) to the peninsula drew the spotlight. A September 21 Chosun Ilbo article understood why the question is being raised, given the history, but argued that the discussion is based on extreme assumptions and is blind to the real problems. The Japanese force cannot enter South Korea without the South’s consent. It might only do so when a North Korea-Japan war had begun or if Japan broke its alliance with the United States to pursue militarism. In addition, Seoul’s defense capability is not as weak as a century ago, when it could not stop Japan’s invasion. The real challenge facing South Korea is to find a way to cope with the changing security landscape of the region. While competition is growing between the United States and Japan on one side and China on the other, there is little discussion about what kind of defense capability South Korea needs to build with a limited budget—smaller than those of China and Japan—and more serious challenges, i.e., North Korea. The article warns of the danger of missing the reality due to excessive obsession with assumptions.

A September 19 Joongang Ilbo article expressed concern over the vicious circle the passage would cause in the region, but the reporter took some comfort in the public’s opposition in Japan. The article introduced Asahi Shimbun’s poll, in which 68 percent of the respondents disapproved, and it mentioned that Japanese are asking the fundamental question of how can they expect to keep the peace if the stance that has kept the country in peace for the last 70 years is to be abandoned. The author finds hope in the demonstrations calling for the repeal of these laws and in expected lawsuits finding them unconstitutional, initiated by civic groups, constitutional scholars, and opposition parties. Pointing out that Abe’s approval rate is as low as 30 percent, the author says it is worth taking a close look if Japan’s grass-roots opposition can overturn the decision.

On the same day, another observer in the same newspaper expressed a more pragmatic view. Agreeing that Japan’s shift will further trigger the arms race in the region, the observer also saw a benefit—South Korea’s deterrence against the North will be enhanced, as Tokyo can immediately react when Pyongyang attacks US forces near the peninsula. Concluding that what is done is done, the author urges Park to find a way to maximize Seoul’s national interests, such as expanding the exchange of military intelligence, while keeping the new Japan in check. The article proposes using the China-Japan-Korea (CJK) trilateral summit to express concerns and develop a mechanism to deal with them.

On the next day, a Chosun Ilbo article argued that the time has come to sketch the security picture in consultation with Tokyo, but it is very tricky. Washington wants to bolster the trilateral alliance against rising Chinese military power; however, the South Korean public is worried about Japan’s expanding military role and its history revisionism. Cooperation with Beijing is also required. The article concludes that South Korea’s priority is to figure out how to achieve stability and peace on the peninsula with Japan in the picture.

On September 19, a Hangyoreh article also urged that a pragmatic strategy should be found. It acknowledged a need for increased deterrence capacity and keeping China under control; however, if the law’s passage intensifies conflicts between Beijing and Tokyo, it would tie Seoul’s hands, the author argues. Thus, the article concludes that Seoul needs to avoid being deeply drawn into the South Korea-US-Japan military alliance to press China.

An October 17 Chosun Ilbo article looked into the geopolitical implications of TPP and “One Road, One Belt,” quoting Japanese Economic Minister Amari Akira, who hugged Trade Representative Michael Froman and said, “There were ups and downs, but we are like a family,” celebrating the conclusion of the talks. The article argued that by calling each other family the two countries showed that their interests perfectly coincide. At the “One Belt, One Road” seminar in Beijing, the participant countries endorsed China’s call for a “community of destiny.” This shows that China binds countries to its west, while the United States and Japan bind 12 countries around the Pacific—a confrontation between the continental power and the maritime power. The author quoted Obama saying, “The TPP means that America will write the rules of the road in the twenty-first century. If we don’t pass this agreement—if America doesn’t write those rules—then countries like China will.” The article added that South Korea’s entry into the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), the body funding “One Road, One Belt,” means that it is becoming part of the community of destiny (운명공동체), but its absence from TPP excludes it from the US and Japan family bond (혈연공동체). Citing a US think-tank’s report, supposing a war between Washington and Beijing, the author said that Seoul is avoiding making a decision where to put its weight between the two at a time when US anxiety over China is unimaginable, adding that Japan is aware of it, but Seoul is not and sends mixed signals to Washington.

The Park-Obama Summit

The assessment of the Park-Obama summit was split with North Korea the focus of the left and China of the right. Progressive outlets criticized the summit for failing to advance talks to resolve the nuclear threat. On the day after the summit, October 17, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article assessed that the primary goal was met, to some extent, to clear US suspicions that South Korea was leaning toward China. However, it failed to suggest an alternative on the DPRK issue, the starting point of which should be improvement in the bilateral relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. Though Park could have encouraged this, taking advantage of Kim Jong-un sending conciliatory gestures on the seventieth anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party as well as the 8/25 agreement, Park approved the mutual statement against the North to increase the level of pressure. The author criticized her for being too focused on the United States, and losing a sense of balance, while missing an opportunity to advance the relationship with Pyongyang.

On October 18, a Hangyoreh observer said that the top priority of the meeting should have been to resolve the nuclear issue; however, the results were disappointing, complicating the situation. Before the summit, Park stated the principle, “nuclear abandonment first, assistance later” several times, which figured in the meeting’s mutual statement. It not only increased pressure on the North, but also linked the nuclear issue with the inter-Korean relationship, making the situation worse. The author calls it a “stubborn hard policy,” failing to reflect the changing circumstances, i.e., the North’s conciliatory gestures and China efforts to resume its mediator role with the North. Quoting Park’s statement, “Now is the time to spread our history of creating miracles to the entire peninsula,” the piece questions the administration’s diplomacy capability. While the policy statement may have arisen in the context of clearing US suspicions, it could be interpreted by the North as “reunification by absorption” and by China as an intolerable threat. The article concludes that Park has been wavering between the China and the United States, causing distrust on both sides and a conundrum for herself.

Another Hangyoreh reporter also denounced the meeting for benefiting only the United States and China. Though the Blue House seems to give great significance to Park leading the discussion over reunification and North Korea in summits with both countries in the course of a month, the author says that the meetings have constrained South Korea’s role. The mutual statement, it is said, turned back the clock, reverting to “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement (CVID)”, as in the early phase of the Six-Party Talks. As Seoul has learned that Pyongyang is not going to accept these conditions, it is the same as giving full support to joining the US strategy to contain China, using the excuse of a nuclear DPRK. Washington’s gain is Seoul’s loss, leaving it no room to play a mediator role. It is China’s gain at the same time, readers are told. The statement says, “To deter any strategic provocation by the North, Korea and the United States will continue to strengthen coordinated efforts with the international community, including China, Russia and Japan.” The observer claims that this means the two countries will ask China to mediate with the North. Since Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo visited North Korea and no missiles were fired on October 10, experts expect that the China-North Korea relationship will be restored and economic cooperation accelerated. Under the current structure, China’s leadership would be acknowledged in the region and economic cooperation would facilitate development of the three Northeast provinces. It is a loss, again, for Seoul as the vision of “economic community of the Korean Peninsula” loses any significance. The article charges that Park’s reunification diplomacy has a fancy exterior but seems to help the two power countries not the two Koreas.

On the right, there was discussion of what South Korea’s strategy should be in the face of growing suspicion that it is leaning toward China. Mostly, it was agreed that the Obama summit cleared the suspicion to some degree. However, on October 19, a DongA Ilbo article warned that the problem is not so simple that it can be cleared through one meeting. It will be repeatedly raised, the more China’s emergence matches South Korean national interests and the more the US-Japan alliance tightens, the author argues. Though the two leaders said that South Korea’s relations with the United States and China are compatible, readers were told otherwise. Quoting Obama’s demand to “speak out” on the freedom of navigation issue, the observer argued that the hidden message is to stand on the US side at critical moments. It added that Washington’s patience is worn thin on the history conflicts with Tokyo, and Park has little time to drag out the issue; she needs to make a decision soon. The article concluded that the strategy should be more about managing the suspicion than trying to erase it all at once. 

On November 4, a Joongang Ilbo columnist assessed Obama’s call for Park to “speak out” on China as proof that the perception of South Korea leaning toward China, starting from rejecting Japan, is widespread. The Blue House’s emphasis on the achievement in alleviating suspicions indicates how much the Park administration was under stress. Then, the author questions if Seoul is actually leaning toward Beijing (중국경사론), insisting that it is not leaning but only considering China important (중국중시론). The bilateral relationship seems extraordinarily close under the Xi and Park administrations, but that is due to the gap during the previous Lee administration. The relationship is in the process of restoration. Attention is given to the fact that, economically, South Korea is highly dependent on exports, unlike Japan, a quarter of which go to China. In addition, the two countries share Confucianism; so have lower barriers to cultural exchange, it is said. As Seoul does not see Beijing as a competitor for leadership in the region, its emergence is generally considered an opportunity. The article argues that the framework created by Japan constrains South Korea’s diplomatic choices related to either the United States or China and leaves it under suspicion. The solution, the author argues, is to get out of this frame of reference. It is urged not to use the term leaning but say that Seoul regards China as important, as it does the United States and Japan.

The South China Sea and the US-China Conflict

Discussion over a balancing diplomacy extended to the South China Sea issue. On October 29, two days after tension escalated in the South China Sea, a DongA Ilbo article disapproved the government’s statement on the issue for giving a reluctant impression and ambiguousness. The tension shows that in the Sino-US power game, it is difficult not to provoke either side. However, the author questions how long South Korea is going to keep equivocating on a matter of national interest such as the South China Sea, through which 30 percent of its exports and 90 percent of imported energy pass. Strategic ambiguity has failed to meet the national interest. Arguing that the tension in the South China Sea is about international norms and rules of free navigation by which every country should abide, the author urges the Park administration to revisit its diplomacy principles and strategy. 

On the same day, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article agreed that China’s behavior is breaching international norms and is not desirable as a way for it to rise. However, the author also blamed the United States for choosing armed force over diplomacy. Though the US claims the right of innocent passage, it is disputed among experts on international law whether warships are entitled to this right. With most countries in the region, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, and Australia, supporting the United States, bilateral tensions make Asia more and more unstable and pose a serious threat to South Korea. The article concludes that diplomatic capacity is required to resolve the tensions in cooperation with neighboring countries.

A Chosun Ilbo article, published on November 5, opposes picking sides in the Sino-US struggle. Against the interpretation that Defense Minister Han Minkoo’s statement on the South China Sea at the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Plus put the weight on the US side, the author argues that this stance should be seen as in line with the international rule of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, not the US position. Also, China’s behavior is directly in opposition to South Korea’s interests. If South Korean cargo and vessels had to detour due to disputes on the sea, it would take two more days and hike costs tremendously. The article concludes that South Korea’s choice should not be about picking sides but about making an independent decision in accordance with international rules and consensus.

The South Korea-Japan Summit

The summit was seen in the two contexts of US-South Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation and the war-time sex slave issue. Mostly, the current two-track approach is approved at both ends of the ideological spectrum. More dialogue on the sidelines of upcoming multilateral forums is encouraged. An October 13 Joongang Ilbo article says that the hidden agenda of the Park-Obama summit might be the South Korea-Japan relationship. With Japan’s right of collective self-defense passed and TPP negotiations concluded, Washington can complete its rebalance policy by improving this bilateral relationship to reinforce trilateral cooperation. The author urges the two leaders to break the current stalemate, as it would be the last chance to make an agreement on some sensitive issues, including the sex-slave issue, and as prospects will dim with elections scheduled in both countries. Pointing out that the relationship is too much driven by emotions, the article calls on Park and Abe to show leadership and vision.

After the summit, it was generally agreed that there was no fruitful outcome, but the mere fact that it occurred is meaningful. A November 3 Joongang Ilbo article opined that the relationship should be seen in a broader context, given the complex circumstances in East Asia. Readers are told that the United States should remain as a strong pillar in the region. Then, a working trilateral alliance is essential, and it requires cooperation between the two countries. Also, to build the Northeast Asian Economic Community, suggested at the trilateral CJK meeting, restoring the bilateral relationship is necessary. The author acknowledges there was no practical solution at the meeting, but urges the two leaders to have more dialogue on the sidelines of multi-national talks. A November 2 Kyunghyang Shinmun observer also supports more dialogue, arguing that even the sex slave issue, where the starkest difference exists, can be resolved only in a normalized relationship. However, a November 2 Hangyoreh article disapproved of Park suddenly changing her mind to hold talks before resolving the war-time sex slave issue and then failed to make progress. The meeting was largely pushed by the US pursuit of its rebalancing policy. Abe’s history revisionism is now a constant and is not going to change under him. Regarding the trilateral security cooperation, the author argues against proceeding without cost-benefit analysis. The decision should be based on the clear principle of bolstering peace and cooperation rather than confrontation.

A November 3 DongA Ilbo article agreed that South Korea should design a solution first and try to build domestic consensus on the sex-slave issue. Japan is skeptical of Park’s concept of “sincere measures (성의있는 조치)” and is afraid that public opposition would make its efforts in vain. The author suggests that Seoul frames the matter as an international humanitarian issue, which is the same as Japanese abductees in North Korea.