Tag Archive | "diplomacy"

The North Korean ICBM Test: A Significant Step, But Still Just a Step

By Mark Tokola

It usually takes some time to figure out the details of what a North Korean missile test has accomplished – what type of missile it was, how it performed, its capabilities – but from the initial information regarding North Korea’s July 4th missile test, it appears that they have successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

The accepted technical definition of an ICBM is a missile that can travel 3,400 miles. The North Koreans test fired their missile to fly a short range but with a high trajectory; it landed off the west coast of Japan. If the trajectory was flattened out, the missile in theory could have flown over 4,000 miles, enabling it to reach Alaska but not the lower 48 states.

Conducting an ICBM test is a significant step in North Korea’s weapons program, but it is just a step. Kim Jong-un’s stated objective is to develop a reliable ICBM that can carry a nuclear warhead to the American homeland. The July 4th missile did not demonstrate that kind of range, and there is no evidence (yet) that North Korea has a nuclear warhead that could be carried by an ICBM. We shouldn’t downplay the significance of this test, but calling it a “game changer” may be an overstatement.

The true importance of the July 4th test is the timing – following a series of other missile launches in 2017, it is clear that North Korea is not slowing the pace of its quest for nuclear weaponry that can threaten the U.S. Further, Kim Jong-un has crudely described it as a “gift for the American b******ds,” implying it was timed for Independence Day. The language choice shows that the North Korean regime sees no hypocrisy in using such language about other countries while having a hair-trigger sensitivity to slights to its own national dignity. The test also comes on the eve of a G20 meeting, demonstrating North Korea’s desire to be in the international limelight.

Perhaps the most important fact about the timing of the North Korean ICBM test is that it comes on the heels of the first visit of new South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Washington, where he spoke clearly of his desire to engage North Korea in dialogue. If North Korea had any interest in demonstrating an openness to President Moon’s overture, it would not have conducted an ICBM test only days after President Moon’s public remarks. We should all hope that North Korea would be responsive to a South Korean initiative to defuse tension, but the July 4th test makes it hard to believe that there is any basis for that hope. North Korea seems unresponsive to China’s efforts to defuse tensions, and even less so to South Korea’s initiatives. North Korea seems single-mindedly focused on trying to acquire a reliable ability to credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack — truly a high stakes gamble on North Korea’s part.

Still, it is not too late for a diplomatic solution. That would be in the best interest of South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States – and even for North Korea. That diplomatic path may be narrowing, and it will only be possible if South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and others are able to maintain a common front against North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. There is some evidence that sanctions are beginning to bite – which may be also be contributing to Kim Jong-un’s rush. As the world’s leaders gather for the July 7-8 G20 summit in Hamburg, watch for signs of unity or division to see how the international community may handle this growing threat.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Is Trump Impacting How South Koreans View the United States?

By Kyle Ferrier

Claiming “Korea actually used to be a part of China” and stating “it would be appropriate” if South Korea paid for THAAD are just some of Donald Trump’s comments since his inauguration that have not been well received by the South Korean public. As President Moon Jae-in meets with President Trump this week to discuss new issues as well as longstanding ones such as the North Korea nuclear problem, his flexibility both in Washington and after his return to Seoul depends on public opinion at home. Against this backdrop, the release of two major survey-based reports in the past few days are rather fortunately timed and help to shed light on how South Koreans perceive U.S. political leadership.

The first is the Pew Research Center’s U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around World Question Trump’s Leadership: America still wins praise for its people, culture and civil liberties, released on June 26. The second is the Asan Institute’s A New Beginning for ROK-U.S. Relations: South Koreans’ View of the United States and Its Implications, released on June 27. While the Pew report looks at a broader scope of countries and the Asan report focuses solely on the South Korean public, both ultimately provide similar conclusions: South Koreans continue to view the U.S. favorably despite negative views on Trump. However, the two provide conflicting analyses as to whether Trump has already impacted U.S. favorability and how South Koreans view the future of relations with the U.S.

From polls conducted in 37 countries, the Pew study finds that international confidence in the U.S. president has dropped from 64 percent at the end of the Obama presidency to 22 percent at the beginning of Trump’s. South Koreans do not buck the trend. When asked if they have confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs, 88 percent of South Koreans responded positively during the end of the Obama years while only 17 percent expressed the same confidence in Trump — below the global median of 22 percent. Of the 37 countries polled, this 71 percentage point swing was the fourth largest, behind Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany. The 78 percent of South Koreans who definitively answered they had no confidence in Trump is the highest among the countries polled in Asia (the others are Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, and India) and is above the global median of 74 percent. Further, when asked about Trump’s major policy shifts, 78 percent disapproved of withdrawing from international climate change agreements and 80 percent disapproved of U.S. withdrawal of support for major trade agreements.

Asan presents complementary findings. It shows Trump’s favorability during the campaign was low: on their 0 to 10 ratings scale, where 0 is the least favorable and 10 is the most, Trump was below a 2 up through Election Day.  This is similar to the favorability of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, not much higher than that of Kim Jong-un — who hovered around 1 — and dwarfed by Barack Obama — who consistently scored in the low to mid-6 range from at least the beginning of 2014 through 2016. Trump’s election boosted him from a 1.69 in November to a 3.25 in December and a 3.49 in January, but dropped to 2.93 in March before going up slightly to 2.96 in June. This jump in favorability since becoming president has given him a steady lead over Abe, but Trump remains below Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is punishing South Korea economically over the deployment of THAAD.

When asked only about the United States, Pew shows 75 percent of South Koreans view the U.S. favorably, above both the regional and global median. In addition, 86 percent view Americans favorably and 78 percent like American democratic values, both of which are also above the regional and global medians.  Further, those on the political right are more inclined to have a favorable view of the U.S., with 86 percent of respondents who self-identified as politically right favoring the U.S. compared to 64 of those on the left.

Korea Surveys

The favorability rating of the U.S. in the Asan study largely follows the trend of the Obama years, remaining around a 6 out of 10. “This suggests that the United States’ favorability is not determined solely by the favorability of its leader and that American soft power has had a positive impact on South Korean public opinion,” the Asan report states. “It appears that South Koreans have learned to distinguish between the United States, the country, and Donald Trump, the individual.”

Both reports seem to indicate that American soft power has a positive influence on South Koreans, who view the U.S. and its president separately. However, the two present contradictory findings on how Trump has impacted perceptions of the U.S.

While Asan shows only a very minor dip in U.S. favorability since Trump’s election — a drop from 5.92 in November to 5.81 in June, which is termed as “relatively stable” favorability scores — Pew finds a larger drop. The 75 percent of South Koreans who viewed the U.S. favorably in 2017 is down from 84 percent in 2015, the last year Pew data is available, and is at its lowest level since 2008. Pew suggests this follows a larger global trend. Of the 37 countries polled, 30 showed a drop in favorable views of the U.S. in 2017. Other countries experienced a steeper fall though, as South Korea’s drop in positive views of the U.S. is tied for 23rd of the 30.

The two reports are also at odds on how South Koreans perceive relations with the U.S. moving forward. Only 8 percent of Pew respondents thought relations with the U.S. would get better, 45 percent thought they would stay about the same, and 43 percent stated they would get worse. In contrast, 67 percent of respondents in the Asan study thought relations with the U.S. would improve and only 20 percent thought relations would deteriorate.

There is clearly a wide gap between the sentiments expressed in both polls, but this is likely because of how the questions were worded.  Pew framed their question around Donald Trump (“Now that Donald Trump is the U.S. president, over the next few years do you think that relations between our country and the U.S. will ___?”) and Asan framed theirs around Moon Jae-in (“ROK-U.S. Relations under President Moon Jae-in will___”.) Considering the negative views on Trump expressed in both polls and Moon Jae-In’s high domestic popularity, this disparity makes a certain amount of sense. Additionally, as no exact date is provided for when the Pew poll was conducted — the report only states spring 2017 — their findings may not reflect changes based on Moon’s election and thus may leave out any boost in confidence it might have engendered for relations with the U.S.

It may still be too early to definitively claim that Trump is impacting South Korean perceptions of the United States. But this does not mean Trump’s controversial statements, should they continue, will not influence how South Koreans view the U.S. in the future. If the outcome of the U.S.-ROK summit this week does not meet expectations or Trump makes controversial remarks in the future, South Korean public opinion of the U.S. could be pushed lower.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Images from Gage Skidmore’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Korea Abroad, slider, South KoreaComments (1)

Can Mongolia Help Resolve Tensions on the Korean Peninsula?

By Juni Kim

Inter-Korean relations have been marked by significant setbacks in recent years. The alarming rate of both nuclear and missile tests by North Korea has strained relations between the two Koreas and previous avenues of cooperation, like the Kaesong Industrial Complex, have been discontinued. North Korea’s recent string of provocations have only deepened their isolation in the international community, and although recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stated his willingness to engage North Korea, it is unclear at this point the new administration will approach both engagement and North Korea’s denuclearization.

Tensions on the peninsula are further complicated by the complex regional dynamics of Northeast Asia. The recent deployment of the U.S. missile defense THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea and the subsequent protests by China and Russia illustrate the significant wedges among the six-party nations. The dormant six-party talks, which disbanded in 2009, are unlikely to resume in the near future, and the effectiveness of engagement with North Korea remains a fiercely debated issue among Korea experts.

Against the backdrop of volatile regional tensions, Mongolia has steadily pursued a regional mediator role in recent years and has repeatedly offered to be involved in the peace process for the Korean peninsula. The landlocked nation maintains relatively friendly ties with both Korean nations and has advocated this advantage as part of a potential solution to reduce tensions between the two Koreas.

As a former soviet satellite, Mongolia was the second country to recognize the then newly established DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea) in 1948. Mongolia maintained relations with North Korea even after democratization in 1990. Based on an agreement between the two countries, thousands of North Korean workers currently reside in Mongolia and current Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj was the first head of state to visit North Korea after Kim Jong-un assumed power. As a landlocked country, Mongolia has a vested interest in access to North Korean ports, which would help decrease Mongolia’s dependence of ports in China and Russia.

Mongolia also holds warm ties with South Korea and considers the nation to be one of its “third neighbors,” which refers to countries that do not share a border with Mongolia, but maintain close relations. The relationship significantly expanded after Mongolia’s democratization and Mongolians view South Korea’s economic development as a success story worth emulating.

Under President Elbegdorj, Mongolia has actively sought to become a regional mediator state in Northeast Asia, and Mongolian officials have recognized their unique position in relation to the two Koreas. Mongolia’s foreign policy concept states, “Mongolia shall take an active part in the process of initiating dialogues and negotiations on the issues of strengthening regional security and creating a collective security mechanism.” This statement has been earnestly pursued by the Mongolian government. Notable recent examples include the ongoing Ulaanbaatar Dialogues, a regional Track 1.5 forum designed to “foster trust, mutual understanding and cooperation in Northeast Asia by creating a mechanism for dialogue,”[1] and hosting negotiations between Japan and North Korea over the issue of North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens. One of the eventual outcomes of the Japan-North Korea talks was a 2014 reunion in the Mongolian capital between the daughter of a Japanese abductee residing in North Korea and her Japanese grandparents.

In accordance with their foreign policy, Mongolian officials have sought a greater role in reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula. In a presentation given at the 2015 Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, O. Mashbat, an adviser at the Institute for Strategic Studies of Mongolia, stated, “Mongolian officials see keeping good relations with both Koreas as essential to contribute to regional peace and security, and they believe that Mongolia could act as a mediator if political or nuclear crises arise.”[2][TS1] [TS2]  Both Korean nations have participated in the Ulaanbaatar Dialogue, which provides opportunities for engagement on an unofficial level between delegates from the two countries. Other Track 1.5 talks, like the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, also involve participation from the two Koreas and other six-party nations, but Mongolia’s relations with North Korea could serve as an advantage to help encourage cooperation with the reclusive nation.

Finding a peaceful solution to tensions on the Korean peninsula continues to be perplexing challenge for policymakers worldwide, but some Mongolian officials hope that an eventual brokered deal would be reached with Mongolia’s assistance. The upcoming Mongolian presidential election on June 26th may signal a shift in Mongolia’s foreign policy direction, but Mongolia will likely continue to actively participate in regional efforts to encourage peace in the region and the Korean peninsula.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Francisco Anzola’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] Damba, Ganbat. “Keynote Speech.” Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security – International Conference. Pg. 10. 2015.

[2] Mashbat, O. “Non-traditional security in NEA and Ulaanbaatar Dialogue.”

Ulaanbaatar Dialogue on Northeast Asian Security – International Conference. Pg. 47. 2015.

Posted in Inter-Korean, sliderComments (1)

China, Korea, and the AI Program that Could Bring Them Together

By Nathaniel Curran

When Google’s AlphaGo computer program beat South Korea’s top Go (baduk) player Lee Sedol last March, it didn’t take long for AI experts to hail the event as a milestone in artificial intelligence and machine learning. Nor did it take long for China’s top player, Ke Jie, to issue his own challenge to the AlphaGo team, which culminated in a match two weeks ago. Ke’s claim was especially bold considering that Korea’s Lee had been handily defeated four games to one. In fact, it may have been a matter of national pride that prompted Ke to issue the challenge, considering that the game originated in China thousands of years ago.

With China and Korea both playing high-profile matches against AlphaGo this year, might now be the moment for a resurgence of Go diplomacy? Go is certainly enjoying an unprecedented degree of interest worldwide following the two AlphaGo matches, and China-Korea relations are in need of a boost after the last year of tension over THAAD.

Considering China and Korea’s shared appreciation for the game, as well as the massive press AlphaGo has received, might Go serve as a way of improving the currently frayed relations between China and Korea?

Go Diplomacy

This wouldn’t be the first time Go has been called upon to smooth relations; the game was used to help pave the way for the normalization of Sino-Japanese relations in 1972. Nor is mixing Go and politics unprecedented in the contemporary era, either; Barack Obama gave a Go set to China’s former President, Hu Jintao, on Obama’s first state visit to China.

Now, Go could present a new opportunity to strengthen the relationship between Korea and China. The relationship, currently under severe strain from the backlash against the THAAD deployment, is in quick need of repair, considering Korea’s reliance on China, its largest trading partner.

One reason that Go might be helpful in promoting better dialogue is that although the game is originally from China, it is something of an East Asian cultural bricolage, influenced by the innovations of both countries. The fact that both China and Korea have assisted in the game’s development increases its attractiveness as a tool of diplomacy in the region.

While few know the game outside of East Asia, millions play Go across China, Korea, and Japan, and each country has fostered a unique Go culture and playing style. During most of the 20th century, Japan was the undisputed global center of Go, drawing players from all over the world, including a few Westerners. But for the past thirty years, the top players have been from either China or Korea. More recently, in the 2000s, Chinese players have started to dominate the top ranks of the Go world, mirroring China’s rise on the international stage. However, Google chose to challenge Korea’s Lee Sedol in last year’s highly publicized $1,000,000 match rather than Ke Jie, or any of the other top Chinese players.

Although many associate Go with a vanishing cultural past, its continued popularity is evident; in South Korea there is a 24-hour television channel devoted to the game and Lee Sedol’s match with AlphaGo was front-page news in all the major South Korean newspapers. In China, 60 million internet users watched the match.

Go Graphic

While it’s hard to envision the exact direction Go diplomacy make take, there are a number of possible avenues. China and Korea could work together to form a new, jointly-funded Go federation to promote the game at home and abroad. Simply holding some highly publicized friendship-matches between the two countries would be one way to use the game to increase diplomatic dialogue. Another possibility is AI vs. AI matches, which might also pay dividends to each country’s tech industry.

However, in spite of its potential to improve Sino-Korean relations, the game might hypothetically lead to further division. China must feel snubbed to some degree that Google originally challenged Lee, rather than Ke Jie. Some have even suggested that China’s support for the event was a reaction to the media coverage that the AlphaGo game received. It’s also possible that the countries might struggle over who holds a legitimate claim to the game, and also its narrative. China can make the case that Go originated in China, while Korea’s claim is bolstered by the fact it has received the lion’s share of the Western press’s recent infatuation with Go. Korea also has Lee, who notched one victory against AlphaGo along the way to his eventual 4-1 defeat. Considering that AlphaGo has continued to improve since last year, Lee’s one win probably marks the last time a human will ever manage to win a game against a top Go AI, and Koreans must feel some pride in Lee’s achievement.

Whatever happens next, it’s undeniable that Go has made something of a comeback; a rarity for a game with a twenty-five-century history. Whether the ancient game will serve to exacerbate tensions in East Asia or relieve them remains to be seen.

Nathaniel Curran is a PhD student at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and a 2017 COMPASS Summer Fellow. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Is the Hallyu Crisis with China Over?

By Jenna Gibson

Beijing has approved the broadcast of a new Korean drama that had been co-produced by a Korean and a Chinese company, according to a source in the Chinese entertainment industry, making it the first Korean show to get the green light since before the THAAD spat.

This move is good news for Korean entertainment companies, which have been lamenting the Chinese ban which had slowly pushed Korean stars out of the spotlight throughout last year and culminated in direct retaliation against tourist packages and Lotte Department stores. It also bodes well for drama co-productions, which had seen tremendous success in last year’s standout Descendants of the Sun. At the time, before THAAD derailed things, Korean-Chinese collaboration was seen as the new frontier in Hallyu, and key to the continued success of Korean creative content in the Chinese market.

What’s interesting is the impetus for China’s reversal on allowing Hallyu content. Beijing is likely trying to start off on a good foot with newly elected Korean President Moon Jae-In, himself a skeptic of the THAAD system, in an attempt to give Moon some leeway should he decide to review the deployment.

A recent op-ed in the People’s Daily-affiliated Global Times insisted that “It is likely that Moon will stop THAAD’s deployment,” saying, “The huge economic losses South Korea has suffered are a result of the Chinese public’s anger. South Korea, which relies heavily on China economically, needs to weigh its potential gains and losses carefully” and that “Both Beijing and Seoul should take Moon’s presidency as an opportunity to promote warmer bilateral relations.”

But in reality, Moon has little room to maneuver at this point. THAAD is already in place and operating at some capacity, and recent missile launches from North Korea (the second of which was detected by THAAD) have highlighted its necessity in the public eye.

Although there was a dip in approval last November, the Korean public has largely remained favorable toward the THAAD system, according to polling by the Asan Institute in Seoul.  As of March, 50.6 percent of Koreans approved of THAAD, with 37.9 percent opposed. Perhaps because of this, President Moon has softened his position from outright opposition during the early stages of the campaign to stating that he objects to the way the decision was made, not the system itself.

As Asan Vice President Choi Kang pointed out in a KEI podcast after the election, President Moon may be constrained both by domestic politics and public opinion. Moon’s Minjoo Party only has 120 seats out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, and he failed to breach 50 percent of the vote during his election.

“How he can make a coalition or compromise with opposition parties is going to be a very, very critical issue for him to handle in the early phase of his presidency,” Choi said.

This could be particularly difficult when it comes to China, which has seen a steep decline in popularity among the Korean public since they stepped up their economic pressure over THAAD. Beijing’s economic retaliation has included the ban on selling tourist packages to Korea as well as cancelled concerts and a block on Korean entertainment content being uploaded to streaming sites.

According to a new report from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), “China’s ban on South Korean cultural imports will amount to 5.6 trillion won (US$5.02 billion) and 15.2 trillion won (US$13.6 billion) in direct and indirect damage in the consumer goods distribution sector” if it continues for six months. New numbers from the Korea Tourism Organization show a 66 percent year-on-year drop in Chinese visitors in April, driving much of the estimated losses for industries such as clothing and cosmetics.

“It’s quite difficult for South Korea to improve its relations with China because public understanding of China has deteriorated over several months,” Choi said. “So unless there is a positive sign coming from China on this economic pressure, it is very unlikely for the South Korean government to improve drastically its relations with China.”

Now that China seems to be offering an olive branch, public opinion may begin to shift back in Beijing’s favor. But after months of panicked headlines over China’s latest crackdown, it’s unlikely that one fantasy romance drama will be enough to turn things around entirely.

At this point, Beijing may continue to roll back its content and tourism bans in the hopes of wooing President Moon to their point of view, or as a face-saving measure. Either way, though, Chinese leadership would be ill-advised to hold their breath for a THAAD removal.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from LG전자’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in China, Economics, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Challenges for the Moon Administration in Addressing Relations with Japan

This is the tenth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, the United States, Russia, the European UnionASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Juni Kim

This year has already seen a dramatic roller-coaster of events in South Korea-Japan relations. In protest over a “comfort woman” statue installed near the Japanese consulate in the southern Korean city of Busan, Japan withdrew its ambassador, Yasumasa Nagamine, and consul general in Busan, Yasuhiro Morimoto, this past January due to what the Japanese saw as a violation of an agreement made by the South Korean and Japanese governments in December 2015. The agreement provided ¥1 billion ($8.3 million) from the Japanese government to Korean victims of forced sexual servitude to Japanese troops during World War II, and was controversial from its outset with critics deriding that the deal insufficiently addressed the atrocity. Despite the deal, civic activists installed the bronze statue in Busan last December, which was initially removed by local authorities and then later reinstalled after a large public outcry.  Although Japan sent both officials back to Korea last month, historical issues like comfort women continue to be a hotly controversial aspect of the South Korea-Japan relationship.

Recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sent strong indications that the 2015 agreement, which the foreign ministers from both countries declared a “final and irreversible resolution” to the issue at the time, will be renegotiated. In a telephone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week, Moon called the deal “unacceptable” for most South Korean people and his special envoy to Japan Moon Hee-sang reiterated the stance in a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida this week. At the moment, what form a proposed restructured deal will look like is a mystery, but the administration will likely move forward soon in seeking a new deal.

Public opinion polls support the assertion that historical issues like comfort women are far from resolved for most South Koreans. A joint poll by the East Asia Institute and Genron NPO in 2016 showed that 74.9% of South Koreans believe that resolving historical disputes is a step towards improving relations, and 75.7% agreed that resolving the comfort women issue would better the relationship. These issues polled much higher than other avenues of cooperation including joint efforts to resolve North Korea’s nuclear program (7%) and increasing cultural exchange opportunities (7.9%). The poll was conducted last June and July, and the series of tumultuous events in both South Korean domestic politics and South Korea-Japan relations since then will certainly have an impact of how South Koreans view the relationship currently.

Despite the controversy, the new South Korean administration has stated the importance of the South Korea-Japan relationship and hope for improving ties. In a meeting between Abe and special envoy to Japan Moon Hee-sang yesterday, both officials acknowledged the two countries’ shared security and economic interests. The South Korean politician relayed President Moon’s intention to meet with Abe “at the earliest date” and build “forward-looking relations.” Moon likewise was quoted saying, “The countries must look squarely to their history so issues related to their past will not become an obstacle while the countries move toward a more developed, mature relationship.”

Considering the breadth and significance of the South Korea-Japan relationship, avenues to improve relations certainly exist. According to the World Bank, Japan is South Korea’s fifth largest importer and second largest exporter. South Korea and Japan also regularly cooperate in military drills, including one this past March, designed to counter the North Korean threat. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an intelligence sharing agreement signed last year by the two countries, is set to expire on November 23rd and it provides an opportunity for the new administration to balance how it handles shared security interests with historical issues.

The South Korea-Japan relationship is no stranger to controversy and at times souring ties, but both countries can benefit from improving relations and focusing on common goals. North Korea remains a defiant and volatile threat to both nations, and with a new South Korean administration in place both South Korea and Japan can relaunch efforts to signal their unified strength against North Korean aggression. The past few months have illustrated the difficulties in addressing historical issues between the two neighboring countries, and the rift is highly unlikely to be resolved overnight even if a new deal is created. However, both governments should continue to maintain an open communicative relationship to work towards finding enduring solutions.

Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from B Lucava’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (7)

Moon Must Not forget Moscow in North Korea Denuclearization Policy

This is the ninth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, the United States, Japan, the European Union, ASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Jenna Gibson

As a candidate and since he has taken office, Moon Jae-In has paid little attention to Russia, and the few comments he has made have revolved almost entirely around Moscow’s role in North Korea denuclearization talks.

According to a policy book released ahead of the election, Moon intends to develop a “strategic partnership” with Russia, which consists of two points: “Strengthen the cooperation to resolve North Korea nuclear issue and develop ROK-DPRK-Russia cooperation accordingly,” and “Expand economic cooperation such as co-developing the North Pole Route, energy, etc.”

In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 12, Moon focused on the first point, emphasizing a need to work together with Russian on the DPRK issue and return to the negotiating table, according to a YTN report. And he named lawmaker and former Incheon mayor Song Young-gil, who has received an award from the Russian government for increasing exchanges between the two countries,  as his special envoy to Moscow.

But critics have pointed out that Moon seems to be de-prioritizing the Russian relationship. In his inaugural address, for example, he said “I will not rest until peace is settled on the Korean Peninsula. I will fly to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, if needed, and I will also go to Pyongyang, if conditions are met.” Note that he has mentioned visiting five of the Six Party Talks member countries – but there is no mention of Russia in the entire speech.

This oversight likely won’t play well in Moscow, at least according to a forthcoming paper on Russia’s view toward North Korea sanctions by the Carnegie Endowment’s Alexander Gabuev, which he recently presented at KEI.

“A lot of Russian policy is driven by this very emotional feeling of making Russia great again, making Russia seen as an international big player,” he said. So if Russia is sidestepped through things like unilateral sanctions (or being omitted in a policy speech about DPRK policy), that will not play well in Moscow.

Further, Russia’s goals on the peninsula may be fundamentally different than what Moon has in mind. “Since military strikes on North Korean facilities or removing the leadership is not an option, there is not so much Russia can do to stop it,” Gabuev said, “So literally we pay lip service to the denuclearization mantra, but in real terms Russia doesn’t see it as a realistic option, or as a threat.”

In order to move forward, President Moon must be careful to include Russia in his strategy and public statements about denuclearization, especially if he maintains his stated goal of resuming the Six Party Talks. And he must also be thinking about how to use Russia’s position of cautious cooperation on the North Korea issue to his advantage.

One of the ways Moon can do this is to lean more heavily on the second point laid out in his policy paper – increasing cooperation with on the economic front. According to Russia scholar Stephen Blank, Russia’s North Korea policy is intrinsically tied to economics, as he wrote in a KEI paper in 2015. “The fundamental purpose of Russia’s Korean policy is to preserve peace in Korea and Asia generally, as peace is indispensable to any development of Siberia and the RFE [Russian Far East] on the basis of foreign and domestic trade and investment.”

If President Moon can harness this goal, he can simultaneously fulfill his pledge of remaining open to more engagement with Pyongyang while also giving Moscow more incentive to lean harder on denuclearization.

Russia plays a unique role in the international community when it comes to dealing with North Korea. While Moscow and Beijing generally agree on the imperative of maintaining stability above all else, Russia also feels an underlying need to assert its position at the table to be seen as an important international player. For President Moon Jae-In, keeping this second piece in mind will be key to working with the international community as he begins to shape his North Korea policy.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. KEI intern Gwanghyun Pyun contributed research to this post.

Photo from Larry Koester’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (2)

The Challenge of Managing Relations with North Korea for the Moon Administration

This is the eighth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with China , the United States, Japan, Russia, the European UnionASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Troy Stangarone

As the new Moon Jae-in administration begins to put its personnel in place, one of the more challenging international relations to manage will be North Korea. In the strictest sense, with the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, South Korea no longer has relations with North Korea, though this is something that the Moon administration hopes to change. However, even if dialogue or engagement with North Korea restarts under the Moon administration, handling relations with Pyongyang will be complicated by the need to manage relations with other powers in the region as well.

Developing relations with North Korea is complicated, to say the least. Since Roh Moo-hyun left office in 2008, when Moon was his chief of staff, North Korea has conducted four additional nuclear tests and numerous missile tests as it works to advance its nuclear program. It also sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong island resulting in the deaths of 48 South Korean military personnel and 2 civilians in total.

As a result of these actions the international community and South Korea have placed a range of sanctions on North Korea rolling back the economic interactions that were expanded under the Sunshine Policy. These include the May 24 measures which ended trade outside of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, limited expansion within Kaesong, halted aid, and forbid North Korean ships sailing in South Korean waters. More recent measures closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex and banned ships that docked in North Korea from traveling to South Korea for a year.

Expanding ties with North Korea would require rolling back these measures in part or finding ways to work around them, as well as ensuring that any new activities were in compliance with United Nations sanctions. Under the Park Geun-hye administration, South Korea faced these same challenges and encouraged firms to invest in Russian rail companies to help further the administration’s Eurasia Initiative.

As long as North Korea continues to conduct weapons tests, the scope for creative avenues to engage the North will continue to narrow. North Korea has become significantly more aggressive in its testing patterns under Kim Jong-un and seems to be committed to completing its development process.

Engaging with North Korea also requires a willing partner, something that it is unclear is available in Pyongyang. Park Geun-hye came into office with the policy of Trustpolitik, hoping to slowly build trust between North and South Korea on humanitarian issues such as family reunions, but was quickly met with a nuclear test, a “space launch,” and the North Korean withdrawal of its workers from Kaesong. Ultimately, North Korea’s behavior pushed her away from a policy of engagement. President Barack Obama was also originally willing to engage North Korea having expressed an openness in his 2009 inaugural address and shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power with the Leap Day Agreement, but was rebuffed on both occasions by North Korean provocations. Ultimately, the Obama administration settled for a nuclear deal with Iran and reopening relations Myanmar and Cuba instead of continuing to work on cutting a deal with North Korea.

It seems as though North Korea intends to provide little deference to Moon despite his stated desire to engage, having tested a ballistic missile capable of hitting Guam and Japan five days after Moon came into office. However, the test more likely was designed to send a message to China as Xi Jinping was set to give a major speech at his One Belt, One Road conference with 29 world leaders looking on only hours after the test. The proximity to Moon’s inauguration may merely have been coincidental in light of the larger Chinese target.

Further complicating efforts to manage relations with Pyongyang is Seoul’s need to manage relations with the United States, China, and other powers in the region and coordinate policies. While no international relationship is truly independent, South Korea’s approach towards North Korea is perhaps more constrained by the policies of other countries than other policy areas.

Poor relations with Washington or Beijing potentially hinder efforts by Seoul to directly engage Pyongyang, as China has the ability to undermine South Korean efforts directly and Pyongyang has consistently expressed a preference for bilateral talks with the United States. Seoul will need to avoid any outcome where it is estranged from Washington, which potentially encourages the United States to seek solutions not involving South Korea. Tacking too far away from Washington could result in outcomes such as a preemptive military strike on North Korean nuclear installations that Seoul would want to avoid.

Prior experience with the Sunshine policy also demonstrates that when Washington isn’t on board, the policy is less effective. If Seoul wants engagement to be viable, it will need to find a way to weave its strategy into the United States’ policy of maximum pressure and engagement, while also bringing China along on the broader strategy, which is also one that will require gaining Russian and Japanese support.

Managing relations with North Korea will require a delicate balance by South Korea. It will need to find space within the sanctions regime to develop engagement, but also need a willing partner in Pyongyang to make any strategy of engagement viable. At the same time, it will need to manage the interests of the other parties in the region. If a South Korean policy of engagement were to place China under greater pressure from the United States, Seoul may find an unwilling partner in Beijing as its economic and geostrategic interests are challenged. At the same time, Seoul will need to develop a policy that the United States can embrace rather than work against. Alliance management and North Korea policy has always worked best when Seoul and Washington are on the same page and that is unlikely to change in the near future.

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

Photo from Prachatai’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (9)

Challenges in Relations with the U.S. under the Moon Administration

This is the seventh in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations for the new Korean administration. The series also includes blogs on relations with North KoreaChina, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEANAfrica, the Middle East, and Latin America

By Kyle Ferrier

The United States is a crucial security and economic partner for South Korea. Not only is the U.S. treaty obligated to defend South Korea, but 28,500 American troops are stationed below the DMZ. Should an armed conflict arise on the peninsula Washington would assume operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces. Since its implementation in March 2012, the KORUS FTA has helped to secure the U.S. as South Korea’s second largest trading partner, making it the cornerstone of the bilateral economic relationship. While the strength of these ties is built on a foundation of shared values transcending leadership transitions over the years, U.S. President Donald Trump has openly disputed fundamental aspects of the relationship. For the newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, just as central to resolving the issues raised by Trump will be understanding his approach to foreign affairs.

Trump won the U.S. presidential election last November on a platform of radical change. In contrast to the mood of Obama’s campaign in 2008 which employed slogans such as “Hope” and “Yes We Can,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” complemented his bleak portrayal of a broken American system abused by elites and foreign countries alike. Trump often put South Korea in his crosshairs, claiming they did not pay enough for U.S. troops stationed there—going so far as to suggest withdrawing military personnel in exchange for allowing Seoul to have nuclear weapons as a cost saving measure—and criticizing the KORUS FTA for destroying U.S. jobs.

Once elected, Trump was quick to reverse course on the alliance, assuring President Park of U.S. commitment just one day later. Since then South Korea has hosted a steady stream of senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Matthis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Vice President Mike Pence, and most recently CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Although these visits are an extension of initial efforts to reassure Seoul, they are contrasted by Trump’s “disruptive” approach to foreign policy, which draws on his campaign rhetoric, prioritizes his interpretation of American interests, and is underwritten by unpredictability. The disruptive approach is seemingly being applied to adversary and ally alike, which directly impacts South Korea through U.S. policy on North Korea as well as issues of alliance management and bilateral trade.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stated Obama’s second term policy of “strategic patience” towards North Korea is dead, yet it may just be going by a different name. At the onset of his presidency, Trump was relatively quiet on North Korea, with some hoping this might be interpreted as a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un. However, since mid-March the administration has taken a more forceful stance. Secretary Matthis first announced the end of “strategic patience” on his trip to Seoul. Soon after, multiple senior officials and even Trump himself claimed military options were back on the table, particularly a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. Then, after a two-month policy review, the administration released its agenda of “maximum pressure and engagement,” which some have noted is remarkably similar to “strategic patience.” Both are centered on pressuring Beijing to influence Pyongyang and waiting for credible indications from the North that they are willing to reduce their illicit weapons programs. Despite posturing otherwise, security realities in Northeast Asia look to be constraining Trump to largely continuing Obama’s approach, at least for the time being, which is more than can be said for alliance management and trade relations.

Although Trump seemed to be shying away from campaign calls for Seoul to pay more for U.S. military presence on the peninsula, recent comments raise new questions, particularly for an upcoming milestone in the alliance. Trump’s call for South Korea to pay $1 billion for the THAAD missile defense system in an April 28 interview was refuted by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster only a few days later. However, it was not enough to erase the negative impact on the public discourse in South Korea, unnecessarily complicating Moon’s promised domestic review of THAAD’s deployment. The president’s comments also raise questions over how he may attempt to shape the renewal of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that is set to expire at the end of this year, which governs the burden sharing arrangement. It is certainly conceivable that Trump may influence SMA negotiations by similarly calling for Seoul to contribute more to the alliance, including the potential to leverage OPCON.

The last major challenge for the Moon administration will be addressing Trump’s criticism of the KORUS FTA. Trump has repeatedly attacked the trade deal, citing the U.S. bilateral trade deficit with South Korea, though it is still unclear if he will pursue the actions he has espoused. KORUS was one of only two trade agreements singled out for not meeting expectations in The President’s Trade Policy Agenda released by USTR, the other being NAFTA. Trump recently suggested that he might terminate the agreement if South Korea was not open to renegotiations, similar to the approach he has taken with NAFTA.

Whereas the relevant senior U.S. officials have attempted to counter Trump’s disruptive approach to North Korea and the alliance, competing coalitions within the administration on trade further obscures how U.S. policy might be carried out. On the one hand, there are those who favor policies more traditionally associated with protectionism: Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Director of the new Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer. And on the other are those who support greater global engagement: Director of the National Trade Council Gary Cohn and Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner. Although it is not yet clear how the U.S. will seek to pursue new concerns over KORUS—despite generally favorable reports by USTR and the US International Trade Commission released in the past year—the first major hurdle will come at the end of June when Commerce and USTR are expected to release their findings from a major review of all bilateral trading relationships.

How soon the Moon administration attempts to address these challenges with the United States will significantly dictate their potential impact on U.S.-South Korea relations. Whether it is growing pains or a more structural issue, the Trump administration’s implementation of foreign policy so far has negatively influenced South Korean public opinion. While the newly adopted policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” is remarkably similar to “strategic patience,” the process of getting there raised serious questions about U.S. credibility through concerns such as the location of the USS Carl Vinson and the perception that Washington would pre-emptively strike North Korea without consent from Seoul. Efforts by senior U.S. officials to smooth over some of Trump’s more controversial remarks have helped to stabilize relations, but the U.S. loses face each time. Even so, there are still contentious remarks that have not been sufficiently addressed.

Recent polling shows Trump’s popularity in Korea has sharply declined—falling below China’s Xi Jinping who is punishing South Koreans over THAAD. Koreans still view the U.S. favorably, yet it is unclear how long this duality can be sustained. A poor public opinion of the United States would severely constrain Moon’s ability to successfully coordinate the issues Trump has raised, which should make early and direct dialogue with his counterpart in Washington a high priority.

Kyle Ferrier is the Director of Academic Affairs and Research at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (8)

Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang: Delicate Diplomatic Triangle for President Moon Jae-in

By Robert R. King

The campaign is over; ballots have been cast; the result is clear—Moon Jae-in will be in the Blue House within a few days.

The most critical foreign affairs issue on the agenda of the new President is the South’s relationship with North Korea, and entwined with that issue is its relationship with the United States.  Though the new American President passed his first 100 days in office just a few days ago, there is still considerable uncertainty about the direction of American foreign policy, and one of the most sensitive issues facing the United States is North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.  The relationship with North Korea is the most critical question for the South and its new president, and because of the military ties with Washington, how to deal with the North will also be the key issue in relations with Washington.

President Moon begins his contacts with the new American president at something of a disadvantage.  When President Trump moved into the White House, South Korea was in the midst of the impeachment of Moon’s elected predecessor Park Geun-hye.  As a result, Trump met with Japan’s Prime Minister during the transition (his first post-election meeting with a foreign leader) and again after his inauguration in Washington and at Mar-a-Lago.  The American President also met in early April with Chinese President Xi Jingping.  The American Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State have both met with counterparts in Seoul in recognition of the importance of Korea in American policy, but the chemistry and content of bond between the two presidents has yet to emerge.

It is also not clear where there may be differences on the North between the two leaders.  During the campaign, Moon has expressed the desire for engagement with the North and better relations.  Trump has expressed serious concern about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but he has also expressed a willingness to meet directly with the North’s leader Kim Jong-un.  His first statement was made early in his tenure, but he repeated it again just last week.  Trump told Bloomberg News just a week ago that he would meet with Kim Jong-un under the right circumstances—“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely; I would be honored to do it.  If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”

South Korea’s new president, who was still a candidate ten days ago, cited this statement by America’s President and concluded that Trump is “more reasonable than perceived” and suggested that he and Trump were taking a similar position in favor of bringing the North back to negotiations on the nuclear issue.  It remains to be seen, however, how close the two presidents are on the details of how best to bring the North into denuclearization negotiations.

Another potentially serious issue that could create problems between the two presidents and their countries with regard to policy toward the North is THAAD, the U.S. defensive missile system now deployed in the South as agreed to by Moon’s predecessor.  The U.S. rushed to get the system in place before the election, although Moon expressed concerns about the deployment and the belief that the next government should review the decision, his political and ideological allies were vocally opposed to the deployment throughout the election.  This will likely be a serious point of contention that could create difficulties for relations between the U.S. and South Korea.

It is made more complex by the fact that China has been particularly opposed to THAAD and has taken steps to make the deployment more costly for the South by significantly cutting back Chinese tourism to South Korea—a major source of income and consumer goods sales in the South—as well as boycotting retail outlets in China owned by the South Korean conglomerate which sold land to the South Korean government on which THAAD is based.  THAAD is an issue that has serious security and domestic political implications for President Moon, but one of the most difficult will be the effect the issue has on the American-South Korea relationship.

Making the issue even more awkward and controversial was President Trump’s pronouncement last week that he expected the South to pay the $1 billion cost for the missile defense system.  His comment came less than ten days before the South Korean election, and was certainly not welcomed by pro-U.S. presidential candidates in the South.  Trump’s statement calling for the South to pay for THAAD was linked to his call for a renegotiation of the U.S.-South Korea trade agreement (KORUS).  The U.S. National Security Advisor, General McMasters, however, reassured his counterpart in Seoul that the U.S. would keep its previous commitment on the missile system.

The bottom line is that uncertainty and shifting policy signals from the Oval Office will not make the task of the new South Korean president an easy one.  He will likely have his own learning-curve and unintended missteps, which will make his task harder.  The relationship between Seoul and Washington is critically important for both countries, however.  It will take a great deal of maturity and understanding on the part of both presidents to deal with North Korea.  There is a great deal at stake for all sides.


Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.   He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Management Command, U.S. Army’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

About The Peninsula

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.