Country Report: South Korea (November 2014)

South Korean newspapers have recently focused on parallels in international relations. As they follow developments in Ukraine and Hong Kong and keep their gaze on North Korea, they are alert to similarities that can influence the foreign policy of the Park administration. The most significant overlaps are found between Ukraine and South Korea. The former is situated on a civilizational fault line in Europe, leaving its population divided between those oriented to the West and those identifying with Russia. Economic ties in East Ukraine are inseparably close to Russia, while political and security thinking of an administration dominated by other areas of the country has shifted decisively toward the EU. This leaves the country torn in its foreign policy and vulnerable to outside manipulation and direct involvement. Similarly, the economy of South Korea is now heavily centered on ties to China, while the country has an alliance with the United States. There are also divisions over how to address the country’s primary challenges in North Korea, the reorganization of Asia, and economic regionalism. If war seemed unimaginable in Europe just a year or two ago, then its possibility in East Asia should also be contemplated, putting South Korea in a difficult position that is exacerbated by North Korea’s role.

The US response to Ukraine and to Russia raises questions of how it might address South Korea and China. One test is of US insistence on South Korea employing the THAAD missile defense system despite the vehement opposition of China and Russia, which consider it to be targeted against them rather than North Korea. Responses vary from rejection of US demands and adoption of a more independent engagement policy toward North Korea as an alternative, heavy reliance on deterrence while US attention is diverted to other hot spots, or support for Washington because this system really is about strengthening defenses against the threat from Pyongyang. The debate over ending the May 24 sanctions on North Korea as a step toward engagement is connected to this issue as well, with progressives inclined to support the move.

Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution raises other parallels. An obvious one is for Taiwan—whether it will lose remaining trust in “one country, two systems” after seeing how calls for democracy are treated by Beijing. In South Korea, progressives who are reminded of Korea’s democratic demonstrations in the mid-1980s tend to sympathize with the umbrella demonstrators. Left unsaid by many is what lessons will be learned about China’s handling of one border area for its future conduct toward the Korean Peninsula. Albeit the former case is seen as a matter of sovereignty and the latter is not, both could be construed as “core interests.” The US response to the events in Hong Kong may be seen as instructive as well. However, while others are discussing the shared Chinese and Russian terminology of “color revolutions” for Ukraine and Hong Kong, this juxtaposition is not being brought to the surface in South Korean media.

Ukraine crisis

After sanctions from the West were imposed, Russia expedited its “turn to the East.” It signed a deal to build the longest pipeline in the world with China and make payments in rubles and yuan. It also forgave 90 percent of North Korea’s debt and decided to invest in modernizing its railway system. In a September 3 Joongang Ilbo article, such actions are compared to the US pivot to Asia—Russia supposedly focuses on economic ties and the United States on security ties. Explaining that US strategy is trapped by developments in the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis, the article argued that Russia is succeeding in having Asian countries choose not to be on the side of the West. Asian countries are not participating in the sanctions proactively, keeping a neutral or negative posture. The article attributes this to a strategic difference: Russia is striving to be an Asian country; the United States is striving to prevent a new hegemon China from rising in the region.

On September 30, Park Nojah wrote an article in Hangyoreh warning that a third world war is underway, treating the crisis in Ukraine as one of several proxy wars around the world. Park argues that the Korean Peninsula would become a venue for the war unless the inter-Korean relationship is improved, adding that the format for a great war has become unrecognizable. With consumption-based economies, capitalism, and nuclear weapons, major powers are no longer interested in expanding their territory but in maximizing their economic interests. As a conventional world war is economically too destructive to undertake, proxy wars are instigated in other states or a buffer zone. The Syrian Civil War, which is entering its third year, is the first of such wars and pits the United States against Russia and Iran. Ukraine is the next site of conflict, having been previously close with Russia, who was its biggest trade partner with irreplaceable bilateral economic ties in eastern Ukraine, but now dependent on the United States and the EU since it changed its administration in early 2014. The new administration’s pro-Western policy triggered the war, readers are told. While the two uprooted countries suffer from a devastated economy, the defense industries in major countries are making profits.

Park points to similar or more serious conflicts of interest in South Korea—deep economic ties with China, as Ukraine has with Russia, and a strong security and political alliance with the United States, which Ukraine is trying to forge. Park asks if South Korea is ready for a possible US policy change toward a more aggressive stance against China, which could result in an outcome similar to what is occurring in Ukraine and make the Korean Peninsula the next place of war. To avoid this outcome, the author concludes, improving the inter-Korean relationship is not a matter of politics but survival. Only improving this holds promise for deterring a US-China conflict from turning into war.

A Joongang Ilbo journalist on October 11 expressed concerns over the same crisis, fearing that it gives an excuse to North Korea to defend nuclearization as an unavoidable choice to survive. After all, Pyongyang argues that hostile US policy gave them no choice but to develop these weapons. The article concludes that the same logic applies. The longer the crisis, the more Pyongyang would justify further nuclear development, even though it began before the crisis.

North Korea nuclear threat

On September 28, in Kyunghyang Ilbo, Kim Junhyung argued that the current US policy shows lower priority for the North Korean issue. The author sees this as an opportunity for Seoul to lead on the issue with increased autonomy, pointing out that the Obama administration used to put significant pressure on the Park administration not to take charge of any kind of North Korea policy separate from strategic patience. Though such pressure is not seen anymore, the author argues that Park is not fully utilizing this chance but is copying US policies, which already have failed.

A Hangyoreh article released on October 16 agrees with the argument. Pointing out that Secretary Kerry has visited mainly the Middle East, the author argues that the Obama administration’s attention is occupied with that region. Given the low priority of the North Korean nuclear threat, the Park administration should lead efforts to start a dialogue with the North by resuming the Gumgang Mountain tour and lifting the May 24 sanctions, the article concludes.

On Sept. 18, a Chosun Ilbo article also urged the Park administration to start talks with the North. Highlighting the changing political landscape around the peninsula and her increasing lame duck status, the author argues that the sooner the two Koreas hold a dialogue, the more South Korea will have the upper hand in negotiations. Referring to South Korea’s Economic Cooperation Initiative with North Korea, the article is concerned that heavy investment by China, Japan, and Russia in North Korean natural resources and infrastructure would ruin any chance for this effort. Though the article draws the line at lifting the May 24 sanctions before the talks, it calls for flexibility on other matters from the administration. Another article on October 8 also argues that lifting the May 24 sanctions is too radical and irrational a step. The author finds that international sanctions are working properly, arguing that this is the reason delegations of high-level North Korean officials are visiting Europe, Russia, the United States, and South Korea. After the unexpected visit to Inchon by three prominent North Korean officials, Hwang Byeongseo, Choi Ryonghae and Kim Yanggoen, the author acknowledges this as a gesture of reconciliation, but warns that it is not a fundamental change that warrants talking about lifting the sanctions and having an inter-Korean summit. The two articles offer clashing opinions on how to proceed.

Jo Dongho opined in an October 7 Joongang Ilbo article that the visit is a signal to show the North’s willingness to develop its economy and improve the inter-Korean relationship. Jo argues that only South Korea has the capability and the need to invest in the North in the near future. China’s focus is internal development. Its interest in Rajin is to develop Northeast China. Japan has the abductee issue and will take a long time to make investments in earnest. Russia has too many ongoing issues to invest in the North. Jo reiterates that it is clear the North is ready to economically cooperate, and its signals should be fully utilized by the South, seeing this as an opportunity to realize the kind of cooperation that it wants. Acknowledging the nuclear threat and human rights violations, Jo argues that multilateral and bilateral cooperation should come together. Beyond just engaging, Jo urges the government to entice the North’s change in various ways, concluding that the essence of the Korean Peninsula Trust Process is to create circumstances that enable the North to change when it wants to do so.

Marking the twentieth anniversary of the Agreed Framework, a proactive and self-initiated policy toward the North was urged on October 20 in a Donga Ilbo article insisting that the North Korean nuclear threat is highly likely to be forgotten, unless South Korea shows leadership. The Six-Party Talks have been stalled, and China has stopped its attempts to resume the talks since Jang Song-thaek was executed. The United States is preoccupied with ISIS, the Ebola virus, and the Ukraine crisis. Japan focuses on the abductees issue, and Russia is giving assistance to the North rather than pressuring it over its nuclear program. The major players have lost interest in the issue.

On October 12, a Kyunghyang Ilbo article expressed appreciation that the 1994 accord stopped Pyongyang’s further nuclear development. It highlighted that dialogue is not perfect, but it is the only option to resolve the issue. Criticizing the US government for being indifferent to the issue, the author argues that denuclearization is a result of negotiations and should not be a prerequisite for them. The author expresses alarm that South Korea does not have much time to wait for the United States to show leadership on the issue. It called for self-initiated solutions and persuading the United States to engage in dialogue with the North.

An October 23 Joongang Ilbo article argues that the Agreed Framework was broken in 2002 when Kang Seok-ju admitted the existence of an highly enriched uranium program, and that it failed to stop the North’s nuclear weapons development. Since then containment, engagement, dialogue, pressure, incentives, and sanctions have also failed and the Six-Party Talks have stalled. Furthermore, participants have become tired of the issue. After all, the North’s economy is not linked to the world unlike Iran’s. US strategic patience could turn out to be just patience. China puts more weight on preventing the fall of Pyongyang than on denuclearization. In this context, the author argues that South Korea should lead in a new paradigm. “The three no’s” (no more bombs, no better bombs, and no exports) advocated by Seigfried Hecker, a US nuclear scientist, offer a model that the author introduces, adding that South Korea needs to be rational and realistic and start from freezing nuclear development, not from denuclearization. Finding a great opportunity in having a channel between the top authorities in Seoul and Pyongyang for the first time, the author insists on linking a new paradigm to the peninsula peace process.


Various opinions were exchanged about whether South Korea needs to adopt the THAAD system, even though it is reported that Seoul and Washington have not discussed it officially. On one side, THAAD is described as an efficient choice that South Korea can make between the United States and China. On the other, it is understood that China openly comments that THAAD is not effective in deterring North Korean missiles and actually targets China. On September 4, Suh Jungkyung wrote an article in Chosun Ilbo saying that THAAD is a diplomatic decision rather than a security one. Suh argues that the United States wants to see how much Seoul is involved with China and China wants to see how much Seoul can be free of the ROK-US alliance. To make an independent policy decision to maximize its security, the author argues that South Korea needs to develop a new paradigm, which does not only depend on the ROK-US alliance. Seoul needs to develop its own principles in a new regional order and be able to suggest ideas that the two major powers can accept. On October 13, Jung Ukshin in Joongang Ilbo argues that South Korea should utilize THAAD as leverage to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and advance the Six-Party Talks. Jung sees THAAD as inefficient for deterring North Korean missiles and the issue as too sensitive for China, given that Xi openly opposes it, while Obama has not made any comments on this. Moreover, the United States is seeking cooperation in the Middle East with China and Russia, meaning that it may not want to rattle them by insisting on THAAD. Given these circumstances, it is not the best time to adopt THAAD, which can be delayed in exchange for an earnest effort by North Korea, China, and Russia to denuclearize the North. It would not be too late to adopt THAAD if such efforts bare no fruit, concludes Jung.

An October 27 Chosun Ilbo article criticizes China’s argument for exaggerating the threat from THAAD. The author argues that THAAD is effective in deterring North Korean mid-range missiles fired at the South, adding that THAAD is not such a threat to China compared to other missiles or fighter jets actually targeting Beijing. China has no right to intervene in what kind of defense system South Korea adopts, unless it can effectively resolve the North Korean nuclear threat, readers are told. Otherwise, China is blaming the victim for finding a shield instead of the offender holding a knife. The author concludes that Seoul needs to develop its arguments to rebut a major country’s unfair insistence in order to pursue a more effective diplomatic strategy.

In contrast, an October 22 Hangyoreh article asks the Park administration to be more cautious and responsible in making a decision on THAAD. The author argues that Chinese opposition is much more serious than many in Seoul recognize and needs to be addressed by the president rather than the defense minister. Arguing that THAAD would be a major shift in the national security strategy, the author explains that the administration needs to convey its stance in an accurate and responsible manner. Referring to the negative impact of the 2000 trade dispute with China over garlic, readers are told that adequate preliminary work and communications must be undertaken in order not to sabotage the bilateral relationship with China.

Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution

On October 23, a Hangyoreh columnist found that there is a perceptual gap between Mainland China and Hong Kong over the ongoing demonstrations, referred to as the umbrella revolution. The level of democratization is revealed to be starkly different in the two areas. Attributing this to 170 years of division, the author is concerned that such a gap would be inevitable in a reunified Korea.

Analysis of the umbrella revolution has been quite limited. It was generally agreed that this is a test to determine whether China can maintain “one country, two systems” after the revolution. An October 17 Joongang Ilbo article foresees that China will be stable even if the revolution is successful or moves to the mainland. The author reasons that the Han ethnic group leads the democratization movement, but it does not want the nation to be split. Minority ethnic groups total only about 8 percent of China’s population, in contrast to a much higher percentage of ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union before its collapse. On October 3, a Kyunghyang Ilbo article argued that a “new type of major power relations” would be impossible to realize if the revolution is forcibly suppressed, and there would be a negative impact on reunification with Taiwan. On October 1, a Hangyoreh article also argued that this is the test to prove if China is ready to be a responsible player as a new axis in the new world order. It was vocal that China should guarantee democracy in Hong Kong, an attitude expected from Korea’s progressive advocates.