A Look Back at the Korean Peninsula in 2015


By Troy Stangarone

As we look back at the events that helped to shape the Korean peninsula in 2015, it is also an opportunity to review the events we highlighted on The Peninsula in our annual 10 Issues to Watch For on The Korean Peninsula in 2015 blog and the key events that we did not predict.

Looking back at the 10 issues raised in last year’s blog, all have resonated on the Korean peninsula this year, but not all in the ways we thought they might. On five of the issues, things have largely played out as we expected, while one did not and for four others the outcomes are less clear.

Here’s a brief look back at the 10 issues and what happened:

1.      Dealing with North Korea: Understanding North Korea is never easy and it is only made more difficult by the regime’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. One area we highlighted to watch in 2015 was progress on North Korea’s weapons programs and discussion of the deployment of the U.S. Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to protect against the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea. While North Korea took a major step towards developing submarine launched ballistic missiles, which would give it a second strike capability, South Korea has indicated it will not be discussing the deployment of THAAD with the United States. On this issue, our prediction was half right as North Korea has continued developing its weapons programs, but there has been less progress on deploying THAAD, or some other missile defense system than we expected.

2.      Key Summits in 2015: Here we highlighted a series of key summits for the year ahead. While Kim Jong-un ultimately did not go to Russia for the May 9th ceremony commemorating the end of World War II or make any international visits, thus eliminating the prospect of a meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, each of the summits played a key role this year. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo did make a positive statement on issue of history with the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaching, even if it did not meet everyone’s hopes. Trilateral summits among Korea, China, and Japan also resumed. Lastly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a bilateral summit meeting with President Park in what could become an important relationship in the future.

3.      Korea-Russia Relations: In 2014, North Korea began courting Russia and our expectation was that greater cooperation would be announced at a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, that meeting never happened and cooperation between the two seems to have fizzled. Though, Russia and South Korea did announce efforts to expand relations at the end of the year.

4.      Better Relations Between Korea and Japan: Here our key insight was correct, as the bilateral summit meeting took place between President Park and Prime Minister Abe after Prime Minister Abe had issued his statement on World War II. At the summit meeting, both sides agreed to work on resolving the Comfort Women issue and recently announced that resolution laying the groundwork for improved relations between the two countries.

5.      Constructing Legacies: With President Barack Obama’s term in office coming towards an end, our expectation for 2015 was that he would seek to build on his legacy as president, but not look to North Korea for a potential legacy issue. While President Obama has cemented deals on Iran’s nuclear program and climate change, there has been no progress on North Korea. For President Park, the agreement reached with North Korea in August to reduce tensions seemed to be a way forward, but subsequent talks with North Korea failed to make progress.

6.      Two Major Moves on Trade: South Korea has had an ambitious free trade agenda  that we expected to continue in 2015 with two major efforts – concluding and implementing an FTA with China and making efforts to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The FTA with China was implemented in December, but while South Korea has continued to express interest in joining TPP, the agreement’s late conclusion has limited Seoul’s ability to join.

7.      A New Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement: The United States and South Korea were looking to conclude a new agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, or 123 agreement, to replace an extension to the 1974 agreement that was set to expire next year. The two sides successfully reached an agreement in June of 2015 and updated agreement is now in effect.

8.      The Diversification of South Korea’s Energy Supplies: South Korea is highly dependent on imported fuel with more than 85 percent of its petroleum imports passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Our expectation was that in 2015 South Korea would begin to diversify those supplies. While there have been efforts to import more condensate from the United States, low petroleum prices have made imports of U.S. LNG less attractive. However, now that Congress has passed legislation allowing for the export of oil, this will be an issue to continue to watch in the years ahead.

9.      Samsung’s Future and Its Frenemy Relationship with Apple: After a loss of market share in key markets such as China and India for its smartphones, as well as falling revenues and profits, 2015 was expected to be an important year for Samsung to reverse its fortunes while managing its beneficial and competitive relationship with Apple. While Samsung saw an increase in profits in the 3rd quarter, it was due to strong results in the semiconductor and display sectors as its smartphone segment continued to face challenges. It relationship with Apple continued to remain complex as Samsung has appealed part of their legal case with Apple to the U.S. Supreme Court, but also been chosen by Apple to supply microprocessors and displays for the iPhone.

10.  Feeling the Effects of Social Change in Korea: This was perhaps our most bold insight for 2015 and in truth one that reflected more long-term trends rather than issues that might specifically come to a head over the past year. As South Korea ages and continues to grow in prosperity, it will face the social changes that come with those trends. The level of social welfare and the definition of what it means to be Korean are issues that will continue to shape South Korea. Some social issues, such as public health, came to the fore in 2015 due to outside events such as the spread of Middle East Repertory Syndrome.

Beyond the issues we expected to see addressed in 2015, other important developments included:

1.      North Korea’s Provocation in the DMZ: On August 4, two South Korean soldiers were maimed after stepping on landmines placed by North Korea in areas of the DMZ that are known to be patrolled by South Korea. This raised tensions along the DMZ as South Korea responded by resuming broadcasts from loudspeakers across the DMZ and North Korea threatened to attack the loudspeakers. The crisis was ultimately resolved as the two sides reached an agreement for North Korea to apologize, South Korea to suspend the broadcasts, and the two sides to arrange for a reunion of separated families.

2.      October Family Reunions: One of the positive outcomes of the August provocation was the two sets of family reunions held in October. The first family reunion saw some 100 South Koreans meet their family members for the first time since the Korean War and another 250 were able to do so during the second reunion.

3.      Agreement on the Comfort Women: While not accepted by all of the Comfort Women, the agreement by Japan to issue an apology and provide compensation was one of the major unforeseen events of 2015.

4.      Middle East Repertory Syndrome (MERS): South Korea faced a medical emergency earlier this year as MERS spread through the country causing the death of 38 individuals and another 16,000 to be quarantined.

5.      The Passing of Kim Young-sam: A former activist for democracy who later became president of South Korea passed away at the age of 87.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Eugene Lim’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.