Country Report: South Korea (September 2014)

President Park’s “principled diplomacy” has been criticized for a lack of detailed policies. Park set the two diplomatic goals of a “Northeast Asian Peace Process” and a “Korean Peninsula Trust Process.” The former has been practically blocked by Korea-Japan relations, and the later by the inter-Korean relationship. Seoul and Japan currently have only one official dialogue channel at the director-general level. There has been no progress with Pyongyang. Nevertheless, a preparatory committee for reunification held its first meeting in August. Questions were raised whether it is an effective or wise diplomatic tactic to stick to a principle with nothing consequential to show for it over the one and a half years since Park’s inauguration. Recent articles call for a more “practical” approach for widening Seoul’s diplomatic options. Next year, Korea-Japan relations mark their fiftieth anniversary and South-North Korean relations mark their seventieth. Voices are raised to put these relations on a different track, launching a new era.

Korea-Japan relations

Following Japan’s Kono statement verification announcement, discussion has centered on how to ease the conflict over the “sex slave” issue. Both the United Nations and the United States criticized Japan over the issue. However, the Korean media assessed that Tokyo is not responding, as seen in the Japanese reaction to the August 5 Asahi Shimbun article correcting an article it published in 1982. The article said “No evidence or testimony has been found’ to prove that there was coercion of sex slaves on Jeju island”, while mentioning that “the essence of the issue has not changed in that the sex slaves coercively lost their freedom and dignity.” However, Japanese conservative groups officially argue, based on the article, that claims the sex slaves were coerced are fabricated. Angered by such reactions, the August 7 Chosun Ilbo article appealed for the United Nations and the United States to take action beyond their earlier statements. The issue is urgent, given that the evidence has been decreasing or disappearing, as it is based on the memories of victims. When the Kono statement was written, the Japanese government drew on the testimony of 16 victims, 14 of whom have died and two of whom do not remember any more due to Alzheimer’s disease.

On September 1, a Donga Ilbo article also sensed a changed attitude over the issue in Japan after the corrected article. The focus is only on the fact that there is no evidence in a document to prove coercion of the sex slaves. Japanese are not paying attention to evidence that Japan’s military created, managed, and transported the sex slaves, neglecting to notice that the victims were taken by force or deceit. The author quoted Yoshimi Yoshiaki’s comments in an interview with the paper: “Is it okay to say that there is no issue regarding the Japanese abductees, when there is no government document ordering the kidnapping of Japanese?” Such logic appeared even earlier. On July 24, a Hangyoreh observer argued that the Japanese abductees issue can be of use in resolving the sex slave issue, opening the possibility that Japan-North Korea cooperation on one humanitarian issue could create an opportune moment for South Korea on another issue, i.e., my humanitarian issue matters as much as yours. On August 1, Joongang Ilbo specifically argues that dialogue with Japan is needed.

As a starting point for such a dialogue, former vice foreign minister Sasae Kenichiro’s approach was suggested. It almost led to a signed agreement in 2012, which included three provisions: 1) the Japanese prime minister officially apologizes over the issue; 2) humanitarian compensation is paid to the victims; and 3) Japan’s ambassador to Korea visits the victims to read the apology statement and hand over the compensation. The second provision was revised to change the terms of the dispensation of the fund to that of “apologizing compensation,” while the facts related to the issue were to be specified and used to educate the next generations. After the revision, Prime Minister Noda objected, for reasons, reportedly, separate from the contents.

Although the above negotiated statement failed to be signed and is now less likely to be, given the current two leaders’ firm stance on history, the author stresses that it can be a starting point. Lee Won-deok’s suggestion is also introduced, a one-point summit on the agenda of the sex slave issue. Lee calls for the two sides to meet at the multilateral APEC summit in November to agree on the framework for the summit, then the two should meet next year on the issue to achieve closure. The author concludes that Park’s nomination of a politician-not a diplomat-as ambassador to Japan shows her will to find a path to improve the bilateral relationship.


Shin Gi-wook in the September 6 Donga Ilbo wrote that Seoul needs to implement a two-track strategy now, warning that the Kono statement verification has complicated the conflict and given justification to Tokyo to do no more than meet the international community’s requests without any likelihood of responding to Seoul’s future requests. Thus, Seoul must recognize the increased role of the international community on the issue of history. Unless the world understands the essence of the issue, Shin argues, Japan will not respond to requests and the world will remain largely favorable to Japan’s stance. Current diplomacy has adversely impacted South Korea, the author adds, seen as the country excessively obsessed with the past and not accepting apologies. The essence of the issue is that it is a universal human rights and history issue and tension with Japan is not due to lack of apologies but lack of consistency. Shin concludes that since such facts are hardly known, national favorability is usually higher for Japan than for South Korea. With research and communications shifted from Japan and neighboring Asian countries, the history war would play out differently in international diplomacy.

The voices in favor of shifting to dialogue with Japan warn that current diplomacy is working for Japan. On July 28, a Donga Ilbo observer finds that it has faced better circumstances in regions that do not have a deep understanding of the bilateral history. Noting that Japan is a country sharing values for diplomacy and a market economy, the author urges Park to see the relationship in the context of rapidly changing Northeast Asian politics.

Lee Yeong-chae asserts in the July 13 Hangyoreh that current diplomacy has expedited constitutional revisions and the move toward militarism in Japan, concluding that active engagement using the summit meeting card is needed. Highlighting that even North Korea made a deal with Japan, the author suggests that active engagement would undermine the arguments driving the hostility of Japanese hardliners. Showing concern over excessive anti-Korea sentiment in Japan, the author argues that Park needs to explain South Korea’s stance to bolster the influence of more moderate Japanese. Acknowledging that the summit would not lead to a significant outcome, Lee suggests that it would serve to weaken the anti-Korea forces and to ease the Japanese media’s “hate” comments.

A softened attitude by Park toward bilateral relations has been discerned in the press.. Park’s speech on liberation day was assessed as turning the focus to the future from the past, compared to the previous year. Park said that the two countries should make the 50th anniversary of normalization a starting point for a new future. On August 19, a Donga Ilbo observer notes that Park proposed cooperation in areas other than history, such as safe nuclear development, disaster management, and climate change. Evaluating Park’s proposal as a signal for improving relations, the July 26 Chosun Ilbo article also sees hope in her meeting at the Blue House with the Tokyo governor—an unofficial envoy conveying a message from Abe in support of improving relations. Change in the Japanese attitude, or at least a more genuine intention to improve the relationship, was noted too, but when Japanese politicians again visited the Yasukuni Shrine on Independence Day, there was renewed criticism raised in the South Korean press.

Inter-Korean relations

Jung Seh-yun in the August 3 Hangyoreh criticizes that the current strategy is no different from doing nothing, summarizing it as the South making suggestions doing nothing afterwards, and then blaming the North for not accepting them. Practical measures are needed to draw the North’s participation, the author concludes. The July 8 Chosum Ilbo column notes that current strategy needs to embrace the North, which is diplomatically isolated or anxious about losing China. Its dialogue with Japan is an attempt to overcome such circumstances, the author adds. Reiterating that the top priority is to be ready for any possible provocation by the North, the author concludes that the South needs to make the North realize that inter-Korean dialogue, not dialogue with Japan, is the way to break away from the current isolation.

Although relations with North Korea are stalled, discussion of reunification has gathered steam. A preparatory committee took office and held its first meeting. On July 16, the next day, a Chosun Ilbo columnist appreciated such action as a way to build a national consensus on the issue—a consensus needed for policy towards the North, but the reality has been the opposite. Each new administration changes the policy in a framework of black or white, the author argues, preferring a continuing role for the committee, regardless of who or what party holds power. Against the cynical reaction that such efforts are meaningless when the bilateral relationship is stalled, as it is now, the author responds that on this issue nothing is predictable. The important thing is to be prepared for every possible scenario, such as abrupt reunification. Also, the unpredictability of Northeast Asian regional politics warrants such preparatory work. Another article published a day after the first meeting on August 7 welcomes the committee’s plan to draft a reunification charter, seen as useful for building a national consensus.

In her August 15 speech, Park said, “it is necessary to open ‘small routes’ where the two Koreas can meet and communicate.” On the next day, Chosun Ilbo columnist found this suggestion in line with the Dresden Declaration, agreeing with the importance of small routes. While the North asked for the lifting of the May 24 restrictions as the first step after the declaration, the author does not find this realistic at all, concluding that narrowly centered cooperation, such as the reunion of families, is much more likely to happen.

On August 20, a Donga Ilbo observer also approves the idea of small routes, noting that the North’s policy toward the South has not changed much. Even when It accepts requests made by the South or the international community, it continues its nuclear development and threats. The author argues that the Kim Jung-un regime has widened its amplitude, unilaterally closing the Kaesung Industrial Complex one day, then agreeing on a reunion of families—fluctuating policies deemed to be a result of an unstable, rapidly changing regional order and unlikely to be regularized soon, even if relations make progress and humanitarian assistance is provided. The point is that the bilateral relationship should be managed even when reunification is unlikely in the near future. Small routes and frequent interaction, the author argues, can decrease instability caused by the North.

Jung Sehyun, former Minister of Unification, criticizes the South’s unilateralism in the name of principled diplomacy in the August 3 Hangyoreh. Jung says that diplomacy means discrete negotiations from time to time, even contacting the enemy in secret during a time of war, when necessary. However, Jung asserts, the South excludes this. Since the prerequisite for a policy toward the North is its participation, at the least policies should be proposed that the North won’t immediately reject. Jung finds conflicting signals from the North. It keeps provoking the South, but at the same time it calls for bilateral dialogue, indicating that it is trying to find a way out through dialogue from the current economic crisis and to ensure regime sustainability. Thus, it is time for Seoul to make a choice whether to keep a policy that will bear no fruit for Park’s remaining years or to change the strategy.

With the desire to have a dialogue with the North increasing, discussion centered on whether the 5/24 restrictions should be lifted. Yoo Ki-joon, the chair of the Diplomacy and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, called for lifting the restrictions, an “impractical and old suit.” Saying that the reunification jackpot framework and Dresden Declaration would not have been possible without the restrictions in place, Yoo insists that a new approach is needed, given the changed circumstance. While some assert that lifting the restrictions requires “the North’s responsible measures” beforehand, Yoo argues that they should be lifted even without such measures to ease the tension and to have a dialogue. Ryu Kil-jae, the Minister of Unification, says “The two Koreas need to discuss first if the restrictions need to be lifted,” adding “It is almost impossible to lift the restrictions without a dialogue. The North needs to show responsibility as the restrictions were the result of its provocation in 2010.”

The August 20 Kyunghyang Ilbo article explains that Ryu’s announcement shows an intention to use the restrictions strategically to induce a change in the North’s attitude, while also demonstrating that the current administration has faced a problem realizing the Dresden Declaration. The author argues that Seoul would not lift the restrictions unilaterally and completely unless the two Koreas have a dialogue and reach an agreement, but it can convey the message that the “5/25 restrictions can be waived if bilateral cooperation is necessary for a project.”

Kim Yeon-cheol questions the effectiveness of the restrictions in the August 10 Hangyoreh. Inter-Korean economic cooperation has stopped for 5 years except for the Kaesung Industrial Complex. While the restrictions are punishment for the North’s provocations, the author argues that they hardly cause difficulty for the North, while leading small and medium entrepreneurs who had business with the North, into bankruptcy. North Korea-China economic cooperation has intensified and North Korea-China-Russia trilateral cooperation is also vibrant. If North Korea-Japan economic interaction resumes, the author argues, the restrictions would only shackle inter-Korean relations. Arguing that they are “the Berlin Wall in a different form,” Kim concludes that the wall can be destroyed only when people interact.

Changing regional order and South Korea’s diplomatic strategyIn the July 21 Joongang Ilbo, Moon Jung-in argues that stalled inter-Korean relations interfere with diplomacy with four neighboring and major countries: the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. The North Korean issue hinders relations with Beijing from developing further. As Seoul makes an effort to overcome the inherited limits, this leads to US doubts about Seoul’s diplomatic priorities. Japan and Russia are cooperating with the North to pressure the South. Thus, South Korea’s diplomacy is shackled by the North Korean issue. Moon argues that the inter-Korean relationship is not the dependent variable in diplomacy with the four major countries, but the independent variable. If the relationship were stabilized, South Korea would have less pressure from both the United States and China, while Japan and Russia would lose a “card” to pressure it. Implementing policies to improve inter-Korean relations should be the key to Korean diplomatic strategy, Moon concludes.

The September 1 Chosun Ilbo article agrees that the South Korea-China relationship is burdened with too many controversial issues, such as North Korea, the North Korean nuclear question, history, and the maritime border. The impression that such issues render policy to China inflexible does not bode well for South Korea’s national interest, even though it is an illusion. The author argues that the South’s development strategy has been based on the US alliance and will continue to be so, while Japan uses the US-China competition in the region to gain US support for domestic issues, a dangerous prospect. It is not the time to choose between the United States or China, the article concludes, but it is the time to rationally figure out the national interests and to conduct diplomacy to achieve them.

In the same issue, Kim Hueng-kyu argues that South Korea’s diplomatic strategy should be aimed at boosting cooperation between the United States and China, the opposite of Japan’s strategy to contain China. Acknowledging the competition between the two powers, the author insists that this relationship is not zero-sum but mixes both containment and cooperation. Arguing that escalation and systemization of conflicts hamper South Korea’s pursuit of its national interests, the author urges the government to play a role in encouraging bilateral cooperation and also stabilizing the regional order.

Son Yeol in the July 20 Kyunghyang Ilbo stresses that the United States and China can coexist, and South Korea should focus on creating such an environment, not on which partner to choose. The author notes that China has been advocating new norms and institutions this year such as a “New Security Concept” and the importance of “CICA,” an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine, which is based on the notion that Asian security should be managed by Asian countries. Criticizing the “Washington Consensus,” China has proposed the AIIB as a regional bank and a regional multilateral FTA is expected to emerge in response to TPP. The author suggests that Seoul’s strategic value for China is in supporting and justifying its new ideas and norms. Since the two powers both acknowledge that there are flaws in the current system and China’s new ideas are not fully matured, the author sees diplomatic opportunities ahead for South Korea. CICA and the US alliances, as well as the AIIB and the ADB can coexist, readers are told, and South Korea should design regional institutions or a regional order allowing for them to coexist and be connected each other.

All the discussions above can be seen as attempts to find a way to widen South Korea’s diplomatic options. The August 13 Joongang Ilbo article argues that current diplomacy is boxed in due to the one and only principle of “trust.” The article contrasts this with how flexible major countries are on diplomacy. China joined RIMPAC, and bilateral economic cooperation has never been more solid with the United States. China and Japan held a ministerial level meeting at ARF and are aiming to have a summit meeting in November. North Korea and Japan also started a dialogue and had a ministerial level meeting at ARF for the first time in 10 years. Frustration with Seoul’s narrow options is growing.

Han Suk-hee argues that Japan is trying to improve relations with both South Korea and China, and if it eases tensions with Beijing first due to the stalemate with Seoul, South Korea’s strategic situation would be worsened. Kim Sung-han, the former vice foreign affairs minister, argues that Japan is creating strategic space, not only depending on the United States diplomatically. Kim Guen-sik argues that it would be the worst scenario if North Korea-Japan relations normalized, inter-Korean relations remained at an impasse, and the poorest Korea-Japan relationship ever, happened at the same time. Such analyses stress that South Korea needs practical and flexible approaches to current issues.

On September 5, another observer suggests that the fall UN General Assembly offers an opening. It.can be a way for South Korea to break the current stalemate with North Korea and Japan. Lee Soo-yong, the foreign affairs minister of the DPRK, is participating and so are Abe and his diplomatic team. However, currently the Park administration has no plan to meet with them. The author argues that refusing to have any dialogue with certain countries is not punishment, quoting presidential candidate Obama in 2007. Instead, Park should not miss the opportunity to interact with the two countries, clinging to the principle of “trust” as her excuse. Such criticisms suggest that Park’s diplomacy is under pressure.