Special Forum Issue

“South Korea's High Stakes Diplomacy”

Gambling on Great Power Relations


The four years from 2016 to 2019 saw both a high point in expectations that Seoul could reshape geopolitics in Northeast Asia and a low point in awareness that it remained at the mercy of the great powers and North Korea with little agency to pursue its dreams. The period can readily be divided into two: the troubled Park-Moon transition shaken by a downturn in China-ROK ties; and the roller-coaster diplomatic ride of the following two years, when Moon gambled both on North Korea and also on great power outreach, audaciously making Seoul the center of transformation. In the background were Donald Trump, a wild card in Washington, emboldened China-Russian joint assertiveness, and Abe Shinzo, with whom Park had cut a deal but Moon never connected.

This article separates the two periods and covers ROK relations with China, Russia, and Japan successively for each period, keeping the context of ROK-US and ROK-DPRK relations well in mind. The highs and lows with each great power are clearly indicated: with China, a low in 2016 with no high despite some respite in the second period; with Japan, a high in 2016 descending to a new low in 2019; with Russia, momentary promise but mostly a low ebb; and with the United States, a mirage of positive summitry annually set against a drumbeat of sub-surface tensions.

Two realities of South Korean foreign policy were driven home in this period more than at any other time. First, Seoul kept anticipating a big payoff from its economic clout and geopolitical outreach, assuming it could be a driving force of change in Northeast Asia. Second, it could not escape the reality of being sandwiched between great powers whose aspirations contradicted those it harbored and could leave it feeling isolated and beleaguered with little warning, taking advantage of their own policy preferences toward an often-belligerent North Korea. Combined, these realities made the period 2016-2019 feel like both the best of times and the worst of times.

The period 2016 to 2019 saw South Korea draw more attention from the outside world than at any previous time apart, perhaps, from the period of democratization leading to Seoul Olympics diplomacy in 1987-88. Its internal turmoil and “candlelight movement” symbolized democracy, its THAAD deployment leading to China’s unofficial sanctions and anger set the tone for “wolf warrior” belligerence, its downward spiral with Japan thwarted US alliance-building, and its diplomatic finesse with the US and North Korea led to the negotiations of the decade. Seoul was in for a wild ride: there was no stability to relations with China, Japan, North Korea, or Russia. Ties to the US were more stable, but they could not avoid repeated foreign policy spillover. 

The Troubled Transition in 2016-17

Not only was the impeachment of Park a drawn-out affair, Moon’s first year was marked by US doubts, Japanese alarm, Chinese pressure, and the “fire and fury” of North Korean belligerence and US threats. Until the end of 2017 there was no clarity on how a progressive president would cope with such a barrage of problems and seemingly zero-sum challenges. The US-China divide, the Japan-ROK slippery slope, and the US-DPRK war scare all posed inescapable dilemmas.

At the start of 2016, four timebombs hung ominously over ROK foreign policy in Asia. Despite the upbeat mood over Park-Xi relations, the agreement with Japan over the “comfort women,” and the popularity of US president Barack Obama, many had a sense of foreboding over what was to come. China was threatening if Seoul deployed THAAD, public opinion did not accept the “comfort women” deal with Japan, and the US was calling for a regional alliance, linked to Japan and the South China Sea. Moreover, North Korea was assumed to be ready to undertake threatening moves and even a possible peace offensive, which would expose divergent policies among the great powers.

The winter of 2015-16 had seen a series of transformative developments for ROK foreign policy. On December 28 Seoul and Tokyo finalized their “comfort women” agreement; on January 6 North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test, and in the aftermath, China refused to answer Park’s phone call, Park closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex and abruptly approved deployment of THAAD. Although a new Security Council resolution toughened sanctions on the North, it took fifty days to conclude, and China ensured flexibility in implementing sanctions by inserting the phrase “North Korean people’s welfare,” a humanitarian clause that leaves enforcement in doubt. Given increased US-China tensions, China-Russia coordination, and Japan-US cooperation, South Korea had lost diplomatic room for maneuver. A turning point had been reached, but it proved difficult for South Koreans to grasp apart from a spike in anxieties. If Park’s goals had failed, the alternative of doubling down on the US alliance offered little satisfaction for a state which over 25 years had counted on having realized a leadership role through diplomatic diversification.

Park Geun-hye came under fire not only for previous policies that had failed but also for having no answer to increasing challenges. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a speech on February 17 called for a peace agreement to replace the armistice on the peninsula, which was seen as a blow to those focused on denuclearization, a sign that Beijing would only implement sanctions on its own terms and had marginalized Seoul. This was one of many signs that relations with Beijing had been damaged along with hopes for talks with Pyongyang. Moscow’s tilt toward Pyongyang was a further blow to Park’s agenda. The sharp backlash against her deal with Abe weakened her too.

Through the spring of 2016 the sense kept building that Park’s foreign policy agenda could not gain support at home or abroad. China and Russia kept up their barrage of warnings against the deployment of THAAD along with calls to negotiate with North Korea at odds with deterrence. China revealed a difference of opinion on almost every aspect of North Korea besides nuclear weapons. US hopes for trilateral security cooperation with Japan were overshadowed by the mounting anger against the December 28 agreement in South Korea, exacerbated by criticism of new Japanese textbooks, interpreted as proof that the deal made Abe more confident he could distort history. Protection of the “comfort woman’ statue by the Japanese embassy in Seoul became a symbol of opposition as did indictments for libeling the victims against a Japanese reporter and an author. Tenser US-China relations added to concern about the THAAD fallout.

The early summer of 2016 saw the actual decision to deploy THAAD, the international court ruling against China on the South China Sea, Brexit, and Donald Trump’s ascent as the candidate of the Republican Party. Assumptions of recent years were shattered, one by one. Some critics saw Park dragging South Korea into a US-China struggle, in which China would draw closer to North Korea. Others saw the US forging a regional security framework and pressuring Seoul to join. Inter-Korean conflict was now subsumed in a broader regional stand-off, in which Seoul has little say. The worldview cultivated not only over the Park years but ever since the end of the Cold War was in doubt; yet ideological polarization blurred this recognition. As Park’s position was weakened for domestic reasons, her foreign policy decisions were more difficult to defend. Especially, her deal with Abe proved to be a convenient focus of distraction from other issues.

The fall of 2016 and early winter of 2017 saw the greatest instability in Korean foreign policy thinking since the end of the Cold War. North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September led to a wide divide in the response of conservatives and progressives, China’s unofficial sanctions over THAAD led to hand-wringing but no sign of an effective response, anger toward Japan focused on Park Geun-hye’s decision to join it in a GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) with no prospect of reversing the “comfort women” agreement, and Donald Trump’s election shook longstanding assumptions about the United States and the ROK-US alliance. The foreign policy establishment offered one set of responses to this troubled time, which however, was compounded by a leadership vacuum as Park was in free fall toward impeachment. On the rise, the progressives answered with an entirely different set of prescriptions for moving ahead.

From the center-right establishment rose a call for invigorating the alliance and cooperating more with Japan in this context. The North’s nuclear threat had intensified, China was hostile to Seoul and unreliable in opposing the North’s threats, and the US needed reassurance. Balancing the US for security and China for economy was no longer tenable. North Korean policy had increased Seoul’s dependency on Beijing, and that should end. Given growing isolation, Seoul must double down on its alliance, joining the US on broader East Asian security issues and agreeing to trilateral security cooperation with Japan. The establishment countered the strident opposition to the deal with Japan with three arguments: 1) as in 1965 and 1998 there is serious opposition, but those deals later were accepted, and this one can be normalization 3.0, leading to a new boost in bilateral relations as the process of implementation addresses its faults; 2) the need for Japan on security has risen sharply, due both to deteriorating conditions in their vicinity and to greater uncertainty about the US, to which they could more effectively appeal together, since it is the true balancer in the region; and 3) there is no prospect of Abe sitting with the ROK at the negotiating table again, and no matter how much Koreans are dissatisfied, the purpose of the agreement was to boost national security and make trilateral cooperation easier, meaning that its repeal would strike a blow at an untimely moment to both Seoul’s credibility and security.

The above arguments did not persuade progressives, who redoubled their call for dialogue over deterrence, insisted on the priority of inter-Korean relations with warnings against behavior that could seriously raise regional tensions, lumping together the “comfort women” agreement, the deployment of THAAD, and GSOMIA as weakening Seoul’s position on key issues while tilting it toward the US and even Japan through Park’s “imperialistic” decision-making. This resonated with other criticisms of Park for ignoring the will of the people. Emotions toward Japan could be easily aroused, and the notion that Seoul had to back away from its autonomous diplomacy was a hard sell. Naturally, as Park’s fate hung in the balance, foreign affairs coverage was secondary.

All discussion of foreign policy from November 2016 was overshadowed by responses to the victory of Donald Trump. If Trump’s arrival raised new uncertainty in North Korea policy, trade, and the alliance, some progressives saw hope that “strategic patience” would be cast aside or that less US pressure would open space for more autonomous foreign policy. Conservatives instead called for tightening ties to the US since no other alternative would serve Seoul’s interests adequately. Yet the leadership vacuum in Seoul gave little credibility to officials trying to chart a clear course. Anxiety mounted over a hard line to North Korea raising the risk of conflict, a trade war with China putting South Korea in the crosshairs, and unprecedented pressure on Seoul from the US. Meanwhile, Abe rushed to ingratiate himself with Trump, leaving Seoul at a disadvantage, just as ROK-Japanese tensions over the demolition of a “comfort woman” statue were intensifying.

The transition from an impeached Park Geun-hye to a strongly empowered Moon Jae-in saw a gamble in some ways similar to Park’s foreign policy but in other respects strikingly at odds with her approach. Outreach to North Korea stood in the forefront, albeit with far less conditionality. The US alliance was again not directly challenged, but this time utilized to facilitate interactions with the North, playing on the vanity of a new US president, Donald Trump. One big difference was in the treatment of China, which felt marginalized by Moon but won various concessions on strategic policy as he tried to remove THAAD sanctions. Another difference occurred with the repudiation of Park’s “comfort women” agreement, setting back relations with Japan barely a year after they had been repaired. The sequence for Moon resembled that for Park: his second year brought a surge of rhetoric about unification—this time backed by diplomacy with Kim Jong-un—and his third year a dead-end, accompanied by rising US pressure to reverse course. 

The two biggest differences for South Korean diplomacy were the switch to a progressive at the top and the arrival of a US president who was narcissistic about his power to work with dictators and to proceed without concern for foreign policy professionals. Other leaders were the same: Kim Jong-un now emboldened to flex his military might; Xi Jinping, now increasingly aggressive in his foreign moves; Abe Shinzo, even more confident of his closer relationship with the US leader; and Vladimir Putin, now more supportive of Kim and prepared to take action. It was not a propitious environment for building regional consensus. That goal of Park had been dropped. However, the narrower goal of building trust with leaders in North Korea and the US simultaneously had become the obsession and even seemed to be within reach if one did not look closely at the wide divergence between the two and at the responses of the other three leaders.

Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017 following Park’s impeachment, an interim president, and his electoral victory, facing a challenging environment. He needed to proceed with caution, given the moves of the other five leaders active in Northeast Asia and the legacy he had inherited. Offending Xi Jinping, who was already imposing onerous sanctions, and Donald Trump, whose demeaning language about South Korea stung, could have been costly.  Moon proceeded with care, facing also Kim Jong-un’s belligerence, Abe Shinzo’s distrust, and Vladimir Putin’s tilt to North Korea.

As candlelight vigils whipped up impeachment demands, toppling the Park government and leading to an interim president and an early election, ominous foreign policy shadows loomed through most of 2017. The Trump shadow shook confidence in the ROK-US alliance and in vital decisions regarding US relations with Seoul’s neighbors. The Xi Jinping shadow left Seoul under unofficial sanctions and “wolf warrior” criticism for its THAAD deployment. Coupled with the Kim Jong-un shadow of unprecedented weapons tests, shaking regional security, and the self-inflicted Abe Shinzo shadow as South Koreans were consumed with overturning the agreement Park had reached with him, this was a disconcerting environment to absorb the lessons of failed foreign policies and to set a course for navigating through a treacherous regional environment.

In 2017 Moon Jae-in proceeded cautiously in preparation for the gamble he anticipated would become possible. He catered to Trump, even when squirming at Trump’s “fire and fury” threats against North Korea and human rights cavalcade against it in a speech given before the National Assembly. Without damaging ties to Washington greatly, Moon also met Xi Jinping’s demands for assurances on security called the “three no’s,” to renew summitry after the THAAD crisis in bilateral relations. That year Moon also wooed Putin with his New Northern Policy. If Japan was not soothed by Moon and saw a renewal of the discord of the early Park years, in 2017 Moon showed some restraint in his rhetoric and policies. He started by not alienating other leaders.

Trump, Xi, Abe, and Putin were, for various reasons, angry with Seoul without its leadership until Moon Jae-in solidified his administration and began to find some answers. In this vacuum, progressives, emboldened by the popularity of the impeachment cause, raised hope that a path forward existed by repudiating Park’s policies. In essence, they called for doubling down on outreach to Pyongyang without calling it trustpolitik, pulling back on THAAD to renew the wooing of China without suggesting another honeymoon, and implementing a Seoul-led regional strategy differently without calling it NAPCI (Northeast Asia Peace and Security Initiative) while rebuilding ties to Russia without labeling it a Eurasia Initiative. Somehow, renouncing the “comfort women” agreement and defying the US on THAAD and other matters would not lead to alliance tensions. The progressive case relied on the repudiation of Park’s 2016 diplomacy without offering clarity on how alternative choices would be received.

Conservatives raised the alarm, but their voices could not ring loudly in the atmosphere of 2017. For many of them the key question was THAAD and not yielding to pressure from Beijing, since it was trying to force Seoul to choose between it and Washington, regarding North Korea as a buffer state and pursuing regional hegemony. Indeed, Park’s weakness before China giving it hope that it had a veto over THAAD, and the statements of progressives to cater to China, only whet its appetite to retaliate. Some went so far as to say that reviewing the THAAD decision would pour cold water on US efforts to defend South Korea. If conservatives shared the fear that going a long stretch without a newly elected president would result in US “Korea passing,” Moon was met with deep skepticism.

Flummoxing strategic calculations was the perception that Trump did not value Seoul’s strategic and economic contributions and was inclined to abuse US leverage over a weaker power. Trump’s statements about asking Seoul to pay for THAAD, revisit the KORUS FTA, pay much more for US forces stationed in South Korea, and his other forms of “Korea bashing” left many on edge. Once Xi had met with Trump in April and congratulated Moon on May 11 after he had taken office, there was also uncertainty about US-China and China-North Korean relations. Moon’s meeting in July with Trump was treated as if it were upbeat, but an early one with Xi did not seem to reset relations at all.

Given the initiative in Kim Jong-un’s hands with ICBM tests and another nuclear test, attention centered on Trump and Xi’s responses as well as Moon’s in the context of Security Council talks and resolutions. Blame for the inadequacy of past resolutions and new ones as well was placed on China, especially by conservatives. Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” toward North Korea alarmed progressives most of all, not “respecting” South Korea’s role or sovereignty. US-ROK discord was at maximum pitch, as Moon was seen as now coerced into “maximum pressure” toward Pyongyang.

The Nadir of ROK-Chinese Relations, 2016-17

If previously low points in Seoul’s relationship with Beijing had been due to “soft issues” or in 2010 to China’s refusal to criticize North Korea for its aggression, the plunge in relations from early 2016 was owing not only to a “hard issue” but specifically to the security triangle of the US, China, and the ROK. Seoul was accused of being Washington’s henchman, of brandishing a sword pointed at China. China’s tough posture reflected its newfound sense of empowerment and that South Korea was now economically vulnerable. It may have been a reaction to the excessive catering by Park, raising false expectations of the South’s shift toward balance between the two great powers. Another explanation is that US-China relations were in rapid descent, and Beijing found it easier to target Seoul in a proxy attack.1 Whatever China’s motivation, the impact for South Korea was far-reaching. Having joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank but shied away from Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and attended the September 2015 victory day parade in Beijing, Park had cast doubt on her commitment to the US with no payoff from China, to dismay at home. As Obama moved ahead with talk of “Indo-Pacific” regionalism and Kim Jong-un stepped up saber-rattling, Park had to fundamentally regroup.

Park had counted on personal ties to Xi Jinping and an atmosphere called the best period ever in China-Korean history. She had presumed a US-China complementary relationship in Northeast Asia, but China treated Seoul’s ties with Beijing and Washington as zero-sum, blaming “Cold War” thinking for efforts to reenforce the alliance (even if they were to counter the threatening moves from North Korea).2  The THAAD response brought China’s message home to Koreans.

After recovering in 2013-14 from slippage, South Korean public opinion toward China entered an irreversible slide in this period. As Kim Ji-yoon wrote in April 2016 before the deepest plunge, “To many South Koreans, China is still a communist country, North Korea’s friend, and a state with many problems in human rights and often unbearably arrogant.” Its soft power was collapsing. “When asked if a respondent thinks that Korea and China share a similar value system, only 32.5 percent of respondents answered yes, while 64.4 percent answered ‘no.’ This conflicted with the conventional wisdom that Korean cultural heritage largely draws from China, in particular Confucianism, and thus these two countries are inseparable in terms of history, culture, and values. It was South Korean youth who most decidedly thought that Chinese and Korean value systems are not in conformity.” Although the image of Park and Xi Jinping sharing the dais in September 2015 was still fresh and still “35.9 percent of South Koreans positively viewed Chinese leadership in Asia,” public sentiment was shifting already, including over Chinese badgering about THAAD.3

Kim Ji-yoon highlighted a dramatic shift from 2015 to 2017. “In 2015, the proportion of the South Korean public who thought China would not take the side of North Korea was even higher than that of those who thought China would. 56.8 percent of South Korean respondents believed that China would not join the North Korean side when another war broke out, while 43.2 percent of them believed it would. It was a good year for the two countries’ relations, and people’s favorability score for China went up as well.” She added: “The proportion of respondents who believed that China would not take sides with North Korea decreased to 33.3 percent in 2016. In the following year of 2017, it was 30.2 percent. Those who believed that China would be with the North increased to 66.7 percent in 2016 and 69.8 percent in 2017. China’s image appeared much more threatening. Even for those who did not approve of THAAD deployment, China’s aggressive economic retaliation was negatively perceived. It was considered an unfair and unilateral assault by a superpower… South Koreans’ views of China had been damaged by the THAAD controversy, and they seem to have lost the trust in China, which had been building over time.” 4 It would never revive in the ensuing period.

Having oversold its progress with China, the Park administration found itself strongly criticized when China at first opposed sanctions to address North Korea’s nuclear test and long-range missile test at the start of 2016. It “suggested that heavier sanctions against North Korea would only lead to hardship for ordinary citizens. China also argued that pushing North Korea into an isolated corner might make it unpredictably dangerous. In addition, China suggested that concerned parties should rely on dialogue rather than sanctions to improve the situation. At first, China did not show sympathy with the idea that heavier penalties should be applied. As an extension, Chinese authorities repeatedly called attention to the importance of convening the Six-Party Talks as a mechanism to dissuade North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and, eventually, to denuclearize the country. In the eyes of South Koreans, all of these messages sounded as if China was taking sides with North Korea… Criticisms mounted because the Park government had claimed until that time that South Korea-China relations are at an all-time peak under the Park regime. However, the fact that Xi Jinping did not even pick up the phone when Park tried to reach him was publicized as telling proof that China was not seriously considering South Korea’s legitimate concerns. A turbulent period in bilateral ties between South Korea and China was rapidly taking shape. Second, Park expressed this diplomatic backlash in January 2016, implying that South Korea would enter into substantial negotiations with the United States about introducing the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on Korean soil. As the THAAD issue is something China always raises in warnings to South Korea, bilateral ties rapidly turned sour.”5

Despite the deterioration in China’s image, some progressives held out hope that its position on South Korea could be reversed in the post-Park period. They recalled Chinese pressure on Kim Jong-un in 2013-15 and interpreted it as a fundamental change. If Park had failed to sustain better ties, Moon could do better through outreach to China and a new approach to North Korea.6 They were aware of Beijing’s clear preference for Moon, indicated in Wu Dawei’s five-day visit to Seoul in April 2017. Rather than seek support for retaliation against Chinese sanctions, Moon strove for a breakthrough, announcing it on October 31 and confirming it with a December Beijing summit.7

South Korean thinking toward China proceeded along two tracks. On the one hand, resentment prevailed over unjustified sanctions and “wolf warrior” rhetoric as well as hysterical blogging. As Choi Kang wrote, “The majority of the South Korean public thought China was trying to interfere in South Korea’s sovereignty, which could not be tolerated.”8 Yet, calculating that it must have China’s cooperation to resolve the North Korean problem, the Moon administration concentrated on accommodating at least some of China’s security concerns, agreeing on October 31 to the “three no’s” (no participation in missile defense, no additional THAAD, and no trilateral alliance among the United States, Japan, and South Korea). Official views downplayed concern about China’s policy.

Progressives tended to doubt that any great power acted in accord with South Korean national interests. If China in the first months of 2017 aroused the most frustration, that did not negate the sense that the US was to no small extent responsible, and Park was “serving a big power.” Impeachment was seen as the start of a reversal.  In the 25th anniversary of normalization of relations with China, an opening could be found, they assumed. Hosting Trump in November 2017, Moon could create an atmosphere conducive to momentum with Xi Jinping, too. This meant staying clear of US appeals for regional cooperation, such as talk of the Indo-Pacific, and satisfying China on security ties with Japan and missile defense restraint.9 This combination would allow Seoul to take the initiative. For Moon, the moves in late 2017 prepared the way to put North Korea at the center over the next year.

Moon and Trump were on different tracks in their China policy. Although THAAD had dislodged the image of Seoul tilting toward Beijing, its concessions on national security left an impression of appeasement. Meanwhile, Korean progressives viewed the aggressive US posture toward China on a wide regional theater, including the South China Sea, as excessive or untimely, if not provocative. Calls for Seoul to join in a regional alignment were seen as antithetical to Moon’s policy agenda. One triangle took center stage in the final months of 2017, although North Korea loomed in the background. South Korean media closely tracked US-China relations, as Trump spoke on China and visited China, while also watching how ROK-US relations were affected. Yet the main focus was on Moon’s efforts to put the THAAD issue behind China-ROK relations. US warnings against China’s ties to North Korea did not keep Moon from assuring Xi Jinping that he had a different strategy to gain Kim’s confidence. The fact that Trump had stirred growing economic frictions with Moon may also have encouraged Xi to agree to an arrangement to get beyond the worst part of the THAAD sanctions.10 Conservative coverage took exception to the poor reception Moon received in China, considering it belittlement of South Korea or describing the trip as “tributary diplomacy.”

Yet, it was hard to keep attention on ROK-Chinese relations, when Trump kept grabbing the spotlight—in November with a trip to Japan, South Korea, and China; in December with a new national security strategy, and repeatedly with comments on North Korea. There was increasing concern that Seoul would be pressed to take sides between Washington and Beijing and would be sidestepped on the North, although Trump in Seoul said it would not be. Also, there was mounting worry that Moon’s insistence that “balanced” diplomacy was not in reference to his stance between Washington and Beijing was not true. Warning of a new “cold war,” many feared that Seoul would be marginalized in its quest for reunification. Moon’s foreign policy seemed stalled in late 2017.

After the South Korean foreign minister announced the “three no’s” on October 31 the path was cleared for Moon to finalize this deal in China in December. If conservatives charged that South Korea had abandoned sovereignty over its own security or had jeopardized the ROK-US alliance, progressives valued Moon’s results, including agreement on principles for dealing with the North. Moon’s plan was: neutralizing Xi, playing to Trump’s vanity, and dismissing Abe as irrelevant.

Catering to Russia at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2016-17

In September 2016 Park made a last-ditch effort to sustain relations with Russia despite its anger over the THAAD deployment, and a year later at the same venue in Vladivostok Moon seized on his meeting with Putin to try to refocus bilateral relations on cooperation to restart diplomacy with Kim Jong-un. In Park’s case, she shared a panel with Abe as well as Putin on the future of the Russian Far East. In Abe’s eight years of wooing Putin, this may have been the high point of optimism that a breakthrough was within reach, as stressed how Japan could contribute to the economic rise of this corner of Russia, mainly suggesting ways to improve the quality of life in cities such as Vladivostok. Park renewed talk of three-way, north-south corridors through North Korea. Neither offered much to entice Putin, given his geopolitical, not economic, obsession.

Having wooed Putin, Moon still needed to assuage Xi. Reviewing this forum in 2017, I wrote, “Japan is primarily concerned about Russia drawing too close to China, while South Korea is worried, above all, of Russia moving closer to North Korea. Whereas Park has pulled away from years of joint statements with Putin about cooperation on the development of the Russian Far East (together with projects crossing North Korea), Abe in 2016 has told Putin that he has bold plans for cooperation that would help to turn the Russian Far East into one of the locomotives of Russia’s socio-economic rise, in accord with Putin’s latest priorities. There is no sign of coordination in the positions they take toward Russia.” In Vladivostok, Park encouraged Putin by calling the Russian Far East the meeting place of Asia and Europe and the new heart of Russia, but she warned that this treasure house of energy resources is not now being tapped to its potential due to North Korea. If reunited, Korea would unlock the door to its dynamism, making this a region of prosperity and peace. Park described a region at a crossroads: facing either disorder and new protectionism and isolationism or openness and integration, while Russia’s “pivot to the East” heightens the region’s potential. Her appeal to Putin was to embrace integration and take advantage of Seoul’s cutting-edge technology, geographical location, competitive industrial base, and eagerness to work with Russia. Yet, Park made everything conditional on resolving the most serious threat to the region coming from North Korea. She called for speaking with one voice against this threat. Changing North Korea is the best hope for the Russian Far East and creating a new Eurasia based on peace and mutual prosperity. Indeed, Park was clear about seeking development based on economic principles with support from the international community.” 11 This was not a welcome message.

Angered at Park’s conditional message, Putin was leaning increasingly to Kim Jong-un. Thus, there was no prospect of improving bilateral relations. Hopes raised earlier by Park’s announcement of a “Eurasian Economic Initiative” had been dashed without any sign of a reversal. Progressives paid little attention, however, still eying ways to bring Russia on board in diplomacy with the North.  Compounding Moon’s challenges, his meeting saw the Russian leader try to play the “North Korean card,” opposing further sanctions, while Russia refused to cut oil supplies to it.  In Moon’s keynote address to the Eastern Economic Forum, he announced his “New Northern Policy” as well as a 9-bridge strategy for ROK-Russia cooperation. If Korean conservatives were skeptical, progressives valued wooing Putin for its North Korea impact. Days later, Russia agreed to Security Council Resolution 2375 in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, but not covering oil supplies.

Struggling to Capitalize on a High Point in ROK-Japan Relations

The combination of the “comfort women” agreement on December 28, 2015 and the fourth North Korean nuclear test on January 6, 2016 seemed to “have provided a new, maybe the most favorable, atmosphere for the realization of trilateral security cooperation… A high-ranking government official in South Korea said, ‘I am truly relieved that South Korea and Japan concluded a deal on the comfort women issue before North Korea went on its nuclear test.’” On March 31 in Washington, Obama joined Park and Abe in committing both to implement the new Security Council resolution and to “enhance the level of three-way security cooperation.” Such unity may have helped to persuade China to take a tougher line toward North Korea, while it gave new hope to the US for upgraded trilateral security ties.12 Yet, the mood in Seoul did not focus on future opportunities.

Choi Kang wrote, “the agreement on the “comfort women” on December 28, 2015, the fourth nuclear test of North Korea on January 6, 2016, and disappointing Chinese behavior after the test have provided a new, maybe the most favorable, atmosphere for the realization of trilateral security cooperation.”13 In 2016 neither bad ROK-Japan relations nor hope for better ROK-China relations stood in the way. He added, “Chinese reactions after this test have been particularly disappointing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi merely reiterated China’s traditional three principles: denuclearization, peace and stability, and negotiations. In the eyes of most South Koreans, China appears to be primarily concerned with regime stability in North Korea, prioritizing that over denuclearization, and China is not much concerned with South Korea’s own security interests. Now Park’s China policy is the target of criticism from both progressives and conservatives for the failure in securing long-expected Chinese cooperation when North Korean put this to a test and for the overall misunderstanding of China’s policy toward the Korean Peninsula.”

Yet progressives worried that “trilateral security cooperation would bring the Cold War structure or confrontation back to the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia and would serve the interests of the United States and Japan, not those of South Korea. Secondly, some are likely to argue that under the trilateral security cooperation framework, South Korea will have little room to pursue its own policy initiatives toward North Korea. Korean Peninsula issues will become secondary, entrapped in a larger regional context; “fear of entrapment” may arise.”14 Such warnings overwhelmed any strategic optimism.

I wrote in 2017 that, “The US-Japan-ROK triangle has become more acceptable, but as the weakest of the three parties and the one with the narrowest objectives, Seoul cannot avoid nervousness in regard to how the next US president may visualize the triangle. First, it may be subsumed in a broader alliance network (Australia, India, some states in Southeast Asia), countering the South Korean effort to keep the focus narrow. Second, Washington’s tolerance for the moves Abe may undertake as he strives to reconstruct Japanese national identity may be at odds with Seoul’s deeply felt concerns about historical memory. What US observers find tolerable as a pathway for Japan to assume responsibility as a great power may well be opposed to what South Koreans deem necessary for Japan to stay contrite about past imperialism. The way forward for this alliance triangle will likely not be smooth sailing.”15 Indeed, it was not, as Moon turned away from trilateralism.

Japanese were wary about the backlash in Seoul over the agreement, Koreans did not trust Japan’s agenda if ties improved, and the US put the onus on Moon to build on the agreement. As I had written: “realignment through alliance trilateralism is a significant development in 2016. Some Koreans are hesitant to acknowledge what is now transpiring—often quietly among military and security communities—and there are still breakthroughs that have been delayed (e.g., direct intelligence sharing through GSOMIA) and public opinion that has not caught up with why and how conditions are changing… Abe’s push for constitutional revision is certain to arouse disapproval in a Korean election year, and the Korean opposition is insistent that it will make rejecting and renegotiating the December 28 deal a central issue in its campaign.”16 A big problem for Koreans was the rapid improvement in US-Japan relations. “Abe’s successful Washington visit at the end of April 2015 became a watershed event that turned around the mood in Korean society… Abe’s success aroused a strong backlash in South Korea against the diplomatic strategy of the Park government… Abe’s diplomatic engagement sent an alarming signal that South Korea might be diplomatically isolated, creating momentum for rethinking the Park administration’s diplomatic stance in Northeast Asia.”17

On Japan Moon tried to thread the needle by having his special task force reviewing the “comfort women” agreement criticize it as seriously flawed, terminating the trust fund for it, but then having his foreign minister announce at the start of 2018 that Seoul would forego renegotiations, as Moon had earlier promised. After the task force report, Japan had warned that renegotiations would leave bilateral relations in an “unmanageable” state. Moon insisted that he sought to mend ties and would take a two-track approach, separating the “comfort women” issue from all others. Abe agreed to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony, but that was not a sign of trust with Moon.

Casting Great Power Maneuvering Aside in 2018-19

Great power diplomacy in 2018-19 lost the vigor of 2017. As a new president, Moon had set his sights on creating a positive atmosphere for diplomacy with North Korea. In 2018 triangular ties with Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump became his obsession. Their failure in 2019, however, did not lead to reinvigoration of diplomacy with Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Abe Shinzo, each of whom shunned Moon for his own reason. With Kim Jong-un blaming Moon for the breakdown in diplomacy and Trump turning away from the peninsula, Moon became a foreign policy lame duck before his term as president had reached the halfway mark. Yet this low ebb was preceded by such a three-way diplomatic frenzy in 2018 that few noticed the great power environment.

As 2018 began Moon appeared to be sandwiched between Trump and Xi with overtures to Kim Jong-un just a desperate gambit to make an end run around the obstacles. Trump’s State of the Union address, showcasing North Korean human rights abuses, his announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and his rescinding of the nomination of Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea did not bode well for Moon’s plans. Mike Pence’s visit to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, where he sidestepped dinner including a North Korean official, suggested as well that a “bloody nose” strike was more likely than support for reconciliation. Having just won China and Russia’s support for tougher sanctions, Trump seemed ill-inclined to endorse any diplomacy that threatened to undermine sanctions without real optimism about the results.

In March Moon’s gambit suddenly paid off when Trump, without input from US officials, chose to take a gamble of his own, agreeing to meet Kim Jong-un. Suddenly, the gates were opened to diplomacy, which China rushed to enter as well. Moon sought to put Seoul in the driver’s seat, but that was never an option with Trump in the picture nor was it Xi’s plan. Xi quickly arranged a summit with Kim Jong-un to precede Trump’s. Progressives feared that Trump would be swayed by “super-hawks” led by John Bolton, the newly named national security advisor, to refuse any compromise. Conservatives saw Kim’s March 28 trip to Beijing as “Beijing-centric” intervention, which would complicate Moon’s mission and weaken the recently strengthened sanctions regime. Few trusted China’s motives, as it was seen as playing a broader strategic game with the US. Progressives were ambivalent. Xi could help to legitimize Moon’s soft-line, stressing a peace process, but, after THAAD sanctions, he could not be trusted. A second Kim Jong-un visit to China on May 7, just 40 days after his first visit, was described in Pyongyang as part of an “historical new golden era.” Instead of a three-party framework, earlier suggested by the Panmunjom Declaration between Moon and Kim, there was now a balance, giving North Korea more leverage. Stories that China had relaxed sanctions and that Kim had hardened his position, postponing talks with South Korea and threatening to cancel the summit with Trump suggested that Kim had gained confidence in light of the newly achieved Chinese support.

As Seoul and Washington calmed tensions, in part by renegotiating KORUS FTA, the “trade war” between Washington and Beijing was heating up with potentially heavy costs for Seoul. Moon banked on Trump, assuming that US-China relations were not a big factor for him or Kim Jong-un. He bypassed Xi Jinping, not joining in Trump’s initiatives to counter expansionist moves by China further south but also not collaborating with Xi on North Korean diplomacy. 

The June 12 Singapore Declaration heartened Moon Jae-in despite vagueness that left others doubtful that it laid a foundation for proceeding and their alarm that Trump oversold it and unilaterally pledged to end US-ROK joint military drills. Just one-week later Kim was back in China to meet Xi Jinping, seeking economic assistance among other objectives. Progressives again were tempted to put a positive spin on these ties, expecting Pyongyang’s confidence to lead to more serious negotiations and Beijing’s support for parallel talks on denuclearization and a peace regime to be a good thing. In contrast, conservatives warned that China would endanger the pressure that had brought Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. They suspected that Xi and Kim would find common ground on altering the regional security framework at the expense of the US. Dandong had already come alive again with North Korean merchants. How to get the US to offer more to North Korea, e.g., to allow Seoul to open a joint liaison office in Kaesong and reopen the Kaesong industrial complex instead of calling these steps sanctions violations, was on the progressive docket. How to keep the pressure on Pyongyang was central for conservatives, who took little hope from the Singapore summit or from China’s behavior. Moon watched the Chinese parallel track with North Korea, but he had no strategic alternative to offer Xi Jinping.

In the eight months between the Singapore and Hanoi summits, South Korean eyes were fixed on Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Moon Jae-in. Xi Jinping appeared to be trying somehow to get into the picture, but little was known about his meetings with Kim. Abe was assumed to be sulking at diplomacy that could lead in a dangerous direction, but he kept quiet. Putin also brooded on the sidelines, awaiting his first opportunity to meet with Kim. Yet Xi’s role proved to be greater than many at first recognized and Abe and Putin at least received reassurances from their partners in Washington and Beijing respectively that the deal they most feared was not at all feasible.

Several themes arose that demonstrated the implausibility of any agreement. Moon Jae-in put the focus on an end-of-war declaration, which found no resonance in Washington unless real steps toward denuclearization were taken. Likewise, Moon’s proposals for an “East Asian Railroad Community” and bilateral economic openings with North Korea, as if they would lead to accelerated denuclearization, were rejected by the Trump administration. Trump’s charges that China was no longer helping with denuclearization and was condoning illicit border trade were a sign that US-China coordination was a thing of the past. Many feared that if UN sanctions were relaxed with or without some agreement, they could not be renewed since China and Russia were now insistent on removing at least some of them amid a downturn in their relations with the US.

The February Hanoi summit spelled the end of Moon’s illusion that he was in the driver’s seat. Kim Jong-un blamed Moon for the failure, refused to include him in the summer meet-and-greet with Trump at Panmunjom, and dissed him repeatedly through the year. If progressive editorials after Hanoi put a positive spin on Moon’s continued ability to play the middleman as Trump and Kim kept searching for a breakthrough, the reality was loss of trust with Trump and marginalization as Kim turned to Putin in an April summit and hosted Xi in a June summit. Moon’s calls for a softer approach to Kim and relaxation of sanctions were more in line with Xi and Putin’s positions than the US one. Meetings with Trump only exposed the wide gap between the two. At the Osaka G20 summit, meetings with Xi and Putin exposed Moon’s lack of leverage, and Abe refused a bilateral meeting. There was much talk of Seoul’s isolation. Xi had refused to visit Seoul despite earlier talk of doing so, even as he went to Pyongyang earlier in June. The United States, Japan, and India held s meeting to discuss the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” but there was no US-Japan-ROK trilateral meeting. Focused fruitlessly on the ROK-DPRK-US triangle, Moon was sidelined in the polarized atmosphere taking shape, pretending that Hanoi was a blip in the road rather than a dead-end.

In 2019 Moon seemed to be on the verge of repeating Park’s pivot after she found herself in a corner late in 2016. He also prioritized leaning to the United States, however much he sought to beckon further to Kim Jong-un and not to cross a Chinese red line, as Park had done. Straddling the US-China divide and delaying steps toward Japan encouraged by the US were growing more difficult, but Moon strove to keep the door ajar for a possible progressive successor to follow.

Accommodating China, but not Allaying the Tension in Bilateral Relations

The deepening US-China trade war put Seoul in a difficult position, damaging cooperation over North Korea and threatening South Korean exports, 39 percent of which go to the two countries. If Chinese exports to the US drop, South Korean intermediate goods to China drop as well. Pressure was felt too over Huawei technology, which the US warned allies against using. In his meeting with Moon Xi warned that external pressures should not affect China-ROK cooperation, a sign that he was trying to force Seoul into making a choice between Beijing and Washington in the trade war.

Signs of an upgrading of China-DPRK relations were widely recognized in Seoul. In September 2018 at the 70th anniversary celebration of the founding of North Korea, China sent its third highest-ranked official. On November 17, when Moon and Xi met, they promised to cooperate closely for the success of the US-DPRK summit, adding “the second US-DPRK summit and Kim’s return visit to Seoul will mark a watershed in solving the problem on the Korean Peninsula,”. These words pressed Kim to visit as early as possible, along with Xi’s plan shared with Moon that he would visit both Seoul and Pyongyang in 2019. Kim’s travel to Beijing for a fourth summit with Xi Jinping on January 8-9, 2019 was seen as a prelude to the Kim’s Hanoi visit with Trump. The Xi-Kim summit was followed by a four-hour banquet in honor of Kim’s birthday and 70 years of diplomatic ties. With Xi joining Kim for lunch the next day and agreeing to visit North Korea, newspapers in Seoul saw a strong bond emerging. Although Moon quickly praised the summit in Beijing as having a positive impact on the forthcoming Kim-Trump summit, Korean conservatives were doubtful, arguing that this threatened that North Korea could take a different path backed by China, getting sanctions relief and support for a nuclear freeze, not denuclearization. Given Trump’s new pressure on Seoul to pay almost double for the US troop presence or face the threat of troop reductions, Moon was being squeezed. Grasping for straws, progressives even saw the visit as paving the way to a multilateral peace regime in line with Kim’s New Year’s message, economic reforms given that Kim went to a technology zone in Beijing, and US-China cooperation after the Trump-Xi summit of late 2018, leading Trump to say that Xi had agreed to work with him 100% on North Korea. South Koreans were split on China’s actual intentions.

Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, more than any of Kim’s visits to China, raised concern about China’s intentions. Coming a day before Xi’s meeting with Trump in Osaka, was this a move to link the North Korean issue to the US-China trade war? Was it a signal that Washington and Seoul would be bypassed in favor of Pyongyang as Beijing took charge of future diplomacy? Or, as progressives claimed, was Xi trying to jump-start talks between Washington and Pyongyang as Seoul remained an integral part of more diplomacy? Before long, Seoul’s marginalization soon became clear, as Chinese sources blamed the US and Seoul for not only the failure at Hanoi, but also diplomatic efforts that had sidelined Beijing. China could no longer be viewed as a positive force in diplomacy.

China drew attention again in the second half of December. At a Security Council meeting to discuss North Korea’s provocations, some proposed easing of sanctions in order to keep the momentum going for US-North Korea talks. A week later, Moon Jae-in held a summit with Xi Jinping ahead of the China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit, where Xi argued that “China and South Korea should join forces in making North Korea and the United States maintain dialogue momentum.” Moon stated that he “appreciated China’s important role for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a peace settlement,” and he hoped that the two countries “can work together even more closely.” The two sides also discussed the new UNSC draft resolution that was proposed by China and Russia. Progressives agreed that sanctions relief should be at the top of the agenda, also calling on Xi to mediate between the US and North Korea as Moon had sought, while conservatives said China should join against belligerent behavior, criticizing its mixed messages.

Watching Russia Turn More toward North Korea

Far more important than Putin’s Osaka meeting with Moon was his April Vladivostok summit with Kim Jong-un. It sent the message that Kim has Russia as well as China as alternatives to the US and South Korea. Kim blamed the US for the collapse of the Hanoi talks and set a course for bypassing it, while Putin favored multilateral talks to offer North Korea security guarantees at odds with the strategies of Seoul and Washington.  In violation of Security Council Resolution 2397, Putin claimed that North Koreans were “working successfully” in Russia and hinted at steps to counteract the sanctions. If progressives struck a positive note, as if Putin was playing a constructive role rather than endorsing Kim’s delayed approach to denuclearization, its meager economic role left little reason to dwell on this summit. Two months later the Xi visit to Pyongyang mattered much more.

South Korea mattered little to Russia as attention shifted to ways to capitalize on the failure of the Hanoi summit.18 This was viewed as a temporary setback caused primarily by US domestic politics.  The ball was in the US court. Progressives in Seoul were regarded as a positive force, but both the US and Korean conservatives were blamed. It was assumed that Seoul had no power to exercise its sovereignty. Similarly, Trump was seen as throttled by the establishment in the United States. Yet, because of the Vladivostok summit, Russia was back in the game. Not only that, Russia was now teaming with China at an unprecedented level on North Korean matters. A diplomatic meeting of Russian, Chinese, and North Korean officials in October 2018 was one of many indications.19  

For Seoul, interest in the Eastern Economic Forum had waned. Moon did not attend again after his visit in 2017. Preparations for the 2018 forum envisioned a three-way gathering with both Moon and Kim Jong-un joining with Putin, but Kim showed no interest and Moon was still keen on his own follow-up summit with Kim. Meanwhile, Washington was accusing firms in the Russian Far East of sanctions violations, and Seoul was cooperating in enforcement to Moscow’s displeasure. The divide between the two sides over North Korea had widened, spilling over to economic ties. In 2019 each side dismissed the other as peripheral to its strategic objectives in Northeast Asia.

ROK-Japan Relations Falling into an Abyss

Concerns about ROK-Japan relations heated up at the end of 2018. There was the South Korean highest court’s decision on forced wartime labor by a Japanese firm and a dispute over the use of radar against a Japanese plane over international waters. These issues followed Moon’s decision to disband the “comfort women” foundation established with the 2015 agreement, although Moon said that the agreement would not be scrapped. Japan’s warning against a declaration to end the Korean War was interpreted as a negative influence on US-DPRK talks. Rather than coordinate with Tokyo on his New Southern Policy, Moon stressed at the November APEC summit that he sought to raise ties to ASEAN countries and India to the level of relations with neighboring countries. Worsening ROK-Japan ties, however, had potential to impact ROK-US ties if Trump had been attentive.

Park Cheol Hee observed a polarizing split in the coverage of Japan.20 For progressives, it had become almost irrelevant in their pursuit of a peace regime. China was needed, not Japan. For conservatives and many young Koreans who weighed current culture above distant history, the Moon policy unnecessarily antagonized Japan and harmed bilateral ties to the US. They were not pro-Japan but against demonizing it. In 2018 a series of incidents drove relations to a new low: denial of the legitimacy of the 2015 accord, refusal to accept a flag on a Japanese military vessel, a laser pointed dangerously at a Japanese aircraft, and worst of all, an October court verdict for compensation by Japanese corporations to Korean forced laborers in the war years at odds with Japan’s interpretation of the 1965 normalization treaty. Even security cooperation was now put in jeopardy, as in the near rejection of extending intelligence sharing. Japan’s export controls in mid-2019 on critical components to South Korean industry left relations even further strained.

The second half of 2019 saw ROK-Japan relations at their nadir. After Moon and Abe did not hold a bilateral meeting at the G20, Abe just days later went further in his retaliation for the Seoul court ruling in October 2018 on forced labor, imposing restriction on the export of three chemicals needed in the semiconductor industry. Seoul sought Washington’s intervention and then declared it would withdraw from the intelligence-sharing agreement GSOMIA with Tokyo, but this angered Washington, since it affected national security in Northeast Asia. This threatened withdrawal hung over the ROK-US alliance for months, as did the gap in approach to North Korea and host-nation support, until Moon finally agreed in late November to maintain the military intelligence-sharing pact. Backing down, Moon had failed to pressure Japan and had damaged his image in the US.

As 2020 began, Moon was still searching in vain for an opening with North Korea, struggling to find some space as US-China pressure to take sides was mounting, at a loss to explain his New Northern Strategy given Putin’s behavior, and bloodied by his failed attempt to find an exit from the collapse in ROK-Japanese relations. No great power leader seemed amenable to a new diplomatic initiative. Moon remained fixated on Trump, hoping he would renew overtures to Kim Jong-un.


Park’s earlier foreign policy had hit a dead end, and she started to take new steps from late 2015.
In 2016 Park abruptly changed course, but it was too little, too late. In 2017 Moon started quite cautiously, delicately maneuvering between difficult challenges, but he was undeterred. In 2018 he made a bold bet on Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump, appearing to put Seoul in the driver’s seat in a spurt of diplomacy. Yet this optimism reflected a misreading of both Kim and Trump and an underestimation of Xi Jinping’s response. The euphoria continued into 2019 without any proof that diplomacy would end well. After February 2019 Moon was isolated: scorned by Kim Jong-un, pressured by Trump for bilateral reasons and his threat to trilateralism with Abe, and bypassed by Xi Jinping, who chose to visit Pyongyang but not Seoul and called on Moon to defy Trump and relax sanctions on North Korea while also staying clear of the US-China trade war.

The habit persisted of promising far more than could be delivered. Park had her comeuppance in 2015, feeling obliged to do an about-face with Japan, then with China and Russia, nullifying her “honeymoon” with Xi and “Eurasian initiative” with Putin in 2016. Moon reached even higher, as if he could bridge the gap between Trump and Kim Jong-un, only to see his plans crashing down in 2019. Catchy slogans and marginal goals had failed to come to grips with the serious differences existing between other countries. Seoul lacked the leverage to achieve its dreams.

In the second half of 2019 the foreign policy environment for South Korea was bleak. Not only was there no hope of budging Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump on their principal objectives, ties with Abe and Putin had further deteriorated, and the arrangement reached with Xi Jinping late in 2017 had only put a band-aid on a gaping wound. The only imaginable way forward was to plead with Trump to agree to a new agenda that might, as a long shot, capture Kim Jong-un’s attention. This approach would extend to Trump’s successor. With the other four regional actors, Moon had no clue what to do in order to manage a continuously deteriorating security environment.

1. Chung Jae Ho, “South Korea’s Strategic Approach to China (or lack of it),” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. A Whirlwind of Change in East Asia: Assessing Shifts in Strategy, Trade, and the Role of North Korea (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2018).

2. See-Won Byun, “The Impact of Chinese National Identity on Sino-South Korean Relations,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. The Sino-ROK-U.S. Triangle: Awaiting the Impact of Leadership Changes (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2017).

3. Kim Jiyoon, “Can’t Buy Me Soft Power (with Hard Power): China’s Appeal to South Koreans,” The Asan Forum, April 15, 2016.

4. Kim Jiyoon, South Korean Public Opinion,” The Asan Forum, February 27, 2018.

5. Park Cheol Hee, “Reviving the US-Japan-Korea Triangle in South Korean Diplomacy,” The Asan Forum, April 29, 2016.

6. Kim Heung-kyu, “A View from South Korea on Sino-ROK Relations,’ in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: The Sino-ROK-U.S. Triangle (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2017).

7. Choi Kang, “South Korea,” The Asan Forum, April 24, 2018.

8. Ibid.

9. Kim Taehwan, “China’s Sharp Power and South Korea’s Peace Initiative,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies. The East Asian Whirlpool: Kim Jong-un’s Diplomatic Shake-up, China’s Sharp Power, and Trump’s Trade Wars (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2019).

10. Jin Linbo, “Chinese Views of Korean History in the Cold War Era,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: A Whirlwind of Change in East Asia (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2019).

11. Gilbert Rozman, “Trilateralism and Realignment: Reassessing Three Triangles with South Korea,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: The Sino-ROK-U.S. Triangle (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2017).

12. Park Cheol Hee, “Reviving the US-Japan-Korea Triangle in South Korean Diplomacy.”

13. Choi Kang, "US-ROK-Japanese Trilateral Security Cooperation," The Asan Forum, February 12, 2016.

14. Ibid.

15. Gilbert Rozman, “Trilateralism and Realignment: Reassessing Three Triangles with South Korea.”

16. Ibid.

17. Park Cheol Hee, “Reviving the US-Japan-Korea Triangle in South Korean Diplomacy.”

18. Artyom Lukin, “Why Did the Hanoi Summit Fail and What Comes Next? The View from Russia,” The Asan Forum, 2019.

19. Robert Sutter, Sino-Russian Relations, South Korea, and North Korea,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: The East Asian Whirlpool (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2019).

20. Park Cheol Hee, “South Korean Views of Japan: A Polarizing Split in Coverage,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: East Asian Leaders’ Geopolitical Frameworks, New National Identity Impact, and Rising Economic Concerns with China (Washington DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2020).

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