Introduction

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The four years from 2016 through 2019 were the most eventful in the post-democratization and post-Cold War period of South Korean history. Three goals had defined the entirety of the three decades from the beginning of the 1990s: solidifying democratization; establishing a path to reunification or, at least, peaceful coexistence with North Korea; and diplomatic balancing to successfully manage four great powers intent on exerting influence on the peninsula. Of course, there was also another set of economic goals, concentrating on growth but with an eye toward limiting undue economic vulnerability to any one nation. While economic growth proceeded well, if accompanied by uneven social consequences, the three other goals were tested, as at no other time since the 1980s. The results were a blow to the hubris that had taken root, but a reaffirmation of the fundamental principles that guided Seoul throughout these three decades.

At the end of the 2010s, despite deep differences between conservatives and progressives over foreign policy, their shared commitment to democracy and the core policy had strengthened. After the most intensive outreach to Pyongyang since before the Korean War, a consensus had held also on the limits of the quest for reunification. Finally, three decades of a quixotic search for support from new partners in Beijing and Moscow and for historical justice from Tokyo had reverted to the stark realism at the outset: the two longtime allies of Pyongyang still favored it, and the strategic reasons for keeping history in the background could not be overlooked. Vital to Seoul’s multiple goals remained the alliance with Washington, now adding new dimensions.

The period 2016 to 2019 saw the tottering end of Park Geun-hye’s abortive tenure and the blustery start of Moon Jae-in’s unprecedentedly bold presidency. It was a consequential era, but by late 2019 unshakable realities had taken center stage. Seoul cannot escape its harsh, regional environment, and wishful thinking about what it can accomplish has severe limits.

Sue Mi Terry, “Great Hopes, Shattered Dreams”

Park Geun-hye entered office with high hopes of making progress with the North by pursuing a more balanced, middle-of-the-road policy than her predecessors. Yet, her “trustpolitik” approach had failed by the end of 2015. The situation resembled the beginning of her term in 2013, when the North conducted a third nuclear test just weeks before her inauguration. The question Park had to deal with for her remaining time in office was what course corrections she needed to make. In 2016 she was forced to abruptly alter her North Korea policy by adopting tougher measures, including deploying the controversial THAAD missile defense system and closing the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex that had been a lucrative venture for the North for over a decade. At the end of the year, she was ousted from the presidency over a corruption scandal.

In 2017, Moon Jae-in championed a policy of rapprochement with Pyongyang even as the North crossed the twin thresholds of developing a thermonuclear weapon and flight-testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Meanwhile, Donald Trump pursued a “maximum pressure” policy while talking of “fire and fury” and a “bloody nose” preemptive strike against the North. After a dramatic shift to summitry and diplomacy in 2018-2019—which included three, unprecedented, face-to-face meetings between Kim Jong-un and Trump in Singapore, Hanoi, and the DMZ—the Moon administration would oversee the greatest decline of tensions on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War. But, the rapprochement would not last.

Moon’s optimistic approach in the end exposed a profound misreading of both Trump and Kim. After the failure of the Hanoi Summit in February 2019, Moon was left isolated: scorned by Kim, who blamed him for the failure, and eyed warily by Trump. These dramatic years from 2016 to 2019 saw both great tensions and high hopes on the Korean Peninsula. This period represented a high point in South Korean expectations that diplomacy and summitry with the North could succeed—only to have those expectations brutally dashed.

A combination of the North’s fourth nuclear test, Xi’s disappointing nonresponse, and yet another satellite launch by the North on February 7 in violation of UNSC resolutions led to a broader shift in Seoul taking a tougher stance towards the North for the remainder of Park’s presidency. This must have been deeply disappointing for Park since she had invested considerable time and resources to improve Seoul’s bilateral relations with Beijing. To impose unilateral sanctions against the Kim regime, Park declared on February 10 that Seoul would “completely shut down” the 11-year-old joint Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), an important symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.  KIC housed at the time around 55,000 North Korean workers and churned out products ranging from watches to clothes. The joint venture was highly lucrative for the Kim regime. With controversy still raging over the THAAD decision and concern growing over continued nuclear and missile testing by the North, the Park administration came to an abrupt end in a corruption scandal. On December 9, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly for Park’s impeachment, 234 to 56, with only six abstentions.

Beijing had repeatedly expressed its disapproval prior to the decision to deploy the system, and its official media joined in with intense criticism after the decision was made. Economic retaliation swiftly followed. As a presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in criticized what he called the undemocratic and opaque decision-making processes of the THAAD agreement as well as the partial deployment in the spring. The public was divided on the issue, but, in general, more people supported than opposed deployment. When Moon became president in May 2017, he embarked on an ambitious engagement mission with the North to “realize peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula” with three stated goals: “resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, development of sustainable inter-Korean relations, and realization of a new economic community on the Korean peninsula.” Even as the North tested an ICBM on July 4, Moon remained resolute in his desire to engage the North. Even while pursuing a peace initiative with the North, Moon ultimately chose to stay the existing course on THAAD.

Trump dispatched a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, making a high-profile show of military force near the Korean Peninsula. He also threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the North while boasting of his “much bigger” nuclear button if the North conducted another nuclear or missile test. His aides even talked of possibly taking preemptive military action by giving the Kim regime a “bloody nose.” The United States also ramped up its enforcement of sanctions by targeting North Korean shipping and blacklisting small banks based in China and Eastern Europe in a bid to cut off nearly all of Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency. By the fall of 2017, to the surprise of many long-time Korean hands, even Beijing finally appeared to be taking genuine steps to enforce UN sanctions.

Moon continued his pursuit of peace initiatives with the North. A mere three weeks after the North tested the hydrogen bomb, Moon attended the UN General Assembly and used his keynote speech to announce the PyeongChang Peace Initiatives, under which he envisioned turning the Winter Olympics into the Olympics of Peace, an opportunity to entice Kim to dialogue. Trump criticized the Moon administration for his supposed appeasement of the North.  By the time the tumultuous year came to a close, North Korea had conducted more than ten missile tests in addition to its sixth nuclear test. Kim Jong-un began 2018 with a dramatic turn to diplomacy and charm offensive. Just as concerns about North Korea nearing the finish line in its development of nuclear-armed ICBMs increased, Kim declared the North’s nuclear program to be “complete” and used his 2018 New Year’s Address to signal a move away from testing. Accepting Moon’s olive branch, Kim indicated a willingness to participate in the February 2018 Winter Olympics.

Diplomacy ramped up in the coming months with Moon and Kim meeting on two separate occasions and culminated in the 2018 Summit between Trump and Kim in Singapore. The signing of a peace treaty between the two nations seemed likely until the collapse of the Hanoi Summit in 2019.  North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics was soon followed by a March trip of high-level South Korean officials to Pyongyang. The delegation then rushed to Washington claiming that Kim was willing to negotiate denuclearization and that he wished to meet with Trump. To date it remains an open question what exactly was discussed in Pyongyang. It’s possible, or even probable, that the South Koreans liberally edited Kim’s actual words about his willingness to give up nuclear weapons. As for Kim asking to meet with Trump, Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote that the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore was a “diplomatic fandango” which was “South Korea’s creation,” rather than a serious strategy on Kim’s part or Washington’s. He even noted that it was Chung who had suggested to Kim that he make the invitation to Trump. Moon was in the driver’s seat of rapprochement during this period; on March 8, the world saw South Korean National Security Advisor Chung standing in front of the White House, announcing that Trump had on the spur of the moment accepted Kim’s invitation for a summit. The frantic season of summitry began in earnest that spring: two summits between Trump and Kim, three inter-Korean summits between Moon and Kim, and a number of summits between Kim and other leaders, most notably with Xi and Putin. Yet, while the frenetic summitry of 2018-2019 defused the “fire and fury” crisis of 2017, it did not yield a denuclearization deal.

The Korean public mood was euphoric. It finally appeared the two Koreas were close to making a breakthrough. Moon’s approval ratings soared above 80%. Moon was “ecstatic” when he called Trump following his meeting with Kim, according to Bolton. Moon told Trump that Kim had made a commitment to “complete denuclearization.” Moon reportedly asked Kim to denuclearize in one year, and Kim agreed. The two leaders left the summit agreeing to an additional summit in Pyongyang in the fall, making concrete their plans for deepening engagement. Some pointed out that the “peace act” in Panmunjom could lead to a premature—and potentially dangerous—jubilation and sense of relief in the South.  One public opinion survey found that 65% of the respondents said they trusted the North’s willingness to denuclearize, while only 28% were skeptical.  Moon and Kim met again at the DMZ on May 26, this time on the North’s side, four days after Moon met with Trump in Washington and assured Trump that there was no reason to doubt Kim’s sincerity on denuclearization. This second meeting between Moon and Kim was held on Kim’s request. As the Trump-Kim meeting was scheduled to be held in Singapore in June, Kim may have sought Moon’s advice over how to negotiate with Trump, while reaffirming the two Koreas’ strong will to carry out the Panmunjom joint declaration announced in April. This meeting was followed by more inter-Korean high-level talks to discuss ways to implement the Panmunjom Declaration and reopening a joint liaison office in the KIC.

Trump finally met Kim in Singapore on June 12-13. However, the joint US-North Korea statement published after the meeting lacked any details of how to move toward the stated goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The Joint Statement shifted from talk of “North Korean denuclearization” to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” possibly signifying Trump’s willingness to trade away US nuclear guarantees to Seoul. Trump had achieved the photo-op that he wanted but not a binding agreement with the North. On September 18-20, Moon and Kim held their third summit, this time in Pyongyang. Moon made a historic speech at the stadium in Pyongyang with about 150,000 rapt North Korean citizens in attendance. Kim publicly seemed to show his willingness to denuclearize in front of his people. This period was the high point in inter-Korea relations, the very moment when it looked as if Moon’s peace process could make progress. But these hopeful days would not last. Disappointment was waiting in the wings.

By 2019, it became clear that things were not going as well as Moon hoped. The ratcheting up of US-China confrontation relieved much of the pressure on Pyongyang as Beijing lost interest in cooperating with Washington. While sanctions remained in place, it became clear that the United States would not launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, thereby further relaxing pressure on Kim. The Hanoi Summit between Trump and Kim ended shortly after it began. Both misunderstood each other and miscalculated. Trump, thinking Kim was brought to the negotiating table primarily because of his maximum pressure policy and “fire and fury” rhetoric—rather than the North’s own advances in its nuclear and missile program—thought he could entice Kim with Vietnam-style economic development. His expectation did not bear out. The Vietnamese were magnanimous in victory, whereas Trump was asking Kim to make sacrifices in de facto defeat. Meanwhile Kim also miscalculated, thinking that Trump was so eager for a deal (and a Nobel Peace Prize) that he was willing to sign on to a bad deal.

Trump walking away from Hanoi basically spelled the end of Moon’s illusion that he was in the driver’s seat. Kim subsequently seemed to blame Moon for the failure in Hanoi and turned to his traditional allies, China and Russia. He met with Putin in April and hosted Xi Jinping in June and then refused to include Moon in his meet-and-greet with Trump at Panmunjom four months after the Hanoi Summit.  Yet the Moon administration persisted in its peace offensive.  But, there was little they could do other than continue to call for a softer approach to Kim and relaxation of sanctions, more in line with Xi and Putin’s positions than the US one. The Kim regime, having recovered from the uncertainty of 2017, the undue hopes of 2018, and the frustration and embarrassment of Hanoi in early 2019, returned to a hard-line stance: Kim did not need more promises from Seoul, but money and sanctions relief that the Moon administration could not give. North Korean denuclearization was not going to happen, no matter what the Moon officials kept telling themselves, the public, and Washington. The Moon administration kept showering the North with various proposals for cultural exchanges and humanitarian aid, while downplaying outright or turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s outrageous actions.

After February 2019, Moon was isolated—scorned by Kim Jong-un, pressured by Trump—and dealing with a Korean public increasingly skeptical of his peace offensive. In the end, Moon did not accomplish his goal of trying to end the threat from North Korea and bring peace to the Korean Peninsula. But no other Korean leader going back to the dark days of the Korean War has had any greater success in dealing with the intractable threat from the North. Neither the “sunshine policy,” “trustpolitik,” “maximum pressure,” nor a policy of “maximum engagement” has succeeded in ending the North Korean nuclear and missile programs. By 2019, it was clear that Moon had failed. Until there is internal change in North Korea, there is little that South Korea or the United State can accomplish diplomatically.

Eun A Jo, “Candlelight Mandate, Moonshine Diplomacy, and Partisan Narratives”

In 2016, conservative president Park Geun-hye’s trustpolitik crumbled with North Korea’s nuclear tests. This triggered a barrage of policy reversals, including decisions to (1) deploy the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), (2) enter a military intelligence-sharing agreement (GSOMIA)—with the United States and Japan, and (3) conclude a “comfort women” agreement with Japan (actually, days earlier). All hopes of leveraging Chinese support to deal with North Korea had elapsed and Park had returned to a deterrence-focused approach. After domestic turmoil that culminated in her impeachment and imprisonment, South Korean foreign policy took a sharp turn, suffering another whiplash under progressive Moon Jae-in in 2017.

Moon Jae-in came to power in a climate of mounting uncertainty with a “candlelight” mandate. He had the delicate task of reviewing Park’s foreign policy decisions—many of which bore accusations of procedural illegitimacy—as well as delivering his own “Moonshine” agenda. The Trump presidency and the onset of “fire and fury” brinkmanship only added to Moon’s urgency. A series of high-profile summits thus followed, Yet, opinions were divided, some declaring them timely interventions and others finding them excessive diplomatic concessions.

In the two periods marking the downfall of the Park presidency and the rise of Moon’s, South Korea’s foreign policy experienced a wild ride: (1) from the botched trustpolitik to “Moonshine” on North Korea; (2) from fears of Korea passing to grievances of Korea bashing by Trump’s America; (3) from a breakdown in courtship with China over THAAD to its recovery; and finally (4) from a “final and irreversible” deal on history issues with Japan to a recharged row. Partisan narratives on these shifts reflected the uncertainty of the times.

With growing public indignation over Park’s domestic political scandals, many of her decisions were recast as illegitimate and even diversionary. Those who found them in any way meritorious were quickly sidelined and the progressive opposition, armed with public support, repudiated them in full force. By the time Park left office in disgrace and Trump entered his in disbelief, conjectures surrounding South Korea’s foreign policy trajectory—vis-à-vis North Korea, the United States, China, and Japan—were as rife as they were divisive.

Partisan narratives in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear advances reaffirmed the enduring rift between the two ideological camps in South Korea about the right approach to North Korea. The progressives continued to push for engagement, depicting the North’s provocations as an outcome—rather than a driver—of the South’s mixed signals and deterrence-heavy approach. At the same time, conservatives felt vindicated in their deep-rooted cynicism about the North’s intentions and, to that extent, skepticism about the viability of Park’s trustpolitik paradigm. Thus, when she finally reversed the policy, conservatives pointed to the hostile strategic environment as the cause of its failure, not Park’s lack of strategic foresight.

The North’s nuclear provocations forced partisans to double down on their narratives concerning the US alliance. These largely followed the traditional fault-lines in partisan narratives on foreign policy, though they also revealed a growing consensus in the mainstream partisan narratives—the futility of economic sanctions, which had been the primary tool of coercion—which prescribed divergent policy responses, ranging from dialogue to deterrence. Meanwhile, Trump’s election and “America First” rhetoric engendered a critical development in the fringes of conservative thinking in support of self-nuclearization, even at the risk of harming the US alliance and the international non-proliferation regime. News of his election generated both anxiety and a sense of opportunity in South Korea. In general, conservatives were warier about the implications, ranging from possible estrangement to total abandonment. By contrast, progressive narratives were cautiously optimistic.  Trump’s election in many ways catalyzed South Korea’s search for autonomy, albeit for different reasons. As conservatives questioned the credibility of US security guarantees to the South and anxieties about abandonment grew, calls for indigenous (nuclear) weapons systems gained steam. Progressives saw Trump’s domestic orientation as a boon to extricate Seoul from postwar entanglements with Washington.

China’s failure to reign in Pyongyang, despite its continued nuclear provocations, raised questions about Beijing’s intentions. What role did it play—a facilitator or a spoiler—in North Korean denuclearization or the broader inter-Korean peace process? If, in the conservative narrative, China was and always will be a spoiler despite sincere efforts to engage it, in the progressive narrative, China remained the crucial facilitator for any regional security problem. The prescriptive implications for Seoul’s foreign policy once again diverged, between a strengthened military deterrence approach and a more energetic diplomatic engagement approach. The debates intensified as Seoul decided to deploy THAAD on July 7, 2016. Progressives immediately warned against it, claiming that it would destroy Park’s credibility as well as diplomatic identity. Conservatives similarly acknowledged the unnecessary complication that Park’s earlier diplomacy introduced, yet downplayed China’s possible retaliation.

The primary source of friction in South Korea’s relationship with Japan during this period concerned the “comfort women” agreement (December 2015) and later, GSOMIA (November 2016). Progressive coverage condemned the deal as both illegitimate and immoral. Meanwhile, conservative outlets emphasized the benefits of the deal and called for caution. By the time GSOMIA was passed i, the public backlash appeared insurmountable. Park’s decision was assessed within the broader context of her domestic political scandals, amplifying dissenting voices that these foreign policy maneuvers were procedurally undemocratic and, thus, illegitimate. Many recalled the previous attempts in 2012 by the Lee Myung-bak administration to close the deal in secret, for which he was similarly denounced. As calls for Park’s impeachment grew, the fate of these last-minute agreements with Japan seemed, too, in peril.

From the intensity of North Korean military provocations, the frictions in the US-South Korean alliance under Trump, the onslaught of Chinese retaliation for THAAD, to the backlash over the “comfort women” agreement with Japan, the Moon administration was besieged by foreign policy crises. A sense of urgency was unmistakable. Given his “candlelight mandate,” Moon sought first and foremost to review the controversial decisions that his predecessor had made vis-à-vis China and Japan, and then accelerated his own “Moonshine” agenda with North Korea and the United States. Within the first two years of his tenure, Moon’s diplomacy facilitated a series of high-profile summits that seemed to place South Korea back in the “driver’s seat.”

With South Korea’s pledge to the “three no’s” principles—no additional THAAD units; no joining the US missile defense system; and no trilateral military alliance with the US and Japan—China finally rolled back its economic coercive campaign and committed to improving bilateral relations. But by this point, both ideological camps in South Korea had grown wary about the implications of the THAAD incident for future contingencies in which South Korean defense efforts become tied to broader regional competition between its ally, the United States, and strategic partner, China. Conservative voices saw the “three no’s” as overly accommodating and even harmful to South Korean sovereignty. Progressive coverage criticized the main opposition party for emotional analyses of Moon’s China trip. Much partisan debate surrounding China concerned the THAAD fallout and the implications of the “three no’s” for autonomy.

If relations with China had regained some semblance of normalcy under Moon, relations with Japan progressively deteriorated. Relying on a so-called “two-track approach”—disaggregating diplomatic and historical issues in conducting bilateral relations—Moon sought to circumvent any discussions of sensitive issues with Tokyo. This only lasted so long, as a South Korean independent commission found that the 2015 “comfort women” agreement was unsound, and later, the Supreme Court ruled that individual victims of forced labor could seek reparations from Japan. These so enraged Tokyo that, in the summer of 2019, it unleashed a barrage of informal sanctions against South Korea, rendering bilateral relations at an impasse.  Partisan narratives remained hotly divided; conservatives criticized the Moon government for “stirring the pot” for political gain, and progressives expressed frustration over unmet expectations of reopening negotiations with Japan. Indeed, following the 2018 Supreme Court ruling, which stipulated that individual victims could seek redress from Japanese entities regardless of any government-to-government settlement, history issues resurfaced. Progressive editorials emphasized the indispensability of the ruling; besides paving the way for victims to pursue justice, the ruling helped rectify the troubled history of South Korean-Japanese normalization. Conservative commentators were warier about the diplomatic implications of future legal battles.

The contours of “Moonshine” policy took shape as Moon pushed for peace talks between the two Koreas. Speech after speech, he spoke of “permanent peace,” which entails the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, security guarantees for the North, and deepening economic and cultural exchanges. These overtures were largely welcomed by progressives, who believed that incremental gestures such as resumption of family reunions and cessation of hostilities around the Military Demarcation Line would help build momentum for longer-term commitments toward peace. Conservatives found these little more than bargaining chips for the North to draw concessions from the South. This pattern of behavior has only enabled Pyongyang to advance its nuclear program, and Seoul should remain wary of any efforts by Pyongyang to lift sanctions.

Trump’s election and his “America First” foreign policy had massive ramifications for South Korean foreign policy during the early years of Moon’s presidency. Concerns ranged from “Korea bashing” (blaming Seoul for the North’s intransigence) to those about “Korea passing” (making peninsular decisions without Seoul’s input). Trump’s impulsive personality, combined with his general disregard for the establishment, made predicting US responses to North Korean provocations—and later overtures—almost futile. In late 2017, amid North Korean provocations, Trump had pledged “fire and fury”; in 2018, he took credit for the nascent inter-Korean dialogue. Partisans thus engaged in a broader debate about the right course of action forward. For the progressives, “denuclearization measures” and the US “corresponding measures” must be executed in lock step with each other to generate synergy toward peace. For the conservatives, the only sustainable approach was based on principles of complete and verifiable denuclearization that leave no room for Pyongyang’s reneging, which it has done in the past. This required, among others, a united front of Washington and Seoul.

When Trump walked away from the negotiations—asserting “no deal is better than a bad deal”—partisans in South Korea rushed to assess Moon’s performance as a facilitator and draw lessons for Seoul. In conservative coverage, Moon’s key flaw was failing to clarify denuclearization as the only answer to sanctions relief, giving Pyongyang the impression that it could get away with its gambit. Progressives, meanwhile, elevated Moon’s role as the middleman once again, holding onto their beliefs that the two parties will eventually return to the negotiating table. As days went by, however, any positive spin the progressives had churned were shadowed by the dread of the returning status quo in US-North Korean relations.

The years 2016-2019 marked a sea change in South Korean foreign policy. Park’s untimely exit and Moon’s “candlelight” mandate meant that on various dimensions of foreign policy—where the executive has significant prerogatives—Seoul made notable reversals, departures, and advances. The botched trustpolitik and the succeeding “Moonshine” generated some notable headlines as images of Pyongyang shifted from an untamed provocateur to a long-lost brother. Though Moon’s activism helped escape the specter of war, its impact on the status of disarmament, denuclearization, and diplomacy remains hotly debated. South Korea’s alliance with the United States was more tested during this period than ever.

Gilbert Rozman, “Gambling on Great Power Relations”

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 2016-19 feel like both the best of times and the worst of times.

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 Sino-US divide, the Japan-ROK slippery slope, and the US-DPRK war scare posed inescapable dilemmas.

In 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 popular 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 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 new threatening moves and even a possible peace offensive, which would expose divergence among the great powers.

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 in a GSOMIA 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. These were compounded by a leadership vacuum.

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 his 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 US pressure to change 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 narcissistic about his power to work with dictators and to proceed without concern about the thinking of 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 them and at the responses of the other leaders.

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 or set a new course.

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, while rebuilding ties to Russia without calling this a Eurasia Initiative. Somehow, repudiating the “comfort women” agreement and defying the US on THAAD and other matters would not lead to alliance tensions. 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 and pursuing regional hegemony.

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 also have been a reaction to excessive catering by Park, raising false expectations of a balance between two great powers. Another explanation is that Sino-US relations were in rapid descent, and Beijing found it easier to target Seoul in a proxy attack. Whatever China’s motivation, the impact for South Korea was far-reaching.

China’s image appeared much more threatening. 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 Jung-un in 2013-15, interpreting 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. Calculating that it must have China’s cooperation to resolve the North Korean problem, Moon concentrated on accommodating at least some of China’s security concerns, agreeing on October 31 to the “three no’s.”

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. Park renewed talk of three-way, north-south corridors through North Korea. 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. Park described a region at a crossroads: 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. Angered at Park’s conditional message, Putin was leaning increasingly to Kim Jong-un. There was no prospect of improving relations. 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” in 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.

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.” 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.” 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… South Korea will have little room to pursue its own policy initiatives toward North Korea.

Great power diplomacy in 2018-19 lost the vigor of 2017. Moon had set his sights on creating a positive atmosphere for diplomacy with North Korea. Triangular ties with Kim Jong-un and 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 reasons. 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. 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 Jinping’s plan. Stories that China had relaxed sanctions and that Kim had hardened his position, postponing talks with South Korea suggested that Kim had gained confidence in light of the newly achieved Chinese support.

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 partners in Washington and Beijing respectively that the deal they most feared was not feasible.

 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.

After February 2019 Moon was isolated: scorned by Kim Jong-un, pressured by Trump for bilateral reasons, and bypassed by Xi Jinping, who chose to visit Pyongyang but not Seoul and called on Moon to defy Trump, relax sanctions on North Korea, and stay clear of the Sino-US 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 crash down in 2019. Catchy slogans 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 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. With the other four regional actors, Moon had no clue what to do in order to manage a deteriorating security environment.

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