Country Report: South Korea (May 2018)
From March to May, South Korean news editorials continued to focus on inter-Korean and US-Korean relations, albeit with a new player in the picture: China. On China, analysts assessed its trade relations with the United States and Kim’s two summits with Xi, which took place before and after the inter-Korean summit. On inter-Korean and US-Korean relations, analysts discussed the announcement of the Trump-Kim summit, the appointment of John Bolton as Trump’s new national security advisor, the Moon-Kim summit in Panmunjom, the release of three US detainees, and finally, the suspension of inter-Korean talks and the prospects of the June 12 Trump-Kim summit. Views on Kim’s intentions, Trump’s strategy, Xi’s role, and Moon’s recommended course of action varied significantly between the progressive and conservative outlets, demonstrating a wide and complex array of interests that must be balanced to forge long-term peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Announcement of the Trump-Kim summit
On March 8, South Korea’s national security adviser Chung Eui-yong confirmed that Trump accepted Kim’s invitation for a summit. Affirming the announcement, Trump tweeted, “Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!” If the summit takes place as agreed, it will be the first ever between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.
Both progressive and conservative coverage welcomed the prospect of the Trump-Kim summit, albeit with varying levels of enthusiasm. Progressive outlets saw the talks as an unprecedented opportunity for a “big deal” on the North’s nuclear problem, praising Kim’s practicality and Trump’s bold decision-making. A Kyunghyang article on March 9 characterizes Kim’s change in attitude toward dialogue as a fundamental shift in North Korea’s strategic objective to become a “normal country,” rather than a short-term tactical move. Trump’s consent to talk also indicates that he sees Kim’s intention to denuclearize as sufficiently credible, particularly as Kim promised to refrain from further nuclear and missile testing and acknowledged the necessity of the forthcoming US-South Korean joint military exercises. In addition, Kyunghyang attributes the latest feat to Moon’s pursuit of diplomacy and resilience in the face of growing pressure from Trump and his “maximum pressure” approach. Without Moon as an intermediary, the historic first summit between Trump and Kim could not have been envisioned.
Focusing on domestic implications, a Hankyoreharticle on March 9 depicts the recent thaw in relations between North Korea and the United States as a result of aligned interests: Kim needed to break free from international sanctions and isolation to save his economy, while Trump needed to prepare for the November midterm elections with concrete results. Noting their similar leadership styles—which allow for swift decision-making—the article suggests that the normalization of relations between the two countries may come sooner than expected. According to Hankyoreh, Seoul is more likely to play a crucial role in this “big deal” process, thanks to Moon’s efforts to place Seoul in the “driver’s seat”—a promise he had made in his Berlin speech in 2017. Indeed, with plans for the Trump-Kim summit under way, the Moon-Kim summit has become even more salient as a potential turning point for inter-Korean relations and as an agenda-setter for the subsequent Trump-Kim summit.
While commending the Moon administration for facilitating the Trump-Kim summit, conservative coverage emphasized that the ultimate objective of any talks with the North is its complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (CVID). A Joongang article on March 10 recalls the two incidences in the past in which Pyongyang failed to uphold its commitment to denuclearize, and argues that its true intentions cannot be determined until the process of denuclearization is complete. For that reason, Joongang asserts that any decision to temper the US-South Korean alliance—either by repealing the US nuclear umbrella or removing its troops from the South—must await until CVID has been achieved beyond doubt. Underscoring various factors that may obstruct the success of the Trump-Kim summit, the article calls for caution against any premature move.
Echoing these sentiments, a Chosun article on March 10 assesses the potential outcomes of a “big deal” on North Korea and places the burden on Kim for its success. Based on past precedent, Kim is likely to demand an end to the US-South Korean alliance in return for the North’s denuclearization. Chosun stresses that this type of exchange is not acceptable to Seoul, characterizing the US-South Korean alliance as purely defensive. Likewise, a deal in which Washington demands that Pyongyang relinquish its intercontinental ballistic missiles—an aspect of the North’s nuclear program that directly threatens US security—instead of its entire nuclear force would be problematic for Seoul. In fact, this would require Seoul to completely overhaul its strategy toward Pyongyang vis-à-vis Washington. An ideal outcome involves the North’s denuclearization in exchange for normalization of its relations with the United States and Japan; the North’s regime security is then ensured through a multilateral arrangement. Ultimately, the onus is on Kim to realize that this offers him the best guarantee of survival.
Appointment of John Bolton as the new national security advisor
On March 22, the Trump administration announced that former UN ambassador John Bolton will replace National Security Advisor HR McMaster. Bolton’s appointment came amid continued staffing adjustments in the Trump administration, including the replacement of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by ex-CIA chief Mike Pompeo. Oft-characterized as a defense hawk, Bolton has long been an advocate of using military force against North Korea. His appointment triggered widespread fear that Trump is still open to—if not actively pursuing—military options against the North.
Progressive coverage portrayed Bolton’s appointment as ill-timed and potentially dangerous. According to a Kyunghyang article on March 23, Trump’s decision signals bad faith prior to his summit with Kim, particularly because Bolton is renowned for his advocacy of military strikes against the North. While filling his administration with like-minded foreign policy hawks allows Trump to increase his leverage against the North, it also threatens the progress of their engagement. Kyunghyang suspects that Trump was mindful of his domestic conservative audience, which has become increasingly wary about his seeming shift toward diplomacy. Even so, the article argues that any gesture that sows fear and distrust could jeopardize the recent thaw in relations between the North and the United States. As the Trump-Kim summit approaches, Kyunghyang urges the Trump administration to take extra caution and initiative in terms of signaling its commitment to dialogue.
Conservative coverage expressed concern about the lack of coordination between Seoul and Washington. A Segye article on March 23 notes that Trump’s international affairs and security team is entirely composed of what it calls the “super-hawks,” including Bolton, Pompeo, and Nikki Haley, reinforcing Trump’s penchant for maximizing pressure. Citing Bolton’s recent media appearances in which he openly advocated preventive wars against North Korea, the article argues that the likelihood of conflict on the Korean Peninsula is ever greater, should dialogue between Trump and Kim fail. Indeed, the article claims that the upcoming US-South Korean joint military exercises will carry out a more detailed and extensive evacuation drill for US nationals residing in South Korea, further signaling Washington’s consideration of a military option. Despite this risky situation, the Moon administration appears completely deluded by a rosy picture of dialogue with North Korea; the article reiterates, since no progress has been achieved on the denuclearization issue and the possibility of Kim defaulting on his promise of diplomacy is still manifest. Segye urges the Moon administration to seek deeper coordination with Washington to prepare for all contingencies ahead of the talks.
On March 28, Kim paid a visit to Beijing, where he met with Xi Jinping and pledged his commitment to denuclearization. The trip marked Kim’s first foreign trip and state visit since his succession in 2011. Kim’s unprecedented move spurred widespread speculation as to what he intended to signal, albeit to little consensus. Still, the Xi-Kim summit appeared to help improve the embittered personal relations between the two leaders, allowing Xi to play a greater role in the diplomatic game that has so far been exclusive to Trump, Kim, and Moon.
Progressive coverage focused on Kim’s promise to denuclearize, which was largely deemed reassuring, though it demonstrated a notable difference between his approach and those suggested by Moon and Trump. A Hankyoreh article on March 28 lauds Kim for directly corroborating his intent to denuclearize but claims that the process he proposes—gradual and step-wise—may not be acceptable to Moon or Trump. Moon prefers a “big deal” in which the North’s denuclearization is traded for the guarantee of its regime security. If Trump demands that Kim fulfil CVID prior to any sanctions relief, then the upcoming negotiations may almost immediately reach a deadlock. A Kyunghyang article on March 28 echoes these concerns, stating that Trump appears only interested in Kim’s unilateral concessions, without identifying rewards that could allow both parties to meet their needs. The article foresees trouble in negotiating a mutually agreeable path to the North’s denuclearization.
In addition, progressive coverage discussed the implications of China’s involvement in the US-Korean diplomatic exchanges. Kyunghyang argues that China’s participation is a double-edged sword for Seoul: on the one hand, Beijing could further legitimize Moon’s principles of denuclearization and peaceful resolution of the Korean conflict, but on the other, it could exploit the recent diplomatic momentum between the two Koreas to leverage its position vis-à-vis Washington in a broader strategic game. This could, then, affect Moon’s ability to chart the course of inter-Korean reconciliation and take a “driver’s seat.” Further, the article postulates that the thaw in relations between Kim and Xi could lead to weakening the sanctions regime before Moon and Trump have had the chance to compel Kim toward fully implementing a roadmap for denuclearization. Indeed, Hankyoreh agrees with this perspective: even though China is a necessary—and potentially constructive—partner, its increased role in US-Korean talks may introduce unexpected fissures, which may undermine the current diplomatic atmosphere. Moon must pursue stronger coordination with all parties concerned.
Conservative coverage saw Kim’s visit to Beijing as a means to increase his leverage in preparation for his summits with Moon and Trump. Indeed, a Kookmin article on March 29 traces the history of the North’s diplomacy in which the regime has advocated the same gradual process of denuclearization—until it defaults on its obligation at the last stage. The article calls this a typical demonstration of the “salami tactics,” whereby the North extracts concessions at every phase of its denuclearization before it reaches the “irreversible” state. Kookmin argues that Kim’s visit to Beijing is likely intended to help him gain support behind this proposal, signaling that he will not give in to Trump’s pressures during the upcoming negotiations and that he will work with Xi to challenge the sanctions regime. The article concludes that Moon must abide by CVID as a principle, compel Kim to provide a detailed roadmap for denuclearization, and communicate to Beijing that unilateral easing of sanctions is not acceptable to Seoul.
On China’s role, conservative coverage worried more expressly that its involvement will complicate matters for Moon. According to a Joongang article on March 29, even though the current diplomatic environment was forged in large part by Moon’s success as an intermediary, Xi’s abrupt change in behavior indicates his desire to “intervene” with Beijing-centric interests, which present Moon with additional challenges prior to the inter-Korean summit. Indeed, the Xi-Kim summit demonstrates that both leaders can easily switch their positions and attitudes toward each other when their national interests are at stake: despite their acrimonious (personal) relations, Xi embraced Kim to quash concerns about “China passing” and exert influence in the North’s diplomatic campaign, while Kim enticed Xi to hedge against the risks of engaging with a far more formidable party, the United States. Joongang reiterates Kookmin’s recommendations, urging the Moon administration to identify contingencies and prepare exhaustive courses of action.
Trump’s remarks linking KORUS FTA and North Korean nuclear talks
On March 29, Trump delivered a speech in Ohio, in which he threatened to hold up the recently revised KORUS FTA until after a deal is reached with North Korea on denuclearization. The KORUS FTA was renegotiated following the US request, permitting greater access for US auto and drug industries to the South Korean market while exempting South Korea from Trump’s latest 25% tariff on steel under a certain limit on exports. Calling the FTA with the South “a very strong card,” Trump signaled that he intends to use it as leverage against the North but provided little explanation as to how.
Progressive coverage deemed Trump’s remarks a part of his “madman strategy,” questioning how the KORUS FTA relates to the North’s denuclearization. A Hankyoreh article on March 30 posits that Trump, by portraying himself as capable of doing anything he desires, induces fear from his counterparts and obtains concessions. He first coerced Seoul to renegotiate the KORUS FTA by threatening to nullify the agreement, and likewise, he has forced Seoul to yield on the contents of the FTA by playing the exemption card from his drastic tariff measures. While acknowledging the effectiveness of Trump’s strategy, Hankyoreh warns that his profit-seeking behavior risks crossing a redline in international behavior: Following a grueling process of revision, Washington and Seoul released a joint statement underlining the terms of the amendments to KORUS FTA—and yet, Trump is delegitimizing this important deal, reached in good faith between two respectable countries, by hinting at its abolishment after the fact. The article condemns Trump for disparaging the joint, serious effort between Washington and Seoul to sustain the KORUS FTA, reminding him that “it’s not child’s play.”
Conservative coverage argued that Trump’s remarks were a calculated threat to discourage Moon from taking Kim’s side. A Chosun article on March 31 recalls that Trump’s speech came immediately following Kim’s visit to Beijing during which he proposed a phased approach to denuclearization, contradicting Trump’s vision for immediate removal of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, a Blue House official stated on March 30 that using the “Libya model”—in which all nuclear weapons are first removed in exchange for a post hoc reward—is not applicable to the North Korean context, signaling the Moon administration’s inclination toward Kim’s gradual, give-and-take approach. Just as Trump had asked the South Korean delegation to announce his acceptance of a summit with Kim—formally crediting the South as the go-between—Trump’s remarks linking the KORUS FTA and the North Korean nuclear deal is intended to remind Seoul that it will be held partly responsible for the outcomes of the forthcoming dialogue. Asserting that Kim’s proposal is a ruse to buy time and undercut the sanctions regime, Chosun asserts that the Moon administration must refrain from seeking to appease the North, particularly if it comes at the cost of the US-South Korean alliance.
US-China trade war
On April 4, Beijing introduced “tit-for-tat” taxes on US imports in response to the 25% tariffs levied by Washington on $50 billions of Chinese imports, targeting a list of 1,333 products from electronics to vaccines. While the tariffs are not yet in effect, Beijing’s response raised the specter of a full-blown US-China trade war, causing the financial markets in Europe and Asia to fall as tensions escalated. Despite Chinese retaliation-in-kind, Trump refused to back down, tweeting, “When you’re already $500 billion DOWN, you can’t lose!” Nonetheless, the US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross suggested that the administration may pursue a diplomatic resolution to the intensifying trade conflict, claiming, “Even shooting wars end with negotiations.”
Progressive and conservative coverage was united in voicing concern about the potential impact of a US-China trade war on South Korea, whose top two export destination are—by large margins—China and the United States. A Hankyoreh article on March 23 claims that the damage from their trade conflict is inevitable, and that the situation could easily be exacerbated: Trump called Beijing’s retaliation “unfair” and ordered his officials to examine additional avenues for tariffs against China, to which the Chinese commerce spokesperson Gao Feng replied, “China has already fully prepared, and will not hesitate to immediately make a fierce counter strike.” The article, as with the conservative outlet Maeil Kyungjae on March 23, warns Moon against making any rash decisions that could advantage one party and proposes identifying a balanced solution.
While sharing these concerns, a Financial News article on March 23 encourages Moon to find other partners with whom to deepen the South’s trade ties and decrease its export dependency on China and the United States, concluding that Moon’s “New Southern Policy” is the most promising strategy. During Moon’s summit with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang, the two leaders agreed to increase their bilateral trade volume to $100 billion by 2020, focusing primarily on manufacturing. Citing a recent projection by the Korea International Trade Association that Vietnam will surpass the United States as South Korea’s second largest trading partner by 2020, the article urges Moon to plan accordingly and ahead of time.
On April 27, Moon and Kim met at the peace village of Panmunjom for the third ever inter-Korean summit. The summit came following a flurry of diplomatic and cultural exchanges after the North’s participation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The two leaders signed the “Panmunjom Declaration,” which stated their objectives in three categories: 1) improving inter-Korean relations through joint cultural, economic, and social projects; 2) reducing military tension and eliminating the threat of conflict; and 3) establishing a “peace system” to bring a formal end to the war and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Media responses to the summit were largely positive, though differences were noticeable in their emphases: progressive outlets characterized the summit as a successful “first step” toward peace, while conservative outlets focused on denuclearization as the core (or at times the sole) objective of the summit.
Progressive coverage heralded the outcomes of the Moon-Kim summit, even as it recognized the two Koreas’ botched diplomacy in the past. A Kyunghyang article on April 27 highlights Kim’s comments that “even a great agreement, if not implemented properly, will only bring disappointment.” The article notes that previous agreements failed largely because US-North Korean relations had remained adverse, the fault of which lay with both parties. In addition, the article points out that the Lee and Park administrations had neglected the South’s promises to the North, causing inter-Korean relations to deteriorate drastically. Given the more auspicious political climate today, Kyunghyang argues that the chances of successfully implementing the Panmunjom agreement are high: Kim repeatedly signaled his commitment to denuclearize, paving the way for his summit with Trump and easing concerns about the “US risk.” One outstanding concern, however, is the conservative opposition in Seoul, which may attempt to jeopardize the current momentum toward peace for its domestic political purposes. Kyunghyang urges the conservatives to refrain from such self-sabotage.
Focusing on Kim’s personality, a Hankyoreh article on April 27 emphasizes the symbolic significance of the summit. The article notes that Kim is the first North Korean leader to have stepped foot in the South since the Korean War, receiving a formal greeting by the South Korean military. As two respectable leaders, Kim and Moon crossed the borders hand-in-hand, signifying their desire to bring peace to the peninsula. Their cordiality felt genuine, particularly because Kim appeared more open and humble than his predecessors: Contrary to their habit of hiding the North’s shortcomings, Kim acknowledged the country’s extant struggles—including the poor state of its transit system—helping to create trust. The two leaders even agreed to an additional summit in Pyongyang in the fall, making concrete their plans for deepening engagement. When Moon suggested that Kim visit the Blue House someday, Kim readily consented, raising the prospect of another unprecedented inter-Korean summit in Seoul. Hankyoreh asserts that such gestures allow the two leaders to build trust, which will prove vital to fulfilling their latest agreement.
While acknowledging the summit’s effect on relieving tension, conservative coverage criticized its outcomesas empty in substance, particularly with regard to denuclearization. Indeed, a Chosun article on April 28 points out that denuclearization—a “sole objective” for which the summit was convened—has taken a back seat to other, less important matters, such as North-South cooperation. The article condemns the ambiguity of the term “complete denuclearization,” comparing it to the more precise wording used in prior agreements. In the absence of meaningful progress on denuclearization, Moon promised too much, including agreeing to designate the Northern Limit Line (NLL) a “peace zone” and to halt all hostile activities by land, sea, or air. Chosun notes that the North has previously demanded an end to the US-South Korean joint military exercises, calling them a “hostile act”—yet, these drills are an indispensable feature of the US-South Korean alliance. The article suggests that the summit’s failure to address key issues pertaining to denuclearization and its far-reaching promises on non-military issues will introduce significant challenges as dialogue ensues.
Further, a Segye article on April 30 expresses concern that the “peace act” in Panmunjom may lead to a premature—and potentially dangerous—sense of relief in the South. The article cites a recent public opinion survey, in which 64.7% of the respondents stated they trusted the North’s commitment to denuclearize, while only 28.3% stated they were skeptical. These results demonstrate an astonishing reversal of opinion: a similar survey before the summit had painted the very opposite picture, with an overwhelming majority of 78.3% responding they distrusted the North’s peace gesture. Segye finds other “worrying” trends: real estate prices near the border have spiked upwards, and talk of abolishing military requirements is spreading rapidly among the younger generation. Yet, the more formidable challenges lie ahead, including creating and implementing a specific roadmap for denuclearization. In fact, recent remarks by Bolton and Pompeo reveal their preference for the “Libyan model” in which denuclearization comes before normalization of relations, which, as was soon seen, conflicts with the North’s position. Segye anticipates difficulties in the subsequent stages of negotiation and cautions both the Moon administration and the public to stay vigilant as risks of conflict persist.
Second Xi-Kim summit
On May 7, Kim paid another visit to Dalian, China, to meet with Xi. Signaling warming relations between the two countries, the summit also marked the second time Kim traveled to see Xi, merely 40 days after his March visit. Shortly after Kim’s trip, the North Korean state media described the two countries’ relations as “in the midst of a historical new golden era.”
Conservative coverage saw the second summit as intended to deepen China’s involvement in Korean affairs to increase Kim’s leverage as he prepares for his highly anticipated summit with Trump. A Segye article on May 9 asserts that prospects of a Trump-Kim summit are still highly uncertain, as its date and location remain unannounced and the Trump administration’s demands of permanent, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization (PVID)—an upgrade of CVID—contradict Kim’s step-by-step approach. By bringing China into the picture, Kim pushes Trump to act and shapes a four-party framework to dealing with the North’s denuclearization, finding relief both economically and strategically. In return, China assures that its strategic interests are considered in any negotiated deal on Korea. A more centrist Kookmin article on May 9 echoes this view: by drawing closer to each other, Kim earns China’s support for gradual denuclearization, while Xi reduces concerns of “China passing,” framing any US involvement in Korea as part of its grand encirclement strategy against China. Conservative outlets viewed China’s growing involvement as troubling, particularly for the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.
In contrast, progressive coverage depicted the Xi-Kim summit as routine and possibly beneficial. A Hankyoreh article on May 8 notes that China was distressed by the Panmunjom Declaration for suggesting a trilateral framework between the United States and the two Koreas in establishing a peace regime (rendering China’s involvement a mere possibility.) The article, therefore, argues that Kim needed to clear any Chinese misunderstanding that could pose difficulties in subsequent talks. Further, while admitting that Kim seeks to increase his leverage by drawing closer to Xi, Hankyoreh finds suspect some assertions in conservative outlets that suggest that serious challenges have emerged in US-North Korean relations prior to their talks, leading Kim to pursue Chinese help. The article cites Trump’s tweet shortly after Kim’s visit to China, announcing that he will be talking to Xi on the phone about “North Korea, where relationships and trust are building.” Reports of Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang also indicate a sustained thaw in US-North Korean relations. The article concludes that the latest Xi-Kim summit does not signal a declining momentum toward dialogue between Trump and Kim.
Release of US detainees and the Trump-Kim summit
On May 10, North Korea released three US detainees in a gesture of goodwill prior to the Trump-Kim summit. Kim granted their “amnesty” during Pompeo’s second visit to Pyongyang. Hours after the detainees’ release, Trump announced that the summit will take place in Singapore on June 12, promising a “very special moment for World Peace.”
Progressive coverage portrayed Kim’s decision as a practical move to secure the Trump-Kim summit. According to a Kyunghyang article on May 10, the latest development helps allay fears that have built up, particularly within conservative circles, that Trump could cancel his summit with Kim due to irreconcilable differences on denuclearization. The release of US prisoners and the subsequent announcement of the summit date and location indicate that Kim and Trump have successfully narrowed the gap in their starting positions, demonstrating a commendable flexibility. Similarly, a Hankyoreh article on May 10 speculates that the two parties likely arrived at a consensus on the broader framework for dealing with denuclearization—one which balances US needs of “permanent denuclearization” and North Korean demands of regime security. Citing Trump’s remarks and the North’s state media reports—highlighting their optimistic attitudes prior to the summit—the article concludes that US-North Korean relations have turned over a new leaf at last.
While welcoming the announcement of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, conservative coverage focused on what North Korea would get in return for denuclearization. A Chosun article on June 12 posits that Kim’s latest peace gesture signals his willingness to accept—or at least work with—US demands of CVID, but wonders what Kim requested in exchange. In terms of security, the article notes two rhetorical shifts from the Trump administration: 1) a shift from “North Korean” denuclearization to denuclearization of the “Korean Peninsula,” possibly signifying Trump’s willingness to trade away US nuclear guarantees to Seoul; and 2) a shift from PVID to CVID, indicating Trump’s softening stance on denuclearization. The article also discusses economic rewards: given Trump’s penchant for transactional, “America First” diplomacy, South Korea will bear the overwhelming brunt of financial responsibility for compensating Kim. While acknowledging the benefits the North’s denuclearization would bring to the South Korean economy and security, the article warns that the South must hedge and prepare for the costs it must pay until that objective is fulfilled.
In addition, conservative coverage criticized the Moon administration for failing to secure the release of six South Koreans who are still detained in the North. In praising the Trump administration’s success, a Segye article on May 10 questions why Moon has not been able to achieve the same results. An official spokesperson from the Blue House remarked that Moon’s efforts are ongoing though not apparent. According to Segye, however, his failure to free South Korean prisoners during what was celebrated as a historic summit means Moon simply did not prioritize the issue. In a more sympathetic tone, a Joongang article on May 11 recognizes that securing their release may be more complicated, as the North will likely demand the return of its 13 defectors, who it claims have been kidnapped from China. Yet, Joongang urges Moon to pursue their amnesty more actively through the scheduled talks.
Suspension of inter-Korean dialogue and the prospects of a Trump-Kim summit
On May 16, North Korea announced its decision to suspend indefinitely its scheduled talks with South Korea, calling the US-South Korean “Max Thunder” drills a “rehearsal for invasion” and a “provocation amid warming inter-Korean ties.” Hours after canceling the talks, North Korea also threatened to pull out of the June 12 summit with Trump if the United States continues to demand unilateral denuclearization. In particular, North Korea’s vice foreign affairs minister Kim Kye-gwan condemned Bolton for supporting a Libyan model of denuclearization in Korea. The North’s messages marked a drastic change in attitude: only a week ago, it had released three US detainees in a gesture of goodwill and announced it would publicly close its Punggye-ri nuclear facilities.
While disappointed by the North’s unilateral move, progressive coverage focused on the sources of its concern and blamed the hawkish rhetoric of the Trump administration. According to a Kyunghyang article on May 16, while the US-South Korean military drills are largely a pretext for suspending the talks, the North’s concerns are not unreasonable: Kim had previously stated that he understands the necessity of the drills and did not push against it during his summit with Moon; yet, even after promising to ease military tension through the Panmunjom Declaration, the drills came enhanced, introducing new stealthy F-22 fighter jets, prompting the North to signal its dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, in spite of the thawing US-North Korean relations, Bolton continued his harsh rhetoric against the North, advocating for a “Libyan model of denuclearization” and “removal of all WMDs” (as opposed to just nuclear weapons). Kyunghyang claims that Bolton’s statements threw into doubt the Trump administration’s commitment to dialogue, the reassurances of which the North was now seeking. A Hankyoreh article on May 16 reiterated these points, underlining that the South had also been “imprudent” in a number of ways, including involving newer, more threatening weapons systems during the military drills and giving public platform to Thae Yong-ho, a prominent North Korean defector, who distrusts the North’s call for peace. The article urges the Moon administration to carefully rebuild trust and ensure that the North’s nuclear test site is shut down as scheduled.
On the other hand, conservative coverage dismissed the North’s recent decision as a sign of disrespect toward the South and a negotiating tactic against the United States. A Munhwa article on May 16 recalls various instances in which North Korea unilaterally canceled, postponed, or suspended scheduled events at the last minute, including the working-level talks on April 4 and a joint cultural event in January. The North’s behavior denotes not only its disregard for diplomatic customs but, more specifically, its disrespect toward South Korea. Further, the North’s claim that the Max Thunder drills are an “intentional military provocation” is baseless: the drills themselves are not new, and while the F-22s have been involved for the first time in this particular exercise, they are not new to US-South Korean military drills, either. Besides, using newer weapons systems in military drills is only to be expected. A Donga article on May 17 shares the frustration and argues, in fact, that the exclusion of B-52 strategic bombers in the latest drills signaled a US-South Korean retreat to the North, triggering it to push for more concessions. While North Korea will not go so far as to cancel the June 12 summit, it may still disrupt the course of dialogue by, for instance, threatening to cancel the scheduled shutdown of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The article calls for a “principled stance” to demonstrate to the North that its irresponsible behavior only begets distrust and leads to self-destruction.