South Korea’s Realignment in 2016: Opportunities, Changes, and Challenges

Since its fourth nuclear test on January 6, 2015, North Korea has been showing off its nuclear capability to acquire the status of a nuclear state. Its parade of nuclear weapons-related tests, which South Korea calls strategic provocations, is casting a dark shadow over not only the Korean Peninsula but also Northeast Asia and the whole world. Stronger sanctions will be imposed (unilaterally if not multilaterally) after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, but whether they will be enough to put an end to the North Korean nuclear ambition is unclear. Under the current circumstances, where Kim Jong-un seems determined to own nuclear weapons, the only way to change the North Korean regime’s calculus is to make it choose between nuclear weapons and regime survival. Recognizing this, the South Korean government is applying full-court pressure against the North together with the international community. South Korea and Japan reached an agreement on the “comfort women” issue in December 2015, which made it possible for South Korea to work closely with Japan, in addition to the United States, in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue. 

Many challenges lie ahead for South Korea. With North Korea relentlessly pursuing its nuclear ambitions, China not giving up on the Kim Jong-un regime, and the United States pondering what kind of relationship it should have with China to solve North Korea’s nuclear issue, no one knows how the future will play out. Such uncertainty has given rise to a number of issues concerning the future of the Korean Peninsula. Meanwhile, since it will not be long before North Korea is equipped with nuclear capabilities that are advanced enough to enable ICBM or SLBM attacks on US soil, there are growing calls for a “surgical strike” on North Korea, targeting its nuclear site or the leader Kim Jong-un. Even a few Chinese experts are talking about launching a preemptive strike against North Korea. In contrast, increasingly audible revisionist views argue that the immediate focus should be on freezing North Korea’s nuclear capabilities at the present level to prevent it from making nuclear weapons that can reach the US mainland and that denuclearization should be a long-term goal. There is also a growing concern over South Korea being excluded from the debate about preemptive strikes on North Korea or freezing its nuclear capabilities. Indeed, there are many questions, but no answers.

How can the South Korean government overcome such challenges? To answer this recurring question, this article addresses realignment in South Korea’s foreign policy in 2016, and beyond, by examining the key issues that have emerged with regard to North Korea’s nuclear problem: such as pressure diplomacy, the possibility of US-DPRK dialogue, China’s stance, and the range of cooperation between South Korea and the United States.

Opportunities: Pressure Diplomacy in 2016

North Korea’s strategic provocations in 2016 and its intentions: Launched in 2013, the Park Geun-hye administration has set the following as its diplomatic goals: the normalization of inter-Korean relations, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and promotion of peaceful cooperation at the Northeast Asian and global level through “trustpolitik.” The Trust-building Process on the Korean Peninsula, the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, and middle power diplomacy—which have been mentioned on countless occasions over the past four years when discussing South Korea’s diplomacy—are all part of the effort to achieve these goals. Of course, the focus of the government’s diplomatic efforts is on the Korean Peninsula with the key aspects being improving inter-Korean relations, engaging with North Korea for the denuclearization of the peninsula, deterring and preparing for provocations that may occur in the process, and strengthening cooperation with neighboring countries to build trust. The most distinct approach of the Park administration’s foreign policy is increasing strategic cooperation with China, which wields the biggest leverage on North Korea, in order to encourage North Korea to take the path of change, while maintaining a strong ROK-US Alliance.

Such efforts, however, reached a deadlock due to North Korea’s bold ambition to possess nuclear weapons. It started to demand recognition as a nuclear state, and the rogue regime has made 22 strategic provocations in 2016 alone as of October. It made 2016 a year of strategic provocations by conducting its fourth and fifth nuclear tests; firing a Eunha-3 rocket, which could be converted for intercontinental ballistic missiles; launching Rodong missiles at a higher than usual angle; testing its Musudan missile, which is designed to hit Guam; and test firing a KN-11 submarine launched ballistic missile.

It is unclear why Kim Jong-un decided to make so many provocations this year. The most likely reason is that North Korea has reached a certain level in advancing its nuclear capabilities, and now it is pushing to acquire nuclear state status through relentless provocations. North Korea probably made the calculation that, even if it makes the situation on the Korean Peninsula volatile with strategic provocations, President Obama is not likely to take a military approach when his term is coming to an end with the presidential election to take place in November. North Korea may be seeking to make a new deal with the new administration and gain a nuclear state status by showing off its nuclear capabilities. Another possibility is that North Korea may be seeking a swift settlement because the longer it remains sanctioned by the international community, the higher the risk of revealing the regime’s vulnerabilities, which will, in turn, have a negative impact on its nuclear program. In short, North Korea’s frequent provocations may be a plan to escape its present and future plight by escalating tension on the peninsula and making the United States propose early talks. 

Implementation of pressure diplomacy:If it were not for North Korea’s nuclear tests, the Park administration, which is nearing its end, would have concentrated all its energy on maximizing its diplomatic achievements by promoting multilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia, contributing more to the international community, and strengthening economic diplomacy. However, due to frequent nuclear provocations from the beginning of the year, it is focusing all of its capabilities on employing pressure diplomacy tactics to address the North Korean nuclear issue.

The rationale for pressure diplomacy is rooted in the experiential recognition that only when North Korea pays a stiff price for its provocations can it sincerely engage in denuclearization talks. In fact, the North had never faced strong sanctions before March 2016 when UN Security Council Resolution 2270 was adopted. Although North Korea conducted three nuclear tests and countless missile tests, the sanctions imposed by the international community were not on a par with the provocations. They were focused on keeping North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction and were nothing but soft, middle-ground measures due to strong opposition from countries like China that do not wish to see instability in North Korea. Bilateral sanctions by individual countries were no different. US, Japanese, and EU-imposed sanctions, unlike their wide-ranging economic sanctions against Iran, had many loopholes. The United States was also reluctant to use what might have been the most effective measure, a secondary boycott. South Korea also imposed sanctions against the North, but for the sake of keeping good inter-Korean relations, it maintained the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Ironically, the North Korean economy was able to grow amidst all the sanctions. Now, President Park Geun-hye is determined to make the Kim Jong-un regime suffer greatly by applying tougher sanctions. The South Korean government has shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex and convinced the UN Security Council members to adopt resolutions against the North that contain some of the toughest non-military sanctions ever. It is also calling on the international community to address North Korea’s illicit activities, including its human rights violations, and to deepen its isolation.

The most important effort of pressure diplomacy is seeking to cut off North Korea’s funding in diverse areas. First, it aims to block remittances from North Korea’s overseas workers, who provide between USD 200 and USD 600 million annually to the regime. The South Korean government seeks to cut off the supply of funds by regulating the flow of remittances to North Korea. At the same time, the government is encouraging countries to not accept North Korean workers or to send them back. Such efforts are yielding results little by little. A case in point is the Maltese government’s decision to deport North Korean workers in July. It is likely that other countries will follow in its footsteps. Meanwhile, Seoul’s efforts to discourage its people from going to North Korean restaurants overseas have shown great results. North Korea runs a number of huge restaurants in China and Southeast Asia, the main clientele of which were South Koreans. The South Korean government advisory resulted in some of them shutting down. Workers at one restaurant even defected to South Korea due to pressure from the North Korean regime to send money.

Pressure diplomacy against the North does not just involve economic sanctions. By letting the world know more about North Korea’s illicit nuclear development program and its deplorable human rights situation, the South Korean government is making the international community realize that North Korea is nothing but a troublemaker. The efforts to deepen North Korea’s isolation to put constraints on the North’s diplomatic actions are also making progress. Since North Korea attaches great importance to their leader Kim Jong-un’s reputation, the South Korean government is redoubling its efforts to uncover and reveal the Kim Jong-un regime’s human rights violations. Given that North Korea did not react when the international community took issue with its human rights situation but overreacted when Kim Jong-un was put under the spotlight, focusing on him could be an effective way to pressure the regime.

It seems that isolating North Korea in the international community by implementing pressure diplomacy is successful to a degree. However, North Korea is still not cornered into a situation where it has to choose between nuclear development and the stability of the regime. Kim Jong-un is adamant about possessing nuclear warheads, and there is not enough cooperation from key nations such as China. Nevertheless, no one knows how long the North Korean regime will last, and the full-fledged pressure against the North—the ultimate weapon for initiating sincere denuclearization talks—has only just begun.

Changes: Realignment in South Korea’s Policies toward its Neighbors

Neighboring countries’ stance on the North Korean nuclear issue: The Park administration took office after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February 2013, and since then, it has sought to increase cooperation with neighboring countries to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Park did not hesitate to join the AIIB to strengthen cooperation between South Korea and China or to sit next to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin while watching China’s Victory Day parade on Tiananmen Square. This was because solving the North Korean nuclear issue was the top priority. However, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, China faced a moment of truth. It has refused to change and continues to provide support to North Korea, fearing instability in the Kim Jong-un regime and the consequences of that.

Traditionally, China has regarded North Korea as its strategic buffer zone. However, due to North Korea’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and repeated local provocations, more and more Chinese see North Korea as a burden. Still, the principal stance of China in 2016 is that North Korea is a strategic asset to the country. China was reluctant to tighten sanctions against North Korea after its fourth nuclear test, and more so after its fifth test. When vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Ri Su-yong visited China three months after the fourth test in May 2016, Xi Jinping greeted the North Korean envoy with a smile and did not use the expression “denuclearization” during their talk. Afterwards, China started voicing its concerns about instability in North Korea and mentioning providing humanitarian assistance to the North. Currently, trade between China and North Korea is on the rise. When North Korea’s Choe Ryong-hae, the general chief of staff for political affairs, visited China in May 2013, Xi made it clear that he would not see the official if he were in military uniform. During the meeting, Xi reaffirmed his commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula, stressing that it should be a non-nuclear zone no matter how the situation evolves. This presented Choe with no choice but to return to the Six-Party Talks.

What caused the shift in Xi Jinping’s stance? It is certain that China still views North Korea as its strategic asset. There is no change in its stance because China is under the notion that if North Korea becomes unstable or undergoes systemic change, US influence will increase, which in turn, will cause a strategic loss to China. The US government’s plan to deploy a THAAD anti-missile defense unit in South Korea and the South Korean government’s approval may have affected Chinese bullying behavior. Lack of support in domestic decision-making in China is another important matter. Even though more than two decades have passed since South Korea and China forged diplomatic ties, those who proclaim the importance of ROK-China relations have not quite become mainstream. True, there is a wider range of views in China compared with the past. When the government set its position, the rest of the country followed. Therefore, it is likely that China will continue to support the Kim Jong-un regime unless or until China’s calculus on North Korea changes.

Russia’s stance is unique. It is willing to expand cooperation with South Korea on a bilateral level and is not as tough as China on the THAAD issue. However, on North Korean issues, Russia’s position is similar to that of China. Just as China respects Russia’s stance on European matters, Russia respects China’s stance when it comes to East Asian matters. Consequently, for South Korea, working with Russia on North Korean issues is just as difficult as working with China. As long as China and Russia maintain strategic cooperation, such mutual support between the two countries is likely to continue as customary practice.

Unlike China or Russia, Japan clearly supports South Korea’s pressure diplomacy and the denuclearization of the North. After South Korea and Japan reached an agreement on the “comfort women” issue, the two governments have been able to work more closely than ever in addressing the North Korean nuclear conundrum without the earlier political fallout. The Abe administration takes a firm stance against North Korea’s nuclear development and is making active efforts to boost ROK-Japan cooperation. Furthermore, it proposed signing the General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) to take security cooperation to the next level. The South Korean government is taking a careful approach, worried about the public’s reaction. Thankfully, there is growing consensus that South Korea and Japan need to strengthen security cooperation to respond to heightened threats from North Korea.

Lastly, the strategic alliance between South Korea and the United States is closer than ever due to North Korea’s nuclear provocations. “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” US efforts at the UN and in the international community after North Korea’s fourth test made South Korea appreciate the necessity of the alliance once again. Of course, there are other reasons why the United States needs to play an active role in resolving the nuclear issue, such as to carry out its duty as a nuclear state of strengthening the nonproliferation regime, to fulfill its commitment to protecting the peace and stability of its allies, and to counter the potential threat that North Korea may pose when it develops nuclear weapons that could reach the US mainland. Nevertheless, the active cooperation of the US has had a very positive effect diplomatically and security-wise.

Realignment in South Korea’s policy on its neighbors: If the situation changes, this should be reflected in policies. Should South Korea realign its policies toward neighboring countries given the changes that have happened during the year 2016? If so, in which direction and what will the consequences be? These are difficult questions as they can change the fate of the Korean Peninsula and the North Korean nuclear issue. Yet, the South Korean government has no intention of making changes to its policies on neighboring countries. It is repeatedly asking China for its cooperation in addressing North Korean issues and for tougher sanctions even though there is no change in China’s stance. This has to be the policy direction towards China as there is no other alternative.

However, the government’s concrete actions imply that small changes are taking place in its policy on China. If China keeps on refusing to cooperate in denuclearizing North Korea and if North Korea advances its nuclear capability to an irreversible level in the meantime, the South Korean government will probably end up having no expectations of China. This will inevitably lead to strengthening the ROK-US alliance and ROK-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation. So far, strengthening trilateral security cooperation has been considered second best in South Korea as it brings back the Cold War rivalry of South Korea, the United States, and Japan versus North Korea, China, and Russia. However, after seeing how China reacted when it faced a moment of truth in the wake of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, this is bound to change. The prevailing view will be that, just like Japan, South Korea should continue to work together with China on economic matters but make choices that will maximize the national interest on security matters. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between Japan and South Korea in that Japan views China as a competitor or a potential threat. Nevertheless, if China maintains its two-Korea policy and continues to provide protection to the Kim Jong-un regime in order to utilize North Korea as a strategic asset, then South Korea will have to make preparations accordingly.

The prerequisite of all this is that South Korea and the United States maintain close cooperation. For now, the only possible option to solve the North’s nuclear problem is to draw North Korea back to denuclearization talks, as a result of combined efforts of pressure diplomacy. Seoul and Washington are currently working closely together to achieve this. However, it would be a stretch to say that the two countries see eye to eye on all the details in solving the North Korean nuclear issue. Therefore, even if the two countries succeed in bringing back North Korea to the negotiating table, if they have different opinions on the process or end state of resolving the matter, the South Korean government will be in a great quandary. This can be prevented through prior consultations and frank discussion.

More importantly, South Korea and the United States must not forget the lessons of history. During the past 20 years or so, we have learned a few lessons while negotiating denuclearization with North Korea. It never comes to the table unless it is at a disadvantage. It uses salami tactics to slice issues and buy time so that it gets the upper hand in the negotiations. Even after agreement is reached, it breaks the agreement to maximize its gains. In the process of negotiating, it seeks to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States by playing on their different positions. These lessons teach us that if we let North Korea get what it wants through provocations, it will no doubt look for another chance to launch a provocation and break the agreement at an opportune time. Therefore, we should increase sanctions and pressure to push the Kim Jong-un regime into a corner (1st step) that would leave it with no other choice but to come back to the negotiating table (2nd step) and engage in denuclearization talks (3rd step). At the same time, to realize this three-step approach, South Korea and the United States need to agree on a comprehensive range of issues related to denuclearization and prepare a bigger carrot and a bigger stick to make North Korea take the denuclearization process seriously, and the alliance needs to establish a joint position on what approaches should be taken towards China and coordinate policy directions. Only then will we have a robust framework strategy for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Thus, the two countries must continue to work closely together even after the new presidents take office in the United States in 2017, and in South Korea in 2018.

Challenges: Key Issues in Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula

North Korea’s nuclear program is a tremendous threat to the South Korean people; so the South Korean government cannot but make every effort to denuclearize the North. The realignment of its foreign policy will be heavily dependent on the challenges ahead and on the way negotiations proceed. What challenges await?

The first challenge that South Korea might face is the possibility of restarting negotiations under a new US administration in 2017. After eight years of strategic patience, there are increasing numbers of voices calling for new negotiations. Although it is not the stance that the US government is taking, some US experts on Korea are asserting that there is a limit to addressing the North Korean nuclear issue with sanctions and that dialogue is needed. For example, in September 2016, the Council on Foreign Relations published a report entitled “A Sharper Choice on North Korea: Engaging China for a Stable Northeast Asia,” which lays out a diverse range of US foreign policy options toward North Korea. However, the key message of the report was that new efforts are needed to try to resume denuclearization talks. The report raised some fundamental questions in South Korea about whether dialogue will help solve the North Korea nuclear issue and what level should South Korea’s pressure on the North be. However, the real question in dealing with the North Korean nuclear problem is: what should the goal of the talks be and what level of pressure should we apply to proceed with such talks? Whether the new US administration will share the same view in pressure diplomacy—or if not, how the two governments will forge a joint position and coordinate policies—are important questions. To respond to them, the new US administration should push for tougher sanctions at first, rather than making attempts to talk with North Korea from the beginning. When Kim Jong-un realizes that he cannot wait for another four or eight years and decide to open dialogue, it will be time to start the talks. Even after it succeeds in bringing North Korea back to the table, the new administration should not lift sanctions until it can confirm North Korea’s sincerity. Otherwise, it will only expose itself to North Korea’s negotiating maneuvers and delaying tactics and end up buying time for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

If the new US president decides to restart dialogue with North Korea, the next challenge for the Korean government is what will be the end state of the dialogue. If Kim Jong-un suffers from international sanctions and pressure, he can decide to reopen dialogue by showing willingness to freeze his nuclear activities. His condition might be the lifting of all sanctions in return for stopping the advancement of its nuclear program. He will argue that if he has control over some nuclear warheads, this would provide necessary reassurance to himself and his followers, while he will be showing a sincere attitude by stopping the all nuclear activities. The suggested dialogue may sound appealing to the United States as it prevents North Korea from advancing its ICBM or SLBM capabilities further. North Korea might even make a promise of denuclearization as a long-term goal to seduce the United States to the table. If the North takes these steps, and if the US government regards them as sufficient as the second-best option, it will be a real challenge to policy coordination because the South Korean government cannot agree to any arrangement that permits nuclear weapons capability for the North. The US government in this situation must remember past lessons that the North can always return to what it was before the negotiations, while remobilizing international sanctions and pressure will be more difficult. Further, such a deal would be unacceptable not only to South Korea but also to Japan. So, the only answer to a freeze deal is to freeze all nuclear warheads in all identified facilities with monitoring by IAEA inspectors. Then, the United States might persuade its alliance partners in Northeast Asia.

Lastly, if North Korea keeps on refusing dialogue and seeking nuclear weapons, the only solution would be regime change. There are many obstacles to pushing regime change in the North, but the most difficult problem will be securing Chinese participation because, without that, it will be impossible to pressure the North to a level that makes it change its calculus. As long as China gives priority to stability in the North Korean regime over denuclearization, regime change will be difficult to achieve. However, if the North continues to undertake strategic provocations at odds with Chinese interests, there is a room for further cooperation. If China refuses to go along, then the question will be how much pressure should the United States place on China. Since China will never change its position unless it is put under intense pressure, the issue will boil down to choosing between taking drastic measures, such as applying an all-out secondary boycott, or pressuring China by deploying more military forces on the Korean Peninsula and opening the possibility of the military option. It will be very difficult for the United States because it risks US-China relations and the US economy. If the two superpowers decide to discuss the future of the Korean Peninsula, they will have to exchange strategic views on matters such as maintaining US forces in Korea below the military demarcation line, the degree of China’s influence on North Korea, and the role of the South Korean government. In this regard, the discussion between the two should be coordinated with South Korea. During the process of regime change or denuclearization of the North, South Korean will be most affected not only in its security but also in its economy. Further, considering that the South will bear much of the cost, the United States and China have to hold in-depth talks with South Korea. This may make Kim Jong-un come to his senses and open up new opportunities to address the North’s nuclear issue via dialogue.


North Korea’s nuclear threats made South Korea realize once again the importance of Korea-Japan security cooperation and the US alliance. South Korea is more disappointed than ever in China. The Park administration will spend the rest of its term focusing on achieving denuclearization and pressuring the North. The administration knows that there is not much time left, but it will strive to put all its plans into action. Of course, it would be idealistic to assume that such efforts will lead to results before the end of Park’s term. Even so, it will be giving the new administration a leg up in solving the North Korean nuclear issue. Thus, the Park administration is likely to push for the strengthening of the ROK-US alliance and ROK-US-Japan security cooperation. It is uncertain how much these changes will lead to fundamental realignment in South Korea’s foreign policy. However, if South Korea’s neighbors maintain their current stance on the North Korean nuclear issue, this will have a great impact on the direction of South Korea’s foreign policy considering that solving the North Korean conundrum is its highest priority. Therefore, although not conspicuous, gradual realignment is already taking place in accordance with the changing strategic environment.

The fundamental goal of pressuring the North is to make it choose between nuclear weapons and survival and to make the environment favorable for resuming denuclearization talks. However, if South Korea and the United States proposed talks at this stage when North Korea has proclaimed itself a nuclear state and is conducting strategic provocations, it would look as if the alliance were coerced into negotiations by the North. In this case, the focus of the negotiations would not be denuclearization but whether to accept North Korea’s conditions. Unless we are in a situation in which we have no choice but to surrender to North Korea’s nuclear threats, such negotiations will be of no use since the ROK-US alliance’s deterrence against the North Korea remains strong. Therefore, the important question at this point is not whether the talks will resume, but, rather, how we can construct an environment that would leave Kim Jong-un with no other choice but to return to the negotiating table. Some say that sanctions will not work, but it has only been six months since the UN adopted resolution 2270, its strongest military sanctions ever, and the United Nations and the United States are expected to toughen their sanctions against the North as a result of the fifth nuclear test. The international community’s efforts to isolate North Korea and to exclude the rogue state from the global financial system are gaining full force. In addition, the international community is starting to show greater interest in North Korea’s human rights situation. Therefore, it is too early to give up on pressuring the North.

With a new administration taking office in early 2017, the United States will be able to enjoy flexibility in its choices. It can choose from a diverse range of options and test their effectiveness in solving the  nuclear issue. However, the administration should not overlook the importance of maintaining strong cooperation with South Korea. To undermine the cooperation between South Korea and the United States, North Korea will insist on holding US-DPRK bilateral talks. If the talks lead to accepting North Korea’s previous nuclear capabilities, the consequences will be catastrophic. It will not be a win-win game that will bring a strengthened alliance and denuclearization, but rather a lose-lose game that will result in a weakened alliance and no denuclearization. The policy makers of South Korea and the United States in 2017 will have to bear this in mind.