Tag Archive | "north korea"

GSOMIA: Beneficial But Was The Timing Right?

By Nayoon Lee

On November 14th, Han Min-goo, the Minister of National Defense tentatively signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Despite the political controversy regarding GSOMIA, which some see as an opportunity to strengthen Korea’s defense and others as drawing too close to an unrepentant Japan, President Park Geun-hye approved the military information sharing agreement on November 22nd. GSOMIA was finally settled on the following day of November 23rd.

GSOMIA was first suggested in June 2012. The purpose of the agreement is to share military information directly between South Korea and Japan. (The current system of the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement between the United States, South Korea, and Japan, allows military information to be shared between South Korea and Japan only through the intermediary of the United States.) Under GSOMIA, South Korea is expected to directly provide Japan information gathered near the DMZ, information on high-level North Korean defectors, and underwater detection information gained by submarines. On the other hand, Japan is expected to provide South Korea with information related to the detection of North Korean submarines, pictures and videos gathered by satellites, and information on North Korean missile launches.

Again, in November 2016, the government faced political turmoil in its efforts to implement the GSOMIA with Japan. In the National Assembly members of the opposition expressed severe resistance, suggesting that they would impeach the Minister of the Ministry of National Defense if he signed GSOMIA. However, the GSOMIA was settled despite the opposition party’s threat.

The agreement was controversial with the media as well. The media condemned the signing of the  GSOMIA as premature in that there were still fierce counter arguments among the public. The Ministry of the National Defense also signed the agreement privately rather than in public, excluding even photo journalists over concerns that photos could create the wrong impression depending on how they were shot.

Despite opposition, GSOMIA will be beneficial to both countries for several reasons. First of all, the current GSOMIA is based on the principle of reciprocity. The content and the amount of the information shared should be satisfactory enough to meet the needs of both sides. On top of that, Japan has significant military intelligence gathering capabilities. Japan has 5 satellites that have a level of resolution that can capture images of objects as small as 30cm, along with 6 Aegis cruiser that can detect radars and intercept missiles. Japan also has 4 ground radars that have a minimum detectable range of 1000km, 17 early warning aircrafts, and 77 underwater machines that can detect submarines. These are the military defense mechanisms that South Korea is lacking in, and therefore, combined with the principle of reciprocity, will bring beneficial information to South Korea.

Those in favor of GSOMIA also addressed two public misunderstandings. The GSOMIA is not an agreement to provide all the military information that South Korea has indifferently. Each country can choose the information to share or not to share, and if it is considered unnecessary for the other side, the information is not provided. Thus, GSOMIA is not an agreement that will degenerate South Korea to a subject of Japan. Also, the GSOMIA is not the only information sharing agreement for the Korean military. South Korea already has Military Information Agreements with 19 other countries, Information Sharing Arrangements with 14 other countries, and is currently pushing forward an agreement with 11 other countries. The important thing to note here is that among the 19 countries that South Korea already has Military Information Agreements with, the list of countries includes past communist countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Bulgaria, and Uzbekistan.

Even if it is true that there are a lot of beneficial aspects to the GSOMIA, it might have been better if the Ministry of National Defense could have waited until the political turmoil in South Korea diminishes in order to build public support for the agreement. The GSOMIA with Japan is not only about military defense. It also has to do with the past history between South Korea and Japan, and the public’s sentiment. Direct sharing of military information will be better than current system. However, South Korea can bear with the trilateral arrangement. Settlement of the GSOMIA, while the president was facing the prospect of impeachment, has increased anti-government public opinion. The positive sides of the GSOMIA have to be acknowledged, however, the timing could have been better.

Nayoon Lee is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a student of the Yonsei University School of Business, Seoul, Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in slider, South KoreaComments (1)

Despite Questions Raised in Campaign, Americans Remain Supportive of Troops in South Korea

By Juni Kim

Although not a focal point of the ongoing presidential campaigns, U.S. policy regarding the Korean peninsula has come up from time to time with both major party candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. With scant information on American public opinion regarding Korea and its importance, a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs provides valuable insights into public views. Part of the survey, which was conducted from June 10 to June 27 among 2,061 adults, asked Americans about their thoughts on the U.S. military in South Korea, the North Korean threat, and South Korea’s influence in the world.

Multiples times earlier in the election campaign, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump questioned the U.S. military commitment to South Korea and other U.S. allies. Despite Mr. Trump’s comments that he would be willing to withdraw U.S. troops from the peninsula, the survey shows that 70 percent of Americans support a long-term U.S. military presence in South Korea, while 72 percent of Trump supporters also favor U.S. military bases in South Korea.

American support for U.S. bases in South Korea also ranked higher than overall support for a U.S. military presence in Australia (46 percent), Germany (61 percent), and Japan (60 percent), which were the three other countries asked about in the survey. Trump supporters are higher than the overall average for all four countries in support of long-term U.S. military bases abroad.

Chicago Council Numbers

The higher support for U.S. troops in South Korea compared to the other  countries asked about in the survey may be related to the perceived North Korean threat to the United States. Survey respondents were asked to list what they considered was a critical threat to American vital interests in the next 10 years, and North Korea made the top five list for Democrats, Republicans, independents, and core Trump supporters. In particular, North Korea was the second most listed threat for Democrats at 64% behind international terrorism, which was the most listed threat for all surveyed groups. With most Americans viewing North Korea as a significant threat, the higher support for U.S. military bases in South Korea compared to other U.S. allies is unsurprising.

American opinions of South Korea’s global influence have remained relatively unchanged in recent years. When asked to rate South Korea’s influence on a 0 to 10 scale (with 0 meaning not at all influential and 10 meaning extremely influential), survey respondents rated South Korea 4.6. This rating is roughly in line with South Korea’s previous ratings of 4.7 (2014), 4.4 (2012), and 4.7 (2010) in previous iterations of the survey. South Korea’s rating may be a far cry from global powers like the United States (8.5) and China (7.1), but it is similar to the ratings of India (4.8) and Iran (4.5). Although not included in the survey, a comparison of South Korea’s ratings to regional neighbors like Japan and Taiwan or other middle power nations would have been interesting to see how American perceptions of these nations differ.

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 UNC – CFC – USFK on flickr Creative Commons.

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

5 Books on Korean History Besides “The Two Koreas”

By Jenna Gibson

Any student of Korea policy knows “The Two Koreas,” by Don Oberdorfer.  Famous both for its physical heft and its incredible detail, this book is regularly referenced as the go-to history book in Korea policy circles. It is bittersweet now to read the optimistic final chapter on North-South relations, but that does not take away from Oberdorfer’s rich insights.  There are dozens of further great books out there that examine different aspects of Korean history – here are five of them that can help those interested in the Korean Peninsula’s future better understand its past.

1)      A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, by Charles Holcombe

It’s hard to understand Korea without studying its neighbors as well. For thousands of years, Korea, China and Japan have influenced each other in myriad ways. This book is a helpful guide to the intricate network that has tied these three countries together over time. Good for beginners, this book is both informative and engaging as it goes through East Asian history from pre-historic times all the way up to the present.

2)      The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

For decades known as the Forgotten War, this book sheds light on the Korean conflict from its outbreak to the armistice and beyond. Halberstam, a journalist who covered the Vietnam War, incorporates interviews with veterans of the Korean War into his book, putting human faces on the conflict. He also includes detailed looks at the American perspective back in DC to illuminate the behind-the-scenes decision making that influenced the war.

3)      The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha

Victor Cha’s 2013 book on North Korea is not only a fascinating look at what made the DPRK the DPRK, it also provides good context for ongoing challenges on the peninsula. Written in an accessible way, the book highlights  the crazy things the Kim regime has done and said, while simultaneously painting a sober portrait of the world’s most reclusive state.

4)      Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor

If North Korea is the impossible state, its Southern counterpart is apparently the impossible country. This book focuses on South Korea, and discusses every aspect of the country’s rise from a destitute post-war state to a tech-obsessed powerhouse. What sets this book apart is the inclusion of several interviews with important Korean pioneers, including the mayor of Seoul, actor Choi Min-sik, and Soyeon Yi, Korea’s first astronaut. As someone who often writes about Hallyu and cultural exchange, I use this book is a go-to resource for its in-depth explanation of the origins of modern Korean popular culture.

5)      The New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise by Myung Oak Kim and Sam Jaffe

For those who have heard the term “Miracle on the Han” and want to know more about South Korea’s rise from poverty to become to the 11th largest economy in the world, this book is for you. A close look at the economic and political factors that made this growth possible, this book also examines issues like chaebol culture, long working hours, and environmental concerns.

If you have other books to recommend, please add a comment!

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

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

Understanding North Korea’s Fifth Nuclear Test and Sanctions

By Troy Stangarone

North Korea has conducted its fifth nuclear test, the second test in less than a year. In combination with its efforts to advance its ballistic missile programs and develop second strike capabilities, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it is committed to developing a usable nuclear warhead in spite of international pressure to halt its programs and return to talks. In light of this, the question remains how the international community should respond.

Initial indications are that the latest test was in the range of 10 kilotons, roughly twice the explosive yield of North Korea’s fourth test in January and 5 kilotons less than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Unlike the January test where North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb, this test does initially seem to indicate a significant step forward in Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.

Is THAAD Responsible for North Korea’s Latest Nuclear Test?

While China has condemned North Korea’s latest, it also suggested that South Korea’s decision to deploy the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) had contributed to North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test. Given that THAAD is a defensive system and that North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs predate the decision to deploy THAAD by decades, this is clearly not the case.

As with prior nuclear and missile tests, the most significant driving factor for North Korea was likely the fact that it had reached a point where its technical research required a test to determine if a real breakthrough had been made in its weapons development process.  North Korea’s test has demonstrated that the regime has not been significantly affected by sanctions to date, has made the strategic decision that the cost of sanctions does not outweigh the strategic benefits of a verifiably workable nuclear weapon.

The Challenge for China

From China’s perspective handling the North Korean nuclear issue is complex because it has different objectives at play. In the current case, perhaps the only positive side to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is that Pyongyang refrained from conducting the test during the G-20. While North Korea test-fired three ballistic missiles during the G-20, a nuclear test while China hosted world leaders during a major summit would have been seen as a more direct slight to China.

Moving forward, China will face pressure to do more to convince North Korea to return to talks and increase its enforcement of sanctions.    China will find it difficult to manage its twin goals of joining the international community to rein in North Korea while at the same time thwarting sanctions that could threaten the regime’s stability.  This could become increasingly difficult if North Korea has made the strategic decision to develop its nuclear program despite the costs. At the same time, with each additional test North Korea backs China further into a corner in which more of its policy options become unpalatable.

One policy challenge for China may now be how to gracefully back down on its demands on THAAD. With this most recent nuclear test, in combination with the most recent missile tests, South Korea is likely to push forward with THAAD as soon as possible in light of the clear strategic need to respond to North Korea’s growing threat.  China will want to avoid the appearance that its inability to stop South Korea from deploying THAAD constitutes a rupture between Beijing and Seoul.

What About Sanctions?

The international community has largely responded to North Korea’s nuclear tests with a combination of sanctions and efforts to return to talks. After the January nuclear test, the United Nations, the United States, and other countries imposed a series of new sanctions on North Korea. The goal of these sanctions was to increase pressure on Pyongyang to convince the regime to halt its tests and return to negotiations over its nuclear and missile programs. While it is too early to determine if UN Resolution 2270 and other sanctions will be effective in the long-run, there are some clear loopholes that the international community could look to tighten as it considers how to shape any new sanctions resolution in response to the latest nuclear test.

Since 2270 was implemented, there has been little change in North Korea’s trade with China. North Korean exports to China in the second quarter of this year were only down 4 percent compared to the first quarter (not seasonally adjusted) and 14 percent year-on-year. This likely reflects a decline in the export price of coal rather than the effect of sanctions, however, because of an exception placed in the sanctions allowing for the continuation of “livelihood” trade. Whether China is taking an overly broad definition of livelihood trade or they need to see a direct tie between trade and the weapons program before cracking down, the fact is trade has continued largely uninhibited. Tightening up or removing the “livelihood” exception would be one step that the international community could take to increase the pressure on North Korea.

Two other areas where the sanctions could be improved relate to the Rason free trade zone and to luxury goods. During the last round of negotiations, Russia specifically sought to have Rason exempted from the sanctions so it could build its trade of resources, such as coal, from its Far East to South Korea and Japan. However, South Korean sanctions prohibit ships that have traveled to North Korea in the last 180 days from entering South Korean ports. With this in mind, closing this loophole to preclude future trade would be significant.

If sanctions are going to convince North Korea to back away from its weapons programs, they need to filter through the political system in a manner that will place pressure on the regime to reconsider its course. In a democratic state, this mechanism would largely be the political process, whereby groups impacted by the sanctions would lobby the government for changes and potentially elect a government more willing to seek accommodation with the international community. As North Korea does not allow either free speech or democracy, sanctions need to be able to impact the wellbeing of those in the decision-making process.

One mechanism to achieve this would be to limit the importation of luxury goods that maintain the lifestyle of the elite members of the regime. UN sanctions to date have largely allowed states to provide their own interpretations of what luxury goods are. That has largely failed to stem the flow of luxury items into North Korea. Developing a comprehensive list of prohibited items would be a significant step forward, though any list must be accompanied by strict inspections of all cargo to North Korea as required by 2270. Otherwise, a luxury goods ban could have the unintended effect of strengthening the regime by increasing its control over the flow of luxury items.

Another area that could face scrutiny is North Korea’s use of overseas laborers to generate income for the regime. While there have been reports that North Korea generates significant income from the laborers, the figures are likely significantly smaller than the $2.3 billion figure that has been reported. Additionally, banning the export of North Korean labor may not be the best way to approach this issue. Instead, approaching the issue of North Korean workers abroad from a human rights perspective and requiring states hosting workers from North Korea to respect their rights may be more effective in pressuring the regime. At the same time, the UN should require quarterly reporting of the number of North Koreans working in each member state.

Finally, the international community should reconsider putting a ban on aviation fuel for North Korean flights. This was originally on the table during the discussions over 2270, but was removed due to Russian objections. Not only would this put a dent in North Korean revenue from its state airline, Air Koryo, it could also help cut down on any smuggling that passengers who may be carrying illicit or luxury goods back into the DPRK.

While there are other potential areas for sanctions, the experience with the livelihood provisions of 2270 demonstrates that the process of implementation is the key to building pressure on North Korea to get them to return to talks. At the same time, the process of increasing pressure on Pyongyang is also likely to be lengthy. In addition to closing loopholes on existing sanctions, much of the work needed to close off North Korea’s illicit activities will require the painstaking work of finding the types of front companies exposed by the Panama Papers. Unfortunately, this means that even if sanctions eventually work, we are likely to see more tests before they do.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own. Photo from the U.S. Geological Survey.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

Why Do We Believe Everything We Hear About North Korea?

By Jenna Gibson and Chris Hurst

The discovery of a unicorn lair, the execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle by a pack of rabid dogs, and a decree that all North Korean men must copy Kim Jong Un’s haircut. All of these were stories that were widely covered in mainstream Western news outlets. And all of them are false.

These stories spread like wildfire around the internet, prompting North Korea watchers to push back. “Other than North Korean executions, what other news stories routinely get circulated as fact despite unknown and unreliable sources?” asked Alastair Gale, the Wall Street Journal’s Seoul correspondent, on Twitter.

We’ve been down this road before. After the dog execution story, the Washington Post wrote an article discussing this phenomenon. “This seems to be a problem particular to stories out of North Korea, about which almost any story is treated as broadly credible, no matter how outlandish or thinly sourced. There’s no other country to which we bring such a high degree of gullibility… We know so little about what really happens inside the country, and especially inside the leader’s head, that very little is disprovable. But the things we do know are often so bizarre that just about anything can seem possible.”

In journalism school, students are taught the five factors of newsworthiness: timing, significance, proximity, prominence, and human interest. Other professors added a final, key marker of newsworthiness – novelty. Is it odd? Unexpected? Maybe a little ridiculous? That can also be worth a story.

That’s exactly where these crazy stories about North Korea fit – and exactly what makes them so dangerous.

Take this week’s big story, for example. For the last few days, headlines have been proclaiming that Kim Jong Un executed two high-level officials using an anti-aircraft gun. Their supposed crime? Sleeping and slouching during meetings.

This story was picked up in dozens of major news outlets, all running similar astonished headlines. It’s not until the second or third paragraph, however, that the reporter mentions the fact that this news has not been confirmed. In fact, the South Korean newspaper who first reported the story relied on a single, anonymous source.

At least they were upfront about the possibility that this didn’t actually happen, right? Unfortunately, that’s just not good enough. According to a recent study from Columbia University, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never been clicked – meaning most people share stories without actually reading past the headline.

So what? What does it matter if people mistakenly think that Kim Jong Un is running around executing his generals with an anti-aircraft gun?

Well, besides the obvious implications for the stability of the country and the state of mind of a dangerous dictator, it creates a vicious cycle of confirmation bias that can become extremely difficult to break.

Confirmation bias is an important force in psychology – in essence, it means that people tend to see only evidence that confirms what they already think about a topic and ignore contradictory information. In this case, once people see several headlines about Kim Jong Un’s crazy antics, that is the paradigm that becomes set in people’s minds. And that paradigm makes it incredibly difficult to take North Korea seriously as a dangerous threat to global security and as a proven offender of countless gross human rights violations.

There is an easy way to stop this confirmation bias – by fact checking these reports before putting them to press. However, for journalist this can be a difficult task. The North Korean government can be an information black hole, as noted by Reporters Without Borders. North Korea has ranked near the bottom of their press freedom index since its creation. Few visa are granted for foreign press by the government, and those that are granted are closely watched by minders that restrict what they can report. Even depending on eye witness reporting, which has become popular in the age of Twitter and Facebook live streaming, is impossible because there is no internet for the public.

The lack of information from the North Korean government and its people leads reporters to rely on foreign governments to verify reports. But this creates its own issues, as those sources may use information to their advantage. Adding an additional layer of confusion is North Korea itself, which routinely sends out hyperbolic announcements about their miracle cures for cancer and the like. In the end, journalists end up filling this information vacuum with unsubstantiated news stories that are more viral than factual.

In addition, some may be wary of not reporting a big story just because it can’t be confirmed. During WWII, the public famously ignored reports about concentration camps because they sounded too unbelievable – but of course we know now that those reports turned out to be true.

All of this is not meant to say that journalists should not cover North Korea, in fact quite the opposite. They should just be aware of the power of sensational headlines and unconfirmed information. When it comes to North Korea, confirmation is particularly difficult, but also particularly important. Because it is so closed off, media reports are often the only way for people to learn about North Korea at all. Let’s make sure what they learn is actually true.

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

Photo from stephan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

One Piece of a Larger Puzzle: Putting U.S.-ROK Military Exercises in Context

By Travis Lindsay

U.S.-ROK military exercises have been a key piece of the American presence on the Korean peninsula for more than half a century. Exercise “Chugi” kicked off in the autumn of 1955, and has since evolved into the well-known “Key Resolve”, “Foal Eagle”, and “Ulchi Freedom Guardian” exercises that take place in the spring and autumn of each year. These exercises exist to deter North Korean aggression, both by increasing the combat readiness of U.S. and ROK forces and by demonstrating America’s credible commitment to its South Korean ally.

Both these components – readiness and credibility – have been necessary to maintain effective deterrence on the peninsula. The exercises demonstrate American and South Korean military capabilities, minimizing uncertainty and miscalculation that might lead the DPRK to believe it can use military means to achieve political goals. The exercises not only help maintain deterrence, but they are also a key tool in a larger context that includes the alliance’s long term goals: stability, denuclearization, and eventual reunification.

The exercises have also taken on political dimensions as they’ve been used to spur negotiations (as a key piece of the 1994 Agreed Framework) as well as the focal point of declaratory policy via North Korean pleas to “just give peace a chance”. The exercises are unique in that they allow the alliance to sustain deterrence and stability in the short term while offering an opportunity for leverage in promoting broader goals of denuclearization and reunification in the medium term. They are also unique in that they are one of the few solutions on the denuclearization issue that offers a security solution for what is essentially a security problem. The negotiating leverage the exercises offer, however, can only be operationalized if they do not threaten to create credibility or readiness deficits that would undermine their overall purpose as a guarantor of the U.S.-ROK deterrent.

The credibility issue is particularly salient today, with the ROK facing increasing uncertainty from a possible “America First” Trump presidency in the U.S., a downturn in relations with China, a  complicated relationship with Japan, and the growing strategic threat from North Korea. The exercises have been a key part of the U.S. signaling to North Korea that it is ready and capable to wage a conventional war, and to South Korea that the U.S. is ready and willing to make good on its alliance commitments in case of conflict. This not only deters large scale military action by the DPRK, but it also moderates South Korea’s military posture and the perceived need to develop a nuclear weapons capability of its own. To be sure, exercises are not the fulcrum the alliance rests upon – rather, it’s the 28,500 American service members and their families that are the real bedrock of America’s commitment. At the same time, U.S. wavering on exercises without coordination with and support of the ROK government would give the impression that the U.S. is turning away from, rather than solving, the problems on the peninsula.

Increases in readiness serve to assure that the alliance is ready and able to respond to the DPRK’s increasingly dynamic and asymmetric capabilities. However, North Korea’s ability to win a conventional war has been in decline since at least the 1990s, both in terms of its own force degradation and the increasing capabilities of the U.S.-ROK alliance (helped along by the constantly evolving nature of exercises). With this in mind, the exercises function less as a component intrinsic to winning a conventional war.  We can instead view them through the lens of how exercises may reduce the human and capital costs of winning that conventional war.

The DPRK has been vociferously opposed to the exercises across all three generations of leadership, and interprets the exercises as having hostile intent rather than being defensive in nature. The exercises often come alongside increased tensions on the peninsula, pushed along by North Korea via low scale provocations, bellicose rhetoric from the DPRK, and mobilization of its forces in anticipation for war.

Putting the exercises into the larger context of alliance interests on the peninsula, the DPRK has offered to pause nuclear tests if the alliance were to stop exercising. The offer was rejected, in part because a testing freeze falls far short of the United States desire for CVID – complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of the DPRK’s weapons program. The implication, though, is clear: the DPRK claims to be willing to pay a price for the cessation of exercises.

A question remains of exactly how military exercises may play into future comprehensive or incremental deal making between the alliance and the DPRK. The exercises after all are flexible – they can be relocated, scaled up or down, stopped, or restarted as necessary. The alliance did exactly that when they suspended the Team Spirit exercises in 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996 as they navigated the first nuclear crisis and negotiated the Agreed Framework. If the alliance could forge a credible denuclearization deal with the exercises on the table, administrations in both Seoul and Washington might be willing to take accommodative positions on the exercises.

The alliance could also consider alternate concessions if they would yield a net increase in stability on the peninsula. If the DPRK offered to significantly cut its military forces or move its forward deployed artillery away from the DMZ, would the alliance consider reciprocating by scaling down exercises? It wouldn’t be the first time the United States has accepted mutual reductions in force capabilities, as it did with the Soviet Union in 1990. A reduction in DPRK military capabilities might make reciprocal reductions to alliance readiness palatable to ROK and U.S. military commanders. Considering the denuclearization agenda has been at an impasse for nearly a decade, demilitarization and de-escalation may represent the type of trust building incrementalism needed to restore forward momentum on the Korean peninsula.

Travis Lindsay is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute and a graduate student at the UCSD School of Global Policy & Strategy. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Republic of Korea Armed Forces on Wikimedia Creative Commons.

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

Why is China so upset about THAAD?

By Mark Tokola

The decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea has been controversial in South Korea, and predictably has been condemned by North Korea, but, judging by headlines and official statements, seems to have upset the Chinese more than anyone else.  China has been vociferous that the THAAD deployment threatens not only to raise tension on the Korean peninsula but would destabilize the entire region.  At first glance, it seems hard to understand why China would be so opposed to a defensive system which has no use other than to shoot down missiles that are on their way to striking South Korean targets.  Following an extensive series of North Korean missile tests of exactly the type that THAAD would defend against, why would any country (with the probable exception of North Korea) take issue with South Korean self-defense – particularly when Pyongyang has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks?

The main objection raised by Chinese representatives is that the U.S. has a hidden agenda, and will use THAAD’s radar system to look into Chinese territory.  U.S. commentators have noted in reply that the system is oriented towards the north, not the west, and reorienting it towards China would be detectable.  One might also ask, so what?  What would be so terrible about the U.S. being able to detect a Chinese missile launch sooner rather than later?  Seeking the means to learn early of an incoming attack would not seem to be a particularly belligerent desire.  It is worth noting that thirty-four nations, including the U.S. and Russia — but not China — are parties to the Open Skies Treaty which allows all of its parties unfettered aerial surveillance flights for the express purpose of looking into each other’s territory.  That is considered confidence-building, not destabilizing.

A further Chinese objection to THAAD is that the U.S. also secretly intends it to be part of a regional missile defense system which would ‘encircle’ China.  However, such a regional system would require a very public agreement among nations of the region, including Japan as well as South Korea.  Reaching such an agreement, and working out the technical implementation of such a system, would require a long, deliberative process whether South Korea deployed THAAD in the near-term or not.  THAAD does not need to be part of a regional system to achieve its aim of defending South Korea against a North Korean attack.

The argument has been made that because China has no understandable military reason to oppose the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, its objections to THAAD must be more about politics than about security.  China may have hoped that it could drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea by creating an issue that would stir up anti-American sentiment in South Korea or, optimally, that would produce an apparent defeat for the U.S. if China could persuade South Korea not to deploy the system.  U.S. officials were careful to adhere to the policy line that whether to deploy THAAD was a decision for South Korea, not a test of the alliance.  Nevertheless, a decision not to deploy THAAD would have given the impression of strengthening Chinese influence.  Another political motivation for Chinese objections to THAAD may have been to divert attention away from Beijing’s failure to stop North Korea from violating international obligations regarding nuclear and missile testing.

However, it seems likely that China’s objections to THAAD may actually include a genuine strategic element — but not in a way that China would publicly articulate.  Students of Cold War history will remember that the Soviet Union vigorously objected to U.S. development of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM), with the accompanying bilateral tension eventually leading to a 1972 ABM Treaty that lasted until 2002.  The Soviet Union’s objections to ABM were rooted in nuclear war-fighting doctrine.   The nuclear balance between the U.S. and the USSR created a situation that was termed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): an attack by either country would lead to the destruction of both.  Any initial nuclear attack would be met by a retaliatory nuclear attack, leading to what all recognized would be a nuclear Armageddon.  The logic of MAD required a credible “second strike” capability by both sides, i.e. that either the Soviet Union or the United States would be able to strike back against a nuclear attack.

The development of an effective anti-ballistic missile threated the nuclear balance by creating the possibility that the U.S. or the USSR would be able to launch a nuclear attack and then use ABMs to defeat the retaliatory strike – ensuring that one side actually “won” the nuclear exchange by striking first.  The U.S. argued that the ABM was not for the purpose of creating such nuclear superiority, but rather was intended to defeat an attack by a rogue nation with limited missile capability, or perhaps to counter an attack resulting from an accidental launch.  The most obvious way to overcome an ABM system would be to overwhelm it with additional ballistic missiles.  No one argued that the ABM systems of the twentieth century would be able to provide a one-hundred percent effective canopy.  Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was ill-prepared at the time to become involved in an expensive ABM arms race and the ABM Treaty was negotiated, under which each party was permitted to construct two 100-ABM missile complexes to protect key areas.  MAD continued.

Chinese military planners are certainly aware of this history, and even if they weren’t, would be driven by the same concerns that occurred to Soviet planners.  An effective ABM system would seem to create the possibility of defeating a second strike capability absent a ballistic missile building program large enough to overwhelm the ABM system.  Today, China would certainly prefer to develop what it would consider a sufficient strategic deterrent without having to become involved in an expensive arms race.

This is a long, long way from THAAD’s limited, defensive purposes but fits with China’s statements that THAAD has implications far beyond the Korean peninsula.  The intellectual connection between the Republic of Korea’s decision to install a means of national self-defense and China’s perspective on regional, even global, balances of power says two things about China’s view of foreign policy.  First, China has difficulty crediting the idea that there can be developments within Northeast Asia that are not really about China, i.e. that South Korea might have a specific interest in defending itself against a belligerent North Korea.  Second, China continues to assert what it considers a self-evident right to a sphere of influence in Asia, within which neighboring countries must give priority to China’s national interests.  China would be a more reassuring regional partner if it acknowledged that the cause of tension on the Korean peninsula is North Korea’s pursuit of offensive weapons, not South Korea’s deployment of defensive systems.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own. Image from Max Braun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


Posted in China, slider, South KoreaComments (1)

A Look Back at North Korea’s SLBM Tests

By Juni Kim

North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test last week displayed a troubling advancement of North Korea’s missile technology. Despite close international attention and outcry, North Korea has made rapid advances in its SLBM capabilities since its first test last year. Although the details of some of the SLBM tests have been questioned, North Korea’s weapons development represents a growing and serious threat to regional security. Below is a list of North Korea’s known SLBM tests.

Missile Graphic

May 9, 2015 – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un oversaw the launch of the KN-11 missile, which is the first known instance of North Korea test-firing a ballistic missile from a submarine underwater. The launch was reported to have occurred near the Sinpo South Shipyard. Although the missile succeeded in ejection, it only flew an estimated distance of 100-150 meters.

November 28, 2015Another KN-11 test occurred between 2:20 p.m. and 2:40 p.m., though the missile failed to successfully launch from the surface of the water. Debris from the missile was found on the ocean surface.

December 21, 2015South Korean officials reported that North Korea conducted another unsuccessful SLBM test on December 21 near Sinpo.

April 23, 2016 – North Korean media claimed a successful SLBM launch on April 24. South Korean analysis determined that the missile flew about 30 kilometers, which failed to break the determinant 300 kilometer minimum range for a successful launch.

July 9, 2016 – Another missile launch occurred around 11:30 a.m. on July 9 near Sinpo. South Korean defense sources stated that the missile flew about 10 kilometers before exploding.

August 24, 2016 – Around 5:30 a.m. on August 24, North Korea successfully launched an SLBM, which travelled approximately 500 kilometers and breached Japan’s air defense identification zone. Although only North Korea claimed prior launches to be successful, last week’s launch was widely deemed as a success by outside analysts.

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 Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in North Korea, sliderComments (0)

PyeongChang 2018 Olympics: Will North Korea Participate?

By Juni Kim

In a year marked by turbulent Korean relations, the Rio Games provided the backdrop for two modest moments of North-South reconciliation. South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju posed with her fellow North Korean competitor Hong Un-jong for a selfie, which quickly became viral. A few days later, Kim Song-guk, the North Korean bronze medalist in the men’s 50m pistol, took the medal stand with the South Korean gold medalist Jin Jong-oh. In a press conference following the event, Kim remarked that their accomplishment would mean more for Korea if the two nations were unified. As the Rio Games come to a close, the realities and politics between the two neighboring countries will unfortunately overshadow these encouraging moments. With the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in the South Korean resort town of Pyeongchang, North Korea has demonstrated eagerness to attain a share of the South Korean limelight that comes with hosting the Olympic Games. However, North Korea’s diplomatic track record and recent provocations may jeopardize their participation in the 2018 Games.

When Seoul was selected to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, North Korea made a serious bid to co-host the Games despite never having officially submitted a hosting bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1985, North Korea proposed hosting half of the Olympic events in its capital Pyeongyang under the new moniker “Korea Pyongyang Seoul Olympic Games.” The IOC ultimately rejected North Korea’s proposals, though the IOC did consider hosting several events in Pyeongyang including soccer, archery, table tennis, cycling, and women’s volleyball. The North Korean delegation’s insistence on hosting no less than half of the events led to the derailment of the negotiations. Despite a last minute appeal by South Korea to encourage the North to participate, North Korea boycotted the Games.

North Korea’s inflexible and botched attempt to co-host the 1988 Olympics did not dissuade them from more modest attempts to hold part of the Pyeongchang Games. During South Korea’s second bid to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the North Korean national Olympic committee chair Chang Ung officially supported the bid only hours before the IOC selection committee’s decision. Chang also offered cooperation in fielding a united Korean team, similar to the unified Korean entrance in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.

After Pyeongchang finally succeeded in its third bid, North Korea began the development of a ski resort in Kangwon province, which borders South Korea. Chang Ung acknowledged that the resort’s purpose was partially meant to serve as a potentially Olympic site. North Korea attempted to showcase its newly built Masikryong ski resort this past January by inviting famed professional snowboarders to test the slopes. American snowboarders Dan “Danimals” Liedahl and Mike Ravelson were among the invited group, but North Korea’s fourth nuclear test just days before the trip prompted the organizers to scrap the plan.

Although historically unified, Gangwon (Kangwon) province is split and administered by both Korean nations.

Although historically unified, Gangwon (Kangwon) province is currently split and administered by both Korean nations.

Despite the construction of the resort, the organizing committee for the 2018 Winter Games rejected co-hosting possibilities repeatedly by citing the technical and logistical limitations in sharing the Games. In a news release in 2013, the committee asserted, “We should make sure technology and administrative works are in optimal condition in order to host an event- and athlete-oriented Olympic Games. Holding some of the events in the Masik resort, more than 300 kilometers away from Pyeongchang, cannot guarantee meeting this goal.” Choi Moon-soon, governor of Pyeongchang’s Gangwon province, is one notable exception to South Korean opposition for co-hosting the Games. He expressed support last year in possibly sharing snowboarding and slalom events with North Korea. Shortly after the governor made the comments, the organizing committee reemphasized their opposition to co-hosting possibilities. Kwak Young-jin, the committee’s vice president of planning and administration, firmly rebuked, “With the construction for all competition venues already under way, we have already made it crystal clear that there is no point of discussing co-hosting of the Olympics.”

With the door shut on co-hosting possibilities, North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Olympics remains unclear. In the week prior to the Rio Olympics, the North Korean Olympic committee stated its hope to participate in the Pyeongchang Games, though the South Korean Unification Ministry indicated that North Korea’s participation depends on the IOC. Inter-Korean relations suffered major setbacks this year including North Korea’s January nuclear test, multiple missile launches, and South Korea’s closing of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the few remaining avenues of North-South cooperation.  North Korean participation in the Games may be put in further jeopardy if the regime continues to carry out provocations.

Even with IOC approval, it is possible that North Korea may choose to boycott the Games for political reasons. Much like the 1988 Olympics, North Korea may feel slighted by not being able to host any events and withdraw participation in protest. Such a withdrawal would only further isolate the regime, which has drawn heavy international condemnation including the recent round of UN sanctions.

Both North and South Korea should not underestimate the importance of the 2018 Games for inter-Korean relations. In his book Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia, Victor Cha wrote, “Sport matters in world politics because it can create diplomatic breakthroughs (or breakdowns) in ways unanticipated by regular diplomacy. Just as a small white ping-pong ball promoted a thaw in relations between the United States and China, sport helped to end the Cold War in Asia and remains a unique instrument of diplomacy, building goodwill in a region of the world that lacks this commodity.”[1] Athletes like Lee Eun-ju and Kim Song-guk reflect this goodwill, and North Korea’s potential absence from the Pyeongchang Games would be a significant missed chance to improve North-South relations.

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 Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

[1] Cha, Victor D. Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. Columbia University Press, 2009.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, slider, South KoreaComments (0)

Five Notable Facts about Thae Yong-Ho

By Juni Kim

North Korea watchers have been busy for the last few days thanks to the high-profile defection of DPRK’s second-in-command in London, Thae Yong-Ho. While information will continue to emerge about Thae and his motivations, here are five interesting facts that we know thus far.


He defected with his family

Thae was able to defect with his wife and children. Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman for the South Korean Unification Ministry, noted in a press conference that Thae’s defection was partially motivated by his concern for his family’s future. It is widely reported that in order to deter potential defections, North Korea often punishes relatives still in North Korea. Although the method of Thae’s defection with his family is unknown, the fact that he could secure his immediate family’s safety likely played a large role in his decision.


He was scheduled to return to Pyongyang

Steve Evans, a BBC Korea correspondent, noted that Thae was scheduled to return to Pyongyang with his family. Although it is merely speculation at his point, Thae’s pending return to North Korea may have troubled him because of fear of regime retribution upon his arrival. Evans speculated that negative press about North Korea in the British media may have caused Thae to draw the regime’s ire. In addition, some experts have noted that with increased scrutiny of North Korea’s illicit activities, diplomats such as Thae may be having a hard time meeting quotas of gold, cigarettes and other valuable items they used to smuggle back to Pyongyang.


He is the highest-ranking North Korean diplomat to defect in nearly 20 years

As the second highest ranked North Korean diplomat in London, Thae’s defection makes him the highest-ranking diplomat to defect since 1997, when North Korean Ambassador to Egypt Jang Seung-gil sought asylum with his wife at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Jang Seung-gil was also scheduled to return to Pyongyang at the time of his defection.


He lived in London for 10 years 

Thae worked in London for 10 years, which is an unusually long post for a North Korean diplomat. He was thoroughly engrossed in British suburban living, having taken up membership at a local tennis club, and he frequently played golf. Regarding Thae’s adjustment to British life, Evans commented, “He seemed so at home. He seemed so middle-class, so conservative, so dapper.”


He escorted Kim Jong-un’s brother to an Eric Clapton concert

Thae escorted Kim Jong-chul, elder brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and son of Kim Jong-il, to an Eric Clapton concert at Royal Albert Hall in 2015. A BBC video shows Thae with Kim Jong-chul emerging from a vehicle to enter the concert hall, which can be viewed here.


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 Laika ac’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Posted in Inter-Korean, North Korea, sliderComments (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.