The ROK-US Summit: Divide in the South Korean Media

As the summit between newly elected Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump draws closer, South Korean newspapers are sharply divided over Moon’s policy posture, its potential impact on relations with the United States and China, as well as the prospects of revising Seoul’s approach to North Korea, which may be at odds with the US approach. Moon spoke on June 15 in honor of the 17th anniversary of the 2000 North-South summit; his special advisor, Moon Chung-in, spoke on June 16 at the Woodrow Wilson Center with what seemed like trial balloons for the summit; and on June 19, Otto Warmbier died just days after being released in a coma from detention in North Korea. The media found a lot to weigh as tensions mounted in advance of the summit. Of the six major daily newspapers, two strongly endorsed the new course anticipated from the Moon administration, while others resisted. On both sides, some expected a “train wreck” in the making. Others appealed for a limited agenda focusing on a process to coordinate approaches rather than open acknowledgement of differences that could endanger ties. Progressives sought assertiveness, conservatives sought caution.

Thinking among progressives clashes with prevailing views in the United States on the most fundamental forces influencing the crisis over North Korea: the North’s goals and reasons for its intensified provocations; China’s willingness to cooperate to achieve an enduring, peaceful outcome beneficial to the South; US motives and the degree to which they contradict the South’s aims; the reason sanctions to date have not worked to stop the North’s nuclear and missile provocations; and the promise of engagement for diminishing the North’s aggressive behavior. While debate often focuses on narrower matters—THAAD deployment or the price of freezing the North’s testing—basic premises about geopolitical and national identity issues lie at their root.       

The new Moon Jae-in administration is more willing to improve relations with China and resume talks with North Korea to resolve the nuclear issue. 15 6·15 17 .On the occasion of the 17th anniversary of the June 15th joint declaration, Moon said that Seoul would unconditionally support talks with Pyongyang if it does not conduct additional nuclear and missile provocations. His administration has lowered the level of existing preconditions and strongly expressed its will to talk. However, in response, the Trump administration has stated that the US position has not changed, and it would not engage in talks with North Korea until North Korea sets out to denuclearize.1 As Moon prepares to meet with Trump in Washington at the end of June and Xi Jinping in Germany at the G20 meetings, questions abound over how he will handle the talks such that neither Trump nor Xi would react harshly on Seoul’s decisions related to North Korea, THAAD, trilateralism with Japan, and other matters. In this article, I explore the discussion in the South Korean media over the first six weeks of Moon’s presidency for clues about how his balancing act might manifest.

Progressive Arguments for a More Independent Foreign Policy

South Korea is facing increasingly harder challenges in promoting favorable relations with both the United States and China. Since the ROK-US alliance remains the foundation of South Korea’s security policy, Seoul cannot sacrifice its relationship with the United States. At the same time, however, , , .At the samedue to China’s economic importance—along with the threat of Chinese economic retaliation and the uncertainty of China’s posture in case of a military crisis on the peninsula—Seoul must also improve relations with China. At times, the challenge of balancing Seoul’s stance amid intensifying US-China competition has been downplayed by assumptions that China and the United States share common interests in denuclearizing North Korea and maintaining peace in Northeast Asia. Nonetheless, in 2016, as Washington took the threat from Pyongyang more seriously and pressed Seoul to deploy THAAD, Beijing retaliated, insisting that its real target is China’s strategic weapons. Thus, resolving the THAAD question is an urgent matter for South Korea’s progressives, as it is for China.   

Indeed, the deployment of the THAAD system became a litmus test for South Korea’s relations with the United States and China. Even though two launchers have already been deployed, Moon is holding up the installation of four additional launchers until an environmental review can be completed in accordance with domestic regulation. This temporary balancing act is unlikely to satisfy either side; China and the United States may continue to signal their disappointment to Moon or, alternatively, watchfully await clearer signs of his intentions. China has made no secret of how it registers its anger, causing serious harm to the South Korean economy through its targeted retaliation. Its measures have had a visible impact; for instance, mass cancellations of tourist visits by Chinese citizens to South Korea led to a fall in the stock prices of duty-free stores and businesses involved in cosmetics, logistics, and aviation.2 Beijing’s retaliation has also affected the South Korean automobile industry. Sales of Hyundai and Kia cars in China plummeted.3 Finding a way to satisfy China is seen by many as the starting point for Seoul regaining the diplomatic initiative.

After the Moon administration announced that the deployment of additional THAAD launchers would be suspended, Moon Chung-in said that the environmental assessment might take about a year, but that this would not affect the two THAAD launchers and the radar that have already been deployed. This appears to be an effort to buy time as the administration tries to assuage China’s anger against the system, which suggests that Moon is striving to meet Beijing’s demand for South Korea to take a more balanced position between the United States and China. However, some are strongly against such a decision, arguing that the requirement for an environmental study should be waivered given the country’s security needs. In addition, they argue that failing to commit to the THAAD agreement may hurt Seoul’s alliance ties with Washington, which regards these last-minute charges against THAAD as disingenuous and based on ulterior motives to pull back from the alliance. Some fear a sharp response from the Trump administration, blaming Moon for weakening joint defenses. Yet, the progressive media is adamant about the need to rethink South Korea’s THAAD decision despite US concern.

Many South Korean analysts believe that current challenges have arisen from abrupt changes in the international system. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States alone has shaped the liberal international order. However, China’s emergence and growing assertiveness have disrupted this status quo, causing the international system to shift toward a multipolar order. Besides, this transition has been accompanied by power struggles between the United States and China, which have had a great impact, in particular, in the East Asian region. Many in South Korea treat their conflict as inevitable—inherent to the power shift—and see China as a largely reactive force. In particular, China is unwilling to seek consensus or lead in response to North Korea’s growing threats. In this perspective, South Korea is a victim, stripped of power to determine its own fate and caught in between two powers, evident from the case of THAAD. Some optimistically assume that Seoul can find middle ground in a manner that will attenuate the competition, at least in Northeast Asia. But neither Chinese nor US analysts see the source of the conflict in the same way.

The main thrust of progressive coverage in South Korea is to criticize US thinking on aspects of regional security, including THAAD. While generally regarded a defense mechanism against North Korean missiles, some consider THAAD as part of a broader US regional missile strategy. In February 2010, the US Department of Defense issued a Ballistic Missile Defense Review, the key recommendation of which was to build missile defense systems in order to cope with security threats. In the report, though it emphasizes North Korea’s ballistic missile capability as the core security threat in East Asia, China’s missile capability is not ruled out.4 .Washington and Seoul have tried to persuade Beijing, explaining that the THAAD system has only defensive purposes and is targeted at Pyongyang’s increasing missile threat. However, China insists that the sophisticated radar in the THAAD system could be used to track its missiles, giving the United States a major advantage in case of a possible conflict with China. The progressive camp appears to accept China’s arguments, while also doubting the utility of THAAD for the defense of South Korea and the US motives for pushing THAAD.

Kim Tae-hyun argues that recent changes in the international system are characterized by "the return of geopolitics" and the "collapse of the liberal world order." China, a non-democratic country, is rising, and the United States is failing to uphold the liberal world order it has built by introducing the “America First” policy. Such changes are especially alarming to a relatively weak country like South Korea, which has historically suffered from great power politics, namely Japan’s colonization and the division of the peninsula following the WWII. Against this backdrop, the reappearance of power politics comes as a shock to the people of South Korea.5 Since the end of the Cold War, Koreans have kept their hopes that through diplomacy, they can escape the consequences of great power rivalries, often convincing themselves that a path to self-empowerment exists. In 2016, however, their hopes were dashed as Park’s foreign policy initiatives collapsed, one after the other, resulting in greater reliance on the United States and a greater likelihood of trilateralism with Japan. Moon rejects these outcomes, reviving hope that Seoul can steer a diverse diplomatic path, bridging Washington and Beijing.

Hochul Lee maintains that China rising is transforming the power distribution in Asia. In reaction to this transformation, the United States is attempting to restore the regional power balance. According to Lee, US rebalancing and China’s counter-balancing have been the key elements in transforming geopolitics in Asia. Telling examples include the tension in the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is not just a development strategy but, more fundamentally, a facet of Chinese grand strategy. The US rebalancing is also geographically-determined and strategic in nature, a critical element of which is the encirclement of China. For the United States and China, geopolitics and order-building are not mutually exclusive but complementary tools of foreign policy. Further, Lee argues that geopolitics has neither “returned” nor is it an “illusion”—rather, geopolitics has always been a reality and will continue to be so in the future.6 In this view, North and South Koreas are necessary sacrifices in the great power rebalancing.

Since 2008, changes in the power distribution have gained momentum, as the United States struggled to end its two wars and abruptly faced a severe financial crisis. Meanwhile, China harvested the fruits of its rapid economic growth and showcased its increasing power and wealth, as through the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2010, China overtook Japan in terms of GDP, becoming the world’s second largest economy. As the United States introduced its “Pivot to Asia,” the struggle for power between the United States and China began in earnest, argues Lee,7 leading to the sacrifice of weaker countries, which were forced to take sides. Such reasoning pits small powers against the big ones and suggests a need to fight back to find a voice in pursuit of national interest.

The escalating competition between the United States and China is raising political and military tensions in the region. In response to China’s growing influence in the world, the Trump administration emphasizes "peace through strength" and tries to maintain its influence in the region. The growing influence of China and the US will to retain power in the region have resurrected the South China Sea and Senkaku disputes—dormant issues rooted in the San Francisco system—argues Lee Soo-hyung.8 The tendency to blame greater forces at work while ignoring efforts to narrow or widen differences by specific actors serves to empower Seoul as well as to distance it from the pressures being applied by one power or another.

Why are the United States and China failing to build trust? They are inextricably bound together and exert the greatest impact on world affairs of any two nations today. Despite the interdependencies, relations have not been easy, and have grown more difficult in recent years. Competition is rising, cooperation is declining, and strategic mistrust is pervasive. They have failed to develop trust in others’ long-term intentions, particularly in regards to each other. Many Chinese believe that US policies toward third countries, like North Korea and Iran, are part of a grand strategy intended to weaken China. For South Korea, one of the main concerns regarding the competition is possible military action against North Korea, which may escalate into a full-scale war. Trump, like previous American presidents, will not tolerate the unpredictable regime in North Korea possessing the ability to threaten US territory. At the same time, however, he will try to employ non-military tools before resorting to force in dealing with the North Korean issue.9

Many in South Korea believe, however, that there are not many effective tools left to coerce Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons. Though the United States is still seeking to tighten multilateral sanctions, it cannot but rely on China for their effective implementation. After Pyongyang’s fifth nuclear test, the US unilateral sanctions expanded against North Korea and imposed a secondary boycott, which penalizes foreign companies trading with Pyongyang. But this was kept to a low level as further efforts were made to win China’s cooperation in two UN Security Council resolutions in 2016 and again after Trump met with Xi in April 2017. One exception was criminal charges and economic sanctions against Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, for alleged support of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It was the first secondary sanction targeted at a Chinese company. Yet, progressives do not seem to think this is very effective.

While some focus more on the conflict potential between Washington and Beijing, some weigh the dynamics of conflict and cooperation between the two. Lee Seungjoo argues that the rise of China has led to a fundamental change in the regional order in East Asia. The dynamics of conflict and cooperation unfolded in the process of regional economic integration, triggered by the rise of China, resulting in reshaping the regional architecture in the 21st century. The nature and process of the new architecture is hardly comparable with the past. In contrast to previous power transitions in which reorganization of global and regional architecture occurred by way of war, the United States and China tend to compete against each other by taking advantages of institutions and avoiding direct confrontation. Today, a complex interaction between geopolitics and geoeconomics drives the dual dynamics of competition and cooperation between great power rivalries.10

Will the rise of China fundamentally change the liberal international order? Chung Jin-Young evaluates this question and claims that as far as international monetary and financial relations are concerned, the liberal order has proved flexible to accommodate a rising China. In contrast to the argument that China’s rise will lead to the collapse of the liberal international order, which Chung sees it as based on two features of China’s rise (the relative decline of US hegemony and China being a non-liberal country), Chung argues that it is premature to assume that the decline of a liberal hegemonic country will necessarily end with the collapse of the liberal international order.11

Chung’s optimism about China centers on his interpretation of international monetary and financial relations, including China’s rising power in institutions such as the IMF. After the global financial crisis, China strongly pushed for the IMF reform as part of a global international monetary reform. It is the third most powerful state in the IMF in terms of its quota share and voting power. China has also demanded that its currency be included in the currency basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) and has made a series of efforts to meet the criteria for the RMB’s inclusion in the SDR basket.

Further, China has succeeded in launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), reflecting its intent to transform its conventional bilateral and informal financial diplomacy towards a multilateral and institutionalized one. This also demonstrates that rising China has been accommodated into the liberal international order, increasing its stake in the system.12 Some in Seoul say that China is trying to take over leadership of the liberal world order, not to overturn that order. In fact, while Trump declared US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Convention, at the general assembly meeting of the AIIB, China said that the AIIB would support the convention and faithfully implement it, filling the vacuum left by the United States’ exit.13

How should South Korea defend itself under the circumstances described above? Lee Soo-hyung argues that it should start by asking how to manage the ROK-US alliance, which has served as the most important asset in South Korea’s national security strategy. It is obvious that South Korea cannot maintain security and peace in the absence of this alliance. Even if South Korea’s diplomatic autonomy is limited due to competition between the superpowers, there is a chance it may gain more autonomy, as both superpowers strive to lead in the Korean Peninsula. In this regard, it is important to come up with alliance management strategies, as the competition for influence and the heightening nuclear capability of North Korea render the peninsula increasingly vulnerable to conflict. South Korea should distinguish its own interests from the shared interests of the alliance. Through proper management of the alliance, Seoul should secure autonomy and avoid entrapment to at least some extent.

Conservative Warnings against Endangering ROK-US Relations

On June 19 Chosun Ilbo warned that Moon was not cultivating ties with US officials as needed. According to a report from Japan, John McCain had been scheduled to visit during his tour linked to the Shangri-La Dialogue, but he skipped Seoul, because the Blue House did not confirm his meeting with Moon until the very end—a charge denied by the Moon administration. Yet, Moon had also not received Cory Gardner and Mac Thornberry when they were in Seoul in May. The article warned that since Moon took office, there have been big and small misunderstandings and setbacks in the minds of people who have been called “Korean friends” in the United States. It concludes that causing these people to turn their backs on South Korea could threaten the alliance.14

The Monthly Chosun’s June edition strongly argued against Moon’s emerging foreign policy. It accused the Moon government of “generously interpreting” North Korea’s nuclear weapons problem and having negative perceptions about the United States. The article also warned that these gestures are likely to appease China at the expense of Seoul’s relations with Washington, adding that .the United States is well aware of the fact that key figures in the Moon government have visited China to oppose THAAD. The article also expressed alarm about Moon’s new Japan policy, blaming the leadership for opposing the information-sharing agreement as well as the “comfort women” agreement with Japan, which were concluded during the Park Geun-hye administration.. Under these circumstances, strengthening security cooperation with Japan is hard to imagine, the article noted. Moreover, US ties could be put in doubt because of its increasing tendency toward isolationism under the “America First” policy, and as the Trump administration judges the value of South Korea in constraining China. “There will be some people in the Moon Jae-in government who think they can get along well with China. However, we must understand the historical fact that China will be good to Korea only as long as Korea is bent over to China,” readers are told.

Chosun Ilbo also reported on the disarray caused by special advisor Moon Chung-in’s talks in the United States and the Moon administration’s subsequent attempts to mitigate its damage. One article quoted a response from Chung Eui-yong, the head of the National Security Council, "that his remarks will do little to contribute to Seoul-Washington relation in the future." Despite failing to report that Moon was not speaking for the administration, the article saw his comments in Washington as announcing a “suspend for suspend” plan, in which Seoul scales down joint military exercises with the United States in return for a halt to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile tests. The article also describes Moon as questioning the utility of sending US aircraft carriers and strategic bombers as a show of force.

The need for THAAD was left ambiguous as well. Chung insisted that what Moon said was "just one of a variety of options being discussed here to resolve the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.” Chung added, “Any decision needs to be made in close consultation between Seoul and Washington." When asked if the adviser’s comments differ from the president’s views, Chung said, "We can’t draw a clear line. The point is not which parts are correct and which parts are wrong. The comments should be seen as one of many options." One government source said, "I believe Moon Chung-in told the Blue House before he left for the U.S. that he will say what needs to be said and play the ‘bad cop.’" If true, Moon is using his unofficial position to state uncomfortable truths to "create more options in future negotiations." Moon added that North Korea seems to have been provoked into its recent frenzied missile tests by the deployment of the US aircraft carriers and bombers to the Korean Peninsula. Asked about the prospect of inter-Korean talks, the envoy said Seoul will find it hard to accept Washington’s refusal to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang until it scraps its nuclear weapons program. "We do not need to meet the terms of any US-North Korea agreements in holding talks between South and North," he added.

Conservative commentators broke with the progressives on THAAD. Whereas skeptics insist that THAAD cannot defend the nation and is unlikely to work, while exacting a huge price and damaging South Korea’s diplomacy, the supporters charged that China’s opposition is not based on scientific and military grounds, that it seeks to create a precedent for intervening in Seoul’s decision-making in order to ultimately destroy the alliance, and that it behaves hegemonically, as if weak countries can be trampled. What China wants the most is internal division in South Korea, conservatives warn.

JoongAng Ilbo responded to Otto Warmbier’s death with advice to Moon to be cautious in engaging Pyongyang.15 The paper said that in the absence of an explanation for why the US student had fallen into a coma, the North could not escape the suspicion that he died of torture. In addition, Pyongyang needs to release all current detainees, including six South Koreans and three Americans. Given the upcoming summit between Moon and Trump, and their divergent views on how best to deal with North Korea—conditional engagement on one side and maximum pressure on another—the student’s death makes it more difficult for Moon to persuade Trump to take a softer approach on North Korea. Moon would be wise to consider the international atmosphere and slow the process of seeking inter-Korean rapprochement.

More cautionary advice came from Munhwa Ilbo on June 15, which reminded Moon that the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex is a violation of a Security Council resolution and that the current situation is different from that at the time of the 2000 Joint Declaration. DongA Ilbo also took exception to Moon’s June 15 call to resume talks with the North if it stops further provocations with nuclear weapons and missiles. It warned that US media were alarmed by Moon’s suggestions that could jeopardize South Korea’s security and protested against talks of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex in defiance of international sanctions.


South Korean publications since Moon’s inauguration convey a tone of guarded optimism, centered on assumptions about the limited degree of competition in China-US relations and the extensive room for diplomatic initiative by a middle power. The premise is that Seoul need not make a choice, neither sacrificing relations with its ally nor foregoing good opportunities to strengthen cooperation with China. Showing support for China-led institutions is one way to signal Seoul’s willingness to cooperate. In fact, Moon already has vowed that Seoul will increase its contributions for the AIIB.

Progressive papers oppose THAAD, defend Moon Chung-in’s remarks in Washington DC, and envision a more independent diplomatic course for Seoul, based on a particular reading of geopolitics and a long-nourished narrative on national identity. Conservative ones, on the other hand, ask how waiting for an environmental assessment for THAAD can be allowed when national security is at stake. While Moon’s domestic agenda and sharp contrast to Park have made him hugely popular as newly elected president, the internal divide over foreign policy makes his upcoming summit with Trump a critical test. It will not be easy for Moon to pass.

Even if Moon takes a cautious approach in Washington, progressives call for the resumption of humanitarian assistance to North Korea as the first step to improving inter-Korean relations. As seen in its role under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, such exchanges can help establish rapport. They should not be linked to politics as Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye did, as it could result in worsening inter-Korean ties. Such assistance is seen as a way to unfreeze relations as well as to raise the quality of life in the North.16

Many warn concerning the danger of a troubled summit between Moon and Trump, arguing that both leaders are unprepared to carefully manage the alliance, as others had done since 2008. There is also growing distrust as each side worry that the other might damage its national security, at a time of heightened threat of war. Concern that the summit may fail aggravated when Washington heard Moon Chung-in’s statement on June 16 and learned of Warmbier’s death a few days later. Seoul also became increasingly distressed as Washington’s responses to both events signaled discontent and confusion over Seoul’s foreign policy directions.

1. DongA Ilbo, June 17, 2107.

2. Hankyoreh, March 4, 2017.

3. Hankyoreh, April 5, 2017.

4. Lee Soo-hyung, “The Deployment of THADD on the Korean Peninsula and the Importance of management of an alliance”, Issue Briefing No.8, Institute of International Studies at Seoul National University, April 14 2017.

5. Kim Tae-hyun, China’s Rise, the Crisis of the World Order and East Asia, Korea and World Politics 33:1 (Spring 2017), 1-38.

6. Hochul Lee, China Rising and the Return of Geopolitics, Korea and World Politics 33:1 (Spring 2017), 39-62.

7. Ibid.

8. Lee Soo-hyung.

9. Kim Tae-hyung.

10. Seungjoo Lee, Multilayering of Regional Economic Order in East Asia, 2017. Korea and World Politics 33:1 (Spring 2017), 169-197.

11. Jin-Young Chung, Rising China and the Future of International Monetary and Financial Order, Korea and World Politics 33:1 (Spring 2017), 131-168.

12. Ibid.

13. Hankook Ilbo, June 18, 2017.

14. Chosun Ilbo, June 19, 2017.

15. JoongAng Ilbo, June 20, 2017.

16. KyungHyang Ilbo, May 26, 2017.