The Year Ahead

South Korea’s Groundhog Year

Moon Jae-in has done everything he can to get his country right back where it started.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in
South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 24, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This was not a slow year for South Korea. Seoul has been on a roller coaster with all of its critical partners and foes—North Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and United States. Yet according to Gallup Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating in December was around 47 percent, about the same as his approval rating at the beginning of the year. It’s been that kind of year for Moon: fighting like hell just to stay in place. But one way or another, that will likely change in 2020.

For South Korea, 2019 began with great expectations in inter-Korean diplomacy. In February, Seoul watched with bated breath as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump met for the second time in Hanoi. The high of 2018, in which Moon coaxed Kim and Trump to meet in Singapore for the first-ever summit meeting between North Korea and the United States, galvanized South Korea. The possibility of an inter-Korean railway construction pushed the share price of engineering companies such as Hyundai Rotem to an all-time high. Seoul’s major law firms formed a task force on doing business in North Korea, expecting a rush of investors when Trump and Kim emerged from Hanoi’s Metropole Hotel with a deal that normalized relations between United States and North Korea.

Instead, the talks broke down. Trump, likely distracted by the congressional testimony of his personal attorney Michael Cohen, cut off the talks without even having the planned lunch with Kim. Moon gamely pushed to resuscitate the dialogue, and he briefly succeeded when Trump met with Kim at Panmunjom in June, a surprise summit that followed from Trump’s impromptu Twitter invitation sent while attending the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. But the renewed optimism was short-lived, as working-level talks held in Stockholm in October quickly fell apart. Reportedly, the North Korean negotiators came to Sweden only to make a dramatic exit. Since then, Pyongyang ominously warned of a “Christmas gift” for Trump, which U.S. officials expected to be a renewed round of missile testing. Thankfully, Christmas came and went with no significant movement from North Korea, other than a false alarm of a long range missile test from the Japanese national broadcaster NHK.

North Korea was hardly the only source of trouble for Moon. In July, Chinese and Russian air forces conducted a joint exercise during which a Russian A-50 command and control aircraft entered South Korean airspace. South Korean F-15 and F-16 fighter jets scrambled to the location and fired 20 flares and 360 machine gun rounds as warning shots, after the Russian plane did not respond to radio warnings.

For South Korea, 2019 was also a year in which friends became less friendly. Although tensions have been long brewing between South Korea and Japan over the toxic legacy of Imperial Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, the two countries were able to put historical issues on a separate track from their vibrant economic and cultural exchanges. That changed in July, when Tokyo announced it would impose export controls against South Korea on three critical chemicals used in high-end display and semiconductor manufacturing. Although Japan claimed the export controls were for national security purposes, the measure was widely seen as a retaliation for South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that survivors of the occupation who were forced to work for Japanese corporations during World War II were owed compensation from the corporations that used slave labor. A month after the export controls were imposed, Tokyo escalated further by dropping South Korea from the white list of preferred trading partners, imposing stricter export controls across the board. As the supply chains of the two countries are deeply integrated, Japan’s removal of South Korea from the white list became a symbol of Tokyo’s power and willingness to disrupt the South Korean economy without warning.

After issuing strong words, Moon engaged in brinkmanship by announcing the cancellation of the military intelligence-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), with Japan, the only military agreement between the two countries and one only established in 2016. It wasn’t that important a deal in practical terms. South Korea already has a GSOMIA-like agreement with NATO and 32 countries, including Russia, Pakistan, Romania, and Hungary—not exactly a list of critical security partners. But the value of GSOMIA was symbolic and emotional, particularly for the United States, which had expended a great deal of effort to have its two East Asian allies cooperate more closely.

U.S. foreign-policy circles launched a storm of criticism against Moon, claiming he was endangering the U.S. alliance system to the benefit of North Korea and China. Yet the logic behind Moon’s strong move was clear: Make a ruckus until the United States stepped in to act as a mediator. And, ultimately, his design prevailed. After sitting on the sidelines for months as the South Korea-Japan relationship deteriorated, the United States finally dispatched senior officials—Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell—to both Seoul and Tokyo to settle the dispute. At the last possible moment before GSOMIA was to formally expire, Moon reversed course and kept the agreement, in exchange for Tokyo’s beginning senior-level talks to discuss withdrawing export controls. After months of insisting that its trade war was a separate matter from the GSOMIA cancellation, Japan was quietly pushed into admitting that the two issues were in fact connected, while the history issue again receded into the background.

The United States, South Korea’s most important ally, presented its own challenge. Having failed to push Pyongyang to denuclearize, Trump decided to push Seoul into paying roughly five times as much as it currently does for the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea. The first meeting between the two countries to negotiate the defense cost-sharing, scheduled for two days, ended only after 80 minutes of discussion. U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris harangued South Korea’s lawmakers to the point that even the conservative, pro-U.S. lawmakers came away insulted. Yet Seoul’s negotiators stood firm; latest reports indicate that the United States has backed off from its quintuple demand and is more likely to settle for a single percentage point increase, plus additional weapons purchases from South Korea.

In 2019, Moon Jae-in fought hard for a draw on all fronts. South Korea is not paying five times the previous amount in defense contributions to the United States, but it will continue to face the issue as long as Trump is the president. Japan is gradually reconsidering the trade war, but its export control against South Korea persists. South Korea’s air force repelled an incursion by Russian and Chinese air forces, but one ferocious response will not change the lopsided balance of power that South Korea faces against potentially hostile and huge neighbors. Yet most importantly, despite the deteriorating inter-Korean relations with no denuclearized North Korea in sight, the Korean Peninsula is not back in the days of “fire and fury” in 2017—at least, not yet.

That will likely change in 2020. North Korea has set a deadline of year-end 2019 for talks, and, in the final days of the year, there is no indication that any breakthrough is in store. The Trump administration, distracted with the ongoing impeachment that implicates many of its senior diplomats, is unlikely to make much progress in North Korean diplomacy. North Korea’s unwillingness to have a meaningful discussion in Stockholm in October indicates that the window for diplomacy may have already closed at any rate. Once diplomacy ends, in all likelihood the peninsula is headed back to the times of missiles and nuclear testing, raising once again the specter of a nuclear war.

More broadly, the regional order in East Asia is changing. The U.S.-led system of alliances, a relic of the Cold War era, is eroding. China is rapidly emerging as the chief rival of the United States, while Russia and Japan are moving to establish their own presences in the region as well. In 2020, we may be standing at the dawn of a new era, as the last vestiges of the Cold War fall away and East Asia comes to resemble 19th-century Europe—a collection of nationalistic world powers, but this time with nuclear weapons.

Where does South Korea stand in this new era? The country was once known as a “shrimp among whales.” When the Cold War began, Koreans could only watch helplessly as their country was divided, then destroyed. The Korean War broke out in 1950, destroying the Korean Peninsula and reducing South Korea to rubble. Today, South Korea is in a markedly different position. Seven decades since the Korean War, South Korea is a world power with a highly competent and well-funded military, a high-tech economy, and trend-setting soft power. Even against more powerful neighbors such as China, Russia, and Japan, as well as the United States—with a nuclear North Korea to boot—Moon’s diplomacy in 2019 showed that Seoul will not lose ground easily. In 2020, for the first time in decades, South Korea will be in a position to choose its own destiny—and its choice may well determine its path for another 70 years.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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