Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: South Korea

From our October 2013 LDESP Asia-Pacific News Update.

Flag_of_South_Korea.svgIn late September, in the midst of U.S. domestic issues over the government shutdown, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel took a tour of the Asia-Pacific, spending several days in South Korea. The New York Times reported, “Back in Asia, Hagel Pursues Shift to Counter China’s Goals in Pacific”:

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is forging ahead with a military agenda that reflects the Obama administration’s rising security and economic interests in the region and his own passions for Asia. After only seven months in the job, Mr. Hagel is on his third trip as defense secretary to the region in early October, including four days in South Korea — the longest stay by an American defense secretary in a generation — and a stop in Japan.

The Asian rebalance is a priority, Mr. Hagel said at a news conference on 2 October here with the South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin. “You always adjust your resources to match your priorities.”

The White House announced 2 October that Mr. Obama had canceled his trip to the Philippines and Malaysia because of the budget standoff in Washington. Secretary of State John Kerry will lead delegations to both countries instead.

The president is still scheduled to make the trip to Bali, Indonesia, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting, where Asian leaders are gathering to discuss economic issues, and then to Brunei for the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But White House officials made it clear that those stops might also be canceled, depending on developments.

“With Secretary Kerry spending most of his time and energy on the Middle East, additional responsibility has fallen on Hagel to demonstrate the United States commitment to Asia,” said Ely Ratner, the deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. But, Mr. Ratner said, Mr. Hagel’s efforts are “arguably at the cost of reinforcing perceptions in the region that the rebalancing policy is primarily a military endeavor.”

In Washington, some defense policy experts say the rebalancing amounts to little militarily and is largely a repackaging of existing policies. It has also antagonized the Chinese, which some experts say they believe is needless.

Pentagon officials say they are managing the tensions while devoting new resources to a region of increased strategic interest after 12 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also argue that the “pivot” is meant to be focused on diplomacy and trade, but that their military might in the region — four littoral combat ships to be deployed in Singapore, increased joint military exercises with Asian countries and 2,500 Marines in Darwin, Australia — is more visible.

Although Mr. Obama has cut military spending in various parts of the world, it has remained largely unchanged in Asia. By 2020 the Pentagon plans to deploy 60 percent of its warships in the Pacific and 40 percent in the Atlantic, compared with the current 50-50 split.

The greatest American threat in the region remains North Korea, which has a two-pronged nuclear weapons program and what defense officials say is the second-largest chemical weapons stockpile in the world. The secretive, isolated North Korean government cycles through regular provocations.

“This is probably the only place in the world where we have always a risk of confrontation,” Mr. Hagel said during a visit to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, adding, “There’s no margin of error up here.”

At the demilitarized zone, an eerie area just outside Seoul where guided tours and blue armbands for guests are part of the visit, the two sides communicate via a bullhorn. (New York Times)

A key discussion point for the two countries is the current operational control the U.S. has over the South Korean troops in the event of a war. According to the BBC:

“Gun Shy in Seoul: 60 years later, South Korea still isn’t ready to take full control of its own defenses,” as explained by Gordon Lubold in Foreign Policy. Image source: also Foreign Policy

“Gun Shy in Seoul: 60 years later, South Korea still isn’t ready to take full control of its own defenses,” as explained by Gordon Lubold in Foreign Policy.
Image source: also Foreign Policy

Seoul was due to resume control in 2015, but appears to want an extension, given ongoing tensions with the North.

The two Koreas remain technically at war as the 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty.

Mr Hagel, who is visiting South Korea for the first time since becoming defence secretary, said Seoul’s military had become “much more sophisticated, much more capable”.

“We’re constantly re-evaluating each of our roles,” he told reporters during his flight to Seoul.

However, it was not the time “to make any final decision” on when to hand back military operational control to the South, he added.

Wartime obligation

The US assumed military operational control over South Korea during the Korean war.

South Korea resumed peacetime control in 1994. However, the US is still obliged to lead South Korea’s military, as well as US troops deployed in South Korea, in the event of war.

South Korea was due to take over that role last year, but the date was pushed back to 2015 after North Korea’s repeated nuclear and rocket tests, the BBC’s Lucy Williamson in Seoul reports. (BBC)

Following the February 2013 Nuclear Tests by North Korea (see our LDESP Asia-Pacific News Update on the subject), tensions between the two countries seemed to cool off for a short time. The most recent news regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions emerged in early October when South Korean intelligence confirmed that North Korea restarted its nuclear reactor. The Los Angeles Times reported:

North Korea has restarted its plutonium reactor in Yongbyon and is producing nuclear energy at the site, South Korea’s intelligence agency reported on 8 October.

The report to Seoul lawmakers by a National Intelligence Service official confirmed warnings last month by nuclear watchdogs at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where examination of fresh satellite imagery showed hot water being funneled from the 5-megawatt reactor to a nearby river.

Image source: “North Korea v South Korea: mapping every incident from 1958 to 2013” - North and South Korea are in a state of heightened tensions. How many of incidents have there been - and where were they?,” The Guardian

Image source:North Korea v South Korea: mapping every incident from 1958 to 2013” – North and South Korea are in a state of heightened tensions. How many of incidents have there been – and where were they?,” The Guardian

Rep. Cho Won-jin gave South Korea’s Yonhap news agency details of the closed-door briefing to lawmakers.

The North had idled the graphite-moderated reactor at Yongbyon in 2007 under an agreement it reached in talks with five major nations to get food aid for  standing down on its pursuit of nuclear weapons capabilities.

The reactor’s cooling tower was dismantled in 2008 as a show of good faith, but North Korean negotiators walked out of the talks later that year and resumed testing and preparations for arming intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.

“The reactor is currently being operated to increase the North’s nuclear capacity,” South Korean national security chief Nam Jae-joon said, according to the Korea Times. Nam also told the National Assembly Intelligence Committee that the North has begun testing engines for long-range missiles, the online newspaper reported.

Scientists at  38 North,  a website operated by the U.S.-Korea Institute, had said last month that satellite imagery from Sept. 19 showed “hot waste water being released into the Kuryong River from a recently installed drainpipe, part of a new secondary cooling system completed in summer 2013.” The website said the heated outflow from the reactor, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, wasn’t seen in images captured in July, suggesting the reactor restart had occurred since then.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed in May to resume his isolated nation’s quest for a nuclear arsenal after a sharp increase in acrimony between the two Koreas in the wake of intensified U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang carried out a prohibited missile test in December, the third in four years, and followed in February with the testing of an underground nuclear bomb.

Stepped-up sanctions set off a wave of threats and accusations from the North, with Kim’s government vowing to deter any U.S. or South Korean aggression with a nuclear strike. (Los Angeles Times)

Thereafter, tensions again continued to rise when U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces held naval exercises while at the same time Secretary of State John Kerry and South Korean President Park Geun Hye met at a meeting for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei. Bloomberg reported “U.S.-South Korea Hold Drills that North Calls Rehearsal for War”:

U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces hold their second day of naval exercises that have prompted threats of retaliation from North Korea, which denounced the drills as preparation for nuclear war.

U.S. sailors from the USS George Washington Strike Group are leading the exercises to practice search and rescue operations and natural-disaster response. The two-day exercises, which were due to start on Oct. 8 and were delayed because of a typhoon, finished on 10 October, Defense Ministry spokesman Wi Yong Seob said at a briefing in Seoul.

“The U.S. should know that our army is ready to confidently confront whatever turbulences and perilous provocations with powerful military forces,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Oct. 8, citing an unidentified Army official. In another statement on Oct. 9, KCNA called the drills “nuclear war exercises.”

(…)

U.S., South Korean and Japanese forces hold their second day of naval exercises that have prompted threats of retaliation from North Korea, which denounced the drills as preparation for nuclear war.

U.S. sailors from the USS George Washington Strike Group are leading the exercises to practice search and rescue operations and natural-disaster response. The two-day exercises, which were due to start on Oct. 8 and were delayed because of a typhoon, finished on 10 October, Defense Ministry spokesman Wi Yong Seob said at a briefing in Seoul.

“The U.S. should know that our army is ready to confidently confront whatever turbulences and perilous provocations with powerful military forces,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Oct. 8, citing an unidentified Army official. In another statement on Oct. 9, KCNA called the drills “nuclear war exercises.”

(…)

Yongbyon, the country’s main nuclear facility, is capable of producing enough plutonium to make one bomb a year, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, which reported on Sept. 12 that the plant had restarted, based on satellite imagery.

North Korea followed its threats of first strikes in March with an announcement on April 2 that it would restart all facilities at Yongbyon to produce energy and bolster its “nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity.”

The naval exercises are being held a little more than a week after the U.S. and South Korea signed a new joint-defense strategy that would allow for first strikes against North Korea to counter any possible threat of nuclear attack. The agreement affirmed a U.S. commitment to use “the full range of military capabilities” to deter North Korea, the two governments said in a communique after the Oct. 2 signing.

(…)

Leadership Changes

The exercises also coincide with signs that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has replaced his army chief of staff for the third time since taking over the country and its 1.2-million strong military less than two years ago. KCNA referred to Ri Yong Gil on 9 October as Chief of General Staff of the Korean People’s Army in a report about a public appearance by Kim, indicating Kim Kyok Sik no longer holds the post.  (Bloomberg)

For a more in-depth discussion on the replacement of North Korea’s hard-line military chief only a few Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 4.56.45 PMmonths after his appointment, and on what is known of his successor, Washington Post reports North Korea Confirms it Replaced Hard-Line Miltiary Chief with Little-Known Army General: “Observers believe Ri Yong Gil may have been appointed to replace Kim Kyok Sik as early as August, when North Korea was pushing to ease animosity and resume lucrative cooperation projects with South Korea after threatening nuclear war throughout the spring.”

Though the joint exercise involving Japan and South Korea takes for granted good relations between them, the two countries also have their historical and current gripes with one another, specifically South Korea’s concerns over Japan’s military pursuits and their dispute over the islands in the Sea of Japan. In the midst of the recent U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation agreement between Kerry, Hagel and their Japanese counterparts, the Global Times reports:

Some South Korean opposition lawmakers on 4 October criticized Japan for seeking greater role for its stronger self-defense forces.

“Given no sufficient repentance over its past atrocities and no sufficient compensation for them, Japan seeking to become a military power under the pretext of self-defense would give a deep scar to neighboring countries that suffered from Japan’s past aggression, while escalating military tensions in Northeast Asia,” Lee Jong-geol of the Democratic Party said in a joint statement with three other legislators of the same party.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met with their Japanese counterparts at the so-called ‘two- plus-two’ meeting in Tokyo on 3 October to revise the 1997 Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation. The revision will increase security and defense collaboration between the two countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The gathering was highlighted by intense interest in Japan as the Japanese government was reportedly mulling expanding role of its self-defense forces, the Pentagon said. Kerry and Hagel were the first US secretaries of state and defense to attend such a meeting in Tokyo.

The South Korean lawmakers stressed that the strengthening of Japan’s military power would cause unnecessary military tensions in Northeast Asia, urging the South Korean government to issue an official statement slamming the greater role of Japan’s armed forces. (Global Times)

Karl Friedhoff, Program Officer at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and a Mansfield Foundation U.S.-Korea Nexus Scholar, looks at the country’s diplomatic efforts toward Japan in the Wall Street Journal that “South Korea Risks Overplaying its Hand with Japan”:

While his many detractors would never admit it, former President Lee Myung-bak oversaw an impressive rise in South Korea’s international profile. This rise, combined with Korea’s economic and technological achievements, have created a new confidence among the Korean public—polling data shows many perceive the country as increasingly influential on the international scene.

The Park Geun-hye administration is now acting on that confidence in its diplomatic dealings, but it is in very real danger of overplaying its hand when it comes to relations with Japan.

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 4.20.40 PMSo far, Seoul has snubbed most of Tokyo’s advances for high-level meetings and stuck to a line that Japan needs to do more to address historical grievances first.

A hard line on Japan is thought to be an easy domestic sell that creates benefits for the administration. The problem is that there is no clear evidence to support this—President Lee’s visit in August last year to the Liancourt Rocks, administered by Korea but also claimed by Japan, gave him virtually no increase in his approval rating. The hard line President Park is now taking against Japan has also failed to help her approval ratings. (A more convincing case can be made that being tough on Japan helps to quell criticism from a vocal anti-Japan minority.)

But more importantly, a hard line on Japan could begin to cost Korea internationally—if it has not already—by eroding the positive international image it has worked so hard to create.

If Korea begins to be seen as unreasonable and unwilling to work with Japan—at a time when Japan has made it clear it is willing to work with Korea—it will create more distance in Korea’s relationship with the U.S. for one. (Wall Street Journal)

In looking at South Korea’s foreign policy more broadly, Jeffrey Robertson writing for The Diplomat provides a useful analysis of the Park administration’s policies and previous administrations, “Middlepowerism & Continuity in South Korean Foreign Policy”:

On coming to power, every South Korean presidential administration seeks to differentiate itself from those that went before. There are no exceptions. Administrations with identical party roots will distinguish themselves by creating new administrative structures, rebranding policy and reinventing rhetoric. This gives academics plenty to write about when they pen the all important one-hundred day reviews. But in the case of a state as dynamic as South Korea, they may be missing the point. It is not change that is significant, but rather continuity.Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 12.45.24 PM

Elements of change in the foreign policy of the administration of President Park Geun-hye are clear. First, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT) was divested of its responsibility for international trade negotiations and launched under a new name, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Second, policies blending both deterrence and reconciliation in relations with North Korea, and policies aimed at strengthening Northeast Asian cooperation have been rebranded under a new policy platform, the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative. Finally, the rhetoric to support policy has been reinvented. Before the Park administration’s term is up, we will hear much more of the terms “trustpolitik,” “trust building” and “trust diplomacy.”

Elements of change will receive extensive attention as academics and commentators start to review the Park administration’s foreign policy. Focusing on the first hundred days of any administration to attain insight into the trajectory of foreign policy is counterintuitive. With the current administration it may even be foolish. With difficult parliamentary confirmation hearings; challenges in securing passage of the administrative reorganization; and the necessity of immediately focusing on North Korean issues, the current administration has had a slow start. Elements of continuity may tell us much more about South Korea’s foreign policy trajectory. Chief amongst these is middlepowerism.

Middlepowerism entered South Korean scholarship during the 1990s and soon after was reflected in policy. First mentioned during the Roh Tae-woo administration; touched upon during the Roh Moo-hyun government; middlepowerism received a prominent airing under President Lee Myung-bak. Now with the Park administration it has made an immediate impact. In an April 2013 keynote speech by Vice-Minister Kim Kyou-hyun at an international conference on Middle Powers hosted by the Korean Association of International Studies and the Korea Foundation, middlepowerism was promoted as a central pillar in efforts to pursue the Park administration’s initiative of “trust diplomacy.” (The Diplomat)

south_korea_header

News Headlines

Ex-Finance Chief Nukaga met Park’s Top Aide to Improve Ties

Former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, a veteran legislator of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, held talks in early October with a high-ranking official at the South Korean president’s office, Seoul government sources said 15 October. Nukaga, who heads the Japan-South Korea parliamentarians’ league, met with Park Jun-u, the top secretary at the president’s office, on 11 October, the sources said. Nukaga is believed to have held discussions in a bid to improve bilateral ties, which have soured over a territorial dispute and perceptions regarding colonial-era history, and to look at the prospect of a summit between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Secretary Park, former chief of the policy and legal affairs division at the Embassy of South Korea in Japan and the Northeast Asian division at the Foreign Ministry, told the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, that he met Nukaga, with whom he has ties, but they never discussed a possible summit. According to the sources, Nukaga asked for a meeting with a high-ranking official at the president’s office, and senior officials at the South Korean counterpart of the lawmakers’ league set up the meeting with the secretary. Nukaga was in Seoul as a member of a Japanese delegation visiting the South Korean capital for a meeting between senior officials of the two leagues, but he did not attend that meeting. The two countries are locked in a sovereignty dispute over two rocky outcroppings in the Sea of Japan called Dokdo by South Korea, which controls the territory. Japan calls the islets Takeshima. In mid-October, Abe held a “social chat” with South Korean President Park at a dinner of the East Asia Summit in Brunei but a summit between the two has not taken place since Park’s inauguration in February. (Japan Times)

South Korea’s President Rolls Back Welfare Pledges

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office seven months ago with great fanfare, is seeing her electoral honeymoon end as she rolls back the big welfare pledges that helped her win the elections. Ms. Park, the country’s first female president, said on 26 September that she would delay planned college tuition subsidies by one year until 2015 due to a revenue shortfall; she also scaled down pensions for the elderly ― flagship pledges that won her support from young and old voters. “I’m sorry [for the pensions] not to cover all those elderly citizens who have trusted me,” Ms. Park said, presiding over a cabinet meeting for next year’s budget plan. She said she would do her best to fulfill the pledges, without giving them up completely. Ms. Park has reversed her pledge to dole out a monthly pension of 200,000 won ($190) to all senior citizens aged 65 or older. Under the budget plan, the government has cut down on the number of beneficiaries by 30% and the subsidies they receive.

The 61-year-old leader has also recently stumbled on other policy fronts, including a failed effort to end a prolonged political spat between the country’s main parties—the governing New Frontier Party and the main opposition Democratic Party. The two parties have been at loggerheads about reforming the nation’s spy agency, which is suspected of having meddled in the December presidential election. In another blow, her efforts at improving relations with North Korea were derailed in September, when Pyongyang suddenly shelved the scheduled reunions of families separated by the 1950-1953 war. While Ms. Park still enjoys relatively strong approval ratings, her recent policy fumbles are denting her popularity.

A survey in September by local polling agency Realmeter put Ms. Park’s approval rating at 60.9%, down 8.6 percentage points from a week earlier. Another survey by Research & Research also showed her ratings fell by 6.7 percentage points to 66%. “President Park’s popularity has been heading downward in general, a trend that the latest policy fumble can help accelerate among midlife voters,” said Cho Jung-kwan, a political-science professor at Chonnam National University in Korea. “But the damage will not be fatal.”

(…) Ms. Park’s failure in meeting her bold welfare commitments wasn’t totally unexpected given the economic headwind that South Korea faces. Asia’s fourth largest economy is grappling with slowing business investment, rising household and sovereign debt, and dwindling tax revenues. The country’s export-reliant economy expanded 2% in 2012―the slowest growth in three years―after growing 3.6% in 2011. The government expects the economy to expand 2.7% this year and 3.9% next year, but remains anxious as overseas demand has yet to fully pick up. On the fiscal front, too, South Korea has shrinking room to maneuver. (Wall Street Journal)

South Korea Dumps Boeing Fighter Jet Tender, Lockheed Soars Back

South Korea’s government bowed to public pressure on 24 September and voted down a bid by Boeing (BA.N) to supply 60 warplanes, saying it would restart the multi-billion tender process to get a more advanced, radar-evading fighter. Lockheed Martin’s (LMT.N) F-35A, previously considered too expensive, has shot to the front of the line in the race for the contract after the defence ministry singled out a fifth-generation fighter as the preferred option. The fifth generation F-35A, complete with its hi-tech stealth capability, has already been ordered by the United States and seven other countries, including Japan and Israel. Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, the only bid within budget, had been poised to win the 8.3 trillion won ($7.7 billion) tender. But former military top brass and ruling party lawmakers had criticised the plane for lacking stealth capabilities. “Our air force thinks that we need combat capabilities in response to the latest trend of aerospace technology development centered around the fifth generation fighter jets and to provocations from North Korea,” defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters. Experts said the phrasing of that statement meant Boeing had a slim chance in the next round. While the F-15 Silent Eagle offered passive stealth, its electronic warfare equipment left it visible to adversaries. (Reuters)

South Korea Eyes SM-3 Missiles

The military is hoping to buy SM-3 interceptor missiles for Aegis ships that could destroy North Korean ballistic missiles at an altitude of 150 km. But the plan is risky since the SM-3 missiles constitute the core of the U.S.-led missile defense program, which Seoul has not so far joined because China is extremely wary of it. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a National Assembly audit on 14 October that he would “research and consider multi-level defense measures” involving interceptor missiles. The Defense Ministry also told Yoo Seung-min at the National Assembly’s Defense Committee that “complementary operation” of existing missiles and the SM-3 missiles could “boost” South Korea’s missile defense. A senior ministry official told the Chosun Ilbo that the military is “considering whether the SM-3 is necessary for the Korean air missile defense system.” Until now, the military has denied it is even thinking about acquiring the SM-3 missile system because it did not want to give the impression that it was joining the U.S.-led missile defense program by the back door. This is the first time the defense minister has officially commented on the possibility. South Korea’s own missile defense consists of ground-based Patriot or PAC-2 and improved PAC-3 missiles, which are capable of intercepting North Korean ballistic missiles at low altitudes of 10 to 15 km. (…) U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in bilateral defense talks in early October that missile defense is the most important capacity for the South Korean military if it is to regain full troop control. (Chosun Ilbo)

South Korean Military Defends Shooting of Defector

South Korea’s Ministry of Defense officially acknowledged in mid-September the killing of a South Korean citizen as he was trying to cross a river to North Korea, apparently to defect. South Korean border guards in the afternoon saw the man moving along the Imjin River toward the North Korean border with the aid of a flotation device. Defense officials say that although he was dressed in civilian clothes, soldiers could not identify him. He also allegedly ignored repeated warnings to stop and turn around. Some 30 South Korean soldiers then fired hundreds of bullets at the man before he was confirmed dead. Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok says the use of deadly force was justified because of the military sensitivity of the heavily armed border. Min-seok said the border is so sensitive because South Korea and North Korea are still under a cease-fire agreement from 1953, and therefore when a person violates the regulation the military is allowed to shoot.  He says the commander warned the man to stop because he could have been a civilian, a spy or an armed North Korean.  However, despite the commands, the man did not comply. Therefore, the commander made the judgment call to shoot the man, in accordance with regulations. (…) A defection by a South Korean to North Korea is extremely rare, and there are no previous incidents of shooting such attempted deserters in recent records. (Voice of America)

By the Numbers: South Korea’s Expanding Relations with ASEAN

South Korea and the countries of ASEAN are important strategic partners with shared political, economic, and cultural interests. Relations between South Korea and ASEAN have seen significant growth and expansion, since the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership at the ASEAN-Republic of Korea Summit in Hanoi in 2010. South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye launched her “sales diplomacy” – a strategy that seeks to boost Korean economic and business interests through diplomacy – with a visit to Vietnam from September 7 -11, 2013, her third visit to a foreign country, after the United States and China, since becoming head of state. On October 17, Philippine president Benigno Aquino will make headlines as Park’s first head of state guest since she came into office. We look at this growing relationship by the numbers. (CogitAsia)

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