Country Report: South Korea (February 2024)


South Korea and the United States have decided to begin negotiation this year to conclude the 12th Special Defense Cost-Sharing Agreement (SMA), which will take effect from 2026. During January and February, the level of North Korea’s reckless provocations gradually increased. In Seoul, the nuclear envoys of South Korea, the United States, and Japan discussed attempts to respond to North Korean threats as cruise missile launches were frequent and North Korea’s close relationship with Russia was detected. In February, South Korea established diplomatic relations with Cuba, a brother country of North Korea, in complete secrecy with expectations of having a significant impact on North Korea.


It has been reported that South Korea and the United States have agreed to initiate negotiations early for the SMA, which will be applied from 2026. The Special Measures Agreement (SMA) specifies the amount South Korea will contribute to the costs of hosting US troops. The two concluded the 11th SMA, applicable for the six-year period from 2020 to 2025, in 2021. The commencement of the next SMA negotiations with nearly two years left until the expiration of the 11th SMA, is being viewed as unusual.1

Some interpretations suggest that this decision is a proactive measure in anticipation of the possibility of Donald Trump, the former president, winning the election in November. During his presidency, Trump had mentioned the possibility of withdrawing US troops stationed in South Korea and advocated for a fivefold increase in defense cost-sharing. Trump, who is now the clear frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, accused South Korea, a crucial Asian ally, of benefiting from US military strength without adequate contributions and insisted on an annual payment of up to $5 billion for the deployment of US forces. South Korea and the United States are concerned that if he returns to power, there could be a demand for an excessive increase in defense cost-sharing, similar to the approach taken previously.2 

According to a recent CBS News poll, any of the then top three Republican presidential candidates would surpass current President Joe Biden if nominated.3 A victory for Trump in the primaries could signal substantial changes in the future diplomatic and economic policies of the United States. The conservative Hankook Ilbo pointed out in an editorial that Trump had insisted on a five to six-fold increase in defense cost-sharing from South Korea, suspended the deployment of US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula for four years, and pushed for the renegotiation of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which eventually occurred.4

The impact of the "Trump repercussions" is likely to be felt most prominently in the Korean Peninsula, where economic and security interests intersect. On January 14th, Trump stated, "Kim Jong-un is very smart and tough," adding, "He liked me, and I got along very well with him. So, we were safe." Some analyses even suggest that Trump is considering the possibility of concessions on the North Korean nuclear issue. Likewise, if Trump were to secure re-election and eliminate the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) while revising or abandoning the electric vehicle deployment plan, South Korean companies building factories in the United States might find it challenging to mitigate the impact. Hankook Ilbo said that the government should not limit itself to the current strengthening of the South Korea-US alliance and trilateral security cooperation involving South Korea, the US, and Japan.5

The Biden administration passed defense authorization bills to restrain Trump from making arbitrary changes to the status of US forces in South Korea. However, given the strong executive powers, there are practically no limits to what Trump can do. In preparation for a potential Trump reelection, it is crucial to identify deep points of engagement and independently prepare for a nuclear possession deal. In an editorial, the conservative Joongang Ilbo suggested that the most urgent national strategy that should be pursued immediately is joining the G9 (the G7 plus South Korea and Australia) directly.6

It has been pointed out that, while G7 countries such as Germany and Japan were not immune to various pressures from Trump, unlike South Korea, Trump did not easily play extreme cards against these nations. In the eyes of the American public, G7 countries are perceived as an “inner group” that shares economic and security destinies, making it challenging for even a unpredictable figure like Trump to handle them recklessly.7

North Korea

From the beginning of the new year, military tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been escalating. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during a Workers’ Party plenary meeting on December 30, stated, "War is approaching as a practical reality," emphasizing the need to accelerate preparations for a dramatic change in strategy, including the deployment of all means and capabilities, including nuclear forces, to pacify the entire territory of South Korea in the event of a contingency.8 He asserted that inter-Korean relations are no longer based on ethnic or homogenous ties but rather hostile relations between two sovereign states, akin to belligerent nations. The following day, he met with military commanders, instructing them to maintain a perfect military readiness posture.9

North Korea’s threats may not be an immediate concern, but the rhetoric is more aggressive than ever. According to an editorial in Segye Ilbo, there appears to be a sense of urgency, possibly fueled by growing economic pressure and the looming threat of regime collapse due to extended international sanctions. Segye Ilbo pointed out that, to deflect attention from these economic challenges, the regime may opt for bold and provocative moves, like conducting a seventh nuclear test and engaging in localized provocations. This could involve exploiting internal divisions in the South and attempting to create a rift in the South Korea-US alliance. The heightened tension aligns with key political events, including the April general elections and the November US presidential election.10

Kim Jong-un, in his speech during the Supreme People’s Assembly on January 15, stated, "It is appropriate to firmly consider South Korea as the primary enemy and unchanging No.1 hostile country," and added, "If the enemies ignite the flames of war, we will mobilize all military strength, including nuclear weapons, for retaliation." Kim Jong-un also emphasized the need to remove expressions such as “sovereignty, peaceful reunification, and national unity” from the North Korean constitution, stating, "The constitution should reflect the issue of ‘completely occupying, pacifying, and restoring South Korea in the event of war’ as crucial."11

On January 16, President Yoon Suk Yeol stated, "The tactic of using ‘war or peace’ as a threat is no longer effective," and added, "If North Korea engages in provocations, we will respond with multiple times the force." Yoon made these comments during a national security meeting, addressing recent provocations by North Korea. He characterized these actions as "political provocations intended to create anxiety among our citizens and fracture the Republic of Korea," emphasizing the need for unity among the South Korean people and government to counter North Korea’s deceptive tactics, propaganda, and subversion.12

While a Hankyoreh editorial emphasized the importance of a firm response to North Korean provocations, it cautioned against an approach of mutual confrontation with an “unyielding, all-out clash” mentality. The editorial expressed concern over the recent actions of North Korea, which appear to be bolstering the determination of the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s hardline policies. There is apprehension about Yoon’s potential use of these developments to foster conservative unity. As North Korea’s behavior becomes more audacious, the editorial urges the government to prioritize measured responses for effective situation management and to dedicate efforts to a nuanced and comprehensive diplomatic approach.13

Seoul Kyungjae pointed out that Kim Jong-un’s directive to specify “unchanging enemy” in the constitution, coupled with the veiled mention of “war,” is a sophisticated tactical move aimed at creating internal divisions within South Korea ahead of the April 10 general elections. By propagating the idea that war might occur if a policy of engagement with North Korea is not pursued, this manipulation seeks to foster anxiety and sow discord within the consensus of the Republic of Korea. The newspaper also highlighted that both ruling and opposition parties must collaboratively address diplomatic and security issues to strengthen national security and safeguard the safety of the people. By maintaining a consistent approach toward North Korea based on robust defense capabilities, it is possible to deter provocations and uphold peace, as well as democratic principles.14

On January 14, North Korea declared the completion of a trial launch for an Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), employing solid fuel and equipped with a hypersonic warhead.15 This marks the first time that North Korea has publicly announced a successful test launch of a hypersonic missile utilizing solid fuel. The weapon’s details are shrouded in secrecy to a significant extent, especially regarding the flight range, which adds uncertainty to the analysis for South Korea (1000 km) and Japan (500 km). Military and experts believe that if the missile indeed incorporates highly mobile solid fuel and achieves a speed over ten times the speed of sound, it would be challenging to intercept using conventional missile defense systems like THAAD.16

Some analyses from the United States suggest that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be determined to move towards war.17 As the April general elections and the November US presidential election approach, North Korea is likely to escalate its provocative actions. The recent launch of a hypersonic missile by North Korea, which was accompanied by labeling South Korea as an adversary, may serve as a precursor to further provocations.18

The progressive Kookmin Ilbo editorialized that, given North Korea’s potential for nuclear provocations alongside missile activities, it is crucial for South Korea and the United States to closely collaborate in strengthening the alliance and enhancing deterrence capabilities. It highlighted the need for collaboration to concentrate on strengthening the alliance and implementing effective containment measures, ensuring a well-rounded response system in the event of a similar situation. Additionally, to discourage North Korea from contemplating nuclear use, it is imperative for South Korea to independently reinforce its military capabilities since the recent conflict in Ukraine has vividly illustrated how powerless peace can be.19

The conservative publication Hankook Ilbo has pointed out that the victory of Taiwan’s presidential candidate, not favored by China, has escalated tensions between the United States and China, heightening risks on both fronts. Warnings have emerged, drawing parallels between the current situation on the Korean Peninsula and the precarious conditions during the Korean War in 1950. Hankook Ilbo suggests that amid the intricate dynamics of the US-South Korea-Japan triangle and the North Korea-China-Russia relationship, it is imperative for the new diplomatic and security team to promptly devise practical strategies to safeguard national interests and security. This requires careful consideration of both perspectives and the maintenance of a balance, without excluding China and Russia from the equation.20

North Korea launched cruise missiles three times in a week: ⑴ Pulhwasal-3-31, ⑵ Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM), ⑶ Hwasal-2. On January 24, North Korea first fired a multiple new strategic cruise missile ‘Pulhwasal-3-31’ into the Yellow Sea.21 South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) announced that North Korea launched several new strategic cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea around 7 a.m.22 Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state news agency of North Korea, reported \ that North Korea conducted its first test launch of a new strategic cruise missile on the 24th of January.23 KCNA added that North Korea’s General Missile Bureau (GMB) explained that this missile test is proof of the constant renewal of the weapon system and is a regular and mandatory activity of GMB and its affiliated defense research institute.24 JCS said that “Our military is cooperating closely with the United States while strengthening surveillance and vigilance and is watching additional signs from North Korea”25 However, North Korea fired “Submarine-Launched Cruise Missiles (SLCM)” off its east coast on January 28 shortly after it launched the first ‘Pulhwasal-3-31.26 KCNA also stated that leader Kim Jong-un had supervised a submarine-launched cruise missile test.27 Regarding North Korea’s second missile launch, JCS quickly announced that several cruise missiles were detected being launched from the North Korea’s port city of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province at around 8 am, stressing that our military is cooperating closely with the United States while strengthening surveillance and vigilance.28 North Korea carried a third test of a cruise missile called ‘Hwasal-2,’ firing it into the West Sea on January 30. KCNA reported that North Korea’s Korean People’s Army General Staff had stated that we conducted a launch exercise of the strategic cruise missile “Hwasal-2.”29 The third launch was a different type of cruise missile than on the 24th and 28th, and it was a “launch exercising” rather than a “test launch.” South Korea’s domestic media outlets expressed concern about North Korea’s continued cruise missile launches. The editorial in Segye Ilbo asserted that it is time to be alert to “lethal military action,” saying that South Korea should at least send a cooperative message to China requesting that North Korea refrain from provocations.30 The conservative Segye Ilbo also said that this may be a way to manage the situation or demonstrate diplomatic power to discourage North Korea.31 The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized that the government must take advantage of the spirit of the 9/19 Inter-Korean military agreement to secure an inter-Korean buffer zone and restore communication channels with North Korea.32 The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun also pointed out that residents living in the border area between South and North Korea have recently expressed concern about the recent increase in military movements from both sides in the border area.33


On February14, South Korea established diplomatic relations with Cuba. South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) officially announced that an agreement was reached to establish ambassador-level diplomatic relations through an exchange of diplomatic notes between the two countries’ permanent missions to the United Nations in New York.34 MOFA added that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the only country among the Caribbean countries that does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, is an important turning point in strengthening South Korea’s diplomacy with South America and is expected to contribute to further expanding diplomatic horizons as a global pivotal country.35

A senior presidential official met with reporters, saying that “it appears that a significant political and psychological blow to North Korea will be inevitable” regarding South Korea’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, a “brother country to North Korea.”36 South Korea’s domestic media outlets commented positively on the relationship with Cuba. The conservative Joongang Ilbo editorialized that it is Cuba’s choice to join hands with the “hostile country South Korea,” which can be evaluated as a courageous decision that reflects the changes of the times, therefore, it is time for North Korea to reflect on the Cuban leaders’ wise choice.37

Progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun said that South Korea has diplomatic relations with every country in the world except Syria and Israel as South Korea and Cuba now have diplomatic relations.38 It welcomed the expansion of the horizons of Korean diplomacy and hoped that friendship and exchanges between citizens of the two countries will increase.39

Trilateral cooperation

South Korea, the United States, and Japan held high-level talks on North Korea’s nuclear program on January 18. Kim Gunn, the Special Representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs in Seoul, Jung Pak, US Deputy Special Representative, and Namazu Hiroyuki, Japan’s director-general and assistant minister of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, held trilateral talks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul in the afternoon. The meeting among the envoys was noteworthy as the first of its kind since Pak assumed the role of "senior official for the DPRK," succeeding Sung Kim, who was previously the deputy US nuclear envoy.40

Criticizing the recent IRBM launch as "reckless," Pak emphasized the necessity for collective attention and coordinated efforts among the allies and partners of the US to address these issues. The South Korean envoy, Kim, said that North Korea is moving away from the path of peace with its recent escalation of tensions. He added that engaging in unlawful military cooperation with Russia will "ultimately result in a futile outcome." Namazu emphasized the importance of closely monitoring any potential offerings from Russia to North Korea in exchange for arms exports, reiterating the call for both Pyongyang and Moscow to adhere to the obligations outlined by the United Nations Security Council.41

Meanwhile, the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting North Korea has increased. The Kremlin spokesperson stated that "schedule coordination is underway," and North Korean Central Broadcasting reported that Putin expressed his intention to visit North Korea in the near future to Foreign Minister Choe Son-Hui. Although the specific schedule has not been determined, the agreement in principle for the highest-ranking Russian official to visit North Korea in 24 years implies a close relationship between the two countries. Intensified interaction between North Korea and Russia suggests potential arms trade and the transfer of nuclear and missile technology, jeopardizing the fundamental framework of UN sanctions against North Korea that has been in place since the first nuclear test in October 2006.42

On February 22, 2024, South Korea, the United States, and Japan convened their inaugural director-level discussions, namely the Dialogue on Commerce and Industry Export Control. to explore avenues for bolstering collaboration in export controls within the commerce and industry domains concerning Russia. The dialogue took place in Tokyo, following an agreement made by the leaders of South Korea, the United States, and Japan in August last year at Camp David. Present at the meeting were Kang Gam-chan, a trade security policy officer from Seoul’s industry ministry; Thea D. Rozman Kendler, assistant secretary for Export Administration at the US Department of Commerce; and Katsuro Igari, director-general of Japan’s industry ministry’s Trade Control Department. During the talks, representatives from the three countries agreed to coordinate export controls on Russia and collaborate on establishing cooperative relationships with Southeast Asian nations. Additionally, they agreed to cooperate on controlling “key and new” technologies.43

During the Group of 20 (G20) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from February 21 to 22, Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Tae-yul convened his inaugural trilateral discussion with United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Kamikawa Yoko on February 22. They delved into topics concerning cooperation among South Korea, the United States, and Japan, alongside addressing pivotal regional and global matters.44

The ministers reiterated the significance of the ROK-US-Japan Summit held at Camp David, last August, marking the dawn of a fresh phase in trilateral collaboration. They commended the progress made in institutionalizing trilateral cooperation and implementing sector-specific follow-up actions, achieved through concerted efforts among the three nations. Additionally, they acknowledged the substantial bolstering of trilateral security cooperation aimed at efficiently addressing the mounting nuclear and missile threats posed by North Korea.45

1. “한·미, ‘2026년 적용’ 주한미군 분담금 협상 조기 착수,” Kookmin Ilbo, January 17, 2024,

2. “한미, ‘2026년 적용’ 방위비협상 올해 조기 착수,” Donga Ilbo, January 17, 2024,

3. “Trump Leads in Nationwide Polls Too,” The Wall Streel Journal, January 16, 2024,

4. “트럼프 첫 경선 압승, 안보 경제 불확실성 미리 대비해야,” Hankook Ilbo, Janaury 17, 2024,

5. Ibid.

6. “바이든 임기 내 G9 가입 온힘 쏟아야,” Joongang Ilbo, January 17, 2024,

7. Ibid.

8. “北 ‘핵 대사변 준비’ 봉쇄할 한·미 확장억제체제 완성 서둘라,” Segye Ilbo, January 1, 2024,

9. “2년전엔 아니라더니…김정은, ‘주적’ 규정하며 ‘초토화’ 위협,” Yonhap News, January 10, 2024,

10. “北 ‘핵 대사변 준비’ 봉쇄할 한·미 확장억제체제 완성 서둘라.”

11. “Kim Jong Un labels South Korea as ‘No. 1 hostile country,’” Chosun Daily, January 16, 2024,

12. “김정은 ‘한국 완전 수복’ 尹대통령 ‘협박 안 통해,’” Chosun Ilbo, January 17, 2024,

13. “’대한민국 불변의 주적 헌법 명기’ 김정은 위험한 선언,” Hankyoreh, January 17 2024,

14. “북 헌법 ‘제1 적대국’ 명기, ‘전쟁 위협’ 남남분열 전술 경계해야,” Seoul Kyungjae, January 17, 2024,

15. “한국 킬체인 겨눈 북 IRBM 발사, 한반도가 위험하다,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, January 15, 2024,

16. “北 ‘극초음속 미사일 발사 성공,’ 한·미·일 방어망 더 촘촘해야,” Segye Ilbo, January 15, 2024,

17. “한국 킬체인 겨눈 북 IRBM 발사, 한반도가 위험하다.”

18. “北 ‘극초음속 미사일 발사 성공.’”

19. “北 극초음속 미사일 개발… 압도적 대응 체계 갖춰라,” Kookmin Ilbo, January 16, 2024,

20. “北 고체 극초음속 미사일, 방어망 무력화 대비해야,” Hankook Ilbo, January 16, 2024,

21. “北 ‘어제 신형전략순항미사일 ‘불화살-3-31’ 첫 실험발사,’” Dong-A Ilbo, January 25, 2024,

22. “北, 이번엔 서해로 도발…합참 ‘순항미사일 여러 발 쐈다,’” Joongang Ilbo, January 24, 2024,

23. “北 ‘어제 신형 전략 순항미사일 ‘불화살-3-31’ 첫 실험발사.’”

24. Ibid.

25. “北, 이번엔 서해로 도발…합참 ‘순항미사일 여러 발 쐈다,’” Joongang Ilbo, January 24, 2024,

26. “北, 나흘만에 또 순항미사일…이번엔 동해 잠수함서 쏜 듯,” Dong-A Ilbo, January 29, 2024,

27. “북 ‘김정은, 잠수함 발사 순항미사일 지도…핵잠 건조 파악,’” Joongang Ilbo, January 29, 2024,

28. “합참 ‘북한, 신포 해상서 ‘순항미사일’ 발사,’” Hankook Ilbo, January 28, 2024,

29. “北 ‘전날 순항미사일 ‘화살-2형’ 발사…주변국 안전에 영향 없어,’” Joongang Ilbo, January 31, 2024,

30. “北 또 순항미사일 도발… ‘치명적 군사행동’ 경각심 가질 때다,” Segye Ilbo, January 28, 2024,

31. Ibid.

32. “접경지역 주민들의 ‘남북 대화’ 호소, 정부 무겁게 들으라,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, January 25, 2024,

33. Ibid.

34. “한-쿠바 수교,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), February 14, 2024,

35. Ibid.

36. “대통령실 ‘쿠바 수교 對 사회주의권 외교 완결판… 北 상당한 타격,’” Chosun Ilbo, February 15, 2024,

37. “ ‘적대국 한국’ 손잡은 쿠바의 선택과 실용, 북한도 성찰하길,” Joongang Ilbo, February 16, 2024,

38. “한ㆍ쿠바 수교, 양국 교류ㆍ국익 외교 넓히는 전기로,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, February 15, 2024,

39. Ibid.

40. “한미일 북핵대표 회동…’북한판 쇄국정책,’ 스스로를 해칠 뿐," Yonhap News, January 22, 2024,

41. “Top US nuclear envoy says N.K.’s belligerent rhetoric creates ‘unnecessary’ tensions,” YonhapNews Agency, January 18, 2024,

42. “푸틴 방북이 불러올 북·러 군사적 밀착, 우려된다,” Kookmin Ilbo, January 22, 2024,

43. “한미일 ‘수출통제 협력강화’ 첫회의…對러시아 수출통제 조율,” Yonhap News, February 22, 2024,

44. “한미일, 올해 첫 외교장관회담…’北대응 긴밀히 공조,’” Donga Ilbo, February 23, 2024,

45. “브라질서 만난 한·미·일 외교수장 ‘대북 대응 강화,” Hankyoreh, February 23, 2024,

Now Reading Country Report: South Korea (February 2024)