12 Things on the Korean Peninsula to Watch for in 2012

By Nicholas Hamisevicz, Sarah K. Yun, Chad O’Carroll, and Troy Stangarone

Last year saw significant changes on the Korean peninsula. While 2011 ended with the surprise death of Kim Jong-il and the beginning of succession to Kim Jong-un, last year also saw Korea become one of only nine nations to surpass $1 trillion in total trade, the passage of the KORUS FTA, and a surprise election for the mayor of Seoul. With even more change set for 2012 in both Northeast Asia and on the Korean peninsula, here are twelve economic and foreign policy issues that are worth following in the coming year:

1.      The Transition and Public Events in North Korea: Kim Jong-un has been declared the successor to his father. The North Korean government is working hard to illustrate the unity of the nation and the loyalty of the elites to Kim Jong-un. There will likely be a formal meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea where titles and positions will be made and adjusted. Kim Jong Un possibly has an advantage with the early schedule of public events where his new leadership will continue to be highlighted, such as the one hundred year anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April and the start of North Korea’s development as a prosperous and powerful nation. However, after those events, there could be more room for maneuvering if other North Korean elites do not like the direction of the country.

2.      Political Change in South Korea: While North Korea may have got the jump on political change in 2012, South Korea will conduct elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency this year. With South Korean presidents limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December.  Lee’s Grand National Party (GNP) has Park Geun-hye at the forefront of potential presidential candidates. However, she will likely face a significant challenge from Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of anti-virus software company AhnLab.  Although yet to declare his candidacy, there are growing signs that he will run as the opposition candidate – and recent polls suggest that he has strong support polling at 49.7 percent, some 7 percent more than rival Park Geun-hye.

Additionally, in April, all 299 seats of the National Assembly will be up for vote, with 245 in single-member districts and 54 seats determined through proportional representation. The ruling GNP has fared poorly in local elections recently and developments indicate that progressives may be uniting under a unified banner for the April elections that could seriously compound difficulties for the GNP.

3.      Kim Jong-un and China: In the early days of the transition, China has thrown its support behind Kim Jong-un. Who from China visits North Korea, and especially if Kim visits the new leadership in China, will likely provide clues to the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing, as well as how secure the new regime feels in its position. Given that China will undergo its own leadership transition this year, 2012 will likely set the tone for both sides going forward.

4.     The Role of Social Media in South Korean Politics: Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This suggests that the conversations that take place on Twitter in 2012 will play a significant variable in this year’s presidential election.  South Korea’s Twitter community has an active user rate that is some two times higher than the world average, with nearly 10% of the nation signed up.  The important role Twitter plays in politics can be seen in a campaign that was credited with a higher than expected voter turnout among young voters during the during the April 2011 by-elections.

The team behind the one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, their podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and Grand National Party position.  They have also developed a number of investigative stories that have attempted to highlight mis-steps by the ruling government, often with significant media interest.  Their feature on Na Kyung-won’s alleged visits to a luxury skin care clinic is said to have contributed to her loss of support in recent Seoul mayoral elections.

5.   The Euro Crisis: Strictly speaking, this isn’t about Korea, but with Korea heavily dependent upon trade for growth and Europe a major trading partner, the euro zone matters for Korea. If Europe is unable to restore market confidence and avoid a deepening of its debt crisis, a steep economic decline in Europe or the unraveling of the euro could hit the global economy hard. While Europe has managed to consistently fail to address the debt crisis in a comprehensive manner, there may be some tell tale signs early in the year regarding whether Europe has turned the corner or not. If France is able to maintain its AAA credit rating and Italy and Spain are able to roll over nearly $200 billion in debt in the first quarter of the year, Europe will likely have passed the most immediate dangers. When it comes to Korea, the stats to think about are this, the EU accounted for 10.2 percent of Korea’s exports and 9.6 percent of its total trade through the first 11 months of 2011.

6.    U.S. Defense Budget Cuts: The U.S. Department of Defense budget is expected to cut $260 billion over the next five years and more than $450 billion over the next decade. In the new budget strategy announcement on January 5, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Panetta presented a revamped U.S. military strategy with an emphasis on Asia and space and cyber capabilities, and preservation of missions in the Middle East.

With a reduced defense budget, partner relationships will become more important. Although the 5% increase in the 2012 South Korean defense budget may offset the potential challenges in the U.S.-Korea military alliance, uncertainties continue as both countries enter an election year. Despite reassurances from Obama and Panetta, the future shape of United States presence in Korea and Asia is still to be determined. With both nations preparing for op-con transfer in 2015, how the budget and strategy changes in the U.S. play out could play a role in the future force structure of the alliance.

7.    North Korea’s Interaction with the United States and South Korea:  Despite its current turn inwards, North Korea will likely turn its attention outwards at some point in 2012. North Korea and the United States seemed to be on the verge of a deal over food aid and possibly moving forward on nuclear talks before Kim Jong-il’s death, and there are early indications these may start back up at some point. As for South Korea, Pyongyang has said that it will not deal with the current administration in Seoul, but 2012 will also bring fresh elections for the National Assembly in April and the presidency in December, key points to watch for in North-South relations.

8.    Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Seoul will be hosting the second Nuclear Security Summit in March with participation from over 50 national leaders. The agenda will consist of mainly three issues: international cooperation against nuclear terrorism, prevention of illicit transaction of nuclear materials, and protection of nuclear materials, nuclear power plants and other nuclear related institutions.

The appointment of Korea as the chair of the second NSS is both practical and symbolic – practical in that Korea is a close ally of the U.S., enabling smooth coordination; and symbolic in that Korea has been an active member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty with advanced nuclear energy capabilities, yet facing a serious nuclear threat from North Korea.

Whereas the hosting of the G-20 in 2011 elevated Korea’s status as a world economic power, the Seoul NSS will elevate Korea as a world security leader. The NSS will be even more significant in light of Kim Jong-il’s death. President Lee Myung-bak had previously extended an invitation to Kim Jong-il to attend. It will be interesting to see how the new regime responds to the summit.

9.    The Implementation of the KORUS FTA: Now that the United States and Korea have passed the KORUS FTA the two governments are looking to implement the agreement. The agreement should come into force early in the year, but might slip until after National Assembly elections in Korea for political reasons.

10.  The Politics Around the KORUS FTA and U.S.-Korea Relations: Speaking of the politics of the KORUS FTA, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il, the opposition in Korea was turning the FTA into a major campaign issue, calling on Korea to renegotiate certain provisions such as those relating to investor-state dispute settlement. Some had gone so far as to suggest Korea should withdraw from the agreement. Korea’s relationship with the United States is a complex one, and anti-Americanism has played a role in previous elections. While North Korea is now likely to become the major campaign issue, look for the FTA and Korea’s broader relationship with the United States to remain caught up in domestic politics for the time being.

11.  South Korea-China FTA: China has become South Korea’s largest trading partner by a significant margin, with the two countries doing more than $200 billion in trade in the first eleven months of 2011. With the EU and KORUS FTA now concluded, Korea will look to start negotiations with its biggest trading partner in the next few months.

12.  World Expo 2012 – Yeosu, Korea:From May to August, Korea will host the 2012 Expo in the port city of Yeosu. Under the theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast,” the Yeosu Expo will share knowledge in maritime cooperation, marine science, and the proper use of ocean and coast. Korea is anticipating an international recognition of Korea as a leading maritime nation.

Hosting the Expo can be seen as a completion of Korea’s campaign as a world leader – the 2011 G-20 on economic issues, the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on security issues, and the 2012 Expo on cultural and soft power issues.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs, Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues, Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications, and Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from Rachael Towne’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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One Response to “12 Things on the Korean Peninsula to Watch for in 2012”


  1. […] South Korea and Taiwan also compete economically in Asia. Both countries export similar products to similar markets. After Taiwan signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in 2010, South Korea worried that Taiwan had better positioned itself for the Chinese and Asian markets. Last year, South Korea completed free trade agreements with the European Union and the United States, both top five trading partners for Taiwan. Taiwan fears South Korea now has better economic access, and Taiwan’s trade share with its important trading partners will decrease. Taiwan is also concerned the impact of its ECFA with China will decrease if South Korea is able to sign a free trade agreement with China. […]

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.