Country Report: South Korea (January 2015)

Deepening confrontation between China-North Korea-Russia on one side and South Korea-the United States-Japan on the other was the center of discussion over the last two months. As the year 2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Korea-Japan relations and the 70th of Korea’s independence, how to overcome the stalled relationship gained weight. Park also spurred “small multilateral talks” in addition to summit meeting diplomacy.

North Korea

The unexpected visit late in October of three prominent North Korean officials—Hwang Byeongseo, Choi Ryonghae, and Kim Yanggoen—was seen as a gesture of reconciliation as it was expected to lead to a meeting of high-level government officials. However, the North put a condition on the talks of prohibiting civil groups from sending flyers to the North. The Park administration stuck to its stance that no strings should be attached and such actions would violate freedom of speech. Kim Guenshik in a December 4 JoongAng Ilbo article responded with criticism that the two Koreas had missed a golden opportunity to revive the bilateral relationship.

On November 6, a Kyunghyang Shinmun article expressed concern that the bilateral relationship is subject to too many swings, in stark contrast to that of China and Taiwan, which has not fluctuated much even after Ma Ying-jeou officially supported Hong Kong’s umbrella protests over democratization and China’s Global Times reported that “Taiwanese intelligence agencies are recruiting exchange students from the mainland China.” Though both sides were no doubt offended, Taiwan sent a delegation to APEC, which met with Xi. Arguing that the inter-Korean relationship used to be closer than that of China and Taiwan, whose first ministerial level meeting after the separation in 1949 occurred last February, the author underlines the importance of continued civil exchange. Taiwan permitted its people to visit relatives on the mainland in 1987, then the two countries adhered to the two principles of “economics first, politics later” and “easier tasks first, more difficult ones later.” Though there are fierce confrontations over the Taiwan independence issue, barriers to the movement of people and goods vanished long ago, a lesson from which the two Koreas can learn.

A November 19 JoongAng Ilbo article highlights South Korea’s role in making a breakthrough in this stalled bilateral relationship, pointing out that the North Korean nuclear threat has increased and US-DPRK relations have deteriorated further under Obama than under Bush. The Obama administration blames Pyongyang for only taking hardline policies. The author quotes from the dialogue in 2005, which followed the September 19 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, when Bush blamed Kim Jong-il for not being a credible partner in negotiations, and Roh Moo-hyun said that “there is no need to negotiate with credible people. I believe a negotiation is a conversation with someone hard to trust.”

The article worries that the voices of hardliners are growing louder after the conflict over the flyers. Given that the two sides had agreed to prohibit the flyers in 1972 and 1992 unlike the Park’s administration’s stance, the author criticizes her call for “hitting the jackpot of reunification (통일대박론)” as hollow. Calling sanctions a self-injurious behavior to Seoul, the article says that Pyongyang would rather be closer to China and Russia than to change its policies. Finding an opportunity in Park’s conservative stance, it concludes that she can earn the support of the right wing and make a move to persuade it, as Nixon opened China and Reagan the Soviet Union, that her administration is serious about opening North Korea.

On the one hand, North Korea has been pressured by the UN human rights resolution and the US response to the alleged cyber terror against Sony. On the other, when Obama announced normalization of US relations with Cuba, South Koreans speculated that North Korea could be next. Both on the left and the right commentators sought more engagement by the United States and South Korea to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, explaining that the current policy demanding that the North change prior to dialogue is not working. Though there was further talk of urging North Korea to resolve human rights issues and even some proposals that South Korea take the lead on this issue, skepticism is widespread that a sticks only approach will not improve the situation.

On December 2, Kyunghyang Shinmun carried an article in favor of changing the current approach, asserting that only putting pressure on the North will not succeed as it is too isolated to have critical interests to protect in the international community. Sanctions are not effective, as North Korea has not much to lose, but rather provoke it because such actions are regarded as a violation of sovereignty, on which the North Korean standard and the international standard diverge sharply. Acknowledging that North Korea’s threat of another nuclear test is unjustified, the author argues that the gap in standards explains such a reaction to some extent. It follows that the international community needs to engage with North Korean first to make it a part of the international community before applying international standards or sanctions. Only then would it understand the context and have some interests to protect from sanctions. Without such balance, the UN resolution will only be regarded as a strategy to isolate and destroy the North Korean regime, leading to little improvement on human rights, one is told.

On the alleged cyberattack against Sony, criticism was raised that the United States hastily blamed North Korea even without evidence. A December 26 JoongAng Ilbo article argued that the DPRK has become a real threat to US citizens, not a superficial one anymore. Assessing that the possibility of US-North Korea dialogue has diminished, the article asked South Korea to reach out to North Korea first, especially since Kim Yanggon, the director of the United Front Department of the Chosun Workers’ Party, sent a letter to Lee-Huiho, the former first lady and Hyun Jung Un, the president of the Hyundai Group, hoping for a dialogue in 2015. When the reunification preparatory committee suggested opening a dialogue in January it was highly appreciated across the ideological spectrum.

On December 30, a Chosun Ilbo article expressed appreciation that the committee, as a half-government and half-private institution, would show more flexibility than a high-level government meeting would by mainly covering civil exchanges such as reunions of families and a South-North soccer tournament. The article highlights the North’s reaction, pointing out that Pyongyang had rejected previous proposals, but it finds more reason to hope this time, given that the Kim Yanggon’s letter said “We hope to have a dialogue channel to discuss the Geumgangsan tours, the 5/24 sanctions, and family reunions next year.”

On the same day, Dong-A Ilbo asked the committee to take all the necessary means to achieve its goal. The author argues that however nice the proposal, it will be meaningless without the North’s participation. Saying that the two sides have failed to improve relations in the year 2014, the author calls simply waiting for the North to reply to the proposal too passive an approach for a relationship that is as complicated as a ball of tangled yarn. Pointing out that the North once condemned the committee as preparation for reunification through absorption, the article urges the Park administration not to stick to the format if necessary, but to make it clear that the committee is not for such a purpose and that talk is beneficial to the North.

On December 31, a Chosun Ilbo article expressed alarm that the committee’s suggestion and the Park administration’s inclinations are too idealistic. Arguing that Pyongyang would have been able to normalize its ties with the United States 20 years earlier if it had adhered to the 1994 Agreed Framework, the author insists that the North had no interest or preparation to be part of the international community then. Since nothing is more important than to worship the leader (최고존엄) in Pyongyang, the author reminds readers of the country with which Seoul is dealing and urges Seoul to abandon idealism over reunification.


With increasing sanctions by Western countries, Russia proactively looks to East Asia. As both Pyongyang and Moscow face sanctions in the international community, their bilateral relations drew attention in the media. Some see a possibility for a summit meeting between Kim Jung-un and Putin in 2015 before one between Kim Jung-un and Xi, who have not held a meeting in three years. There are criticisms that Russia is going to nullify sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear threats; however, some see an opportunity for South Korea to implement its Eurasia Initiative and to make a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

On November 26, a Hangyoreh article argues that the rocky inter-Korean relationship is delaying the arrival of the “trans-East Sea era (환동해시대).” Focusing on the close ties between Russia and North Korea and the Rajin-Khasan project, the author foresees the new era beginning but worries that inter-Korean relations are a stumbling block to benefiting from such an era, which would make the East Sea like the Mediterranean. The article concludes that South Korea’s 5/24 sanctions have lost their legitimacy, as seen in the Rajin-Khasan project, and the Park administration needs to make a decision to seize this opportunity.

On December 10, a JoongAng Ilbo columnist wrote that Xi Jinping’s dream keeps growing—from the “China Dream” in 2012 to the “Asia Dream” at CICA in May 2014, and at APEC Xi suggested the “Asia-Pacific Dream” and the “Eurasia Dream.” Calling Xi’s dream a “World Dream,” the author opines that it attracts attention as it is always accompanied by concrete implementation plans, such as the “One Belt and One Road” project. Reminding readers that Park’s Eurasia Initiative has many connecting dots with this project, the article urges the Park administration to efficiently utilize it. While acknowledging a need for a thorough assessment and planning, the article concludes that Xi’s dreams are likely to become reality and urges the government not to take too much time to make its decision.

A December 5 JoongAng Ilbo columnist called North Korea’s Choi Ryonghae’s visit to Moscow an embrace of two depressed countries. An anonymous Russian source’s criticism of South Korea is introduced: 1) THAAD and ROK-US joint military training is too much of a threat to North Korea, which Russia cannot support; 2) South Korea’s conditions for resuming the Six-Party Talks are far too difficult to meet; and 3) South Korea has taken no steps to implement the trilateral economic cooperation with North Korea and Russia. The author says that such a perceptional gap is disturbing, but argues that South Korea should support the embrace, as Kim Jung-un’s regime is less likely to behave in an extreme manner when it can depend on other countries. Also, Russia firmly opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and has an interest in preserving the nonproliferation treaty. The author argues that it is better to have a country besides South Korea striving to curb North Korean nuclear provocations by engaging with it. The article concludes that the Russian government official’s suggestion that trilateral economic cooperation is a way to deter the North Korea nuclear threat is worth considering.

A December 11, Dong-A Ilbo reporter also expresses surprise in the perceptional gap found in Russia, stressing the importance of building diplomatic assets with it to reduce such gaps and to let Russians know South Korea’s stance. The article concludes that if Russia understands and supports only the North Korean stance, it means the failure of South Korea’s diplomacy.


A November 11 JoongAng Ilbo article takes a lesson from China’s diplomatic strategy to show a firm stance against Japan, but always leaving open a path to behind-the-scenes negotiations (물밑창구) to achieve one’s goal. The author finds a great deal of similarity between 2006 and 2014 in bilateral relations. In 2006, relations hit rock bottom after Prime Minister Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine for five consecutive years. After Abe took office further deterioration was expected, but he visited Beijing before Washington as a result of a tenacious behind-the-scenes approach by China to get Japan to stop ministers from visiting the shrine. A compromise ensued, as Abe said “It would never be mentioned if a visit has been made or would be made in the future.” In 2014, the Yasukuni Shrine issue was still there, with anti-Japan protests and seemingly excessive “bashing Japan” efforts and a stalled relationship. Nevertheless, Xi and Abe had a meeting to agree on a four-part statement. While the author warns against haste in holding a summit with Japan, as if Beijing is the road to Seoul, appreciation is shown for the firm but flexible diplomacy of China in contrast to Park’s lack of flexibility, which was reportedly holding back the resumption of summitry that is needed.

On November 14, another JoongAng Ilbo article asks the Park administration to make efforts to restore civil exchanges and to reduce anti-Korea sentiment in Japan before a summit meeting. Acknowledging the increasing criticism of Park’s diplomacy right after the Xi-Abe meeting, the author argues that a summit with Abe should not be rushed. Quoting experts that “Abe crossed a red line by denying the forced nature of comfort women or sex slaves,” the author urges Park not to abandon her principles due to China-Japan relations, while proceeding with a focus on civil exchanges. Underlying the importance of restoring the relationship, the article recalls that 2005 was similar to the current situation. Though a summit meeting was held afterwards, the discussion was mainly about the history issue. Hard-line and practical perspectives clashed over the bilateral relationship, as they do now.

Finding that in the mid-2000s even a stalled political relationship was not able to hinder the civil exchanges from growing fast as a result of a visa-waiver agreement, the Korean Wave, and increased trade, the author suggests that the Park administration work on weakening hate speech targeting only Koreans in Japan. Though the approval rate of South Koreans is higher than that of Chinese, such speech is only targeting South Koreans in Japan. Noting that there are some Japanese encouraging exchanges with Koreans, the author concludes that it is more urgent to soothe negativity working with them than to hold a summit meeting.

On November 24, Hangyoreh carried an article comparing the triangles of Germany-the Soviet Union-Japan and South Korea-China-Japan. The observer says that Japan was perplexed or felt betrayed by Germany signing a nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union in August 1939, while South Korea had a similar feeling watching the Xi-Abe summit meeting at APEC. Acknowledging that the host country traditionally holds a summit with every participant country, as South Korea did in 2005 despite rocky relations with Japan, and that China and Japan have disagreed over the 4-part agreement afterwards, the author argues that such a meeting still puts Park’s diplomacy in a difficult position. A lesson is drawn from Japan’s experience 75 years ago, which rushed into signing a nonaggression treaty and a neutrality pact with Moscow. The readers are told that Park took a similar approach by suggesting South Korea-China-Japan trilateral cooperation, a relatively indirect response compared to Japan’s. If Seoul utilizes a trilateral meeting to make a breakthrough, this could be a turning point. However, the article expresses concern that Seoul would sacrifice its principles and lose core benefits by focusing on progress in China-Japan relations and hastily setting a new strategy. Reminding readers that the Germany-Soviet Union nonaggression treaty and became null when the Nazis invaded in 1941and the Japan-Soviet Union neutrality pact failed when the Soviet Union joined the fight against Japan in 1945, the article urges the Park administration not to rush into anything without strategic assessment.

Skepticism is widespread over any possibility of an improved relationship with Japan. On December 9, a Chosun Ilbo column drew the conclusion after interviews with Japanese politicians, academics, and journalists that “Japan has no intention and need for improving its relations with South Korea.” The columnist argues that it is fruitless and even wrong-headed to talk about history issues with Japan, which sees itself as a victim having no responsibility to resolve existing tensions. Japan regards its bilateral relations with South Korea as subject to its relations with China; thus there is no need to pay attention to South Korea in drawing the big picture. Acknowledging that Abe has benefited from anti-South Korean sentiment, not the other way around of Abe leading in arousing such sentiment, the author concludes that South Koreans should see Japan as a “normal third country,” not as part of a “special relationship.”

On December 30, a Chosun Ilbo article said that it is time to see Japan as it is. Regarding Japan’s revisionism, the author observes that it is no longer a matter only of how politicians think, but also the attitudes of the general public, as seen in the recent elections. It reiterates that Japan, as it is now, is not the country to which South Korea is accustomed, but a very different country. This means that bilateral conflicts are hard to manage and not to be resolved easily. The article concludes that the time is past to argue over sentences in an apology statement, South Korea needs to start from the beginning again with the new Japan.