In the summer of 2019, South Korean media discussed the country’s relations with China, the United States, North Korea, and Japan. Specifically, they covered: (1) the Xi-Kim summit; (2) the G20 summit in Osaka, with three sub-topics: Seoul’s diplomatic leverage, the US-China trade war, and Abe’s decision to forego a bilateral summit with Moon; (3) the Trump-Kim meeting in Panmunjom and the ensuing debate on North Korea’s nuclear freeze; and (4) rising tensions between Japan and South Korea, with four sub-topics: Japan’s export restrictions, South Korea’s response, US intervention in the dispute, and security implications of the trade frictions.
On June 20, Xi Jinping visited Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-un, marking the first time a Chinese leader has visited North Korea in 14 years. During the meeting, Xi and Kim spoke about economic development and denuclearization; Xi promised to play an active role in maintaining peace on the peninsula while Kim pledged to continue to engage in dialogue with Washington.
Conservative editorials expressed concerns about the purpose of Xi’s trip. A Joongang editorial on June 20 speculated that, given its sensitive timing—ten days before Xi’s meeting with Trump at the G20 summit in Osaka—the trip may be intended to strengthen China’s leverage against the United States in negotiations over their deepening trade war. By showcasing Beijing’s ability to influence Pyongyang, particularly at a time when Washington has failed to revive high-level talks, Xi was attempting to signal that he is indispensable to fulfilling Trump’s diplomatic objectives vis-à-vis North Korea. Joongang noted that Xi’s behavior is problematic for South Korea for two reasons: (1) by drawing closer to Kim, Xi reinforces Pyongyang’s position that denuclearization must occur in a gradual and step-by-step manner, with reciprocal sanctions relief; this approach contradicts Washington’s position of final and fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) and removes any prospects of meaningful denuclearization; and (2) Xi may reward Kim by curtailing sanctions enforcement and offering him more breathing space; already in 2018, Beijing provided Pyongyang with significant humanitarian assistance, the largest in size in 7 years. Highlighting the ramifications of Beijing’s support—both symbolic and material—on Pyongyang’s calculations, Joongang urged China to bolster North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization. Chosun on June 22 echoed the same concerns.
While acknowledging Xi’s strategic move vis-à-vis Trump, progressive coverage saw Xi’s Pyongyang visit as an opportunity to stimulate the stalled diplomacy. A Hankyoreh editorial on June 18 pointed out that previous Xi-Kim summits had transpired when nuclear talks appeared stuck and argued, based on the results of those meetings, that Xi’s visit could help restore high-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang. It also asserted that Xi’s decision to visit North Korea was likely informed by his conviction that Kim would agree to sending a favorable message to Trump—and if Kim signals a willingness to hold another summit with Trump, their dialogue could quickly renew. Furthermore, the Blue House affirmed that it helped coordinate Xi’s visit to Pyongyang. For Hankyoreh, this suggested that Seoul remains an integral part of (and consideration in) the ongoing dialogue. The editorial encouraged the Moon administration to continue engaging with Beijing to help resuscitate the talks and to work toward convening another inter-Korean summit.
G20 summit in Osaka
From June 28 to 29, the G20 summit took place in Osaka, Japan. Moon held a total of eight summits, including with Xi and Vladmir Putin. South Korean media focused on assessing Moon Jae-in’s performance, particularly as it relates to the country’s leverage in multilateral and inter-Korean diplomacy; the developments in the US-China trade war; and Abe’s decision to forego a bilateral meeting with Moon.
South Korea’s diplomatic leverage
Conservative coverage emphasized Moon’s diminished role and influence in multilateral diplomacy. A Donga editorial on June 24 noted that South Korea’s relations with North Korea, China, Japan, and the United States have overall weakened. It pointed out that Xi refused to visit Seoul—despite Moon’s persistent requests—and opted instead for a quick meeting in Japan; Abe chose not to hold a summit with Moon; and Kim is unresponsive to Moon’s calls for another inter-Korean summit (even though the possibility of a Japan-North Korea summit is steadily rising). Donga warned that Seoul is increasingly isolated from the multilateral framework on the North’s nuclear issue and advised Moon to expand his diplomatic foothold—rather than focusing exclusively on inter-Korean relations—to protect South Korea’s status. A further status deterioration will render South Korea powerless to partake in, never mind mediate, the dialogue with North Korea.
Similarly, a Chosun editorial on June 28 voiced concerns about South Korea’s diplomatic isolation. While the United States, Japan, and India are holding their third trilateral meeting to discuss the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral framework—meetings which frequently occurred in the past—has been entirely scrapped from the agenda. Chosun asserted that South Korea shied away from the opportunity to join the “free and open Indo-Pacific” framework for fear of raising China’s ire; in the meantime, the US-Japan-South Korea trilateralism has been replaced by the US-Japan-India trilateralism. Furthermore, Chosun compared South Korea’s position to that of Japan, noting the improvements in its relations with China despite historical antipathy and ongoing territorial disputes. By contrast, South Korea has focused too narrowly on inter-Korean relations and failed to overcome historical grievances in favor of strategic interests. In this manner, its diplomatic isolation is seen as largely self-inflicted.
Progressive coverage, on the other hand, highlighted what it considered to be important and favorable developments for inter-Korean relations. A Hankyoreh editorial on June 27 stressed, in particular, the Xi-Moon summit, during which they discussed the positive outcome of the Xi-Kim meeting. Xi relayed that Kim is dedicated to realizing his new strategic line, focused on economic development, and engaging in dialogue on denuclearization. For Hankyoreh, that Xi shared the results of his summit in Pyongyang in such striking details was an encouraging sign; it confirmed Moon’s position as a crucial intermediary and would allow him to better facilitate the nuclear talks.
US-China trade war
Conservative and progressive coverage shared the assessment that the truce between Beijing and Washington over their trade war is likely short-lived. A Donga editorial on July 1 asserted that trade tensions were a symptom of a broader competition and that protectionist measures could easily reemerge absent an agreement on core issues of contention. Donga claimed, moreover, that the gap between the two countries’ perceptions of those core issues was considerable: while Beijing demands the resolution of the “Huawei problem,” Washington focuses on broader structural issues including regulatory frameworks on intellectual property and market liberalization. Noting that South Korea’s exports to the two countries constitute 38.9% of its total exports, Donga recognized the tremendous difficulty that their dispute has posed to Seoul. It advised the Moon administration to pursue longer-term solutions—including diversifying trade partners and export destinations—to strengthen South Korea’s resilience against abrupt changes in its external environment.
Likewise, a Kyunghyang editorial on June 30 warned that it is too early to celebrate the end of the trade war. It agreed with Donga that Seoul cannot alienate either Beijing or Washington given the outsized roles they play in the South Korean economy. The decrease in Chinese exports of final goods to the United States resulted in a corresponding decrease in South Korean exports of intermediate goods to China, critically damaging South Korea’s already weary economy. Meanwhile, the decision over adopting Huawei’s 5G placed Seoul in a strategic dilemma between Beijing and Washington; it became especially distressing when Washington demanded that its allies forego the use of Huawei technology. Finally, Kyunghyang pointed out that the Osaka Declaration stressed “fair trade” rather than explicitly voicing “opposition to protectionism”—this suggests that meaningful and immediate changes to the trade regime are difficult to introduce at this point. Like Donga, Kyunghyang recommended long-term modifications to South Korea’s export strategy.
While conservative and progressive coverage agreed that the US-China truce is both temporary and fragile, conservative outlets were more alarmed by Beijing’s diplomatic pressure on Seoul. A Joongang editorial on June 27 analyzed Xi’s message to Moon during their bilateral summit: “China-ROK cooperation should be completely and mutually beneficial with win-win outcomes, and should therefore not be affected by external pressure.” According to Joongang, “external pressure” here meant the United States. It also noted that in implicitly referring to South Korea’s THAAD deployment, Xi used the words “relevant” rather than “sensitive,” signaling some amelioration in tension. At the same time, it worried that Beijing was trying to use THAAD as a pressure point to coerce Seoul into making a clearer choice between Beijing and Washington as their trade war intensifies.
No bilateral summit with Japan
Conservative coverage was pessimistic about the prospect of recovery in worsening relations between Seoul and Tokyo. A Joongang editorial on June 26 noted that the G20 summit was a timely yet missed opportunity for Moon and Abe to seek compromise. It assigned blame to both leaders for failing to overcome domestic political needs and pursue strategic reconciliation: specifically, it claimed Abe was preoccupied with the legislative elections at the end of July and the expedient optics of a hawkish position against Seoul; at the same time, Moon was rekindling hostilities against Japan and using ethno-nationalist sentiments for domestic political purposes. Joongang also speculated that Tokyo will retaliate against Seoul for a court ruling on colonial-era forced labor, to which South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha vowed to respond in kind. It is not inconceivable that this type of tit-for-tat retribution would lead to the cutting of diplomatic ties. Furthermore, while Japan-South Korea relations are rapidly deteriorating, Japan-China relations are conspicuously improving. Joongang warned that Seoul must revive relations with Tokyo in order to escape diplomatic isolation.
A Chosun editorial on June 26 was more critical of the Moon administration and added that Japan-South Korea relations were under severe and growing strain due to its lack of strategic foresight. Within one hour of receiving it, Japan rejected the South Korean proposal for compensating the forced labor victims by setting up a private fund to which Japanese companies could voluntarily contribute; the situation was in striking contrast to the end of last year when Tokyo had positively considered the idea while Seoul had rebuffed it, claiming that its “very conception was abnormal.” In addition, Chosun cited a US State Department official who admonished that Washington could not prevail in negotiations with North Korea if Japan-South Korea relations remained in trouble. Yet, the Blue House stated in a recent report to the national assembly that “it will continue to maintain close coordination with China and Russia [on North Korea],” purposely omitting any mention of Japan. In concluding, Chosun stressed that such emotional responses have no place in diplomacy centered around the national interest.
By contrast, progressive coverage condemned the Abe administration for refusing to engage with Seoul, calling its tactics grossly inappropriate. A Hankyoreh editorial on June 24 asserted that Abe’s objection to a bilateral meeting with Moon is simply in retaliation for a Seoul court ruling on colonial-era forced labor. In October 2018 when the ruling was reached, Abe had stated that it was “in violation of international law.” Hankyoreh retorted, however, that dismissing the legal decisions of a sovereign country as “in violation of international law” and expecting the Moon administration to control the outcomes of an independent judiciary, in a democratic polity that values the separation of powers, was simply unreasonable. It also claimed that Tokyo has never once “properly” apologized, never mind offered restitution, to the victims of its forced labor. While acknowledging Abe’s domestic political considerations—in particular, the need to consolidate his conservative base prior to the upcoming legislative elections—Hankyoreh urged him to reconsider his tactics given the deep strategic ties between Tokyo and Seoul.
Trump-Kim handshake at Panmunjom
On June 29-30, President Trump visited South Korea for a summit meeting with Moon and visits to US troops in Camp Bonifas and Osan airbase. During his visit, Trump extended an impromptu invitation to Kim for a handshake in Panmunjom, which he accepted. Their surprise meeting came four months after the Hanoi summit ended in a diplomatic impasse; it also marked the first time a US president stepped on North Korean soil as well as the first time the leaders of both Koreas and the US—Moon, Kim, and Trump—met at the DMZ following the armistice. Trump and Kim spoke for 53 minutes in Moon’s absence.
Conservative coverage blasted the Trump and Moon administrations for bolstering Kim’s intransigence and jeopardizing the sanctions regime the two countries had built to constrain the North’s nuclear development. A Chosun editorial on July 2 assessed the shifts in Trump’s rhetoric: he no longer promises to eliminate the North’s nuclear weapons and instead revels in the suspension of its nuclear and missile testing. Trump will use this “progress” as the key foreign policy achievement in his next presidential campaign, which gives Kim great leverage. In fact, if Kim were to threaten an ICBM testing, Trump would be inclined to offer major concessions. Kim probably believes he has the ability to cost Trump his reelection.
Chosun also noted that, unlike in Singapore or Hanoi, the third Trump-Kim meeting was marked by Moon’s deliberate absence—at Kim’s insistence. However, even as Kim holds 51 million South Koreans hostage, Moon seems to privilege meaningless theater. Chosun argued that this will eventually cost him his role as the “driver” of peninsular affairs and relegate him to the sidelines. In this scenario, decisions will be struck in a strictly bilateral manner between Washington and Pyongyang. Already, Trump has demonstrated a total neglect of South Korean needs; during the meeting, he dismissed the significance of the North’s recent missile testing—one can only surmise from this that he does not care about the North’s provocations as long as they do not directly affect the United States.
Chosun reiterated its long-held position that sanctions are the only effective leverage that the United States and South Korea have against North Korea. Kim will only give up his nuclear weapons if and when he believes that sanctions could cause his regime to fall. Yet, both Trump and Moon are using political theater to win votes. While Trump appears in no hurry to dismantle the sanctions regime, Kim also understands that his best chance of attaining sanctions relief lies with Trump and Moon. It is, therefore, highly likely that Kim will intensify his provocations through the end of next year as Trump strives toward his reelection. In these precarious circumstances, Moon’s primary objective should be to safeguard the sanctions regime as Kim maneuvers to destroy it. Yet, Chosun was pessimistic about Moon’s probable course of action. Donga on July 6 shared Chosun’s assessment.
Progressive coverage provided a far rosier picture of what transpired in Panmunjom. A Kyunghyang editorial on July 1 praised Trump and Kim for their “courage” and “creativity,” stating that the meeting could not have been possible without the “determination” of the two leaders. According to Kyunghyang, the meeting was meaningful in two ways: (1) symbolically, the informal talks between Trump and Kim demonstrated the “strength of their friendship and trust,” which forms the foundation of the two countries’ relations; and (2) substantively, the meeting reaffirmed the two leaders’ commitment to dialogue and led to the resumption of working-level negotiations, which had been stalled since the Hanoi breakdown.
While Kyunghyang celebrated the stimulus their meeting added toward establishing a “peace process,” it also noted some discrepancies in how the leaders believed this should be achieved. Moon stated during a joint press conference that the three objectives agreed to at the Singapore summit—denuclearization, a peace regime, and normalization of relations—should be implemented concurrently. Yet, this “concurrent” approach is different from the US approach, which requires the North to dismantle its nuclear weapons first, and the North Korean approach, which demands phased and simultaneous actions of all parties involved. The article, however, failed to explain how Moon’s “concurrent” approach differs exactly from Kim’s “phased” approach; it simply concluded that the compatibility of their approaches must be determined from the results of the working-level talks.
A Hankyoreh editorial on June 30 was equally optimistic about the Trump-Kim meeting and praised Moon for having successfully facilitated the event. Interestingly, rather than portraying the event as bilateral between Trump and Kim, Hankyoreh continually described it as trilateral (omitting the fact that Moon was absent in their private meeting.) The article also claimed that this gathering had the effect of declaring an end to all hostilities, which had marred peninsular politics for the last 66 years, and that the “top-down” approach of the three leaders is still an effective—if not the only appropriate—way to guide the ongoing nuclear dialogue. Hankyoreh argued that, besides stimulating the talks, Moon saw his status raised by the “big event” as the “driver” of diplomacy. In concluding, it cited the US special envoy Stephen Biegun, who underscored the “need for a flexible approach,” and expressed careful optimism about the prospects of success at the working level.
North Korea’s nuclear freeze
One of the most contested issues following from the Trump-Kim rendezvous was North Korea’s nuclear freeze, which was widely reported to be Washington’s new objective in its talks with Pyongyang. It triggered an intense debate between conservative and progressive outlets about the meaning of such a freeze and particularly its implications for South Korea.
Conservative coverage argued that the reports of a nuclear freeze as an independent objective signal a broader shift in the US approach to North Korea’s denuclearization. A Joongang editorial on July 3 cited various US officials—including Biegun and John Bolton—who dismissed the reports as “pure speculation”; yet, the article was skeptical about their denials. Joongang highlighted that Biegun had in fact signaled a willingness to adopt a “simultaneous and parallel” approach to denuclearization, which resembles the “phased” approach of Pyongyang. Joongang argued that this kind of tit-for-tat process will ultimately legitimize the North’s nuclear possessions given the long-term commitment it requires and the relative ease with which the North can backtrack on any progress. This was precisely why Washington had for so long advocated the FFVD approach, in which denuclearization would come before any sanctions relief. Joongang warned that legitimizing the North’s nuclear program will create a dangerous security asymmetry and that Pyongyang could even demand the withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella and troops from South Korea as preconditions for denuclearization.
Likewise, a Chosun editorial on July 11 was alarmed by Washington’s tactical (and rhetorical) retreat, from strictly promoting FFVD to now calling for flexibility and creativity. It clarified that a nuclear freeze is far from denuclearization—it means the North gets to keep the nuclear assets it currently owns and simply freezes further production. While acknowledging that denuclearization cannot be achieved overnight, Chosun specified that two years should be an appropriate timeframe for removing existing nuclear weapons from North Korea. Without such a clear and time-bound roadmap for denuclearization, a nuclear freeze would practically amount to formally recognizing the North as a nuclear power, as happened to Pakistan. Chosun restated that the likelihood of Trump compromising for a nuclear freeze is nontrivial and rising, given his electoral priorities, and criticized the Moon administration for letting it happen so passively.
Progressive coverage downplayed the nuclear freeze controversy and rejected the idea—postulated by conservative media—that it would essentially amount to granting the North a nuclear status. A Kyunghyang editorial on July 4 emphasized Washington’s position that a nuclear freeze is a “necessary step” toward denuclearization, not a final objective in and of itself. It also asserted that pursuing this step does not lower Washington’s negotiating position in any way; after all, Pyongyang still possesses nuclear warheads and ICBM capabilities, without the complete dismantlement of which threats against Washington cannot be ameliorated or the US-led non-proliferation regime protected. Further, the fear of nuclear recognition for the North is unconvincing, as sanctions have continued. Only if the time between nuclear freeze and denuclearization is protracted and the sanctions become ineffectual could North Korea become a de facto nuclear power. Kyunghyang, therefore, refuted the concerns raised by conservative media as premature.
Worsening Japan-South Korea relations
Tokyo’s export restrictions
On July 1—just after the conclusion of the G20 summit—Japan announced restrictions on the export of three chemicals that are essential to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. Tokyo’s decision culminated mounting frictions in bilateral relations, following Seoul’s withdrawal from the 2015 “comfort women” agreement and, more recently, its court ruling on forced labor. Tokyo cited a deterioration in trust as a reason for its trade measures.
Conservative coverage criticized the Moon administration for failing to prevent and respond effectively to Japan’s trade measures. A Joongang editorial on July 4 noted that Japan had in fact threatened to introduce them since the start of the year; Aso Taro had raised the possibility of cash transfer restrictions and scrapping visa-free access to South Koreans. Yet, the Moon administration ignored the warning signs and let frictions fester; and now, it claims it is pursuing strategic “non-response” (rather than what many perceive as lack of a plan). In another disappointing move, Seoul shifted the blame to the country’s industry leaders for failing to detect Japan’s maneuvers, which Joongang denounced as irresponsible. A Chosun editorial on July 4 was even more critical. While reiterating many of Joongang’s points, it argued that not only did Seoul fail to identify and thwart Japan’s actions, it “triggered” them. According to Chosun, Japan’s decision was—in straightforward terms—a “reaction” to South Korea’s continued pressure on the issue of forced labor.
Conservative coverage also discussed the adverse consequences of such measures for Japan. A Donga editorial on July 2 warned that Japan’s measures of retribution will backfire in a number of ways. First, it will strengthen voices within South Korea that want to economically disengage from Japan, which—if implemented—will cost Japan a stable export market. Second, Japan will lose its credibility as an advocate of free markets, having violated the very principle it championed as the host of the latest G20 summit, simply to prevail in a bilateral dispute. In addition, a Chosun editorial on July 4 stressed the intricate ways in which the two economies are interconnected: they are crucial trade partners and operate in what is essentially one economic ecosystem—damage to one means damage to the other. Chosun also noted that since the 1965 normalization, there have been various roadblocks in deepening bilateral relations; yet, neither went as far as to threaten the other’s key economic industry. Japan’s punitive measures have the potential to dislodge the two countries’ economic cooperative framework, fundamentally and irreparably breaking trust.
Progressive coverage countered the position—propagated by conservative politicians and media—that the worsening bilateral relations are primarily Seoul’s fault. A Hankyoreh editorial on July 5 cited a number of conservative editorials (including Chosun’s discussed above) that cast blame on the Moon administration. According to Hankyoreh, their argument is both illogical and counterproductive: first, using the ruling of an independent judiciary as a pretext for punitive trade measures is perverse; and second, supporting this narrative only helps Abe, whose tactic is motivated solely by domestic politics. Hankyoreh asserted that even if there were flaws in the way the Blue House handled the situation, conservative politicians and pundits should refrain from concocting a false narrative that South Korea somehow deserved Japan’s punishment.
Progressive coverage also highlighted the voices within Japan that oppose Abe’s weaponization of trade and cautioned about the damage Japan could suffer. A Kyunghyang editorial on July 4 cited various Japanese media outlets that were critical of Abe’s moves: a Mainichi article, for instance, stated that he was using bilateral trade—unrelated to diplomatic problems—as a political tool, which clearly violated the principle of free trade. In fact, of six major newspapers in Japan, four—including Mainichi, Asahi, and Tokyo—disapproved of Abe’s coercive tactics. Kyunghyang stressed Japan’s internal disagreement over the utility of its export restrictions and urged the Abe administration to heed the warnings emanating from within the country.
Seoul’s bipartisan response
On July 18, Moon met with leaders of five political parties and agreed to produce a bipartisan response to Japan’s export restrictions. The joint statement declared that Japan’s decision violates the principle of free trade and urged it to halt all retaliatory measures and seek instead a diplomatic solution. Both conservative and progressive outlets applauded the efforts of the ruling and opposition parties to act together in a time of diplomatic crisis; yet, they also highlighted the different views among politicians on how best to respond to Japanese actions.
In general, conservative coverage appeared more pessimistic about the viability of a bipartisan response. A Chosun editorial on July 19 discussed the gap in conservative and progressive approaches to the Japan problem: while the ruling party stressed the need for a longer-term solution—mainly, cultivating the country’s industrial independence from Japanese influence—the opposition parties focused on a shorter-term solutions for damage control. Further, a Joongang editorial on July 19 added that the track record of bipartisan cooperation is poor; previous efforts to hold bipartisan meetings were typically foiled by “third-rate” politics. The last such attempt was sixteen months ago. While encouraging all sides to collaborate, both editorials underscored the fragility of a bipartisan process.
Progressive coverage, on the other hand, saw the diplomatic trouble as an opportunity to deepen bipartisan cooperation. While acknowledging some discrepancies in views among politicians, a Kyunghyang editorial on July 18 noted that the “Japan problem” has mobilized the ruling and opposition parties to forge an unlikely alliance, raising Seoul’s bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Tokyo. In particular, it commended the main opposition leader Hwang Kyo-ahn for supporting the government (despite his tendency to immediately contest it). Moreover, a Hankyoreh editorial on July 18 posited that this experience could stimulate bipartisan agreement on other important issues, including the supplementary budget bill, and promoted the idea of regularizing bipartisan platforms. Both editorials were optimistic about the power of bipartisan dialogue to bridge substantive differences.
On July 10, Deputy Director of the National Security Council Kim Hyun-chong flew to Washington to request the US to intervene in the deteriorating relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Nine days after his visit, Trump publicly announced that he is willing to help ease the rising political and economic tensions between Japan and South Korea, if both parties agree. He acknowledged that his intervention came at Moon’s request.
Progressive coverage saw Washington’s intervention as both timely and appropriate. A Seoul Shinmun editorial on July 21 argued that Trump’s announcement is a sign of Washington’s growing attention to the problem. The intervention came at a particularly fitting time as the deadlines for two important decisions were quickly approaching: Japan’s plan to cut South Korea from its “white list” by July 23 and the renewal of their General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) on July 24. Seoul Shinmun noted that John Bolton was scheduled to visit both countries, most likely to raise Washington’s concerns. Stressing that Japan’s export restrictions could affect US industries, it urged Washington to actively intervene. Intervention, it was implied, would be to simply side with South Korea and chastise Japan.
Conservative coverage, by contrast, portrayed Washington’s intervention as limited and worried as to whether it would actually benefit Seoul. A Chosun editorial on July 22 reiterated the US position that it hopes to “encourage” rather than “mediate” a diplomatic solution between Tokyo and Seoul. That Trump made his offer of intervention conditional on the agreement of both parties also indicated his reluctance to aggressively intervene. At the same time, Chosun questioned whether Washington’s intervention would favor Seoul’s position. After all, Tokyo followed Washington far more closely on key strategic issues—the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, sanctions on North Korea, and Huawei—while Seoul remained hesitant to support them. Dongaon July 22 echoed these concerns, urging the Moon administration to bolster the US-South Korean alliance. It suggested, for instance, joining the US maritime operations in the Strait of Hormuz to signal Seoul’s commitment to the alliance.
Security implications of trade frictions
As tensions mounted, Seoul hinted at the possibility of retreating from the trilateral military cooperation agreement—GSOMIA—with Japan and the United States. Following the statement of Japanese foreign minister Kono Taro on July 19 in which he raised the possibility of introducing further economic reprisals, a senior Blue House official was asked whether Seoul would consider backing out of GSOMIA; the official replied, “We are considering all options.” Conservative outlets immediately fired back, releasing editorials against using GSOMIA as a bargaining chip. Conspicuously missing were progressive editorials on the issue.
Conservative coverage asserted that security cooperation with Japan is indispensable to containing the North Korean threat. A Joongang editorial on July 23 admitted that the utility of GSOMIA has sometimes been called into question, but explained that this was during peace time; in times of conflict, a close management of military information—such as one provided by the GSOMIA framework—is necessary. Joongang also noted that US military operations in the region are critically dependent on Japanese reconnaissance and defense capabilities. Retreating from GSOMIA would, therefore, come at the cost of South Korea’s own military awareness and preparedness. This is a highly dangerous suggestion to come from the Blue House, particularly because the threat of North Korea remains unabated. A Donga editorial on July 20 stated similar views, while adding that South Korea should not use security agreements as a diplomatic lever as Japan did trade.