Special Forum Issue

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

Trustpolitik, middle power diplomacy, and partisan narratives

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On the heels of Park Geun-hye’s election—and the introduction of her “trustpolitik”—there was a sense that South Korean foreign policy was undergoing a sea change. After a dizzying back-and-forth between “Sunshine” engagement and containment by “strategic patience” vis-à-vis North Korea, Park had hoped to strike a balance: building trust by decoupling initiatives for economic cooperation and security deterrence. To this end, she courted Beijing openly and vigorously—and, for a moment, concerns about South Korea’s realignment appeared genuine. Meanwhile, South Korea’s relations with Japan deteriorated to new lows over the years as controversies surrounding historical revisionism periodically resurfaced: high-profile visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, the celebrations of “Takeshima Day,” and textbook amendments dominated public discourse. Tepid as they were, US efforts to forge a trilateral security framework were finding little resonance in South Korea that had found renewed optimism in China and deepening distrust of Japan.

To parse through these changes, this article takes stock of the trends in partisan narratives on foreign policy issues in South Korea from 2013 to 2015. To this aim, it compares editorials from five major newspapers in South Korea, which are often considered to represent partisan narratives: Chosun, Joongang, and Donga for a conservative coverage and Kyunghyang and Hankyoreh for a progressive one. Partisan narratives of key events over time reveal a general polarization of public discourse on foreign policy, but also a rare and enduring consensus on select issues—such as Japanese colonial history—that continue to unify the country. Four sets of debates are covered based on South Korea’s most salient foreign policy referents: North Korea, the US, China, and Japan.

North Korea

On North Korea, the partisan divide has been particularly wide and growing wider. Two topics dominated discussions of North Korea in the South during this period: (1) the stability of the North Korean regime (in the aftermath of Jang Song-thaek’s execution); and (2) the prospects of Park Geun-hye’s “trustpolitik.” While both sides found cause for concern in the immediate term—more provocations were likely—their prescriptions for policy in the longer run tended to vary widely. For the conservatives, in particular, Jang’s ouster and Park’s “trustpolitik” signaled an opportune moment for diplomacy with China; Beijing appeared intent on reining in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, progressives guarded against what they construed were populist impulses driving Park’s policy change; to strike a meaningful balance, in their view, Park needed to offer more without conditions. Conspicuously absent in progressive analyses was a mention of China.   

Internal (in)stability

The sudden and public execution of Jang Song-thaek on December 12, 2013, triggered renewed discussions about the possibility of regime collapse, the consequences of instability in North Korea, and China’s role. An uncle of Kim Jong-un, Jang was widely deemed the second-most powerful figure in the North; he was also famed to be reform-minded and had campaigned to introduce China-like economic overhaul.1 For this reason, many saw his overthrow as Kim’s attempt consolidate power as well as to signal his intention to resist Chinese style reform. Beijing’s displeasure at the news of Jang’s ouster was evident; one observer in the Global Times—the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece—stated that Jang’s fall “reveals Pyongyang’s anxious desire to shake off its overdependence on China and find a way out of the deadlock with the US.”2 Though the official response was far more tepid, reinforcing that the incident is North Korea’s “internal affair,”3 an overwhelming majority of observers believed ties had been strained.4

Partisan narratives were divided as to whether Jang’s purge indicates North Korea’s internal instability or Kim’s growing power. Progressive coverage of the event tended to emphasize the latter. According to Hankyoreh on December 4, 2013, Jang’s exit signaled Kim’s ability to project unity without a long-time party patron. In this view, Kim executed Jang and his followers—all from Kim’s father’s generation—because he finally could stand on his own.5 At the same time, a Kyunghyang editorial on December 10, 2013, suggested that more aggressive actions on the international stage would emerge as Kim seeks to consolidate one-man rule.6 It called for closer examination of the deep internal fissures in North Korean domestic politics as inter-Korean relations entered a new phase of the Kim regime.

Conservative coverage focused, instead, on the long-term consequences of the North’s instability, and highlighted the extreme extents to which the Kim regime was willing to go to install fear. A Donga editorial on December 10, 2013 noted: “while the Kim regime may stabilize in the short run [through a series of purges], it is uncertain how long the regime can survive as a one-man dictatorship.”7 A politics of fear was a “double-edged sword,” it asserted, which could sow the seeds of the regime’s demise even if it could temporarily stamp out dissent. Meanwhile, both Donga (in a later editorial on December 14) and Chosun on the same day underscored the cruelty of the Kim regime.8 Donga portrayed Kim’s decision as “barbaric”; Chosun called it a sign of his “madness.” While calling similarly for vigilance, the tones in these pages were far more loathsome: a stronger, swifter response to this “abnormal” regime was necessary.

One particular aspect on which progressive outlets had been notably silent, but which conservative coverage abounded, was the implications of Jang’s ouster for China-North Korea relations. A Segye editorial on December 10, 2013, argued that “pro-Chinese” factions within the North were in retreat, and another editorial on December 18 noted streams of defections as evidence of mounting instability.9 Both asserted this was an opportune moment for South Korea to tighten relations with Beijing: China is able—and may now be willing—to rein in Pyongyang and dampen the consequences of Kim’s erratic behavior in Seoul’s favor. This view was echoed in a Chosun editorial on January 3, 2014, which argued that China no longer saw North Korea as a strategic asset, but a liability.10 The shift in this strategic environment was a boon for diplomacy. Chosun wrote with striking optimism: “2014 could be the first year that the United States and China could start strategic conversations about the fundamental solutions for the North Korean problem.”

Trustpolitik

Against this backdrop, among the most important developments in South Korean foreign policy was the introduction of Park’s “trustpolitik”—a loosely-defined principle underlying a mixed—if somewhat incoherent—set of measures aimed at deterring and engaging North Korea. As a presidential candidate, Park shared the blueprints of her North Korea policy in Foreign Affairs: “In order to transform the Korean Peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust, South Korea should adopt a policy of “trustpolitik,” establishing mutually binding expectations based on global norms.”11 She argued that this approach will be two-pronged: on the one hand, trust must be maintained through adherence to existing agreements, and on the other, consequences for breaches of trust must remain credible. This required a concerted effort by the international community to bind North Korea to “global norms” by building the right incentive structure.12

In practice, this approach generated two streams of initiatives. First, the Park administration sought to mobilize international support for her “trust” agenda and deepen inter-Korean cooperation. During her summit meetings with US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping, Park secured—at least rhetorically—their support for the policy of trustpolitik.13 With their endorsement, she adopted a series of symbolic and material gestures to engage North Korea, including normalizing the Kaesong Industrial Complex and providing humanitarian assistance via international organizations such as the UNICEF. Later, she also launched an attendant regional initiative called the Northeast Asian Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), aimed at fostering trust and cooperation with China, Japan, Russia, among others.14 As a multilateral process, the NAPCI was intended to create an “infrastructure of trust”—to institutionalize dialogue and regional cooperation on shared “soft” interests, such as public health, environmental protection, and disaster relief.15 These initial efforts, she asserted, would be followed by more ambitious attempts to cooperate on “hard” security issues.

Second, the Park administration still continued to emphasize deterrence. In the initial months of Park’s inauguration, North Korea instigated a series of nuclear and missile provocations, which tested Park’s commitment to trust-building.16 In addition, it shuttled the Kaesong Industrial Complex—an industrial park that combines South Korean capital and North Korean labor for joint economic enterprises17—and unilaterally suspended plans for family reunions, which were scheduled for September 2013.18 According to a survey by the South Korean Unification Ministry, South Korean firms in KIC suffered close to $910 million dollars in losses during the suspension of its operation.19 Even so, the Park administration was lauded—including by Obama—for maintaining a firm and balanced stance, in favor of pursuing both international pressure and diplomatic overtures.20

The nature, scope, and prospects of Park’s “trustpolitik” became a key area of contention in partisan narratives during this period. Conservative media highlighted Park’s effort to reframe unification as an economic, rather than political agenda. During her first New Year’s address in 2014, she had referred to unification as a “jackpot (daebak),” claiming that Korea’s economic future in the globalized world lies, first and foremost, in unification.21 To this end, she had also launched a preparatory committee for reunification as part of a three-year economic innovation plan.22 Conservative commentators also noted the strategic imperative for South Korea to adopt a balanced approach toward North Korea and forge trust among “unlikely” parties in the region. On Chosun Ilbo on July 3, 2014, former deputy foreign minister Kim Sung-han argued that China was central to any resolution regarding North Korea. Yet, he underscored the distinctions in South Korea’s relations with the United States, which is based on shared values and democratic principles, and with China, which reflect shared interests in economic cooperation and regional stability. Marking these distinctions, in his view, were critical for Park’s trustpolitik and South Korea’s future as a strategic balancer.

Progressive media, on the other hand, questioned the motives behind Park’s approach. In a Hankyoreh roundtable discussion, several experts pointed out the practical limitations of Park’s foreign policy concepts, ranging from domestic economic insecurities, waning public support for unification, and continued international economic sanctions on North Korea.23 They stressed, in particular, two problems: (1) recent controversies surrounding misuse of the National Security Law and other actions by her government refute the purported spirit of her “trust-based” approach; and (2) even if by economic means, the kind of unification that Park envisions is ultimately one of absorption. Given these internal contradictions, 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.

United States

On the United States, debates over South Korea’s defense posture and alliance—including attendant themes such as the nuclear umbrella and the OPCON transfer—dominated discussions. These debates highlighted the pressure points in the US-South Korean alliance. As North Korea consolidated its status as a nuclear-armed state, fears of a tilting balance of power prompted calls for indigenous nuclearization; this marked an emergent identity clash among the conservatives, as some began to question the extent to which US assurances could effectively deter the North. At the same time, debates over OPCON transfer illustrated the “stickiness” of security institutions: most—including the public—feared any instability that this transfer might introduce and searched for ways to preserve the institutional entanglement. Amid a new series of provocations from the North, progressive criticisms of procedural illegitimacy largely fell flat.   

Nuclear weapons

On nuclear weapons, Park continued to warn about the danger of a “nuclear domino effect” in the region as she sought to galvanize international pressure against North Korean nuclear weapons program.24 But some prominent members of the National Assembly had begun to challenge the status quo reliance on US nuclear assurances. Won Yoo-chul, then chairman of the Committee for Formulating Strategy Against North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons, and Chung Mong-joon, its longest serving member, voiced their support for indigenous nuclear capability25; others suggested introducing tactical nuclear weapons instead.26 Overall, this discursive development reflected growing concerns about the credibility of US nuclear deterrence and South Korea’s changing threat landscape.

Partisan narratives about nuclear weapons bifurcated as a small, but loud minority of the conservative political elite began to voice support for nuclearization. In an oft-cited Chosun interview on April 22, 2013, then assemblyman Chung argued that South Korea needed nuclear weapons to maintain peace with the North.27 When asked about the US nuclear umbrella, he answered: “It’s like a marriage certificate. Married people can get a divorce, can’t they?” Because the US nuclear umbrella has no operational guidelines (unlike the nuclear sharing agreement the EU has with the US), South Korea needed better assurances. Chung added: “The government and the intellectuals have been irresponsible.”

Progressive commentators challenged this perspective. Moon Chung-in (together with Peter Hays) argued that indigenous nuclearization in South Korea was neither feasible nor desirable.28 They raised, in particular, three related points: (1) mutual deterrence by nuclear balance is fragile because the incentive for preemption is too high (especially when the nuclear-armed states are geographically so close) and it will undermine the deterrent effects of South Korea’s existing conventional weapons; (2) South Korea will be defying its obligations as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and the Nuclear Supply Group, which will incur significant diplomatic and economic costs; and (3) the US nuclear capabilities and assurance are more credible than whatever indigenous nuclear weapon South Korea will be able to build under time constraints, and no vacuum of protection is acceptable. Underlying each of these arguments was a critical assumption that nuclearization will damage the alliance with the US—a rare emphasis in the progressive narrative.  

The debate over nuclear weapons gained renewed salience in the wake of the 2015 US-Iran nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States + Germany) together with the European Union, following a 20-month-long negotiation. This detailed document provides sanctions relief in return for Iran’s verified compliance with nuclear-related obligations.29 The success of this multilateral deal found resonance among many observers in South Korea, who saw it as a potential blueprint for negotiations on the North Korean nuclear problem. The similarities and differences between Iran and North Korea became the center of partisan narratives on the nuclear issue.

Progressive coverage, in particular, focused on the lessons of the negotiation process for the North Korean nuclear problem and other issues requiring international cooperation. A Hankyoreh editorial on July 15, 2015, for instance, portrayed the deal as an outcome of restraint and compromise.30 It recalled the disastrous consequences of resorting to force in Iraq or maximum pressure in Greece; by comparison, what worked in the case of Iran was that the US “gave and took what it could,” while respecting Iran’s “exercise of sovereignty.” According to Hankyoreh, then, the problem with the North Korean issue was two-fold: a lack of “will to resolve” in the US and, relatedly, an absence of activism to foster the right conditions in South Korea. Look beyond just the US was the message.

Conservative coverage, on the other hand, differed slightly in interpretation, seeing the Iran deal as evidence of a change in US attitudes from “strategic patience.” A Joongang editorial on July 15, 2015, found cause of optimism in three ways.31 First, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama had promised a “handshake with the 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. Second, key members of the Six Party Talks—the US, China, and Russia—worked together to forge the Iran deal. This provided ideal operational conditions for cooperation on North Korea. Third, North Korea should find itself increasingly isolated as its partners Cuba and Iran have opted to work with—rather than against—the US. This may incentivize the North to seek a resolution of its own. For these reasons, Joongang argued the atmosphere was ripe for deal-making.

OPCON

On the OPCON, the official discourse during this period had shifted from a “time-based” to “condition-based” transfer. The OPCON debate first appeared in 2005 when then president Roh Moo-hyun expressed his desire for its transfer: “I have been emphasizing self-reliant defense. It is so natural and fundamental for a sovereign nation to have this.”32 In 2007, he officially proposed the transfer to then US president George Bush and the two agreed to execute the transfer on April 15, 2012.33 This, however, became postponed to December 1, 2015 under Roh’s successor Lee Myung-bak, and further postponed under Park for an unspecified date in the 2020s. Rather than stipulate a particular date, Park argued that the transfer should take place when South Korea has developed sufficient, “critical” military capabilities, including notably its missile defense system.

Partisan narratives about the OPCON transfer surrounded the trade-off between its utility for improving inter-Korean relations versus potential for harming US-South Korean alliance. For those in the progressive camp, the key motivation for the OPCON transfer was recovering autonomy to pursue peace and unification with North Korea and minimizing reliance on the US.34 In this vein, a Hankyoreh editorial on July 18, 2013 condemned Park and the broader conservative forces for choosing to relinquish the country’s sovereignty; the editorial also highlighted the secrecy with which the decision had been struck as an evidence of its illegitimacy.35 In a later editorial on October 1, 2013, Hankyoreh continued its criticism as the US began to request—presumably in return for delaying the OPCON transfer—South Korea’s participation in the US-coordinated missile defense network.36 This could not be more damaging to Park’s “trustpolitik,” it argued, as such maneuvers will engender fear and suspicion.

Some conservative outlets sympathized with the view that the decision lacked procedural legitimacy. A Joongang editorial on July 20, 2013, for instance, criticized it on three grounds.37 First, postponing a previously agreed upon transfer every few years hurts South Korea’s diplomatic credibility. Second, rather than forged in secrecy, a decision of this import should have first sought public consultation. Finally, the underlying reason for this repeated delay is that South Korean military does not the requisite capability to confront the North on its own. On this last point, Joongang stressed that the initiative to modernize the military has been thwarted due to various logistical challenges in the past. To overcome this hurdle, the government must obtain public approval for increasing investment into capacity-building.

Still, other conservative coverage sought to justify Park’s decision given its national security imperative. According to Donga on July 18, 2013, the details of the “conditions” for the transfer were still to be determined. Instead, it stated: “What is important—whether the OPCON transfer is executed on time or delayed somewhat—is that the United States and South Korea’s allied strategic capability against the North Korean threat cannot be weakened.” This seemed to suggest that, in fact, the emphasis on the specific date of the transfer is misplaced; so long as the decision provided greater national security, it was worthwhile. 

China

As China’s relations with North Korea soured, public discourse began to speculate about the prospects of China-South Korea cooperation. Two events, in particular, highlighted this debate: (1) Xi’s visit to Seoul in 2014; and (2) Park’s visit to Beijing in 2015. Both sides were increasingly optimistic about the warming ties with Beijing, although progressives underscored some fundamental constraints posed by the intensifying US-China competition. Most notably perhaps, conservatives who had historically chided cooperation with China were—if somewhat less enthusiastically—supportive of Park’s endeavor. This could signify one of two things: (1) a deepening identity clash as conservatives recalibrate how best to counter the North Korean threat; or (2) the dogmatization of partisan media as conservatives rallied in support of their conservative leader, regardless of the specific contours of her policy agenda. Either way, the surprising unity among partisan narratives on China boded well for Park’s trustpolitik.  

Xi’s visit

On July 3, 2014, Xi visited South Korea. The visit was seen as consequential for many reasons—Xi had not yet been to Pyongyang and the visit had emerged in the wake of Japan’s decision to revise its pacifist Constitution, presumably to counter China.38 For this reason, Xi’s visit was observed with wariness in the US, interpreting it as an attempt to drive a wedge among US allies. In advance of the visit, China’s vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin warned explicitly: “The United States and South Korea are allies, but I think South Korea will be cautious to respond to the request because South Korea, like China, wants stability and does not want to see tensions and an arms race.”39 In this manner, Xi’s visit was emblematic of intensifying US-China competition, and South Korea’s ambiguous role in it.

Partisan narratives split over the meaning of the visit. In general, 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. A Joongang editorial on July 4, 2014, noted that the visit signified a maturing of the two countries’ strategic partnership on issues ranging from trade, financial infrastructure, environmental protection, to nuclear safety; from a broad perspective, they had become “a step closer.”40 At the same time, Joongang emphasized: “US-South Korean alliance founded on principles of freedom and democracy is fundamentally different from China-South Korea relations based on economic gains and historical ties.” The key was, thus, to ensure the two did not become a zero-sum game.

By contrast, progressive outlets were less optimistic. A Hankyoreh editorial on July 4, 2014, observed that no meaningful consensus was reached on two issues of import: North Korean nuclear proliferation and Japanese historical revisionism.41 On the former, besides reiterating support for denuclearization, no specific solutions were provided; South Korea should have been the one to prepare creative options and steer the discussion, but it failed to embrace this kind of activism. Already, the US-led pressure approach, accompanied by multilateral sanctions, was losing support—even its most staunch ally Japan was loosening its grip in exchange for the return of Japanese abductees. Yet, a new course of action was nowhere to be seen. On the latter, no mention of Japan’s historical revisionism was made, although both China and South Korea shared interests in correcting it. Once again, Hankyoreh blamed Seoul’s tepid attitudes, fearing that any mentions 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 fundamental constraints in China-South Korea relations and a confirmation of the status quo positionalities.

Park’s visit

Still, Park continued to court China, culminating in her attendance as the only US ally at the Victory Day Parade in Beijing in 2015. This decision had been highly controversial abroad.42 Though the US State Department had officially maintained that it “respects” Seoul’s decision as a “sovereign” state, many were wary about possible strains this might pose on US-South Korean relations.43 Nonetheless, partisan narratives about Park’s decision were 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.

Indeed, progressive commentators welcomed Park’s decision to accept Xi’s invitation. A Hankyoreh editorial on August 27, 2015, saw Park’s visit as a sign of warming ties—a rare opportunity for her to cement China’s commitment to the multilateral peace process (within the Six-Party Talks framework).44 It noted, too, that the conditions for this type of diplomatic maneuver were propitious: there was now a stable channel of communication between the two Koreas, and South Korea had successfully arranged bilateral summits with all key stakeholders. Likewise, a Kyunghyang editorial on September 1, 2015, urged her to adopt an active approach to diplomacy, one that guards South Korea’s autonomy in the face of US-China competition.45

Surprisingly, conservative commentators—who have tended to prioritize US alliance—were also sympathetic toward Park’s decision. A Chosun Ilbo editorial on August 21, 2015, seemed to suggest it was inevitable: China is an integral part of South Korea’s economic and political realities; it was thus important for South Korea to engage China diplomatically.46 In this vein, a Donga Ilbo editorial on August 28, 2015, 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.47 A Joongang editorial on the same day echoed this message, emphasizing that the summit was a high-stakes event, because Park chose to go in spite of US and Japanese reservations.48 In this way, conservative coverage pressed for caution.

Some saw the conservative coverage of Park’s China policy during this period as unprincipled. One analyst referenced conservative reactions to previous China-related issues, including South Korea’s decision to join the China-led Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) or not to join the US-led THAAD missile defense system.49 In both occasions, conservative media condemned the government for pursuing a pro-China policy at the expense of alliance commitment. Yet, when Park sought to court China, criticisms by conservative commentators became muffled; instead, rosy projections about middle power diplomacy and South Korean leverage abounded. This, the analyst argued, indicated a “dogmatization” of conservative media, adopting whichever position is politically expedient for partisan interests.

Japan

Several scandals during this period continued to plague South Korea-Japan relations. On December 26, 2013, then Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo made an official visit to the Yasukuni Shrine—a controversial site that houses Japan’s war dead, including 14 convicted war criminals—to the outrage of South Korea and China. This had long been feared, as by Chosun on October 19, 2013, which noted the rise of historical revisionism under the Abe administration.50 By early April 2014, other controversies abounded, as Japanese officials made incendiary remarks about the lack of coercion of wartime sex slaves—commonly called the “comfort women”—and attended the “Takeshima Day” events. Crucially, Japan also introduced new history textbooks that described the disputed islands Japan’s “sovereign territory” and claimed South Korea’s occupation “unlawful.”51 Each controversy was seen as an attempt to warp the meaning of prior apologies and deny official recognition of responsibility. Tensions were mounting fast.

Unlike most other issues where partisan narratives tended to differ in scope and emphasis, they were uniquely consensual on Japanese historical revisionism. Both sides condemned Japan for its lack of contrition—which many observers described immature, arrogant, and dangerous—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-reputed “comfort women” agreement on December 28—that partisan narratives began to diverge once again, with a progressive emphasis on historical rectification and a conservative focus on strategic cooperation.

Yasukuni Shrine

Partisan narratives converged on the idea that the Yasukuni Shrine carried special connotations, which whitewash and glorify Japan’s violent past. When Abe likened the Shrine to the Arlington national cemetery in an interview with Foreign Affairs on May 16, 201352, criticisms reverberated in South Korea. A Joongang editorial on May 21, 2013, found the analogy entirely misguided53: it argued that while Arlington symbolized the unity and reconciliation of a divided country, Yasukuni worshipped those who fought in service of a militaristic empire. That one can visit Yasukuni to wish for peace was, therefore, a contradiction. A Hankyoreh editorial on the same day echoed this view, adding that “it was as ignorant, anti-historical speech-act as if the German chancellor paid her respects in Hitler’s grave and asked how it differed from going to Arlington.”54

Partisan narratives also voiced in unison that visits to Yasukuni Shrine constituted a provocation. This was particularly so when Abe himself made a surprise visit to the Shrine on December 26, 2013. A Donga editorial the next day argued that it was fundamentally at odds with Japan’s claims to seeking peace and, in fact, revealed the remnants of its imperial thinking.55 A Kyunghyang editorial on the same day similarly portrayed his visit as an “insult to history”—one that erases the image and reputation that Japan had sought to build as a peaceful country in the postwar period.56 Notably, Kyunghyang speculated, too, that Abe had orchestrated the visit on populist impulses; recalling South Korea’s ex-president Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Dokdo on the heels of a domestic legitimacy crisis, Kyunghyang saw Abe’s visit to the Shrine as a last-ditch effort to recover approval ratings. It warned in this regard: “Actions provoking nationalism in neighboring countries often give power to the hardliners and this in turn brings the conservatives within Japan together, leading to a vicious cycle where conflict intensifies. […] At a time when Abe should have refrained from disturbing the situation in Northeast Asia, he chose to light a fire in the powder magazine.”

History textbooks

Partisan narratives continued to converge as reports of Japan’s new history textbooks in mid-2014 and its coverage of the disputed islands raised South Korea’s ire. Both sides argued that the textbooks make reconciliation less likely in the future because they instill a misguided sense of patriotism and rationalize Japan’s past wrongdoings. In this regard, a Kyunghyang editorial on April 4, 2014, emphasized the importance of education for learning from history and avoiding past mistakes: recent textbook revisions defied this imperative by planting the seeds of conflict over generations.57 Likewise, a Joongang editorial on April 5, 2014, stressed how the islands were mischaracterized as illegally occupied by South Korea—a standpoint that will surely impart a desire for their “retrieval.”58

At the same time, conservative editorials noted the contradictory and gradual processes by which Japan had orchestrated the textbook revisionism. The aforementioned Joongang editorial criticized Abe’s “two-face” politics; he had put on a friendly face during the trilateral summit with the US in the Hague less than two weeks ago, but revealed his true attitudes when it mattered. A Chosun editorial on April 5, 2014, also pointed out that Japan had sought to revise its textbook a little by little since 2008 when it first explicitly acknowledged the “differences in perspectives” surrounding the territory.59 In 2010, it had only asserted one out of five islets to be its own; now it was claiming all of them. Overall, they insinuated that Japan was purposefully carrying out historical revisionism, countering suspicion with symbolic gestures but implementing a steady process of historical forgetting.

Conclusion

Partisan narratives during this period indicated important changes and continuities in South Korean foreign policy: (1) a growing rift on North Korea; (2) a surprising agreement on China; (3) a veiled divergence on the US; and (4) an enduring consensus on Japan.

A deepening rift about the implications of instability in the North Korean regime for Park’s foreign policy emerged. While both sides saw internal purges and external provocations as Kim’s attempt to consolidate power, they diverged on policy prescriptions. Progressives expected a strengthening of the North Korean regime as Kim eliminated factions; this, in their view, paved the way for more dialogue and compromise as a secure regime would find diversionary crises less necessary or desirable. Conservatives, meanwhile, speculated about the impending regime collapse in North Korea; they saw mounting frictions at home as evidence of a systemic flaw that would eventually result in breakdown. These varying interpretations undergirded what each side believed was the “right” balance of coercion and engagement vis-à-vis North Korea—with a progressive emphasis on tension reduction and a conservative focus on deterrence.

Still, partisan narratives struck a surprising accord on the necessity of China in Park’s “trustpolitik.” Progressives supported Park’s engagement with China, even as they questioned Park’s motives or China’s enthusiasm. More remarkably, conservatives also endorsed Park’s policy despite the frictions it would generate with the US. Beijing’s aloofness toward Pyongyang and the US “strategic patience” had created an auspicious opening for a more conspicuous balancing act. Though progressives identified and highlighted the inconsistencies in conservative stances vis-à-vis China as US demands for trilateralism grew, these criticisms found little traction in the midst of what appeared a genuine breakthrough in relations with China. Most took a wait-and-see approach.

Against this backdrop, tensions mounted over the nature and scope of South Korea’s commitment to the US alliance. North Korea’s missile and nuclear provocations continued to raise questions about the viability of US assurances, while a deepening “strategic partnership” with China generated contradictions in South Korea’s broader alignment decisions. This posed a particularly daunting dilemma for the country’s conservatives, whose identities had been historically conditioned by their antagonism of North Korea and, therefore, allegiance to the US. This was evident as a small but growing bloc of conservatives found “alternative” solutions to the North Korean threat—including self-nuclearization and bargaining with China—increasingly palatable. Yet, existing security institutions, such as the OPCON arrangement, provided some sense of continuity in the US-South Korean alliance. The conclusions to this debate were far from predetermined.

If partisan narratives continued to diverge on North Korea—and shape, by extension, those on the US and China—they proved unified on Japan in a unique and lasting manner. Amid a stream of controversies surrounding the Yasukuni visits, comfort women, territorial disputes, and textbook revisions, both sides pushed for a more aggressive stance. In this regard, Park’s sidelining of Abe was largely deemed appropriate if not inevitable. Any unilateral, conciliatory gestures would have triggered a strong public backlash; if there were attempts at rapprochement, they certainly could not be public. This would prove true when Park announces the “comfort women agreement” at the very close of 2015, having blindsided the country with a “final and irreversible” resolution that would resonate with few. In fact, the secrecy with which the deal had been forged will come to backfire massively a year later, when following a series of scandals, Park will be impeached for corruption.



1. Choe Sang-hun, The The New York Times, March 12, 2016.

2. Da Zhigang, Global Times, January 6, 2014.

3. Mu Chunshan, The Diplomat, December 21, 2013.

4. Scott Snyder, and See-won Byun, “Crying Uncle No More: Stark Choices for Relations,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 15, No. 3 (2013).

5. Hankyoreh, December 4, 2013.

6. Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 10, 2013.

7. Donga Ilbo, December 10, 2013.

8. Donga Ilbo, December 14, 2013. Chosun Ilbo, December 14, 2013.

9. Segye Ilbo, December 10 & 18, 2013.

10. Chosun Ilbo, January 3, 2014.

11. Park Geun-hye, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2011.

12. Yoon Byung-se, Global Asia, September 2013.

13. Mark Landler and David Sanger, The New York Times, May 7, 2013.

14. Zachary Keck, The Diplomat, May 9, 2013.

15. Lee Sang-hun, Asan Forum, December 14, 2014.

16. See Beyond Parallel: https://beyondparallel.csis.org/database-north-korean-provocations/

17. Curtis Melvin, 38 North, May 21 2013.

18. Scott Snyder, Asia Bound, January 31 2014.

19. Korea Chair Monitor, CSIS, June 13-June 26, 2013.

20. Mark Landler and David Sanger, The New York Times, May 8, 2013.

21. Park Geun-hye, New Year’s Address, January 6, 2014.

22. Asan Forum, March 2014

23. Hankyoreh, March 12, 2014.

24. Hong Kyudok, “A South Korean Perspective on Dealing with North Korean Provocations: Challenges and Opportunities,” in US-Korea Academic Studies (Korea Economic Institute, 2015), p. 211.

25. Chung Mong-joon, “Thinking the Unthinkable on the Korean Peninsula,” Issues & Insights, Vol. 14, No. 2 (January 24, 2014).

26. Chosun Ilbo, April 28, 2014.

27. Chosun Ilbo, April 22, 2013.

28. Peter Hays and Moon Chung-in, "한국, 핵무장 해야 하는가?", NAPSNet Policy Forum, July 28, 2014.

29. See “JCPOA at a glance,” Arms Control Association, November 2021: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/JCPOA-at-a-glance.

30. Hankyoreh, July 15, 2015.

31. Joongang Ilbo, July 15, 2015.

32. President Roh’s Speech at the 57th Armed Forces Day’s ceremony, October 1, 2005.

33. Yoon Seo-yeon. “Seoul’s Wartime Operational Control Transfer Debate,” Journal of International and Area Studies 22:2 (2015), pp. 89-108, p. 89.

34. Yoon 2015, 94. Yonhap, November 27, 2013.

35. Hankyoreh, July 18, 2013.

36. Hankyoreh, October 1, 2013.

37. Joongang Ilbo, July 20, 2013.

38. Jane Perlez, The New York Times, July 2, 2014.

39. Ibid.

40. Joongang Ilbo, July 4, 2014.

41. Hankyoreh, July 4, 2014.

42. Robert Kelly The Interpreter, September 7, 2015.

43. Hankyoreh, September 5, 2015.

44. Hankyoreh, August 27, 2015.

45. Kyunghyang Shinmun, September 1, 2015.

46. Chosun Ilbo, August 21, 2015.

47. Donga Ilbo, August 28, 2015.

48. Joongang Ilbo, August 28, 2015.

49. Kim Min-ha. Mediaus, August 28, 2015.

50. Chosun Ilbo, October 19, 2013.

51. Ankit Panda, The Diplomat, April 4, 2014.

52. Foreign Affairs, May 16, 2013.

53. Joongang Ilbo, May 20, 2013.

54. Hankyoreh, May 20, 2013.

55. Donga Ilbo, December 27, 2013.

56. Kyunghyang Shinmun, December 27, 2013.

57. Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 4, 2014.

58. Joonang Ilbo, April 5, 2014.

59. Chosun Ilbo, April 5, 2014.

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