Country Report: South Korea (September 2015)


Three themes concerning relations in Northeast Asia preoccupied the South Korean media in the late summer. Before and after the Abe statement, there was considerable interest in dealing with an unsatisfactory narrative without sacrificing what is now a two-track approach to Japan. Later in August, in the aftermath of the agreement with North Korea ending another tension-filled crisis, there was renewed debate over whether a turning point has at last been reached in relations with North Korea. Two challenges that had bedeviled Seoul’s strategic aspirations were again being debated, while many on the outside wondered what the fuss was all about, given limits on Seoul’s options. Finally, the visit of Park Geun-hye to Beijing on September 3 raised questions not only about Sino-ROK relations, but also about ROK-US relations. This last theme was likely to stir further interest as coverage turned to the visit of Park to Washington in October and, before that, to any signals from the visit of Xi Jinping to Washington.

Anticipating the Abe Statement: South Korea-Japan Relations

The reconciliatory momentum, built around the 50th anniversary of the normalized bilateral relationship, has disappeared. Conflict over the forced labor issue, Japan’s push for the right of collective self-defense, and Mitsubishi’s apology limited to US forced labor has further damaged ties. Before August 15, all eyes were on whether the Abe statement would be able to lead to a breakthrough, especially whether the four key words—“colonization, apology, aggression, and deep remorse”—would be included. For a time, speculation centered on signs that the first two words would be omitted from the statement. A July 30 Chosun Ilbo article warned of an attempt to isolate South Korea, which demands an “apology” for “colonization,” by expressing regret only to China and the United States. A July 28 Kyunghyang Shinmun article said the world is trapped by Abe’s plan. Even though his statement is not required domestically or internationally, the world is watching what Abe says, to the extent that even the public with little past interest in statements is now paying attention. This circumstance helps Abe to take the upper hand in diplomacy. Japan is the “perpretator” that needs to apologize on the “70th anniversary of the postwar era.” The four words are supposed to be included in the statement. However, Abe is choosing the wording, as if he is giving out presents.

After the advisory committee on the Abe statement released its guidelines on August 6, heavy criticism followed. They are seen as making South Korea solely responsible for the current stalemate. An August 6 Chosun Ilbo article blasted the fact that the guidelines did not mention the Abe administration’s faults at all but only blame South Korea for the worsening relationship. It also argued that the guidelines show that there is nothing to expect from the upcoming statement; thus, it urges the Park administration to focus on a strategy that assumes a disappointing Abe statement. Another Chosun Ilbo article on August 9 admitted that Abe does not change in a day or two and that the cliff cannot be bridged between the two countries, e.g., on Korea’s demands that Japan apologize for its colonization. Japan’s insistence that the 1965 agreement was legal and compensation was settled 50 years ago is interpreted as an argument that denies the national identity of Korea. The article acknowledges that Korea’s demands cannot be met by whomever comes to power Japan, not only by the Abe administration. It concludes that whatever Abe says will soon be gone, as previous statements, but what will be there forever is the country of Japan, with which Seoul is destined to resolve security and economic problems. The article asks for more flexibility and wisdom to face this destiny.

On August 3, Kim Taehyo asked why the Japanese public, academics, and government are also upset about bilateral relations, although Japan is not a victim and is supposed to make an apology. In Chosun Ilbo, Kim observed that this results from the clash of Japan’s defensive nature and South Korea’s moral values. Tokyo wants to stick to the 1965 agreement, and Seoul wants to constantly point out insufficient self-reflection. Kim adds that Japanese fear that any apology on the wartime sex slave issue would not be the last one or meet South Korea’s ultimate standards. Kim concludes that it is time to review South Korea’s principles and its stance on the history issue, at the same time cooperating with Japan, even when Japanese efforts fall short of expected standards, if Japan is willing to make efforts to move forward.

On July 31, a Joongang Ilbo columnist acknowledged that some expect the Abe statement to be a watershed moment in the bilateral relationship and hope for an exceptional change, but readers are told to be prepared for disappointment and not to react emotionally. The author suggested that the Park administration acknowledge the statement, provided that it carries forward the former statements, and normalize the relationship in security, culture, and economy—all of which are practical and beneficial to Seoul. Any emotional reaction, readers are told, would reignite recently decreasing “hate Korea” demonstrations against Seoul and push the general public to the right. It would deepen South Korea’s diplomatic isolation, given the signs that Beijing and Tokyo have already make a breakthrough behind the scene, the article concludes.

Other arguments asking for a new bilateral relationship appeared as well, e.g., on July 24, the Japanese academic Okonogi Masao wrote in DongA Ilbo that the relationship needs to be reshaped in accordance with a systematic change in the region. Okonogi observed that deterioration of ties had been inevitable, as China continued to be seen as a business opportunity by Seoul with little attention to its maritime expansion, while it was increasingly seen as a military threat by Tokyo. This systematic disparity has led to conflict at both the leadership and public level. Under the Park and Abe administrations, China policy increasingly conflicts, which, in turn, stimulates clashing nationalism. Thus, the author suggests that the two countries find new common goals. Positioned between Washington and Beijing, both need to keep the alliance with Washington and encourage China to be a responsible great power in the long run. The article concludes that the relationship should be put on a long-term trajectory to achieve this goal, even when the Abe statement is not satisfactory or an agreement on the comfort women issue is lacking.

An August 9 Hankuk Ilbo article questions what would change even if the Abe statement includes the words “deep apology” (통절한 사죄). Were the expression to be included, the author argues, nobody would believe it to be a genuine apology or that a new relationship would begin right away. Abe has clearly shown his perception of history. Heightened “nationalism,” provided it continues, stands in the way of improved ties. The two-track approach to separate security and history is actually impractical, the article argues. The Abe administration, steeped in nationalism, always can be a threat to Seoul. Washington is not likely to target the threat, as it helps to keep China in check. It is also impractical to ask Seoul to be a “mediator,” the author insists, seeing no end in sight as long as Tokyo continues its appeal to nationalism. A line is quoted in Abe’s book Towards a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan. “Do you remember it? What it feels like to lose your country and what a country means for us?” The line effectively shows how nationalism can make a man self-contradictory, readers are told.

The author asks the two leaders to think in a “cosmopolitan” way for a new relationship. If this is not expected from them, the author urges citizens to take action to build a “cosmopolitan” relationship aiming at “anti-war, peace, or disarmament.” Given that civil society has rapidly spread in the two countries and that the political stalemate is hardly impacting exchanges, both quantitatively and qualitatively, the article sees higher chances in such an approach for fundamental improvement than in current strategies.

A Hangyoreh August 12 article argued that the crisis Abe and Japanese conservatives have created is beyond the level of talking about whether the statement says apology or not. It is now at the level of changing geopolitical structure. The order of the postwar era, the reassurance of the US security umbrella and Japanese economic power, is being broken with China’s rise. In response, Japan’s right wing chose to strengthen the alliance with United States even at the expense of conflicts with neighboring countries, the author argues, questioning what US-Japan alliance and trilateral security cooperation with Seoul implies for the Korean Peninsula. With the right of self-defense, Tokyo can deploy its forces to North Korea with Washington in case of war between the two Koreas. If Seoul and Tokyo collide on Dokdo, the United States may prioritize its alliance with Japan. In case of a collision between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, Seoul could be involved as part of trilateral cooperation. Arguing that the Abe

administration is transforming the structural level while the Park administration is only at the level of “criticizing Abe” or “encouraging the right perception of history,” the author warns that the current diplomatic strategy will not be able to change Japanese and US diplomacy. Japan continues to need the United States to check China and the United States will keep asking South Korea to compromise on the history issue to get rid of an obstacle to trilateral cooperation. Adding the stalled relationship with Pyongyang, the author concludes that South Korean diplomacy has nowhere to go. In showcasing this impasse and the futility of turning to Washington, seeking a breakthrough with Pyongyang presumably appears to readers as an alternative worthy of exploration.

Responding to the Abe Statement: South Korea-Japan Relations

After the Abe statement was released, its ambiguity was harshly criticized. On August 18, a Hangyoreh columnist condemned the fact that the four key words were all in the statement but in a context that left their meaning ambiguous, resulting in an “out-of-body speech.” The sentence “Incident, aggression, war—we shall never again resort to any form of the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” is not saying that Japan was the source of aggression toward neighboring countries. The line “ We shall abandon colonial rule forever and respect the right of self-determination of all peoples throughout the world,” is irrelevant to Japanese self-reflection over its colonial rule. Saying “The Japan-Russia War gave encouragement to many people under colonial rule from Asia to Africa,” is an insult to South Korea, which suffered from brutal Japanese colonial rule as a result of the war. The sentence “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize,” leads the author to cite Xinhua, saying “However, those countries which suffered from Japan’s aggression would never forget that dark period of history, as Japanese would always remember the horrific scenes of A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” The author argues that it is absurd to insist on ending acknowledgment that Japan has caused pain without any resounding apology to the victim countries.

The sentence, “We will engrave in our hearts the past, when the dignity and honour of many women were severely injured during wars in the 20th century,” is a retreat from the Kono statement acknowledging the forced nature of the wartime sex slaves. It is also criticized that Abe avoided making an apology or expressing remorse himself by saying “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. Such a position articulated by the previous cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.” Finally, the article criticizes the White House response, saying “We welcome Prime Minister Abe’s expression of deep remorse for the suffering caused by Japan during the World War II era, as well as his commitment to uphold past Japanese government statements on history,” arguing that the statement has the four keywords, but has incorrect reasoning and scores very low.

An August 17 Joongang Ilbo article mostly agreed with the points mentioned above, e.g., that Abe did not make an apology himself. It found that Japan neglects and humiliates South Korea. The sentence mentioning the Japan-Russian war was taken as an example. The object of remorse and apology was limited to “its actions during the war.” Wartime sex slaves were not mentioned. The authors said that the Abe administration would not see any necessity to apologize to Koreans, perceived as loyal subjects of the Japanese Empire (황국신민), agreeing with the criticism from both Seoul and Beijing over the statement for being a “watered-down, out-of-body speech, indirect apology, disguised apology.” However, the columnist appreciates that Abe has given careful thought to every little word and expression, concluding that this is “the best” we can expect from Abe, who questions the definition of aggression, visits the Yasukuni Shrine, and has a grandfather who was a Class-A war criminal. This is his limit; it is too much to ask for a further apology. On August 16, Park Cheolhee had criticized the way that the statement incorporated the four keywords. Park appreciated that Abe not only tried to keep his distance from the left by expressing fatigue over repeated apologies, he also broke with the right by carrying the past statements forward. Park’s moderate response was widely assessed as pragmatic for pursuing a two-track approach to Japan, and the author asked the Park administration to continue taking a sophisticated approach to avoid arousing the Japanese conservatives whom Abe was trying to keep at a distance.

On August 20, a Joongang Ilbo columnist also remarked that Abe mentioned the Russo-Japanese war and said, “We must learn from the lessons of history the wisdom for our future.” The author drew the lesson the war gave to Abe. A century ago, Britain was the biggest power and Russia’s expansion reached a point no longer manageable by the United Kingdom alone. Japan’s message was clear, “Tokyo will stop Russia coming down to the south. Instead, the UK backs Japan.” It was persuasive enough for the United Kingdom to give up its “splendid isolation” strategy to have an alliance with Japan, while Japan learned that alliance with the most powerful country guarantees the future and victory in a war.

The Northeast Asian region is facing conflict, as China’s maritime expansion continues and the Obama administration’s regional rebalancing increasingly encircles Beijing. US power is declining in the 21st century, and China’s rise is hard to manage alone. Abe’s message is clear, “Japan keeps China in check, and the United States backs Japan.” As a result, the two countries will continue to enjoy their new honeymoon era. The trilateral military cooperation among Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo has loosened, which the author calls Xi’s diplomatic success. The Park administration has given the impression of leaning towards Beijing, and the Abe administration takes advantage of it to strengthen ties with Washington. Insisting that the Park administration’s top diplomatic goal is to manage the peninsula and its base is the South Korea-US alliance, the author warns that if the alliance gets weaker, neighboring countries will look down on Seoul. Quoting Hayashi Tadasu, the signatory of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, “It is most important to maintain the confidence reposed in a country by friendly powers,” the author concludes.

The 8.25 Agreement and Inter-Korean Relations

The crisis of the semi-war state between the two Koreas has dramatically turned into an opportunity to talk. Right after the crisis concluded, the Park administration’s North Korean policy was better appreciated. Its approval rating also was restored to over 50 percent. Though various questions followed about whether the result of the diplomacy and the agreement will be as good as originally indicated, it was agreed that the tension caused enormous stress among South Koreans. Voices were raised to find a mechanism to prevent another crisis and to ensure a stable inter-Korean relationship.

An August 28 Joongang Ilbo article welcomed the outcome that the dialogue channel is now officially restored for the first time since 2008 after both soft and hard-line policies had failed with Pyongyang. But Pyongyang can be an imminent threat to South Koreans; thus, Seoul should keep North Korea at a manageable distance, the author insisted. Two days earlier, another Joongang Ilbo article called the agreement an achievement of Park ’s principled response and a strong South Korea-US alliance. It pointed out that the agreement does not include an “apology” or a “commitment to prevent a recurrence,” which the Park administration had promised; however, the agreement should be valued to some extent, as the North had denied the provocation at first. The article appreciated Park’s decision to accept the North’s proposal to talk as a responsible approach.

On August 31, a Hangyoreh columnist acknowledged the agreement as an exceptional outcome, given the nature of the bilateral relationship over the last several years. Park showed flexibility, tolerable within a range of conservative ideology. For Kim Jung-un, also, this is the first agreement that is deserving of international attention. The author foresees a significant impact on the future policy making of the North. The agreement itself is destined to end, however, the author argues, as a bilateral exchange and cooperation faces international sanctions against the North and the nuclear issue. The author lists four strategies a weaker country can use against a stronger player with constant impact on its identity: assimilation, resistance, compromise, and dissimilation. Pyongyang’s current approach is the fourth, but it is impossible to remain disconnected from the world, thus the next strategy will be compromise, or opening its door, the author argues. Such optimism about North Korea has often been found in Hangyoreh.
Even when it acknowledges that Pyongyang has disappointed Seoul before, it finds hope in the Janmadang generation, who allegedly are familiar with the market economy and the world, and now are coming to power. The article concluded that the new agreement should be the beginning of encouraging and guiding the North to open to the world.

Another Hangyoreh article on September 1 criticized the agreement as a victory of the North not of the South, arguing that it showed that Park has no principles. The North has managed to open the door of the South, as it wanted, with just two land mines, but the Park administration failed to obtain an expression or even a context for resolving the dispute that it had promised, the author said. Though some argue that the North’s proposal for a family reunion is a gesture of reconciliation, Pyongyang has been ready to show that card for two years if the Park administration had not rejected dialogue due to the level of those involved. The author calls it a diplomatic failure that Seoul could have had exactly the same outcome two years ago without the provocations and costs.

A Chosun Ilbo columnist was surprised to see how much impact the loudspeakers had. Their effectiveness was proved when the North focused only on stopping the broadcasts in the negotiations. Experts say that 21st century war depends on psychological and cyber warfare. Against the North, psychological aggression would reveal that the world in which North Koreans live and their beliefs are false, exposing the fragility of their leadership. If the approach targeted Kim Jung-un’s politics of terror, the author believes, the North Korean leadership would have to turn in a new direction. Though Seoul has the upper hand in psychological warfare, Pyongyang’s capabilities in cyber space are growing, readers are told, with tens of thousands of cyber combatants. The number of attacks against the South is around 40,000 per hour and 1 million a day. Though it is difficult to confirm, the North is alleged to be involved. Thus, South Korean strategy against the North should be to intensify information attacks, while tightening responses against cyber attacks. The author criticizes the South Korean government for failing to do the former and remaining defenseless in the face of the latter.

Need for Proactive South Korean Diplomacy: Attending China’s Military Parade

The Park administration’s diplomacy has been criticized for a lack of its own strategy, as it just reacts to those of the two biggest powers. As their security and economic interests collide, debate continues on how to manage the two harmoniously, keeping diplomatic options open, instead of choosing one side. The debate intensified around China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan in World War II. The fact that Park Geun-hye attended China’s military parade was generally assessed positively for expanding diplomatic autonomy despite concerns over deepening doubts about leaning closer to Beijing.

Chun Yungwoo said that the regional geopolitical structure is changing due to a rising China and a stalled Japan in DongA Ilbo on July 16, arguing that it is necessary to figure out from where threats are coming to set a correct strategy. Given that a rising power destroyed the regional order to ravage the peninsula historically, Chun highlights the importance of Seoul’s physical capability and willingness to stand against China’s threat. He also reiterates that Seoul needs to develop friendly relations with Beijing because the two countries have common interests economically. Chun suggests avoiding confronting Beijing unless the national defense is on the line. However, he sees the balance of power in the region as favorable and amenable to Seoul’s efforts, creating diplomatic options to keep China in check and discourage an aspiring hegemon from attempting to pressure neighboring countries. Security cooperation with neighbors threatened by Beijing and maintenance of the Korea-Japan relationship in the context are suggested, and even more, the US alliance, as the most assured balancing weight in the region is Washington.

On August 10, a DongA Ilbo observer said Park’s attendance would not be desirable. The Chinese forces which fought against Japan were mostly Kuomintang, while Communist forces were the enemy, which helped the North in the Korean War. Xi calls the Korean War the war to resist the United States. In addition, Xi is using the event to prove the strength of his military and to influence the international community. The article insists that it is risky for Park to attend the event without analysis of the strategic benefits and costs. Such an indiscreet move could hurt relations with Japan and the United States.

On August 21 in Chosun Ilbo, Heo Kyungwook insisted that the Park administration’s diplomatic misjudgment led to the diplomatic quandary to choose between Washington and Beijing. Though the “pivot to Asia” strategy essentially meant containing China with stronger trilateral military cooperation, the Park administration started to confront Japan on its historical revisionism. Japanese normalization is the other side of the coin of the containment China, but South Korea opposed it and created turmoil. Unexpected reconciliatory relations with Beijing also worsened ties with Washington and Tokyo. It was when Park invited Xi to Seoul in the midst of Obama’s containment strategy, the author argues, that Washington began to find Seoul’s foreign policy tiresome.

Concerns over attending the parade were the result of this misjudgment and relatively distant relations with the United States. If Seoul had understood the essence of Obama’s rebalancing strategy correctly to advance trilateral cooperation, it would have been a great diplomatic asset to Washington. The response would not have caused resentment in Beijing, as it would have been in keeping with prior diplomacy. With such assurances, Washington would have stood by when Seoul made minor strategic shifts, like attending the parade. The author argues that US confidence in the bilateral relationship is what guarantees South Korea’s diplomatic flexibility, but the opportunity has been lost.

Under the circumstances, South Korea’s strategy must be to figure out invisible red lines that the two countries draw and prepare diplomatic assets so if it crosses them, when necessary, it does not hamper mutual trust. The best strategy is to create a situation in which the two countries cannot stop Seoul from crossing the line even when they know it will help the other in the short term. The author argues that attendance at the parade was a warning against Japan and assures China that South Korea can be supportive depending on the issue. As Park was present in China when she was most needed, this allows her to make moves in the coming period on Washington’s side without upsetting Beijing.

An August 24 Chosun Ilbo article analyzed Chinese diplomacy, arguing that Park’s attendance should not be understood as leaning towards China. China uses rhetoric that suggests emotional bonds over history, friendship, and brotherhood but the essence of the relationship is completely pragmatic diplomacy, it asserts. Xi’s invitation to Park and proactive gestures at the celebration were not because the two countries are close. Instead, Xi was highlighting the message of “resistance to Japan.” Demonstrating that China is not treating relations as friendship was the national broadcast of a a series justifying the war of resistance to the United States, i.e., the Korean War It shows that Beijing separates diplomatic relations with: the United States, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. The author urges the South Korean government to pragmatically do the same, separating diplomacy with neighboring countries, putting Seoul in the driver’s seat in shaping bilateral relations while ignoring linkages in great power strategies. Such optimism is rooted more in idealism than in analysis cognizant of geopolitical realities.

A September 1 Kyunhyang Shinmun observer acknowledged that Park was boldly breaking a diplomatic taboo. Attendance at China’s military parade is perceived to be extremely sensitive, as it can be seen to be on the Chinese side countering Japan, especially when it is ambiguous that China’s “resistance to Japan” is just a matter of history. Yet,, the author opines that her courage creates diplomatic options. Criticizing the Park administration for remaining stuck with principles and taboos that sustain the status quo, even when all the major countries surrounding Seoul are trying to break free of it—China purses the Chinese Dream and a “new type of major power relations.” Japan is trying to be a “normal country,” the United States is “pivoting to Asia”—, the author conveys the mood that South Korea seems to be stalled. Yet, the visit of Park to Beijing is depicted with appreciation that Park finally has jolted diplomacy, serving the national interest not morality. The article concludes by urging the Park administration to expand this stance to other diplomatic arenas.

A September 4 Joongang Ilbo article valued Park’s decision to go to Beijing as the first step toward proactive diplomacy to overcome “sandwiched” geopolitical conditions. The author sees cooperation with China as needed to resolve the North Korean threat and to achieve reunification, assuming that Beijing has the most effective leverage influencing Pyongyang. Bilateral cooperation with China is also useful for overcoming the stalemate with Japan, readers are told. Appreciating the decision as a pragmatic attempt to expand Seoul’s diplomatic options in the region, the article reminds readers that the US alliance remains the security base. Highlighting that diplomacy with Washington and Beijing should not be a zero-sum game, the author urges Park to wipe away the doubts over South Korea leaning towards China in her visit to Washington in October.

Hyperbole about Park’s presence in China as well as new forbearance toward Japan and sprouts of expectations toward North Korea are signs of grasping for a path forward at a time when Seoul’s relationship with Washington is less certain than it has been in years, and it is in greater danger of being marginalized in great power relations. It is striking how little notice is being paid to the great power context. Narrow bilateral thinking may raise expectations difficult to satisfy. Coming months will see these hopes put to a test.

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