Country Report: South Korea (October 2023)


The evolving dynamics in South Korea’s geopolitical landscape, characterized by diplomatic intricacies, defense concerns, and cultural influence, undeniably underscore the nation’s multifaceted role in the global arena. The summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin raises apprehensions regarding potential trade in military technology. The efficacy of a five-year-old military agreement between South and North Korea is now uncertain, marked by conflicting views on its effectiveness. Against this backdrop, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s recent address at the UN General Assembly emphasizes the urgency for collective action against North Korea-Russia military transactions and pushes for reform within the Security Council.

In the midst of intricate dynamics, the repatriation of North Korean defectors by China introduces an additional layer of complexity to ROK-China relations, while a rare sea defection underscores the humanitarian aspect of the situation. Efforts to mend strained ties with China include the potential visit of President Xi Jinping to South Korea. Meanwhile, a recent poll gauging US citizens’ views on troop mobilization for South Korea’s defense raises concerns, particularly regarding increased defense cost sharing. Also, a thought-provoking parallel is drawn between the sudden Hamas attack on Israel and South Korea’s situation, emphasizing the imperative need for a robust defense strategy in the face of evolving geopolitical challenges.

Russia and North Korea

Undermining the global order

On September 13, Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin held a summit meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia, marking their first summit in 4 years and 5 months. The meeting garnered attention due to the potential trade between Russia’s nuclear and advanced military technology and North Korea’s conventional weapons.1 This is a situation that holds the potential for significant consequences on the Korean Peninsula and the global landscape, and apprehensions regarding it are progressively materializing.

This meeting has faced international criticism for bringing together two authoritarian regimes that undermine the global order. If North Korea and Russia formalize their trade in weapons and military technology, the sanctions led by the United Nations against North Korea would essentially lose their effectiveness. North Korea’s satellite launches have been a target of UN Security Council sanctions since 2009, following the country’s second nuclear test, which banned any launches using ballistic missile technology. Furthermore, arms trade with North Korea has been prohibited since a 2016 Security Council resolution. It is worth noting that Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, had been involved in imposing sanctions on North Korea, but now seems to be undermining all of these measures.2

The conservative Kookmin Ilbo editorialized that the United States, which has stated its intention to impose sanctions promptly in case North Korea and Russia proceed with weapons trade, should align its efforts with its allies. It highlighted that China’s cautious approach as North Korea’s ally towards North Korea-Russia cooperation is amplifying the importance of the forthcoming year-end summit involving South Korea, China, and Japan.3

The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun stated in its editorial that the government should exercise wisdom at this point to ensure that the Korean Peninsula does not become the battleground for a “South Korea-US-Japan versus North Korea-China-Russia” confrontation, adding that it is imperative to put more effort into managing South Korea-China relations and maintaining dialogue with Russia and North Korea.4 Meanwhile, the fate of a significant agreement between South Korea and North Korea, signed five years ago with the aim of reducing military tensions, is now uncertain due to what Seoul views as a series of violations and military provocations by Pyongyang. Signed by both Koreas on September 19, 2018, the Comprehensive Military Agreement laid out measures to alleviate military tensions and prevent inadvertent accidents.5 Yoon Suk-yeol has already stated, “If North Korea engages in provocations that violate our territory, we should consider suspending the effectiveness of the September 19th Military Agreement.”6

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo regretted that the optimistic expectations regarding North Korean denuclearization have ended in failure given that there are ongoing efforts and resources being invested in restoring its damaged alliance relationships. The paper also pointed out that finding alternatives for North Korean denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula would require a collective effort that transcends political divides.7 The conservative Segye Ilbo has editorialized that there is reason to question the validity of the September 19th Agreement, given North Korea’s lack of willingness to comply with it. In a scenario where North Korea’s provocations have become a regular occurrence, and there are even discussions involving tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, there should be serious consideration given to the possibility of terminating the agreement.8

On the other hand, the progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized that it is crucial not to overlook the fact that in a context where all inter-Korean communication channels have been cut off, this military agreement has served as a “peaceful safety mechanism” to prevent accidental clashes between North and South Korea. Citing South Korea’s 2022 Defense White Paper, Kyunghyang Shinmun highlighted that North Korea has breached the military agreement 17 times since its signing in 2018, a significant reduction compared to the 237 provocations against South Korea between 2010 and 2017, despite North Korea’s increased threats, including missile launches and statements about tactical nuclear weapons. Thus, the paper pointed out that responding to the strengthening of North Korea’s military posture towards the South by terminating the military agreement, as proposed by the Yoon Suk-yeol government, should be considered an ill-advised course of action, as it would only provide North Korea with more provocation opportunities in a situation where military tensions between the two Koreas are escalating.9

Yoon’s speech at the UN

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for UN reform during his speech on the first day of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York on September 19, stating, “The world has changed. Our institutions have not. We cannot effectively address problems as they are if institutions don’t reflect the world as it is. Instead of solving problems, they risk becoming part of the problem.” Bringing up the issue of UN reform in his opening speech is seen as a response to recent criticisms that the United Nations, especially the Security Council, has been unable to effectively address various international conflicts, such as the Ukraine war. In the UN Security Council, which operates on the basis of “agreements” among member states, the rivalry between the United States, China, and Russia has intensified in recent years, resulting in a lack of practical functionality. Meanwhile, among the five permanent members, only the United States is represented at the summit with its top leadership. Putin and Xi were not attending. Additionally, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, were not in attendance.10

In his keynote address at the 78th UN General Assembly, Yoon Suk-yeol emphasized the need for the international community to take unified action regarding military technology and weapons deals between North Korea and Russia. He also pledged that South Korea, as a non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2024-2025, will act in a principled manner on matters of international peace and security. He stated that the international community must come together to enforce UN sanctions against rogue nations’ actions that undermine world peace, and South Korea will firmly respond to such actions.11 Yoon warned that if North Korea obtains information and technology necessary for the enhancement of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities through the exchange of conventional weapons with Russia, military transactions between Russia and North Korea would not only pose a direct provocation to Ukraine but also directly target the security and peace of South Korea. He emphasized that South Korea, along with its allies and friendly nations, would not overlook such actions.12

Yoon brought up the imperative of reforming the Security Council, pointing out the glaring criticism that even in the face of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), resolutions are hindered by the veto power wielded by China and Russia. Aligning with the US perspective of expanding the number of permanent members to counterbalance China and Russia, Yoon expressed support for this approach. Many also advocate reconsideration of the unanimity rule for permanent members within the Security Council.13 Yoon did not mention China on that day. A presidential official stated, “President Yoon did not address China at the UN General Assembly, considering the understanding and support shown by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio of Japan and Prime Minister Li Chang of China for the trilateral summit. It was also noted that China is maintaining a certain distance from Russia.”14

Segye Ilbo pointed out that Yoon’s emphasis on international solidarity to address the risky dealings between North Korea and Russia carries significant meaning. It has been highlighted that this is especially critical in light of Putin’s statement, just before the North Korea-Russia summit, indicating the expansion of military cooperation into sensitive areas.15

China and North Korea

Beijing’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors

China announced that Beijing had repatriated 600 jailed North Korean defectors to North Korea.16 In response, Seoul-based civil groups for North Korea’s human rights issued statements to criticize China’s decision. China, which defined North Korean defectors crossing the border without Chinese authorities’ permission as lawbreakers, began forcibly repatriating defectors once the border was opened. North Korea had voluntarily closed its border to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while refusing to take back defectors from China. However, China started to repatriate them once North Korea recently opened its border. After being repatriated, they will experience violations of human rights in the process of investigating them such as torture, violence, rape, and murder.17 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there was nothing to confirm it, and the Minister of Unification Kim Young-ho expected that China would repatriate them to North Korea immediately after the 2023 Hangzhou Asian Games.18 Julie Turner, the US Special Envoy on North Korean Human Rights Issues, also expressed concern during her visit to South Korea over China’s forced repatriation after the Asian Games.19 At various meetings with domestic media including Segye Ilbo, Julie Turner strongly argued “There must be a will to not only prevent further repatriation but also to create a sustainable solution for North Korean defectors applying for refugee status”20

The conservative Chosun Ilbo criticized not only China’s forced repatriation of North Koreans but also South Korean government’s complacent action. It said, South Korean embassy’s team in China, comprised of dispatched staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Intelligence Service, and the police, should closely monitor the possibility of repatriation to North Korea.21 In addition, Chosun Ilbo argued that the embassy’s team in China should engage in diplomatic negotiations with Chinese authorities, but it is questionable whether this would work.22 The conservative Hankook Ilbo also blamed South Korean government’s actions, mentioning that the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) issued statements to criticize China’s forced repatriation, whereas the South Korean government had no mention of this issue.23 The conservative Hankook Ilbo added that the Yoon Suk-yeol government should be different, since as it has emphasized the values of liberal democracy and North Korean human rights. 24

Four North Korean defectors crossing maritime border

On October 24, a group of North Korea defectors including a child on a small wooden boat crossed over the NLL (Northern Boundary Line) to defect to South Korea.25 A 60-year-old fisherman Lim Jae-gil, who operates a 3.5-ton fishing boat, reported to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives’ Sokcho office after discovering a suspicious wooden boat which carried them.26 The man on the boat had asked Lim about the location, to which the reply was “Gangwon Sokcho” along with a cigarette and water.27 Queried by Lim, the man on the boat answered that they had left at dawn and arrived by boat on the same day.28 They were handed over to South Korean authorities as they expressed a desire to defect to South Korea. 29

According to Kookmin Ilbo, the defection by sea of North Koreans must be warmly welcomed on a humanitarian level, regardless of regime competition.30 And activities to help North Korean defectors safely defect should be carried out through smooth cooperation between the public, private sector, military and police.31 Kookmin Ilbo strongly editorialized that it is time to prepare for the possibility of increased sea defection of North Korean defectors.32

Segye Ilbo agreed, saying that South Korea need to prepare for a rush of defections from North Korea, noting that after being apprehended by the coast guard, a North Korean defector said, “I was so hungry that I came down to make a living,” words that give us an idea of how poor the lives of North Korean people are.33 Segye Ilbo quoted a UN report to the effect that if North Korea’s food shortage and cold weather become more severe, it is difficult to rule out a rush to defect from North Korea.34 Segye Ilso also highlighted that South Korea must prepare for the possibility that the number of people willing to die to go South Korea will increase.35

ROK-China Relations

Xi Jinping considering a visit to South Korea

On September 23, at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, Xi Jinping expressed to Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who was visiting Hangzhou, that he would seriously consider visiting South Korea. A senior official from the South Korean government conveyed this information. Xi also reportedly welcomed the upcoming trilateral summit between South Korea, China, and Japan, which is scheduled to be hosted by South Korea this year. This comes as a recent series of high-level contacts indicate an effort by both South Korea and China to improve their strained relations,36 which had worsened due to China’s opposition to South Korea’s strengthening cooperation with the United States and Japan under Yoon’s administration. In fact, a visit by Xi has not materialized for nearly a decade since 2014, and the last visit by a South Korean president was in 2019. Various issues, such as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), historical disputes, North Korea’s nuclear program, semiconductor industry matters, and the Taiwan issue, have posed obstacles to bilateral exchanges. In the meeting between Han and Xi, there were positive signals attempting to overcome these hurdles, but negative currents were still evident.37

Segye Ilbo highlighted in an editorial China’s cautious attitude towards recent speculation about weapons trade between North Korea and Russia, underscoring that the meeting between an and Xi should be seen as an opportunity to restore bilateral relations. The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized that the government needs to reassess its comprehensive strategy in dealing with neighboring countries under the overarching goals of peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, adding it is crucial to clarify where South Korea will position its relationship with China within this framework. Despite the importance of China for both the Korean Peninsula issue and trade, Kyunghyang Shinmun highlighted that the government’s stance has disproportionately favored the US and Japan, emphasizing the imperative to reassess policies in alignment with South Korea’s comprehensive national interests. It was emphasized that, if necessary, diplomatic policies should be reconstructed through national discussions, avoiding succumbing to pressure from neighboring countries, with the goal of consistently pursuing a coherent foreign policy.38

The conservative Chosun Ilbo pointed out that China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and one must not forget that it has the potential to exert pressure on South Korea using the North Korean card. However, it has also been pointed out that succumbing to fear and attempting to appease one side at the expense of the other is the worst choice. It has been stressed that optimizing the South Korea-US relationship and utilizing it as a catalyst to enhance ties with China should work as a prudent strategy.39 The conservative Joongang Ilbo highlighted that the current era demands a pragmatic diplomatic approach that prioritizes national interests over binary choices, rejects zero-sum logic, and engages in endeavors where one can contend without incurring losses. This is particularly relevant for South Korea, given its position surrounded by major powers, underscoring the need for a flexible diplomatic strategy that places a premium on national interests.40

ROK-US Relations

US citizens divided over troop mobilization to defend South Korea

On October 4, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) released the result of a poll on whether the US should mobilize its troops to defend South Korea in the event of a North Korean invasion (conducted from September 7 to 18).41 According to the poll, 50 % of respondents favored using US troops to defend South Korea in the event of an invasion. A similar survey conducted in 2020, 2021 and last year, revealed positive answers of 58%, 63%, and 55%, respectively. CCGA said that “the Republicans historically appear to have favored using US troop mobilization more than the Democrats, but it appears that such is no longer the case.”42

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo expressed concern over the results because there is a precedent of pressuring the Moon Jae-in administration to withdraw US troops by demanding an increase in defense cost sharing for US forces stationed in South Korea.43 And the conservative JoongAng Ilbo said that efforts are needed to expand the pro-friendly network and accurately inform Americans of South Korea’s situation to elicit sympathy and support.44

Israel-Hamas Relations

The surprise attack on Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas

On October 7, Israel declared a “state of war” on the Palestinian militant group Hamas after Hamas militants carried out air, land, sea attacks on thousands of Israel men, women, and children near the Gaza border.45 46 Hamas militants infiltrated into Israel from the Gaza strip, killing more than 1,000 and claiming to take at least 100 hostages, in particular young women.47 In response to this, Israel has launched the “Iron Swords” Operation to carry out airstrikes all over the enclosed territory of the Gaza strip that Hamas rules.48 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) not only continued to carry out airstrikes but also ordered a cutoff of food, water, electricity to the Gaza strip.49 Consequently, the number of deaths in Gaza strip is expected to continue to increase, and this attack will cause a serious humanitarian crisis.

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo editorialized that Israel’s “Iron Dome” was helpless against rocket launchers by Hamas.50 And, the conservative JoonAng Ilbo said that South Korea, which was exposed to the threat of North Korea’s long-range artillery, should reconsider the shortcomings in the 9/19 military agreement because it ties South Korea’s hands and is violated by the North, which is committing provocations such as drone infiltration.51 By mentioning that Mossad’s capacity had been weakened due to domestic politics, the conservative JoongAng Ilbo highlighted that South Korea should learn a lesson from this war in terms of the operation of its National Intelligence Service (NIS).52

Segye Ilbo raised concern over the possible infiltration of North Koreans similar to the Hamas-style surprise attach method, shedding light on evidence of links between North Korea and Hamas.53 A North Korean-made 122mm multiple rocket launcher, presumed to be a weapon used by Hamas or an armed group affiliated with Hamas, was discovered at the border near Israel.54 Segye Ilbo, therefore, highlighted that a tight defense net is needed now. The progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun editorialized that it turns out that no matter how high we build walls, strengthen intelligence activities, and pour money into advanced weapons, we cannot feel safe.55 “Hamas is a non-state armed group and North Korea is a nuclear-armed state,” it added. Depending on one’s perspective, North Korea may be a greater security threat than Hamas, but on the other hand, there are grounds to believe that North Korea will act more cautiously than Hamas.56 It highlighted that there is nothing wrong with seeing North Korea as a bigger threat and being alert and prepared.57 The progressive Hankyoreh editorialized that Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip in retaliation for Hamas is causing a humanitarian crisis, therefore, it must be stopped.58 And it highlighted that although this war is said to have originated from Hamas’ surprise attack on civilians, civilians in the Gaza strip are suffering unexpected retaliation.59 The progressive Hankyoreh strongly urged the US and international community to take responsibility to stop this war by taking practical measures against Israel and to create a peaceful solution for coexistence with Palestine.60

1. “김정은, 18일 새벽 북한 도착…”러시아와 관계 새로운 장”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 19. 2023,

2. “대놓고 무기와 기술 거래하겠다는 북·러의 도발”, Kookmin Ilbo, September 14, 2023,

3. Ibid.

3. “김정은·푸틴 회담, 한반도의 신냉전 각축장화 안된다”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 13, 2023,

5. “Fate of Inter-Korean Military Pact Remains Uncertain 5 Years After Signing,” VOA, September 19, 2023,

6. “유명무실해진 9·19 군사합의, 더 존속시킬 이유 있나,” Segye Ilbo, September 19, 2023,

7. “북핵 고도화하는데 9·19 자화자찬만 한 문 전 대통령,” JoongAng Ilbo, September 20, 2023,

8. “유명무실해진 9·19 군사합의, 더 존속시킬 이유 있나,” Segye Ilbo, September 19, 2023,

9. “존폐 기로에 선 9·19 합의, ‘평화 안전핀’ 뽑지 말아야”, Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 19, 2023,

10. “유엔총회 일반토의 개막…구테흐스 총장 “안보리 개혁해야,” Asia Kyungjae, September 19, 2023,

11. “윤석열 대통령 제78차 유엔총회 기조연설,” Maeil Kyungjae, September 21, 2023,

12. “윤 대통령 “북·러 군사협력, 안보리 결의에 반하는 불법,” Joongang Ilbo, September 18, 2023,

13. “尹 대통령, 유엔서 당당히 북·러 무기거래 비판,” Asia Today, September 21, 2023,

14. “尹 “안보리 상임이사국 러, 北과 무기거래는 자기모순,” Donga Ilbo, September 21, 2023,

15. “유엔서 북·러 거래 제재·글로벌 격차 해소 역설한 尹 대통령,” Segye Ilbo,September 21, 2023,

16. “北 인권단체 “中, 항저우 폐막 직후 탈북자 600명 강제북송”…정부 ‘확인 중,’” Joongang Ilbo, October 11, 2023,

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. “줄리 터너, ‘中, 탈북민 강제북송에 깊이 우려,’“ Segye Ilbo, October 16, 2023,

20. “줄리 터너 美 북한인권특사 ‘中 추가 탈북민 북송 막는데 집중하겠다,’“ Segye Ilbo, October 18, 2023,

21. “탈북자 집단 북송에 한국대사 ‘中 특성 이해해야’ 안이한 정부인식,, Chosun Ilbo, October 16, 2023,

22. Ibid.

23. “ ‘中 탈북민 북송’에 美의회까지 비판하는데 침묵하는 정부,” Hankook Ilbo, October 16, 2023, 

24. Ibid.

25. “[단독] ‘여기 어딥니까, 한국배 좋네’ 탈북민, 속초어민 만난 순간,” Joongang Ilbo,, October 24, 2023,

26. Ibid.

27. “동해 NLL 또 구멍…북한 주민 4명 귀순,” Seoul Shinmun, October 24, 2023,

28. Ibid.

29. “ “여기가 어디냐”…목선 탈북민, 속초 어민 배 냉큼 올라탔다,” Chosun Ilbo,, October 24, 2023

30. “탈북자들의 해산 귀순 증가 가능성 대비할 때다,” Kookmin Ilbo, October 24, 2023,

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. “목선 귀순 4명 “배고파서 왔다”, 탈북 러시 대비책 세울 때다,”  Segye Ilso, October 25, 2023,

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. “시진핑, 韓총리 만나 “방한 진지하게 검토,” Donga Ilbo, September 25, 2023,

37. “한·중 외교 복원 속도 높여 ‘북·중·러 밀착’ 제어해야,” Kookmin Ilbo, September 25, 2023,

38. ““방한 검토” 시사한 시진핑, 대중 정책 정밀하게 재구성할 때,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 24, 2023,

39. “먼저 “방한” 꺼낸 시진핑, 원칙 지키며 중국과 전략적 소통 나서야,” Chosun Ilbo, September 25, 2023,

40. “시진핑 중국 주석의 “한·중 관계 복원” 의지 환영한다”, Joongang Ilbo, September 25, 2023,

41. “미국, 전쟁지원 여론 악화… ‘북한 남침 때 파병’ 찬성 50%뿐,” Joongang Ilbo, October 6, 2023,

42. Ibid.

43. “미국인 50%만 ‘북 침공 시 한국방어’ …대미 외교 다각화를,“Joongang Ilbo, October 6, 2023,

44. Ibid.

45. “하루만에 사상 2000명 육박…이스라엘 ‘하마스와 전쟁’ 선언,” Chosun Ilbo, October 8, 2023,

46. “지옥된 음악축제, 시신 쏟아졌다… ‘하마스 습격에 수백명 실종,’”,Joongang Ilbo, October 8, 2023,

47. “이스라엘ㆍ하마스 충돌 사망자 1000명 육박… 헤즈볼라 가세,” Seoul Shinmun, October 8, 2023,

48. “하마스 공격으로 최소 22명 사망…패러글라이더까지 동원됐다,” Joongang Ilbo, October 7, 2023,

49. “ ‘전기도 연료도 끊겠다’…이스라엘軍, 가자지구 전면봉쇄 지시,” Joongang Ilbo, October 9, 2023,

50. “하마스 기습공격 양상, 대북 안보에는 문제없나,” Joongang Ilbo, October 11, 2023,

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. “ ‘北, 하마스식 기습 가능성,’ 빈틈없는 방어망 시급하다,” Segye Ilbo, October 17, 2023,

54. Ibid.

55. “ ‘힘에 의한 평화’ 의 상징 이스라엘, 우리의 미래인가,” Kyunghyang Shinmun, October 10, 2023,

56. Ibid.

57. Ibid.

58. “가자지구 병원 폭격, 민간인 겨냥한 전쟁 당장 멈춰야,” Hankyoreh, October 19, 2023,

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid.

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