Special Forum Issue

“South Korea in the Hot Seat, 2013-2015”



The period 2013-2015 in South Korean foreign policy was transformative for three reasons: (1) it exposed the fallacies in Seoul’s assumptions about the future of Northeast Asia more than any other period; (2) it brought to the fore assertive leaders in four countries whose policies would be consequential for Seoul; and (3) it transformed four bilateral relationships of great salience for Seoul: the Sino-US, Japan-US, Sino-Russian, and Russo-US relationships. No unconcerned bystander to these forces, Seoul stood at the intersection of regional transformation. It was on the front line of North Korea’s exponential growth in threat capacity, in the crosshairs of China and Russia’s ambitions to drive a wedge in US alliances, and next in line for the US agenda to join with Japan in forging coalitions to counter China’s shift to an expansionist foreign policy.

The three articles herein approach this decisive period for South Korea from different angles. The first article by Sue Mi Terry tracks the centerpiece in President Park Geun-hye’s policy—her approach to North Korea. She called it “trustpolitik” and predicated other policies on it. The second article by Eun A Jo reviews the differing responses of the conservative and progressive press to Park’s policies. Given the rotating presidency between these two clashing wings of the political spectrum, their reactions reveal the debates most critical for evolving policy choices. In the third article by Gilbert Rozman, Park’s regional policy is analyzed, as she sought to put Seoul at the center of regional dynamics, prioritizing China on the foundation of the US-South Korean alliance. The three together expose Park’s gamble: its assumptions, results, and the debate it spawned.

The first years of Park Geun-hye’s tenure as president can be distinguished from what followed: from December 2015 to July 2016, Park made dramatic policy shifts and the regional environment for South Korea changed significantly. Although the US-Japan-South Korean triangle led this transformation, instead of a breakthrough, a period of intense flux would follow. South Korea-Chinese relations made a more decisive break with the past, deteriorating sharply during her final time in office and only partially recovering afterwards. A case can be made that the US relationship was also different in important ways once Park had made decisions avoided in her first years.

Park was the conservative leader in the post-Cold War era most, eager to pursue objectives seen as priorities of progressive presidents as in her approaches to China and Japan, and to a degree, also in her outreach to North Korea. In these respects, her policies differed from those of Lee Myung-bak, the conservative president who preceded her. By reassessing the divide in Korean politics over this three-year period, insights into a persistent feature of foreign policy decision-making become clearer. Focusing specifically on Park’s North Korea policy over three years, we grasp key determinants of foreign policy at a time when the new North Korean leader, Kim Jung-un, was consolidating his control. Finally, the years 2013-2015 were remarkable for the mixture of initiatives taken by Seoul to steer regional relations across Northeast Asia, while holding tight to the alliance with the United States. The above changes left Seoul in the hot seat, clinging to aspirations for an autonomous, leading role in the way regional architecture, including the reorientation of North Korea, unfolded. South Korea ambitions to reshape regional diplomacy, however, clashed with its deepening marginalization from the actions of other countries.

The first three years of Park Geun-hye’s presidency can be remembered as conservative idealism. In contrast to progressive rule of South Korea, there was unwavering closeness with the United States and conditional outreach to North Korea. Yet, in common with the three administrations led by progressives, hopes were lifted for transformative leadership of Northeast Asia into some type of new regional architecture. While not premised on Seoul becoming a “balancer,” they also assumed it could bridge Sino-US differences, this time as a “reconciler” by building trust. In this unique block of time, ending with a new policy toward Japan in late December 2015 and toward China with the THAAD decision in July 2016, Seoul’s optimism confronted deepening challenges.

Park’s early years were characterized by approaches to the four powers active in Northeast Asia unlike in other times. South Korean thinking presumed that the country was an “autonomous ally” of the United States, not seeking separation but empowered to pursue its own diplomacy. It conceived of its role with China as a “trust-building suitor,” capable, as no other country was, of steering that country’s diplomacy in Northeast Asia. With Japan, South Korea had chosen to be its “historical avenger,” putting reconciling with its past before addressing shared security concerns. Russia was not neglected; South Korea envisioned itself as its “Eurasian liaison,” despite problems from 2014 sanctions in response to its aggression in Ukraine. All of these expectations rested on a special, trusting relationship as the “gateway compatriot” to North Korea. Finally, as the final building block in Seoul’s diplomacy, it conceived of itself as the sole possible “regional architect.”

Seoul’s policy choices start with North Korea. If it is a threat with no prospect of reconciliation, let alone reunification, deterrence rises in priority along with the US alliance. If diplomacy is in sight, because of signals from Pyongyang or assumptions about its isolation or economic needs, then a regional agenda to win the support of China is prioritized. Thus, we begin here with Park’s agenda to deal with North Korea, which also became the driving force in her China policy and in US ties.

Sue Mi Terry, “A Trustpolitik approach to denuclearization and unification”

Ever since the Korean War, North Korea has posed the most menacing and intractable national security challenge to the South. Every South Korean leader has tried to reduce the danger; few had any success to show for their efforts. No foreign policy decision would be more important than how Park dealt with North Korea after Lee’s inability to revive talks. She declared that South Korea should adopt a policy of “trustpolitik” and an “alignment policy,” which should remain constant in the face of political transitions and unexpected domestic or international events. While she would not engage with the North to the same extent as the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations did, unlike Lee, Park said she would not hold engagement hostage to prior actions by Pyongyang. Rather, she promised in her campaign that she would reengage with, and build trust with, the North by first taking small steps such as resuming the aid that Lee had suspended and exchange humanitarian assistance for family reunions.

When Park came into the office, inter-Korea tensions were growing. The latest nuclear test led to further expansion and tightening of international sanctions. Amid escalating tensions, Park stayed the course, calling for both strengthening deterrence and staying steady against Pyongyang while reiterating that the South remained open to dialogue. She continued to provide humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, trustpolitik had a China component, which was based on the premise that the road to Pyongyang was through Beijing and that improved relations with China could lead to improved relations with North Korea. The subsequent Beijing-Seoul summit was seen as a high point in their bilateral relations, with Xi Jinping and Park displaying strong personal rapport for one another. With her self-taught mandarin and interest in Chinese culture and philosophy, Park enjoyed a warm welcome in Beijing. After six months in office, the South Korean public approved of Park’s approach towards North Korea; polls showed approval over 50% of her foreign policy approach, some showing over 60%, and even 70% when it came to Park’s North Korea policy.

Trustpolitik as a concept managed to gain broad support because the public saw Park’s policy as realistic and balanced with potential to overcome the difficult relationship with the North. The public broadly supported the idea of pressure and dialogue, deterrence and cooperation, while separating humanitarian issues from those related to politics and security. It was a policy that promised the South to be strong when there was a need to be firm against the North yet flexible when there is a need to be more receptive. Yet, Park’s North Korea policy bore little fruit as 2013 came to an end beyond the reopening of the Kaeseong Industrial Complex. Optimism about improving relations with North Korea had faded. Kim closed the year by shocking the world with the brutal execution of his uncle, Jang Song-taek, presumed mentor to Kim, and the main intermediary with China. Entering 2014, Park had added Korean unification as a central tenet of her North Korea strategy. As she sought a trustpolitik approach towards the North to defuse tensions and improve bilateral relations, she also made unification a tangible short-term goal,

Calling unification, a “jackpot” (daebak) for Korea, Park declared that the key policy task was “laying a foundation for peaceful unification.” Her two-track approach involved implementing a new “Tailored Deterrence Strategy” in military exercises with the US and conducting South Korea’s own missile tests while calling for “trust-building” initiatives and pushing for unification. She talked of the need for the Koreans to tear down barriers to unification as the Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. She talked of tearing down a “wall of military confrontation,” “a wall of distrust,” and a “socio-cultural wall” that divides the peninsula. Predictably, Park’s unification proposal was met by a vitriolic response from Pyongyang, which rejected Park’s Dresden Declaration, declaring that Seoul should stop having unrealistic dreams about unification. Since any discussion of unification would realistically presume that the peninsula would end up a capitalist democracy, why would the Kim regime negotiate itself out of existence? The North’s responses to Park’s proposals were thus to continue to escalate tensions throughout the year.

Park’s response was to continue her “principled and effective two-track approach” of pressure and dialogue for denuclearization, now pushing for unification, while continuing to ask China for help. While the unprecedented Chinese gesture to visit Seoul first elevated South Korea’s hopes for a change in China’s overall North Korea policy, enthusiasm turned to disappointment when China remained opposed to including an explicit statement on the denuclearization of North Korea in the summit joint statement. What Park did not grasp at the time was that Beijing’s changed attitude largely stemmed from its deep frustration with Pyongyang and was not indicative of a larger shift in Beijing’s North Korea policy. Tensions with the North continued unabated throughout the year, and China proved to be little help on the North Korea front.

In 2015 Park carried on the previous year’s unification campaign as the showpiece of her North Korea policy. She doubled down on her dual track approach. Despite calls for the North to accept her offer of “any form of dialogue” to work towards unification, North Korea’s response was to continue making a series of demands, including that Seoul lift sanctions that had been in effect since May 24, 2010, following North Korean attacks. It also continued to launch ballistic missiles. The stage was set for the North’s fourth nuclear test at the beginning of 2016. By the end of 2015, the public was weary of Park’s approach, which did not result in any tangible progress with North Korea, and the public questioned the effectiveness of Park’s “middle of the road policy.”

Doubts about Park’s North Korea policy spread even within her own party. Some had gone further than supporting strengthening of sanctions, saying that it might be time to consider asking the US to bring back tactical nuclear weapons, which it withdrew from the South in the early 1990s. Park had made preparing to unify the two Koreas the centerpiece of her approach and had sought to mobilize Korean public opinion and international support for her vision of a reunified Korea. The Kim regime was not only unwilling to reciprocate Park’s vision with positive actions, it responded with acrimony, accusations, and threats. Park strengthened bilateral ties with Beijing in large part to attain increased pressure on the Kim regime and acquiescence to her unification proposal, but despite numerous meetings with Xi, Park’s extensive efforts to gain alignment with China on North Korea policy were unsuccessful too.

With little prospect of persuading Kim Jong-un or even Xi Jinping, as 2015 closed, the only question was to what degree she would abandon her attempts to engage with Pyongyang. While her efforts were worthwhile, they had failed. After nearly three years in office, she had little to show for her vaunted forays into trustpolitik. Trust between the two sides was as low as ever—and in the process, with her aggressive outreach to China (as epitomized by her attendance at Beijing’s Victory Day celebration), Park had also strained relations with the United States. Now the question she had to confront was what adjustments to make in her remaining time in office.

Eun A Jo, “Trustpolitik, middle power diplomacy, and partisan narratives”

The partisan debate at a pivotal time in South Korea reveals how Park’s foreign policy decisions were understood and assessed. Across three decades, conservatives and progressives have alternated in the presidency and faced the scrutiny of media. Over the three years of 2013 to 2015, this partisan debate clarified the extent to which the two sides (dis)agreed as South Korean foreign policy-making appeared to defy partisan lines. This article takes stock of the trends in such partisan narratives, comparing editorials from five major newspapers. Such narratives of key events reveal a general polarization of public discourse on foreign policy, but also a rare and enduring consensus on select issues that unify the country.

On North Korea, the partisan divide has been particularly wide over three decades. In 2013, two topics dominated discussions of North Korea: (1) the internal stability of the North Korean regime (in the aftermath of Jang Song-thaek’s execution); and (2) the prospects of trustpolitik. Partisan narratives were divided as to whether Jang’s purge indicated North Korea’s internal instability or Kim’s growing power. Progressive coverage of the event tended to emphasize the latter, while remaining noticeably silent on the implications for Sino-North Korean relations. Conservatives were more prone to foresee a power struggle, feeding into hopes for collapse and obviating the need for the sorts of unconditional outreach some on the other side proposed, Yet, conservatives also stressed Beijing’s displeasure at Jiang’s purge and anticipated that Beijing may now be willing to rein in Pyongyang in Seoul’s favor. Moreover, the nature, scope, and prospects of trustpolitik became another key area of contention in partisan narratives. Conservative media highlighted Park’s effort to reframe unification as an economic, rather than political agenda, a “jackpot.” This conveyed guarded optimism that North Korea could change but added tough conditionality. Progressive commentators questioned the principal motives of trustpolitik. They pointed out the government’s relative emphasis on its public relations elements, hinting at its possibly populist underpinnings, and argued that it must do more to shape the country’s foreign policy agenda than just make unification a salient feature of public discourse.

On the US, debates ensued over South Korea’s defense posture and alliance. Given growing concerns about the credibility of US nuclear deterrence and South Korea’s changing threat landscape, a loud minority of the conservative political elite began to voice support for indigenous nuclearization. In response, progressives countered—in an unusual fashion—that nuclearization would damage the alliance with the US. Then, on the heels of the Iran nuclear deal, similarities between Iran and North Korea came to dominate partisan narratives. Progressive coverage focused on the lessons of the negotiation process for the North Korean nuclear problem, proving the value of restraint and compromise. Conservative coverage differed slightly, seeing the Iran deal as evidence of a change in US attitudes from “strategic patience.” Obama had promised a “handshake with enemies” and mentioned three countries: Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Since the first two were now “resolved,” it was time for a deal with North Korea. Time was ripe for Park’s trustpolitik.

On China, the prospects of China-South Korea cooperation were highlighted in response to Xi’s visit to Seoul in 2014 and Park’s visit to Beijing in 2015, both viewed with wariness in the US. Conservative coverage provided a more nuanced critique: symbolically, the visit was consequential, though practically, some of the key details regarding the North Korean nuclear problem remained unspecified. They urged for caution in case South Korean’s relations with the US and China turns into a zero-sum game. Progressive narratives were less optimistic, arguing that no meaningful consensus was reached on two issues of import: North Korean nuclear proliferation and Japanese historical revisionism. They blamed, in particular, Seoul’s fear that any mention of Japan would trigger charges of geostrategic realignment (away from the trilateral framework that the US has sought in concert with Japan). Overall, progressive narratives construed Xi’s visit as an illustration of the underlying constraints in China-South Korea relations even as they welcomed Park’s engagement with China.

On Park’s 2015 visit to the victory-day parade, partisan debate was not as polarizing as one might have surmised; both camps accepted that it was the right—albeit risky—decision. Where they differed was what Seoul should do in its immediate aftermath: progressives pushed for the resumption of talks with North Korea whereas conservatives recommended a careful debrief with the United States. Progressive commentators welcomed Park’s decision to accept Xi’s invitation and that South Korea had successfully arranged bilateral summits with all key stakeholders. They urged Park to use the opportunity to consolidate Beijing’s support for her North Korea policy as well as South Korea’s broader strategic role in the region. Emphasizing that the summit was a high-stakes event, because Park chose to go in spite of US and Japanese reservations, conservative coverage pressed for caution. On both occasions, conservative media warned against pursuing a pro-China policy at the expense of alliance commitment. Yet, commentators muffled their criticism in favor of rosy projections about middle power diplomacy and South Korean leverage. There was not a lot of conservative pushback to Park’s diplomacy.

Finally, on Japan, the consensus was marked. Both sides condemned Japan for its lack of contrition and questioned even the sincerity of its previous acts of penitence. It was only as relations improved in the latter half of 2015—culminating swiftly in the ill-fated “comfort women” agreement—that partisan narratives began to diverge again, with a progressive emphasis on historical rectification and a conservative focus on strategic cooperation.  

The progressive narrative left open the path to more vigorous wooing of Kim Jong-un, taking Park’s approach as half measures, at best. It rejected the rapprochement with Japan and yielding to US pressure on that or on missile defense. Clearly, the alliance appeared as an albatross rather than something to be strengthened in light of a more threatening environment. If Park allowed optimism to color her approaches to North Korea, China, and regionalism, progressive optimism centered directly on North Korea with caution about alienating China or reordering the region. In case Park tilted to the US and Japan and angered China, they were prepared to pounce, putting all their eggs in the North Korean basket, as if that were compatible with the alliance and could still be carried forward despite Sino-US discord, Japan-US bonding, or new North Korean threats.

Gilbert Rozman, “Managing Four Great Powers”

Extraordinary leadership flux in key countries fed the Park administration’s confidence that it could break from Lee Myung-bak’s policies and drive transformation in Northeast Asia. A young, untested leader in North Korea was seen as likely to put priority on economic growth amid the shared search of regional powers for a breakthrough on the North. In pursuing “Global Korea,” Lee was seen as having slighted regionalism, leaving Park an opening. Key in this respect would be China, whose ties to Japan and the US were fraying and which had soured on Lee but not on Seoul.

Park Geun-hye was intent on seizing the initiative despite the difficult environment she faced as four leaders geared up for more active regional policies. Xi Jinping launched one initiative after another, Vladimir Putin pursued a “Turn to the East,” Abe Shinzo proclaimed a “proactive” regional policy, and Barack Obama moved forward with his “rebalance to Asia.” Somehow, Park insisted that these moves made it easier to press her own initiatives: a “honeymoon” with Xi, “Eurasian diplomacy” with Putin, strong pushback against Abe that garnered support at home and in China, and a tighter alliance with Obama. Added to the mix was not only “trustpolitik” with North Korea intent on rallying the four great powers behind her, but also a “Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative” (NAPCI) with a bold agenda to transform a sizable region. Over three years, hopes were kept alive that Seoul could corral the various powers into a joint strategy, overcoming the serious obstacles affecting most of their bilateral relationships.

Expectations in Seoul for some pathway toward regionalism inclusive of China and the US were far stronger than in other capitals, especially Washington and Tokyo. They rested on assumptions widely shared by the South Korean public: relations with North Korea were likely to improve, even if it was seen as a threat; the US and China were eager for a new approach to North Korea to avoid increasingly negative repercussions; and Seoul was in a unique position to take the initiative since it was considered relatively unthreatening to China, the US, Japan, and Russia. Despite fear of a hierarchical relationship with China and a further Chinese shift toward North Korea, there was also fear of marginalization in a China vs. US confrontation. Seoul could seize the initiative.

In the second half of 2013 after Park’s visit to Beijing, momentum was building for a China-South Korean FTA, but on security there were new strains after China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) intruding into South Korea’s zone. Seoul also had to digest the impact of Kim Jong-un’s execution of Jang Song-thaek, the main intermediary with China. Some hoped that this along with the FTA would lead Beijing to tilt toward Seoul. Park clung to a “honeymoon” image with X Jinping, whose visit to Seoul would be the next test. It appeared that relations with China were crowding out those with Japan, just as the US was boosting military ties to Japan.

A realistic policy required more sober thinking about the difficulties facing Seoul, given threats from North Korea and Sino-Russian relations. However, supporters of Park’s policy saw it as deterring an arms race in the region, recognizing that China should not be labeled an “enemy,” and the right response to Abe’s militaristic inclinations. Most importantly, it was the best hope for the goal of keeping the door open to North Korea and to Seoul’s central diplomatic role.

In the first part of 2014, South Koreans perceived an advantageous environment for Park’s foreign policy agenda. The US was viewed somewhat warily for its excessive patience with North Korea, tough line toward China and Russia, and soft line toward Japan, calling on Seoul to separate history from security. The “pivot to Asia” worried commentators that it would reduce China’s incentives to work with the US on North Korea and was linked to US “strategic patience” and prioritization of US-Japan-South Korean trilateralism as a barrier to Seoul’s agenda focusing on North Korea and boosting ties to China as key for that pursuit. As much as Park sought to build trust with North Korea, cozy up to China, and keep pressure on Japan, progressives insisted that she could pursue these objectives much better, blaming her for failing to make a breakthrough with North Korea, which would unlock the door to diplomacy with the four great powers. This was critical.

China kept complaining of a lack of mutual trust in the China-South Korean relationship, and Park insisted that she was prioritizing building that trust, envisioned NAPCI as the multilateral framework to complement her bilateral wooing of Xi Jinping. If China insisted that the mistrust was exacerbated by an alliance not limited to North Korea, South Korea offered reassurance that it was not integrated into US regional strategy. Yet, China kept up its pressure, opposing US-South Korean military exercises, seeking joint condemnation of Japan’s views of history, and arguing that Park needed to do more to win its trust. Yet, Park now faced growing concern about China’s “assertive rise” and Sino-US divisions with Seoul caught in the middle. A letdown after the 2014 Xi visit to Seoul centered on his anti-Japan focus and lack of cooperation on North Korea, although Park kept up her hopes.

The old Cold War triangles were recalled in 2015 as Sino-Russian ties built on a breakthrough in 2014 and Russo-North Korean ties broke the ice with Pyongyang; and US-Japan ties drew closer, while US pressure mounted to enhance US-South Korean relations through trilateral ties linked to Japan. In 2015, the THAAD decision loomed, and straddling could not be sustained, given North Korea’s new missile capabilities and the urgency of keeping bipartisan support in the US for the alliance. With little prospect of persuading Kim Jong-un or even Xi Jinping, Park concentrated on selling her regional initiative to Obama. If only the US endorsed NAPCI, she would be able to approach the others more confidently. Yet US audiences were bewildered by the unjustified optimism behind the idea. To build trust requires grasping the thinking of the obstreperous parties and testing their interest through small steps not some grand but vague architecture, argued skeptics in the US.

Abe’s April visit to the United States strongly impacted South Korea’s debate on Japan policy. It was seen as raising the US-Japan alliance to the top of all US bilateral relationships with a trend line for decades ahead, showcased in new defense guidelines, putting pressure on Seoul to respond or be isolated. Moreover, Abe’s speech to a joint session of Congress showed that he did not have to address the “comfort women” issue to satisfy the US on values. Park found her foreign policy criticized as overly stressing principles without achieving progress. Neither conservatives nor progressives, however, had an answer for the unprecedented boost to US-Japan relations they were seeing, as the focus was shifting southward, not only to the Senkaku Islands, newly besieged by Chinese ships, but toward the South China Sea. A US tilt to Japan on history was evident.

Park’s foreign policy in 2015 hit one snag after another. Not only was she outflanked by Tokyo in Washington, there was a backlash from her appearance with Xi at the victory commemoration, amid perceptions of a downturn in Sino-US relations and the need to make a choice. Reasoning now held that the idea that Beijing will help to resolve the nuclear issue is an illusion. Intensified pursuit of Beijing on this only increased its voice on other issues. Beijing had essentially financed the nuclear arms development by limiting UN sanctions and increasing its imports from the North. After giving the impression that South Korea was being incorporated into the Chinese regional order, Park had to restore US confidence by agreeing on military measures to counter the North’s threats regardless of China’s views was the judgment. Park’s trip to Washington in October appeared to clear suspicions that she was leaning toward China. Yet Obama had pressed for Seoul to support freedom of navigation, as well as to shift on Japan. The expectation Park had nurtured about boosting trust with multiple states came back to haunt her when Seoul appeared isolated and embattled. The reality that US relations matter far more than relations with China left Park alone.

Before the THAAD deployment and the “comfort women” agreement with Japan, the first three years of the Park presidency saw a continuous search for a regional framework with Seoul at the center. It was premised on optimistic assumptions about China and slow awareness of the drift of US policy. By late 2015 Park faced an impasse with the US and Japan, while having little to show for her pursuit of China, North Korea, and Russia. Korea-centered regionalism had not persuaded any country, nor had the idea that Seoul could be the driving force in dealing with Pyongyang.

Why had Park misjudged the regional situation so badly? We can discern at least three factors. First, this pattern of overoptimism dates from the 1980s—in this sense, Park was the norm not the exception. Second, the mirage of reunification drove policies toward China and Russia and to North Korea. Third, having lived in the world of Cold War bipolarity for four decades, Koreans were so enamored of diplomatic diversification that they hung onto it even when conditions had turned against this possibility. In this period of three years optimism was deflated, reunification proved to be a fantasy, and diversification was seen as a a dead-end leading to isolation. Yet these lessons were not absorbed by all in Seoul.

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