Special Forum Issue

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

Managing four great powers


Succeeding another conservative, President 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.” 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 with China, and a tighter alliance with Obama. Added to the mix was not only Park’s “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, while making overtures to and waiting for Pyongyang, could corral the key powers into a joint strategy, overcoming the serious obstacles in most of their various bilateral relationships.

In retrospect, Park’s regional policies were rife with illusions and naivete. Her “history card” first with Japan alienated not only Japan but also the United States, which by late 2014 was blaming her more than Abe for standing in the way of intelligence sharing and trilateralism on security. Park’s “Eurasian diplomacy” and, following Russia’s ostracization in the West over Ukraine in 2014, pursuit of autonomous diplomacy with financial support for the Khasan-Rajin line from Russia to North Korea, paid no dividends as Russia began cozying up to North Korea. Prioritizing a “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping, she was put in an embarrassing position in mid-2014 (when Xi visited Seoul) of having to stay silent as he made the thrust of his visit demonization of Japan and driving a big wedge between two US allies. Finally, Park’s signature initiatives to win regional and especially US support for “trustpolitik” floundered before North Korean resistance, ignored as Xi pursued regionalism through BRI and Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” saw no value added. By the end of 2015, Park was at an impasse; her tendency of doubling down on policies without good prospects was at a dead-end.

The year 2015 saw Park make a last-ditch effort to secure Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea and regional security by joining Xi Jinping on the podium in the celebration of the anniversary of victory in WWII.  Meeting later that year with Putin, she sought his help in reopening talks with Pyongyang, essentially endorsing his active outreach to Kim Jong-un. US pressure was mounting against her approach to Japan and China, and she had begun to signal some change in course.

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 first 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 reconciliation 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.”

US-South Korean relations remained the bedrock of Seoul’s foreign policy, as it perceived ties with China and Japan in a triangular context with the US. In the overviews below, mention is made of US bilateral ties, but subsequent sections treat the US only in trilateral contexts. As for Russia, it is a secondary concern to be noted in the overviews, especially when regional architecture is a preoccupation. The bulk of attention below is on thinking about Chins and Japan while weighing the US factor.

Overview of Park Administration Thinking in 2013

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. The key was the arrival of a young, untested leader in North Korea seen as likely to put some priority on economic growth and the shared search of regional powers for a breakthrough on the North. In 2012, the idea was spreading that a middle power had unique advantages to steer the region in the aftermath of the collapse of the Six-Party Talks, reviving the goal of galvanizing support for a North Korea-centered agenda.1 With North-South relations in the doldrums and new concern about widening national identity gaps with both China and Japan,2 Park’s plan to fill the void by building trust, although not with Japan, appeared to offer a way forward. Lee Myung-bak had left a strong relationship with the Obama administration, which Park intended to sustain, as she saw Xi and Putin both ready to explore closer ties to Seoul and new diplomatic overtures to Pyongyang. In pursuing “Global Korea,” Lee was seen as slighting regional Korea, leaving Park an opening amid deepening bilateral tensions there.3 The key would be China, whose ties to Japan and the US were fraying and whose leadership had soured on Lee but not on Seoul.

Secure that the US regarded South Korea as the lynchpin of US policy for the Pacific, Park was confident Seoul had the capacity to carve out a new role.4 She launched an “alignment policy” to proceed simultaneously on her “Korean Peninsular Trust Process” and NAPCI. Neither Xi nor Obama outright rejected this plan, but they had something very different in mind. In response to Obama’s “rebalance to Asia,” Park feared that US attention was shifting to Southeast and South Asia and it was counting more on Japan as well as Japan-SOUTH KOREAN trilateralism and missile defense cooperation, which would complicate SOUTH KOREAN-Chinese cooperation. She would strive to deflect that danger through diplomacy with Beijing as well as overtures to Pyongyang, even if Xi Jinping’s regional plans saw Seoul as a means to impact ties to the US, North Korea, and Japan.5

Expectations in Seoul for some pathway toward regionalism—inclusive of both 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 also 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.

Thinking on China in 2013

Given deteriorated public perceptions of China and the emergence of what Chung Jae-ho calls “China fear,” Park faced a challenge in setting a new course.6 Both Beijing’s hostility toward the Lee administration—after expectations from the Roh Moo-hyun period had been dashed—and its shift in favor of North Korea in 2009-11 had complicated Park’s task.7 Yet despite fear of a hierarchical relationship with China, new Chinese pressure, and a further Chinese shift toward North Korea, there was also fear of marginalization in a China-US confrontation. A slight majority of the public chose partner over rival as their label for China. Insisting that Seoul could have both alliance and leadership in a regional order with positive implications for North Korea, Park claimed to be able to resolve the dominant question on people’s minds in this period.8

Park began her tenure by sending a delegation to China first and then made a visit there the highlight of her first year, giving a strong impression that the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing. There was talk of South Korea being uniquely situated between continental-power China and the maritime-power US and having the best relationship with China of any US ally. The summit was widely viewed as a success, substantively in the chemistry between leaders. Having called the pattern of “politics cold, economics hot” bilateral relations in Asia the “Asia paradox,” Park claimed to be solving it. Some spoke of a Park-Xi “honeymoon.” Others could see no sign of China prioritizing the nuclear issue (the phrase “denuclearization of the DPRK” was missing) or accepting unification led by the South. Moreover, they warned of China’s habit of pressuring US allies to weaken their security links with Washington. Yet, advice on what Seoul should do often fell back on the argument that if “rebalancing” or, specifically, Seoul’s role in it is seen as containing China, as it will be, the strategic value of North Korea to China will rise, impairing cooperation. Washington was blamed as much as Beijing for forcing a choice, as if that would be the worst nightmare for Seoul. Park ploughed ahead with Xi in the forefront.

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 with China after it declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) intruding into South Korea’s zone. Seoul also had to digest the impact on Sino-DPRK relations 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 the “honeymoon” image with X Jinping, whose visit to Seoul would be the next test.

Thinking on Japan in 2013

Lee Myung-bak pulled back at the last second from an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan and then made the first visit of a Korean leader to the disputed Dokdo island only months after turning a summit with Japan into a tirade over the “comfort women” issue following a Korean Constitutional Court ruling. As the daughter of the leader who had agreed to normalize relations in 1965, Park faced intense scrutiny over how she would handle ties to Japan. She also faced Abe’s revisionist historical moves, inciting Koreans. Thus, Park put history in the forefront, as reflected in her August 2013 Liberation Day speech and as seen in her stress on the need for trust as a precondition in this relationship as well as others. Compared to coverage of repellent behavior in North Korea, China, or Russia, Japan drew the most vehement denunciations. Yet on both the left and the right there was concern that Park’s hard line toward Japan was putting national interests at risk. Politics was interfering with economics; official relations were falling behind private sector ties, trapped in what Park Cheol-hee called “mutual abandonment,”9 arguing that Koreans do not give credit to the more than half of Japanese politicians and officials intent on improving ties and trying to resolve history issues. It appeared that relations with China were crowding out those with Japan. Just as the US was boosting military ties to Japan, Seoul was accusing Tokyo of “military expansion.” Seoul, Park Cheol-hee argued, needed to broaden its diplomatic horizons from bilateralism with Japan to the Northeast Asia region. This pinpointed the fallout from letting anti-Japanese sentiments spill over into pro-Chinese statements, shaking up trust in Seoul not only in Japan but also in the US—more serious because the US was “prioritizing Japan” in the region, the South Korean leadership was clearly warned.

Concerned with Japan’s past when the US valued Japan’s future, Seoul was fueling concern it was leaning to China while defying the US effort to counterbalance that country by changing the regional order. A more realistic policy required more sober thinking about the difficulties facing Seoul, given threats from North Korea and Sino-Russian relations, and the tightening bond between the US and Japan. 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 paramount goal of keeping the door open to North Korea and Seoul’s central diplomatic role.

Overview of Park Administration Thinking in 2014

In the first part of 2014 South Koreans perceived an advantageous environment for Park’s foreign policy agenda. Calling reunification like “hitting a jackpot,” Park’s New Year’s speech set the tone for mobilizing the powers since North Korea showed no interest. Saying that the current international circumstances are the most favorable since the peninsula was divided, one article focused on promoting a strategic dialogue with Beijing and Washington.10 This was in accord with the assumption that security on the peninsula is heavily influenced by a power game between the US and China. Another assumption was that Kim Jong-un is giving priority to economic growth to stabilize his leadership. With China halting its activities after the execution of the official on whom it had relied and the US stuck in “strategic patience,” Seoul can fill the void, it was thought, not only by its offers to Pyongyang but by organizing others to endorse its agenda. Whether this new urgency was due to discomfort with the status quo or misreading signals from others, the debate was well removed from media debates elsewhere.

The United States was viewed somewhat warily for its excessive patience with North Korea, tough line toward China and Russia, and soft line toward Japan, while calling on South Korea to separate history from security. Apart from some conservative angst about letting such differences impact relations, Park’s policy toward China, Japan, and Russia was not much criticized. As talk spread that Kim Jong-un might visit Russia in 2015 for the May celebration of the 60th anniversary of victory in WWII, some warned that Moscow was preparing to nullify sanctions against the North, even as some saw an opportunity to implement Park’s Eurasia Initiative and seize a chance for diplomacy. Russians were appealing for implementation of trilateral economic cooperation with North Korea and for Seoul to relax its conditions for resuming the Six-Party Talks, fueling the case that Seoul is key to altering Kim Jong-un’s calculus in regard to engagement. Yet, the US sought a tougher line on Moscow as well as continued sanctions enforcement. When Obama had visited East Asia in late April, Moscow was secondary, given three main triangular lenses: Japan, China, and North Korea.

As much as Park Geun-hye sought to build trust with North Korea, cozied up to China, and kept pressure on Japan, progressives insisted that she could pursue these objectives much better. On July 21, Moon Chung-in blamed Park for failing to make a breakthrough with Pyongyang, which would unlock the door to diplomacy with the four great powers.11 He argued that closer ties with Beijing would follow, and Tokyo and Moscow would be dissuaded from cooperating with the North in order to pressure the South. Inter-Korean relations are not the dependent variable, as many argue, but the independent variable to reduce pressure from China and the US. Seoul must stabilize the regional order, encouraging Sino-US cooperation. The more conflict, the worse it is for Seoul’s national interests. Moon further argued that Seoul could enhance its value for Beijing by bridging its proposed norms and institutions with US alliances and design some norms of its own.

Thinking on China in 2014

The “pivot to Asia” worried some commentators that it would reduce China’s incentives to work with the US on North Korea. Indeed, it was linked to US “strategic patience” and prioritization of US-Japan-South Korean trilateralism as a barrier to Seoul’s agenda for focusing on North Korea and boosting ties to China as key for that pursuit. The pivot was criticized as having an excessive focus on the US-Japan alliance, hampering other issues from being resolved. The North Korean nuclear issue had stalled, as cooperation with China was not encouraged. Both on the left and on the right, this led to frustration. Many sought to keep alive Seoul’s options with Beijing. While the US was trying to counter China through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), cooperation with China was necessary to have the desired outcome, given that Southeast Asian countries had much closer economic relations with Beijing and Seoul also saw hope in its ties with Beijing. Also, US neglect of the Abe administration’s revisionism in order to empower its alliance with Japan damages the US position with Beijing as well as Seoul.

Assuming that China was intent on stability, many argued that South Korea had an opening to win its cooperation concerning North Korea if the right kind of strategic vision is proposed to ease China’s concerns. It must not be bypassed in reunification plans or isolated by alliance moves. Many of its concerns can be addressed: on history by keeping pressure on Japan to back away from revisionist moves; on North Korea by taking a multilateral approach eschewing regime change and working closely with China; on values by downplaying Seoul’s support for US themes; on alliance military build-ups by distancing Seoul from those viewed in Beijing as directed at it; and on Japan by not boosting bilateral military ties or trilateralism with the US. Deference to China remained a major concern in Park’s foreign policy and in the debate in Seoul over it. As Chinese labeled Obama’s pivot a containment strategy and called the US-South Korean alliance the main constraint to deepening bilateral China-South Korean ties, many Koreans looked for ways to accommodate China. They calculated that differences over North Korea, history, and maritime issues were all manageable, as Seoul kept its distance from US and Japanese activities—made harder as the US-Japan alliance strengthened.

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. Indeed, she envisioned NAPCI as the multilateral security 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. Park kept trying to build bilateral trust through 2015.

In mid-2014, geopolitical tensions grew more complicated. Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Seoul before Pyongyang—taken as a positive sign in South Korea—but his messages were not so well received, especially on collaborating over the history issue. Meanwhile, US desire to locate the THAAD missile system in South Korea was unmistakable. Together, this raised the urgency of clarifying Seoul’s diplomatic strategy. Yet the most conspicuous response was to assume that Seoul’s strategic opportunity was growing since it was the only country with a sound relationship with the two competing great powers. China encouraged this optimism, suggesting that South Korea, not just North Korea, could be a “buffer zone” and it would gain from “balanced diplomacy.” No longer, it was argued, does Beijing separate Seoul from Pyongyang. Instead, it has an overall “diplomacy toward the Korean Peninsula.” Assuming that China is so upset with North Korea’s nuclear development and disrespect for China that it has turned more to South Korea, the prevailing discourse grew more optimistic about taking advantage of the deeper Sino-US rivalry. It was said that Seoul could serve as a bridge even as Sino-US relations declined over other issues.

The backlash against such rosy arguments was considerable. On North Korea, despite Xi’s support for Park’s Dresden Declaration, indirect as it was, he had stuck to “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” If some interpreted that to mean no adverse impact on China would be acceptable, the possibility was raised that China had a much bigger transformation of South Korea in mind.

Chung Jae-ho assessed China-South Korean relations after the Xi visit to Seoul, arguing that the “Seoul-in the-China orbit” thesis is overblown despite claims since Park’s June 2013 “trip for heart-to-heart building of trust” that relations have never been better.12 Xi had scarcely changed his position from 2013 on North Korea, called again for the Six-Party Talks, and pressed without success on Japan. If a year earlier Xi was more of an unknown quantity and Sino-US relations uncertain, Park now faced growing concern about China’s “assertive rise” and Sino-US divisions with Seoul caught in the middle. The letdown after the Xi visit was unmistakable although Park kept up hopes for a year.

Thinking on Japan in 2014

Believing that Abe’s late 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine meant that Japan would stay on course to become a “normal state,” commentators insisted on sticking to Park’s hard line and trying to get the US to pressure Abe, as it did after the visit. Yet, there were warnings that Seoul not overplay its hand, given regional geopolitics, and not give the impression that it is acting in league with Beijing.

When Obama travelled through Asia in April 2014, it was clear that his priority was a stronger US-Japan alliance, posing a challenge for Koreans, who had recently viewed the US-South Korean alliance as in the forefront. Increased US pressure for Japan-South Korean reconciliation was evident, too, seen in a March trilateral summit. Yet national identity kept a tight grip on Korean consciousness, even as Obama strove to shift the focus to international security. The defensive reaction was pronounced in Korea, blaming Japan’s historical conflicts with neighbors for regional instability, when Washington had its eyes on Chinese and North Korean threats. The focus was put on changing US thinking, appealing to it on such issues as recognizing that the East Sea is the name of the Sea of Japan. Requests to separate security from the history issue coincided with divergence in views of China and diplomacy toward North Korea. Yet there were also voices recognizing the dead-end nature of Seoul’s policy toward Japan, which was alienating its ally. Focusing on history, it was said, played into Chinese efforts to change the subject from the US “values alliance” and alienated the US, while giving an edge to Japan-US relations. In light of this awareness, it was not surprising that Park on liberation day refocused on the future, saying that the 50th anniversary of normalization should be a starting point and proposing cooperation in areas other than history. Her position was starting to shift.

Overview of Park Administration Thinking in 2015

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. Eager to talk to Kim Jong-un, Park advanced the “Eurasia Initiative” launched in October 2013, projecting a “Silk Road Express” of transport from Busan to Europe accompanied by energy and trade networks through North Korea and Russia. Moscow was the chief target of this initiative, and its recent upsurge in diplomatic and economic ties to Pyongyang made it of more interest. It was said that rising North Korea-Russia economic cooperation could lead to trilateral economic cooperation in the framework of the Eurasia Initiative. Seoul was eager to keep Russia’s support.

Although some in Seoul worried that the “rebalance to Asia” damaged Sino-US relations and, thus, complicates Seoul’s diplomacy, others saw it as an “important symbolic manifestation” of the US commitment to Asian security, including the North Korean threat and as leverage for China-South Korean relations.13 South Korean public opinion strongly supported the alliance, and Park was refusing to take an equidistant approach to Washington and Beijing, as China had sought. Yet, pleading that Seoul’s strategic dilemma was arguably more pronounced than that of any other Asian country, due to China’s support for North Korea and the South’s unique position between continental and maritime Asia, many strove to find a way to straddle the growing Sino-US military competition. 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 ROK 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. But 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. The US side did not openly oppose the initiative but responded skeptically that more proof of its feasibility was necessary. As on repeated occasions, US analysts saw Seoul badly misjudging the regional environment.

Optimistic talk of Seoul’s potential as a middle power to change regional architecture conflicted with growing pessimism about what it could achieve. Optimism rested on the view that China had become a more promising partner in dealing with North Korea, given poor bilateral ties, but they were beginning to improve. Optimism also rested on a judgment that Sino-US relations were more cooperative than competitive, but by 2015 this was untenable. A third factor was ongoing confidence in strong US-South Korean relations, but even when Park and Obama in October 2015 claimed their meeting went well, there was an undercurrent of discord and a sense of a ticking time bomb that they would have to face, given divisions on North Korea, China, and Japan. Finally, if some Koreans took the launch of NAPCI as the start of an era of regionalism, in which Seoul would lead the way, optimism was in no way echoed in Washington.14 Park’s moves to reassure the US convinced some that she was succeeding, but the façade of a successful summit with Obama misread US expectations, given growing alarm about China and growing confidence in Japan-US ties, for Seoul to sign onto a regional strategy. The differences emerged in challenging China’s aggressive moves, joining with Japan on regional security, and beefing up deterrence. Pessimistic arguments were rising to the surface. Park’s concessions did not satify the US, but alienated China.

Clarity was missing in thinking through five options for Seoul elucidated in one analysis: enhancing military deterrence, strengthening the US-South Korean alliance, reclaiming diplomatic ownership, resuming the Six-Party Talks, and rethinking middle-power diplomacy. Pure-balancing of China through the first two options risked entrapment in a Sino-US conflict, but light hedging in the third option had the drawback of increasing dependence on China substantially; the fourth option was a recipe for pure bandwagoning with China. The final option, specified in 2015, was to shift away from self-confident, activist diplomacy to reinforce the first two options while cautiously exploring what is possible in conditions of increasing bipolarity—what is viewed as heavy hedging versus China.15

Thinking on China in 2015

Although 2016 is usually flagged as the year when China-South Korean relations turned irreversibly bad, 2015 served as a precursor, as seen from South Korea. The aftermath of the Park-Xi summit of 2014 coupled with the backlash from the Park appearance with Xi at the September 2015 victory event were factors, but so were perceptions of a downturn in Sino-US relations and the need to make a choice. After Park’s trip to China, Chun Yungwoo argued it was of less consequence than many had argued since the idea that Beijing will help to resolve the nuclear issue is a fantasy. Intensified pursuit of Beijing on this only increases its voice on other issues. Beijing has essentially financed the nuclear arms development by limiting UN sanctions and increasing its imports from the North. After giving the impression that South Korea is being incorporated into the Chinese regional order, Park must restore US confidence by agreeing on military measures to counter the North’s threat.16

Critics were pouncing on Park for her foreign policy. On one side, she was accused of giving the impression of leaning to China, alienating the US in 2015 even more than in 2014. On the other, her overtures to China were seen as failing to lead to talks with Pyongyang or signs that China will be helpful. Having raised expectations unduly, she bore the brunt of blame for obvious failure.

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 debate about being pressed to pick a side only intensified. The expectation Park had nurtured about reunification as a “jackpot” and growing 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, boxed into a corner near the end of 2015. For the sake of the South Korean relationship, she defied China and public opinion to cut a deal with Abe.

Thinking on Japan in 2015

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. Pointing to this state visit as a turning point, Chung-min Lee predicted that it could “trigger a minor U-turn” in Korean foreign policy even as Koreans were waiting to evaluate Abe’s 70th anniversary speech in August.17 Yet, writing just before the summit, Sue Mi Terry posed an agenda for three-way strategic cooperation—joint peacekeeping missions, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, counter-narcotics, cyberspace, humanitarian assistance, and disaster operations—suggesting that the US could act as a honest broker. Yet her call for trilateral security talks did not gain the necessary support, particularly given Park’s insistent priority on history issues with Abe.18

Park found her foreign policy criticized by 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 as well. The security consequences of South Korean tensions with Japan had become more sensitive than ever. Also, on values US-Japan resistance to dwelling on historical memory issues was isolating Seoul.

Anticipation rose over what Abe would include in the 75th anniversary statement in August. There was both nervousness that the relationship could get worse if Abe did not show restraint and a slight sense of opportunity that the ongoing stalemate could be broken, even if hopes centered on Washington more than Tokyo. A big reason for anticipating improvement was the notion that Japan’s historical revisionism would be likely to so offend the US that US pressure would focus there.19 Progressive warnings of worse to come took a different tack. They pointed to a perceptual gap between the two sides on the 1965 normalization agreement. For Seoul, it was a humiliating outcome, which must be changed, notably the omitted “comfort women” issue. Japan, however, could not abandon the 1965 framework.20 Meanwhile, the US tilt to Japan on history was evident.21 It was recognized that the US considered Seoul rigid, damaging ties to Japan and US interests. Talk of changing US opinion through public diplomacy revealed how out of touch some Koreans were,

A sense of isolation within the triangle only deepened with recognition that it is about China. Tokyo joined Washington in rejecting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and preparing to join the TPP. Defense ties wee tightening, along with pressure on Seoul. After Abe’s April visit a qualitatively new relationship obliged Seoul to respond, many argued. Coupled with concern about rising anti-Korean attitudes in Japan, this awareness spurred calls for Park to drop her linkage of history issues to a summit with Abe. Awaiting the Abe statement, attention was turned to whether Abe would mention the four words “colonization, apology, aggression, and deep remorse.” Indeed, they were included but left ambiguous in the way they were used, leaving Koreans mainly unsatisfied.

With the statement settled to apparent US satisfaction, pressure on Seoul rose precipitously. A Park-Obama summit was seen as targeted at altering Japan-South Korean ties with security in the forefront, despite Korean discomfort with Japan’s expanded military role. Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” had drawn Japan in and was turning to South Korea. Park Cheol-hee agreed with cooperating more, arguing that it is an asset to assure “passive peace” in case of a North Korean military provocation. The seven United Nation Commands stationed in Japan should be utilized to prevent the worst-case scenario, and the backup of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces is also essential to prevent misjudgment by North Korea’s leader.22 Yet the mood was unprepared for a “final and irreversible” agreement.


Pre-THAAD and before 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, pessimistic reasoning on Japan, 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. Doubling down on her pursuit of Korea-centered regionalism did not persuade any of the countries concerned. On the surface, Park had a good summit with Obama in October 2015, but she could not longer go forward with the initiatives that guided her administration to date. She had to change course.

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. The exception in 2008-10 was Lee Myung-bak. As Seoul’s situation grew more dire—North Korea’s rising threat capacity, the shift in China to greater assertiveness, Sino-US relations deteriorating, Russia tightening ties to China and also searching for a bond with North Korea—South Korea insisted it could do more to draw these states together under its leadership. This willful blindness could not long persist.

Second, the mirage of reunification drove policies toward China and Russia more than to North Korea. Little was known about North Korean politics, and misjudgments of China’s reasoning somehow persisted after China’s troubling responses to North Korea turning its back on the Six-Party Talks and then launching attacks on the South in 2010. Lee Myung-bak under this shadow veered away from overoptimism, but Koreans may have been so disheartened by the reality they faced that they—conservatives as well as progressives—backed Park’s strong revival of it. More than any other factor behind this was the longing for a path to reunification, despite the divisions over the sort of transition that would require and what financial burden was needed.

Third, having lived in the world of Cold War bipolarity for four decades, South Koreans were so enamored of diplomatic diversification that they hung onto it even when conditions had turned against this possibility. Afraid of losing their voice, they pretended they did not have to change. Fearing the consequences of a revival of bipolarity, they desperately clung to their autonomy. China, Japan, and, possibly, the United States played a role in fostering this world of illusions. In the case of China, it nourished false hopes, although it also missed opportunities to sustain them as seen by 2015 and more so after. Keen on driving a wedge between Seoul and both Washington and Tokyo, Beijing played on false hopes until its duplicity was clearly exposed. In Japan’s case, it aroused unnecessary alienation—more due to Abe in 2013-14 than before. If a more accommodating Japanese posture could have eased Seoul’s awakening to the hard facts of regional security, that was not forthcoming. The US helped to calm Abe’s revisionist language and played a critical role in enabling Park to change course, but that did not persuade Koreans.

Finally, the US strove to accommodate a succession of South Korean leaders except in 2001 when Bush offered no hope to Kim Dae-jung. Such US “strategic patience” with an ally could have been vital for avoiding any rupture but it also likely encouraged excessive expectations. Yet it was also Washington that quietly tried to lower those expectations, as seen in 2014-15.

1. Taeho Kim, “Security Challenges and the Changing Balance on the Korean Peninsula,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: Asia at a Tipping Point (Washington: DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2012), pp. 113-26.

2. Leif-Eric Easley, “Diverging Trajectories of Trust in Northeast Asia: South Korea’s Security Relations with Japan and China,” in Asia at a Tipping Point, pp. 149-69.

3. Park Cheol-hee, “Bilateral Competition and Cooperation under New Leadership: South Korea and Japan,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: Asia’s Slippery Slope (Washington: DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2013), pp. 39-50.

4. Scott Snyder, “Bilateral Competition and Cooperation under New Leadership: South Korea and the U.S.” in Asia’s Slippery Slope, pp. 51-63.

5. Ibid.

6. Chung Jae-ho, “Leadership Changes and South Korea’s China Policy,” in Asia at a Tipping Point, pp. 5-17.

7. Gilbert Rozman, KEI, 2014

8. See-won Byun, “China’s National Identity and the Sino-U.S. National Identity Gap: The View from Korea,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies: Asia’s Slippery Slope (Washington: DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2013), pp. 97-111.

9. Park Cheol-hee, “Bilateral Competition and Cooperation under New Leadership: South Korea and Japan,” in Asia’s Slippery Slope,” pp. 39-50.

10. Chosun Ilbo, March 2014.

11. Joongang Ilbo, July 21, 2015.

12. Chung Jae Ho, “A South Korean Perspective,” The Asan Forum, September 29, 2014.

13. Chung-min Lee, “Recalibrating the Rebalance: A View from South Korea,” The Asan Forum, April 9, 2015.

14. Lee Shin-wha, “South Korea’s Middle Power Multilateral Diplomacy: Optimistic and Pessimistic Views,” The Asan Forum, December 7, 2015.

15. Kuik Cheng-Chwee, “Introduction to the Special Forum: Decomposing and Assessing South Korea’s Hedging Options,” The Asan Forum, June 11, 2015.

16. Chun Yungwoo, Donga Ilbo, September 18, 2015;

17. Chung-min Lee, “A South Korean Perspective,” The Asan Forum, May.15, 2015.

18. Sue Mi Terry, “South Korea’s Triangular Relations: Japan-South Korea-U.S. Relations,’ in Asia’s Slippery Slope, pp. 7-21.

19. Joongang Ilbo, January 6, 2015.

20. Hankyoreh, February 12, 2015.

21. Chosun Ilbo, March 3, 2015.

22. Park Cheol-hee, Joongang Ilbo, December 16, 2015.

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